Elizabeth Day: A chaos theory of my own, work with it

Instability has a bad reputation. Restaurant tables on uneven ground are unstable. Failing states are unstable. And women, too, are condemned as unstable if they’re not conforming to someone else’s idea of good behaviour (take note of the number of men who call their past girlfriends ‘crazy’ when what they actually mean is ‘she acted in a way I failed to understand’). Stability, by contrast, is viewed as an admirable end goal. It’s why we talk about stable income and stable relationships.

Portrait: Dan Kennedy. Stylist: Holly Elgeti. Hair: Alex Szabo. Make-up: Nicky Weir.

So, yes, instability is in need of a brand overhaul. It should employ a PR company who could come up with a viral TikTok dance to highlight its wacky, fun side. Because instability is not all bad.

I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, given that we’re in the grip of a pandemic and any plans we had have been thrown into chaotic uncertainty. Living through Covid-19, it is virtually impossible for any of us to feel stable all of the time. This is partly because the rules keep changing, but it’s also because we’ve been forced to alter deeply held notions that we previously took for granted. The notion that our children will go to school, for instance. The notion that we will be able to work in offices and go on holidays and kiss people we’ve only just met in jam-packed nightclubs.

The result is that we feel panicked and confused and – yes – unstable. In everyday life, we attempt to counter this instability by claiming control of it. We give ourselves five-year plans and strive for a projected idea of who we will become in a perfect future, seeking to impose an illusory order on the chaos of the universe. Spoiler alert: it hardly ever works.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the only way to manage chaos is to lean into it, rather than living in a state of fear. What if, instead of seeking to avoid instability at all costs, we began to embrace what we could learn from it?

Although none of us wants bad things to happen, they do. In accepting this, we no longer have to expend unnecessary energy in worrying about their inevitability. And, often, surviving instability leads to what scientists have labelled ‘post-traumatic growth’.

This was an idea I first encountered when interviewing the former table tennis champion Matthew Syed. He talked about losing a match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in front of the world’s TV cameras. Simply put: he choked under pressure. Syed started researching how the mind responds under conditions of stress or instability. He used his findings to launch a new career as a (now bestselling) author of nonfiction.

Post-traumatic growth is the concept that surviving instability can have unexpected benefits. A person can emerge feeling stronger, with the confidence to face new challenges having discovered reserves of resilience. They can also find that priorities shift and they are more able to enjoy life. The positive relationships in their lives – the friends and family members who stood by them – are often reinforced.

Sometimes, then, it might be worth shaking things up to create the space for new ideas to grow – whether that means leaving a job or taking a risk in a relationship. I was reminded of this recently when I learned that Jane Garvey, the BBC Radio 4 presenter, was leaving Woman’s Hour after 13 years. She said it just felt ‘too long’ to be in one place.

I found that inspiring. Stability is fine, but it’s instability that provides the real momentum for change.

This week I’m…


Million Dollar Listing: American real-estate porn that fills the gap left bySelling Sunset. Get your fix at hayu.com


My face with Foreo gadgets you can charge on your computer. I love the ‘Bear’ which uses microcurrent to tighten and brighten facial muscles.


My neck with this reversible tourmaline necklace from a new collab between jeweller Alex Monroe and writer Raven Smith.