By now you’ve probably already heard that the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of characters meaning danger and opportunity. You may even have heard it so often you’re sick of it.
The first time I encountered this idea, it brought a new perspective like a fresh breeze, and I used it as a way of reframing feeling fearful in business or personal situations. But I’ve found that it hasn’t held up well over time, and in the world of work as it exists today, it’s not something I would think of offering as comfort to the clients I serve as a career counselor and business consultant. I’m not sure if this is because the economic “crisis” we’re knee deep in feels too big for so cut-and-dried a response, or because the phrase has simply been dulled by overuse.
In either case, because of the short shelf-life this “crisis = danger + opportunity” meme has had for me, I’ve tended to tune out any time I’ve heard someone say, “The Chinese symbol for … is ….” This changed last summer, however, when I participated in a seminar, led by organizational development thought-leader Margaret Wheatley, entitled, “Renewable Leadership: How to Respond Well to Crisis after Crisis,” at the Cape Cod Institute (www.cape.org).
We spent the week looking at slides of flooded streets, destroyed homes, and piles of debris, learning about the inadequacy of government and NGO responses, and hearing from the leaders of Biloxi and Houston, whose crises came with the hurricane force winds of Katrina and Rita.
Their stories made me receptive to a new Chinese character, the one for perseverance. The word touches me because it reflects what I am hearing from the people who come to me for help and because it is an appropriate response to ongoing economic uncertainity.
Like the storm victims who are still rebuilding the Gulf Coast, people who are struggling to keep a business alive or have lost their job need to be able hang in for the long haul. This kind of endurance requires feeling the pain of loss that comes with the understanding that some of what has been carried off isn’t coming back.
The Chinese character for perseverance is a knife suspended over a heart, Oddly enough, our word “perseverance” also contains the word, “sever.” Only by accepting the “sever” part of perseverance and the feelings that come with loss (the “heart” part) can we get on with the business of recreating ourselves instead of futilely trying to recover what is gone forever.