Many of you may have heard that the Chinese word for “crisis” can be represented as “Danger + Opportunity.” JFK once inspired with this quote: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word, ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”

Unfortunately, he was slightly off the mark. Yet, understanding the Chinese word for crisis can still inspire a new perspective.

Crisis = 危机 (wēi jī) where 危(wēi) indeed translates to “danger, to endanger.” However, 机 (jī) by itself doesn’t really translate to “opportunity”. 机会 (ji hui) means “opportunity”, but an accurate translation of 机(jī) by itself is more like “a crucial point, when something begins to change.”   

See, when paired with other words, 机 (jī) can take on many different meanings. 机敏 (jī mǐn) means “agility” where the latter character represents quickness. 机智 (jī zhì) translates to “quick-witted or resourceful”, because the latter character means wisdom. It’s about how words are combined:

  • Agility = “a turning point” + “quickness” 
  • Resourceful = “a turning point” + “wisdom” 
  • Crisis = “a turning point” + “danger”

I think this combined effect is even more enlightening than the oft-touted “danger + opportunity” meme, because today, we do find ourselves facing a perilous situation in which many elements are at play. We are situated at an inflection point (#flattenthecurve), where things may progress in a variety of different directions. So, what do we do?

In a crisis, we must remain cognizant of the danger and do everything we can to drive for a positive outcome.