Collusion. Corruption. Covfefe. In 2017, it was easy to get distracted — and distraught — by President Trump’s Category 5 tweetstorms and the news cycles they drove.
And thanks to the connectedness we now experience through social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we often feel every newsworthy event with both apocalyptic urgency and a sense of fatigue that can paralyze us into hopelessness and inaction.
That’s why my nomination for the word that best characterizes 2017 is 危机, or wēijī, the Chinese word for “crisis.”
In 1959, John F. Kennedy, then still a senator, explained in a speech that “when written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters — one represents danger and one represents opportunity.”
In an essay originally published in 2005, Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that this translation of wēijī is incorrect.
According to Mair, wēijī is most accurately translated as “a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry,” with no aspect of “opportunity” explicitly or even implicitly conveyed.
But John F. Kennedy was neither the first person nor the last to invoke the danger/opportunity trope. It dates back to at least 1938, and in our era, Condoleezza Rice, Al Gore, and many others have used it as well.
So while the Chinese may not actually have a word for crisis that means danger plus opportunity, they should invent one!
In 2017 especially, a word that defines crisis as danger plus opportunity should exist. And not just in Chinese — in all languages. Perhaps “krisegelegenheit” auf Deutsch, or a new word in English, “opisis,” where we put the opportunity before the crisis to remind ourselves always to look for the opportunity. Or even better yet, it should be an emoji, a globally comprehensible sign of the mobile times.
In my view, this is the most useful and potentially productive way of interpreting this era, when so much is in flux.
Even before Donald Trump led us into our new weekly vortex of demagoguery, narcissism, and golf, America was in the midst of great change. Amid the forces of globalization and technological innovation, wages are stagnating. Established industries are disappearing even as new ones emerge. Many people feel marginalized and no longer in control of their lives.
Add hurricanes, mass shootings, and a self-aggrandizing insomniac twumping lonely fire and fury from the White House at 3 a.m.—and yes, you’ve got a recipe for crisis!
But what’s the best response to this situation? A deeper slide into nationalism and isolationism? Futile efforts to improve America’s future by stubbornly
grabbing at its past?
Or looking for opportunity amid the chaos of crisis?
Major progress rarely occurs without major change — a bumpy and often painful reordering of institutions, laws, and customs that many will find challenging and unwelcome, so much so that they cry “unfair!”
That’s how it was when America shifted from a primarily agricultural economy to a newly industrialized one. Jobs, industries, and entire ways of life shifted dramatically. But there was also a huge increase in standards of living, and new professions, social arrangements, and institutions through which to find meaning.
Identifying upsides amid cultural cataclysm is such a fundamentally American story that it’s no wonder John F. Kennedy and so many other Americans have gazed at the Chinese ideogram for crisis and seen opportunity in it, even if it may not linguistically be there.
Now, however, as our current president sets his sights inward and backward, it is also instructive to look to China on these matters.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” exclaimed China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, quoting the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.
As President Xi Jinping continued, he suggested that while some countries see only the challenges and downsides of globalization, China has taken a different tack, looking for upsides amid changing conditions and making itself vulnerable to risk in the process.
“To grow its economy, China must have the courage to swim in the vast ocean of the global market,” he exclaimed. “If one is always afraid of bracing the storm and exploring the new world, he will sooner or later get drowned in the ocean. Therefore, China took a brave step to embrace the global market. We have had our fair share of choking in the water and encountered whirlpools and choppy waves, but we have learned how to swim in this process.”
Because of this innovative mindset, China has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty. As I note in my forthcoming book, Blitzscaling, China stands alongside Silicon Valley as the world’s most productive creator of innovative, tech-driven companies that have valuations of more than $100 billion and reach hundreds of millions to billions of users.
With its expertise in networks and global logistics, China clearly recognizes how a highly networked world is characterized by change. As feedback loops grow tighter and more comprehensive, good ideas replicate faster, competition intensifies, and the pace of innovation — and obsolescence — accelerates. Everyone needs to up their game.
That’s why so much of my work over the past half decade has involved encouraging individuals and organizations alike to adopt a more entrepreneurial and adaptive mindset.
Still, it’s natural to be wary and even resistant to change, because change means casting aside the predictability and security of the familiar and taking on risk. That’s why change often becomes more possible amid the dislocations and cultural shifts that arise out of crisis — when people are more willing than usual or even forced into altering their habits and expectations.
Domestically, Donald Trump has threatened the independence of the Department of Justice and undermined the legitimacy of the free press. He has insisted that millions of people voted illegally, and he downplayed the significance of Russian meddling. He has feuded baselessly with war widows and NFL players.
Internationally, Trump has questioned the value of long-term alliances and treaties that for decades have helped create global security and prosperity. He has escalated tensions with allies and enemies alike, and abdicated America’s role as a respected leader on issues like climate change and free trade.
But even with all the calamity Donald Trump has created, there’s a potential silver lining to Twumpism.
In a little over a year, Donald Trump has shown us just how fragile our democracy is. The daily crises he creates are a constant call to greater civic participation. The chaotic cycle of lies, threats, and self-aggrandizement that characterizes the Trump administration is a daily reminder of what happens when we elect candidates with no discernible interest in public service. The relentless effort to deride and conquer, to rule by fear, authoritarianism, and division, is inspiring millions of people to work for a politics of hope and inclusion.
In the November 2017 election, we saw citizens across the country embracing the diversity that has long fueled America’s dynamism and innovative spirit.
In Virginia, for example, voters elected Danica Roem, the first openly transgender lawmaker in the country. In Hoboken, New Jersey, voters elected Rhavinda Bhalla, the first Sikh mayor in the state. In Helena, Montana, voters elected Wilmot Collins as mayor; Collins came to America in the 1990s as a refugee from Liberia.
These groundbreaking wins won’t magically stop Trump from pursuing policies that leave America less fair, less secure, and less adaptive.
But they illustrate the opportunity that Twumpism creates — to counteract fear and disorder with engagement and action. To participate fully in America’s civic life and institutions. To define America not as an erratic despot’s walled-off fiefdom, but rather as an inclusive and innovative nation with its best days still ahead of it.
In 1959, when John F. Kennedy exclaimed that the Chinese word for crisis meant danger plus opportunity, he was speaking at the convocation of the United Negro College Fund.
His primary subject was the Soviet Union’s developing industrial prowess and the challenges to global security it was creating. Kennedy stressed the need to develop a new generation of scientists, engineers, social workers, psychologists, and diplomats who could help America strengthen its democratic ideals at home and extend those principles to all mankind.
Kennedy’s message was ambitious, big-hearted, and forward-looking. He viewed the growing Soviet power as a call to America to double down on the “promise of an equal chance” for all its citizens and developing nations alike.
His translation of wēijī may be incorrect, but his instincts were exactly right. As we move forward in 2018, we should find inspiration in Kennedy’s vision. That means looking for opportunities to strengthen traditional American values of openness, diversity, and innovation. That means looking for opportunities to enact policies that help create a better future for all of America’s citizens, not just a privileged few.
These are the opportunities that Twumpism creates. It’s a call to political activism for those who love the traditional American values. The opportunity in the crisis is to rediscover the importance of our society. As we strive to create a secure and more broadly prosperous America, we cannot afford to waste this call to renew our nation.