Opportunity in the Void - Societal Paradigm Shift


This is the Chinese word for crisis - weiji.  Many new-agers believe that it is made up of two characters - danger and opportunity.  In reading an essay entitled, "Danger + Opportunity Crisis" by Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, with contributions from Denis Mair and Zhang Liqing, I learned that this is not the case.  According to Dr. Mair, the second character means incipient moment or crucial point.  As I interperate it further - it is a time in space for change to occur.

We are facing this time of Ji.  A time where as society, we have choices we can make that will further entrench us in our crisis - social, environmental, financial, etc. or choices that can elevate us out of these situations thereby "saving our neck."  It is in the latter that I see the opportunity of the Ji.

A friend of mine - Chris Hsiung, has created his business helping individuals reshape their businesses and themselves by looking at the crisis points of the human venture and shifting the thought process.  In a recent posting on his blog, Chris points out as humans we can justify anything even if it contradicts who we are as an individual. 

When we are looking at crisis management, whether it is addressing funding issues as a result of Madoff or a national stimulus package as reiterated by Obama in his speech to Congress last night, we can either choose to keep ourselves in the boxes that we have self-defined.  Or we can choose to take this JI and flip it over, turn it inside and come up with a new paradigm.

What is this new paradigm?

We can no longer depend on the traditional models that ran society, because in front of our eyes, those models are falling apart.  The people and institutions that we held as pillars are crumbling.  Many people are talking and writing about the social shifts.  The impact that Twitter is having through its Twestivals.  Or the business models that are being tested by social entrepreneurs.  Or, the new ways that people are seeking out venture capital. 

So, unlike what Victor Mair states that ji is not opportunity.  I believe that the space that surrounds ji is definitely one for opportunity.  It just depends on how we chose to use it.


Recognizing a Turning Point

Thanks! I always wondered whether Ji in Chinese meant opportunity since I've never used it that way myself.

It's always interesting to look at where words come from because they give you a sense of how people have associated ideas. Looking at the origins of the word crisis (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crisis) reveals that it use to be a Greek medical term for "turning point in a disease". There is no explanation as to whether it's a good turning point or a bad turning point. In modern usage, it definitely means dangerous times

In any case, I think the importance is in the diagnosis. Something is different. There is a "turning point". Until one recognizes that, one would continue to respond in the same old way.

I suppose you could say that dangerous times are an opportunity for building resiliency and developing character, but dangerous times can kill you too.

Crisis to Turning Point


The issue of danger creating an opportunity or turning point is very important. In my current work on organizational change - transforming companies through engagement with sustainable development - I have found that crisis tends to be a key ingredient. One example is how Shell stepped into an environmental leadership role in the 1990s as a result of the public outcry over the Brent Spar platform disposition and the Saro Wiwa hanging in Nigeria. Similarly, Nike became the leading force for improving social conditions in its supply chains following the series of revelations regarding working conditions associated with its products. Most recent is Walmart, which has sustained tremendous criticism for its treatment of its workers, the consumption patterns associated with its products, and the impacts of its box stores on the fabric of communities. Walmart has taken remarkable environmental leadership steps, including visionary commitments on energy use reduction and renewables adoption. It has also led significant efforts to green its supply chain in China. (Some would argue that this is a sideshow to its labour practices, but this is a debatable point).

It is regrettable that it takes a finger being slammed in a door to motivate fundamental reflection about the nature of one's business (or activities). Environmental pioneer John Ehrenfeld writes in his recent book Sustainability by Design http://www.johnehrenfeld.com/ about how to initiate the process of self-reflection through the embedding of fundamental questions of right and wrong into the use of the products themselves. (He uses an example the low-flush/hi-flush toilet which is widely used in Europe but not in North America. It forces the user to decide whether to use less or more water). John proposes that designers must create that adaptive shock so that the user (or the organization, or the institution) has to rethink its patterns of behaviour.

In short, crisis can be an opportunity. The question of course is how to ensure that the result leads to a better, wiser, more sustainable, more compassionate new pattern. Rather than the alternative, which if present economic trends continue for an extended period, could be a downwards spiral rather than a rising tide.

On that happy note...!

Jason Switzer
CSR Calgary

Becoming aware...

It sounds like the comments that both Jason and Chris are making have to do with when someone is aware of their crisis point (the JI - Factor). So can large-scale social change only happen as a result of fingers being slammed in doors?

I guess what I am struggling with now, is the impression that innovation only happens as a result of some negative stimulus? For example, would society have woken up to climate change issues if a cute, fuzzy, polar-bear had not graced the cover of Vanity Fair the same year that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was released? Just some late afternoon ramblings.

Thanks you two for posting!

History of shocks (crises) isn't so rosy

I agree that crises can be turned into opportunities fairly easily. Crises can act like a wet cloth on a blackboard - they can wipe the slate clean. However, wiping the slate clean doesn't necessary mean the new writing will set us in a better direction.

Although I take issue with Naomi Klein's use of logic in her book The Shock Doctrine, she does provide compelling examples of how crises were used to advance counter-venture agendas. As we enter another shock or crisis, forces acting in both directions of the human venture will see this as an opportunity.

The only way I can see that we will move in the direction of reducing suffering and promoting sustainability is if humanity develops a common vision of the world we want (i.e. a metaframework to help analyse the frameworks that will point the most adapative path forward). Can this be done? Can Americans, Chinese, Australians, Guatemalans, Canadians etc agree on a common vision? Can business, NGOs, citizens, politicians, governments etc agree on some common objectives? As far as I know, history tells us this can't be done. But maybe this crisis is unique. Maybe the only way some of our institutions will survive is if they can help develop the metaframework. Maybe counter-venture forces will be rejected because we will recognize the need to collaborate as global brothers and sisters in order to make something positive out of this crucial point. Ultimately, this collaboration will only happen if we make it happen.

The Flattening of the World - Part 2, er 3, er 4???

Hi Greg,

Thanks for sharing your comments. 

So last night on CBC Radio - I was listening to Ideas and they were talking about how integration into Swiss society is so hard because there systems are set up NOT to accept the "other."  The person being interviewed went on to say that the perception of North American society by the "Old World" was it would collapse BECAUSE of the diversity and integration of so many cultures.

In Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, he points out that it is this inter-connectedness that is both our strength and our downfall.

What does this collaboration look like?  If we were to take one piece of the puzzle where should we start?

~ Gena

Maybe taking this discussion

Maybe taking this discussion up one level may be worthwhile. I’m a fan of TS Kuhn and his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Kuhn argued that science does not progress in a linear accumulation of new knowledge (like building a brick wall), but undergoes periodic revolutions, also called “paradigm shifts” like the switch from Newtonian physics to relativity with Einstein. What is interesting is that the paradigms plod on. Newtonian physics has a place in science today, even though a lot of work is done in the relativity paradigm.

Where am I going with this?

1) Even when paradigm shifts happen the older paradigm exists. The idea of wiping something clean may be an overstatement. Rather we end up adding an alternative that may be used instead of the older paradigm.
2) It doesn’t always take a crisis. New paradigms do created without a crisis. Einstein is a great example. That being said it can often take a crisis to create something useful (Dixon’s idea of Catagenesis). But on a happy note, crisis is not necessarily a prerequisite for revolution.

Great post Gena.


The Tree of Knowledge

Danny, Great seeing you today! Thanks for posting this as well.

Taking from our conversation over lunch (yes, this blog became a face-to-face conversation) I like your example of the tree. Basically how Newton's science formed the trunk and how Einstein's science is a branch (very large, heavy branch) off of that trunk upon which much of our current science has sprung.

So bringing these thoughts back to what I do, working with individuals and businesses on strategic philanthropy. There is a need for a change in the current way that businesses and individuals commmunicate with their charitable partners. I use the word partners on purpose. Here is what I think - I think that our society has screwed up what we value. Our actions do not follow our words. For example, we say that we value education and yet the average Canadian reads at a grade 4 level, and we pay people more to put a puck in a net than we do the person shaping the minds of that hockey player.

If we were to take what Greg says about bringing more people of diverse backgrounds together, will that solve the problem or will that create an actual tower of Babel? In some cases branches grow off trees because of an external force pushing against the tree (like another tree or a building) similar to what Jason was referring to as getting fingers slammed in doors. In some cases, like what Danny is saying, change happens for no apparent reason, other than there is an insight for change to happen.

In any of these cases, how we implement the change or the space around the JI is what is critical. How I go about advising my clients about what makes a good charity, will that make the charity change? Probably not, unless the donor and the other people of influence start working both sides of the equation to facilitate that change. The change in and of itself could create another crisis (for example closing the doors of the charity thereby putting people out of work - at a very basic level).

Thank you all for an amazing discussion! New topic to be posted soon.


Another blog posting about Crisis=Opportunity+Danger

John Ehrenfeld's blog was emailed to me by Jason Switzer. Here's his view on Weiji. http://www.johnehrenfeld.com/2009/02/reading-ben-barbers-piece-in.html



Thanks for bringing this misconception to my attention via a comment on my website. I had heard crisis defined as danger plus opportunity so many times, I just assumed that this construction was correct. The one you point to is more nuanced but a bit harder to use as a throw-away line. In any case, we do seem to be in a moment when there is both danger and opportunity whether the Chinese would call it a crisis or not. My concern is that we will miss the opportunity in the rush to make the danger go away by trying to get back to where we were.

Crisis = Danger & Oportunity?

In my opinion, a crisis is a crisis... A moment where we've gone down and deep, in the middle of chaos, the foudations breaks up. But it is not a permanent state, new foundations will be build up, a good moment to construct new behaviour patterns, and there, in that recomposition we can search for new oportunities. But it depends on you! But if you're "programmed" to be optimistic and search for oportunities after a crisis, you'll have more probabilities of succes...

Ivan Soteras

Depends on you

Hi Ivan,

Absolutely it depends on the attitude of the person, without doubt.

What crisis can lead to is moving into an adaptive space, provided the person has their eyes open for those possibilities.

Thanks for sharing your comments.


What does this Paradigm Shift translate to with regard to human life and environmental habits? What could be the possible outcome of such dynamic and interventional metamorphosis?


I am not clear on what you are asking.

If you are asking how does a new way of thinking address old habits of living - then the answer is it is a new way of thinking therefore the effects can be monumental. 

Perhaps you can clarify your question...

Re: Crisis = Opportunity (hopefully)

I saw an interesting documentary on the weekend. It is called "Garbage Warrior" and chronicles the vision of renegade eco-architect Michael Reynolds from New Mexico, USA. He builds self-sufficient, eco-homes that he calls "earthships". In the US, he basically had his license revoked for trying to build something outside of the norm in terms of housing. However, his home model has been embraced by those who desperately need it and his has worked in places like the Andamann Islands after the earthquake/tsunami. Here are some interesting quotes from him:

In regards to what his motivation is:

"If humanity takes the planet down the tubes, I'm dead. I'm trying to save my ass and that is a powerful force!" - (I love this quote).

In regards to how well his earthship was received in a disaster zone like the Andamann Islands vs the US.

"When you see how open people are after a disaster...A diaster has to happen to cause the rest of the world to start preparing. When there is an absolute breakdown of everything then new ideas are clutched to like a lifesaver".

In regards to the American Dream:

"The American Dream is in the toilet. The Dream now is how do we survive the future".

I think the second quote might define what we are going through right now. We are in an economic diaster. We desperately need new ideas and radical thinkers to come to the forefront and be discussed in the public forum. I'm so disappointed that our leaders are not actively seeking such ideas. It seems that we are doing what we have always done in all recessions. Spend money (on things that are not sustainable - i.e. automakers, Wall Street), cut taxes (thereby cutting more social investment,programs) and try to buy ourselves out of a recession.

I also found this on one of my favourite blogs http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/

"The American Dream is no longer about money and things. It’s about self-knowledge. The ultimate achievement is not a huge house and an expensive car. It’s a solid family life and self-knowledge to steer clear of a quarterlife crisis or financial meltdown.

Kurt Anderson captures this shift in his essay in Time magazine: “[Too many of us have been] operating, consciously or not, with a dreamy gold-rush vision of getting rich the day after tomorrow and then cruising along as members of an impossibly large leisure class. (That was always the yuppie dream: an aristocratic life achieved meritocratically.) Now that our age of self-enchantment has ended, however, each of us gobsmacked and reality-checked by the new circumstances, is recalibrating expectations of the timing and scale of our particular version of the Good Life.”"

I also read a recent newspaper article about how the current fad in organizational training is "Creativity". Employees are being sent to creativity sessions to become - more creative. Which is kind of funny because I think we are all creative as children but we have it trained out of us to become 'productive' members of society so once we are adults we have to re-learn this skill. Funny.

Some things to think about. Also, Michael Reynolds also stated that because his earthships are built on a different model, the owners usually don't have mortgages (yipee!), they don't have heating bills because they are self-climate controlled, they are off the grid so provide their own water, sewer, electrical needs...etc.. A family of four can grow their own food in the house and outside and probabaly wouldn't have to go to the store. The end result in his opinion was that the owners of these homes are then "free". Free to do what they want because they don't "have to work" to pay a mortgage or eat...etc.. The chain of debt is broken and that is powerful. I really think that is what we all want. Freedom to do with our lives what we want and what we are meant to do.

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