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Chinese Lessons in the Deep South

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Last week I travelled to lovely Savannah, Georgia where I taught an Ownership Spirit seminar to the leaders of Anthem Education Group.  It was a pleasure to be there in the heart of the south (truth be told, I would have gone for the southern accents alone).  Meeting and working with the talented, dedicated educators and business leaders of Anthem Education made the training memorable and fulfilling.  I had the privilege of speaking to Anthem’s Circle of Excellence, which was made up of  leaders throughout the organization, who had excelled in their roles and were being honored for their contributions.

Anthem Education provides post-secondary education and job training and offers associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees.  Recently, along with other companies in their industry, Anthem has been under increasing pressures from economic and legislative forces resulting in new challenges to their goals and vision.  I spoke to these leaders about the critical role their own thoughts played in this process, and the vital importance of thinking and acting as an Owner when circumstances are especially challenging.

After the seminar I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Dr. Paul Bao, Vice President and Anthem’s Chief Academic Officer.  He was enthusiastic about the principles I shared during the seminar.  In speaking about some of  their current challenges, Dr. Bao mentioned that the Chinese word for “crisis” was made up of two characters, the first which means “danger” and the second which means “opportunity.”

I had heard this somewhere before, and was impressed with the insight it brought.  I also told him that I had come across something on the Internet that had debunked the idea.

He replied, “I am Chinese.  I was born in China and have taught there on the university level.  I am bilingual, fluent in both Chinese and English.  Those are the characters for ‘crisis.'”  I later received this email from him:

Dear Dr. Deaton,

It was a great pleasure meeting you today, and I enjoyed your seminar immensely and learned a lot. The dichotomy of Owner and Victim is an interesting approach and serves really well as a vehicle to convey your wonderful message. I have been trying to own my own thoughts and actions ever since I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits  and will try even harder after attending your seminar.

As promised,  here are the two Chinese characters for the word crisis:


The first character means danger and the second character means opportunity. It reflects some primitive dialecticism found in ancient Chinese culture, I suppose.



Since then, I have reflected on the juxtaposition of these two ideas.  Danger and Opportunity.  They seem to be at odds with each other, a dichotomy as Dr. Bao says, and, at first, almost irreconcilable ideas within the same word.  And yet, in a concise and powerful way this character embodies the Owner/Victim choice perfectly.  In every “crisis” there are two ways of seeing ourselves:  1)  In danger — of failure, of embarrassment, of rejection, of falling flat, of losing everything or 2)  With opportunity — for success, for growth, for new ideas, for innovation, for stretching, for reaching previously unimagined destinations.

This is the very choice we face each and every day.  When we choose Victim-thinking, we see: Danger!  Fear!  Insurmountable Odds!  Failure as the Only Option!  In contrast, when we make the choice of Ownership, we see:  Opportunity!  Possibility!  A Previously Hidden Solution!  A Way to Make it Happen Anyway!  And just like in the Chinese character, these two ideas are both found in every choice we make.  They exist simultaneously in every new choice.  The determining factor then, is us.  When we see Opportunity rather than Danger, the circumstance (or crisis, if you will) hasn’t changed at all–the only thing that has changed is our perspective, Owner or Victim.

No matter what industry we work in, we all face challenges.  You, like me, probably can’t get through a day without hearing about the current economic crisis and how many ways it is hurting your organization.  (Danger!  Danger!!)  What Dr. Bao reinforced for me, once again, is that real power, real breakthroughs, real progress, all come when we remember that there simultaneously exists another choice (Opportunity!  Opportunity!!) if we will but look at our particular challenge in a different way.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

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