Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

危 機 ≠ Opportunity

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Total Black: $343.42
Total Red: $228,413.23

Earlier today I caught myself repeating an often heard adage that the Chinese word for crisis is formed from characters for danger and opportunity.  Thus every crisis brings with it opportunity.  I had been speaking with a guy from one of the bookclubs I organize and strayed too far afield into my personal situation.

Maybe some of you have noticed that most people do not want you to dwell long on your personal circumstances when talking to them.   You can mention it.  But get out of that swamp of sorrows fast, else they’ll leave you behind.  I don’t know why that is.  Perhaps it’s fear of being saddled with someone else’s sad story.  Perhaps people don’t want to have to vicariously share your struggle.  Sure, most people will listen as you explain the predicament you’re in, but they don’t really care.  Some might even rather not hear about.  Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose.  I’m not referring, of course, to close friends and family.  They’re obligated to hear you out.  Rather I’m referring to colleagues or acquaintances or perhaps even casual friends.  And I don’t mean hours-long bitch fests or venting sessions, but just a few moments to convey some details of your Great Recession story.  But even that can be too much.  TMI, eh? Maybe it’s a symptom of a soulless society.  I’m guilty of it too, I admit.

So, when I noticed the deer-in-headlights look in this acquaintance’s eyes, I realized I’d better steer the conversation out of my swamp of sorrows before it was too late.  Attempting to restore him to happier spirits, I quickly glossed over all my struggles by referencing the adage about the Chinese character, mentioning that this crisis I’m in also provides me with some great opportunities. No matter, he cut out within seconds of my Chinese segue.  But later on the train back home, I started kicking myself both for going on too long about my plight and also for dismissing my situation as some trite experiment.  It also got me thinking how linear it is to view “crisis” as “opportunity.”  A one-way street of sorts because if crisis = opportunity, then opportunity = crisis also holds true.  Even though new opportunities can bring significant stress, no one speaks of opportunities themselves as times of crises.  Once I got back to my apartment, I checked the internet for any background to this pearl of wisdom.  Turns out, it’s more fool’s gold than real.

Professor Victor H. Mair, of the University of Pennsylvania, completely debunked this adage on his website Pīnyī  It’s a misunderstanding of the Chinese language.  Crisis to the Chinese is no more of an opportunity than it is to us.  A crisis is a crisis is a crisis.  And I have to say that I kinda like that because it’s a bit sanctimonious of people to pelt you in your hour of need with “pearls of wisdom” like “but don’t forget that every crisis is also an opportunity.”  Yeah, thanks.  That and $228,000 will eliminate my debt.  But this time, I was self-pelting, if you will.  And I think that’s what got me thinking deeper about this concept.

In odd synchronicity, the day after I committed myself to this project I received a telephone call from someone offering me a job.  She had called about a week earlier and left a message for someone who used to have my telephone number.  Nice guy that I am, I called her back and let her know that the number she called isn’t current.  The morning after setting off down this road she called back and left a message thanking me for letting her know she had the wrong number.  And because that was so considerate of me (and demonstrated good character), she responded in kind . . . with a job offer.  Of course, initially I felt as though I had just won the lottery.  Then I did some research into the company: Primerica.

Top hits for Primerica reveal many people’s concerns that it’s a ponzi scheme.  Wade through and you’ll find others for  whom it’s a legitimate business.   I saw that Primerica is affiliated with some established companies, like Citibank, so I was disinclined to dismiss it outright (though post-Madoff I suppose affiliation means much less).  After a few minutes I learned that Primerica is a debt advisement company of sorts.  New recruits get licensed as insurance salespeople and market debt relief packages: applications for term life insurance and loan consolidation, investments in mutual funds, and the like.  At that point, I was nearly blown away by the synchronicity.  I mean, I decide to pursue a course of eliminating my debt within a year and the next day I get offered a job with a debt management company.  Freaky.

But where I’m at right now, I could not pursue this option.  It costs money to join (hence the pyramid scheme allegations) because Primerica needs to get you licensed.  I don’t have money to spare.  You’d have to literally pound the pavement finding clients you can get to invest in mutual funds or buy insurance.  I don’t have time to find clients.  What’s more, if it’s considered “work” I’d have to claim it for purposes of unemployment benefits and lose 1/4 of my benefits for each day I “worked.”  The overhead alone would vastly outweigh any benefits.  But I did think it over.  And it seemed very attractive.  What better time to sell people debt relief and financial planning than now?  And who better to do it than someone like me, right there in the same boat?  But if I blindly pursued this opportunity because of my crisis, I think I would have really set myself back.

There’s real danger with “crisis brings opportunity” thinking. Blindly jumping at the Primerica option might have worsened my situation, not the least of which because I’d lose the only income I have currently. Blind adherence to “crisis-opportunity” thinking could wreak real havoc on your life. We do need to think outside that proverbial box, but we can’t forget about it altogether. My current crisis has presented a few opportunities and spurred me to think outside the box.  This blog is proof. But perhaps the real opportunity in crisis is learning to distinguish between dead-ends and good chances. “Crisis-opportunity” thinking instead keeps you in the back-seat of your own life.  Rather than create your own opportunities, you’re now on constant vigil, keeping look-out for all those “opportunities” life might start tossing your way.

So, tomorrow I need to work within the box and reach out to temp agencies again.  (The bulk of my income won’t be coming from those beers you might buy me.)  I’ll also hop outside the box though to check out an interesting opportunity to make money selling art at a local exhibition.  Might be a dead-end.  Might not.  If opportunity can be found in a crisis, it’s because we created it, not because life tossed us a bone.  And maybe discerning the difference is the key.

One Response

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  1. I like this –

    But perhaps the real opportunity in crisis is learning to distinguish between dead-ends and good chances. “Crisis-opportunity” thinking instead keeps you in the back-seat of your own life. Rather than create your own opportunities, you’re now on constant vigil, keeping look-out for all those “opportunities” life might start tossing your way.

    So, tomorrow I need to work within the box and reach out to temp agencies again.


    August 11, 2010 at 17:13

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