Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, British Ambassador to China in 1936 and 1937, mentioned in his memoir that, before he left England for China in 1936, a friend told him of an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
There’s not much evidence this expression was ever used as a curse in China, but it’s become rather popular in recent years.
While at first glance a blessing, not a curse, there’s more to this saying than meets the eye.
Interesting Times Are Times of Chaos
When we look back at our history, we recall as most interesting the moments when everything was happening at once.
Wars, famine, destruction, evil, disease.
When the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse get together, they produce some of the most interesting and fascinating moments in history.
Even when it comes to our own lives, we tend to describe as “interesting” the moments that defined us, and it is mostly the moments when we either failed in reaching a goal or fought against insurmountable odds that we consider to be the defining moments of our lives.
One of the most interesting moments of my life was when I decided to drop out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
Looking back through the broken lens of the past, we can’t help but romanticize our failures, hitting rock bottom, or somehow winning against all odds.
But when we experience such times, we are often frightened, troubled, disturbed by the possibility of failure and disaster.
Yet, this curse, “may you live in interesting times,” feels bittersweet for the same reason we can’t accept defeat: people always think the impossible that happens to them is two letters too long.
Interesting Times Are Times of Opportunity
We all should have bought shares at Apple in 1980. When you know how the story ends, it’s easy to spot the opportunity.
We forget, however, that Steve Jobs was unceremoniously fired from Apple in 1985. The company struggled for more than a decade afterward, slowly losing market share. It would have made sense to sell those stocks a long time before Jobs returned to Apple.
If you think that most people would have held on to the stock, I can certainly tell you it’s not quite true. In February 2016, I purchased a great deal of Tesla shares. I sold them for a nice profit a year later.
I didn’t hold on to the stock because:
- The company was struggling with production
- The company was far from profitable
- A lot of people were betting big that the company would fail
- Other car manufacturers were launching their own EVs
- Elon Musk was making all sorts of chaotic statements
It’s called l’esprit d’escalier. Looking back, we know the correct course of action. Looking back, it all makes sense.
But the truth is that I sold my shares based on the information that was available to me at the time.
Tesla was going through some interesting times, and it wasn’t that I was uncertain. No, I was sure Tesla would struggle for a long time at a valuation of around 50–60 billion dollars, and that would be it.
Most of the big companies of today were launched during interesting times, and most of them went through some turbulent years before becoming the success stories of today.
Many people predicted the inevitable failure of the iPhone when it was first launched in 2006, or the fact that the Internet would be just a fad, or that blogging would slowly die.
Henry Dodd once said, “The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like hard work.”
We are now living in interesting times. There’s a lot of adversity, a lot of setbacks.
Can you see the opportunities?
Most of us can say that it probably has to do with further capitalizing on the technology we have: maybe it’s about online stores, web apps, or freelancing.
Starting an online store feels like a lot of hard work. There are a lot of questions that are difficult to answer, a lot of uncertainty, and that’s why most of us won’t capitalize even on the opportunities we’ve become aware of.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Interesting times often feel like times of chaos as we experience them. Everything’s happening at once.
The trick, however, is not to close your eyes and wish for the storm to pass, but rather to embrace the opportunity.
Lots of people lost everything during the 2007 recession. A few, however, made a lot of money.
That’s why you should ask yourself, “how do I take advantage of these interesting times?”
What are the most obvious opportunities? What are the steps that no one seems to be taking?
Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors of our day, has a saying, “simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”
What are most people doing? How is their mindset? How do they approach the challenges of day to day life during these times?
A crowd panics during times of chaos and uncertainty, the same way a flock of sheep dissolves into nothing but flesh, wool, and fear the moment a wolf comes their way.
“May you live in interesting times” is both a blessing and a curse. A classic example of a double-edged sword, it all comes down to how we react when faced with the possibility of chaos and disaster.
Taking advantage of interesting times requires inner fortitude and courage, and an insatiable desire to overcome the many obstacles that we must face during such times, but if we can see through the chaos, if we focus our time and energy on looking for opportunities rather than bracing for impact, we just might be able to turn adversity into opportunity.
It’s possible, with a change in mindset and with the right attitude, not just to survive during times of chaos, but to thrive.
To paraphrase sir Winston Churchill, a man who certainly lived through some of the most interesting times of the past millennia, history is most kind to those who intend to write it.