The Dark Night of the Soul: Making Sense of Times of Chaos
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.