Crisis vs Opportunity during the pandemic

By Sean Pyott, MD of thryve

This column is an expanded version from my introduction in thryve’s latest newsletter. To subscribe to thryve’s free monthly newsletter, please visit

I’ve seen a lot of mention about the relationship between crisis and opportunity. There is the favoured quote from Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” However, that might say more about his genius as a political operator than a self-help inspiration. The often-mistaken view that in Chinese texts, crisis and opportunity are the same things (they are not), has also been appearing more frequently than usual.

There is a problem with these statements: they are big and bold, yet offer little nuance. It’s because they trade on a common myth: crisis and opportunity are not the same. They are not related, and they aren’t interchangeable. But they also touch on a truth: one can be a catalyst for the other. To get there, though, we should focus on the details, not just the big picture, because this is the nature of change.

The challenge with change is that it’s rarely big and bold. If we could see change coming from far away or find our way to the crest of the wave, then change would not be so hard to understand. But change exists in the small details, not in the big headlines.

This also applies to priorities. We may have big outcomes in mind, but the priorities behind those notions are often specific. Growing a business is a lofty goal that is easy to summarise. Yet behind that goal are different priorities that each need particular attention. It’s in those corners that change really starts to happen.

It also explains why change often doesn’t manifest as we’d prefer. By focusing on the big picture, and not giving enough time to the details, we become complacent about what we do and why we do it. Everyone might believe they are on the same page, but they are not. Psychological experiments have shown this tendency time and again – a goal is not enough to galvanise a group.

But a crisis is. During a crisis, there is a much clearer view of the desired outcomes. We become more critical about what works and what doesn’t. We are more likely to leave our baggage at the door and entertain other ideas. During a crisis, we are forced to leave our comfort zones. We are compelled by necessity to sweat the small things. This leads to more natural creativity and a more definite sense of urgency.

The seminal book Habits by Charles Duhigg gives some incredible examples of this. One is of a New York-based hospital that was unable to get out of its tragic rut – no matter what attempts at change were made. It was only when the hospital had no choice but to change or die that action manifested. This is a hospital filled with highly-trained and talented professionals such as doctors and administrators. Our reluctance to change has nothing to do with intelligence and everything with perception.

Confusing crisis and opportunity is dangerous, especially if you are not paying attention to the details. Humans are very good at this: Victor Frankl once referred to the delusion of reprieve, where we convince ourselves an outcome won’t be as bad as it clearly is. Other such psychological mechanisms also save us from the anxiety of change, such as cognitive dissonance and gambler’s fallacy. But even Kenny Rogers warned us: you gotta know when to hold them and when to fold them.

Pay attention to the details, and a crisis can push us to lay the best groundwork for opportunity. When we can accept that normality and what we take for granted are no longer reliable, we can build a greater appetite for facing the unknown. We also start to gain a sense of our new responsibilities and where to focus our attention.

Crisis isn’t opportunity. But if we accept that we have to leave our comfort zones, we can create opportunity.