The Golden Mean

“Remember your Aristotle – Everything in moderation.”

– James Harris, Haserot Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, College of William & Mary

Professor Harris wrote that when he signed my copy of Single-Malt Whiskies of Scotland: For the Discriminating Imbiber. Initially, this served as a simple reminder not to drink to excess, and over the years, that reminder has taken on a much broader meaning for me. Today, we will explore Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean and how to leverage his teachings to achieve a better balance in our lives.

The Golden Mean

Aristotle devoted a great deal of thought to the nature of virtues. In his examination, he suggests that virtue represents having just the right amount of a certain quality. When we have either too much or too little of that quality, we have a vice. When we get the right amount, we have a virtue.

For example, consider the virtue of courage. When we think of courage, we think of someone overcoming their fears. When we lack courage, we have the vice of cowardice. It’s easy to think of this as an either/or situation. Either I have cowardice, or I have courage.

Aristotle points out, however, that courage is not stubbornly ignoring your fear. When you have no fear, you are reckless, leading your army into a battle even with no chance of winning.

When we consider the golden mean, we find the right balance between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness, which is the virtue we call courage.

If Aristotle feels too deep for you, there is also the English fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with Goldilocks finding the “just right” chair, bowl of porridge, and bed. Either way, the point is the same. We must avoid the extremes and find a healthy balance in between.

The Golden Mean and The Brain

One great example of putting this principle to work for us is in my Clearing The Fog blog post. Ann Betz of BeAbove Leadership describes the importance of finding that healthy balance when it comes to our level of stress and stimulation. Most of us are very familiar with a state of too much stress. When this happens, too many neurotransmitters flood our system, like dopamine and norepinephrine. When this happens, we can experience brain fog, difficulty concentrating, poor memory retrieval, and a host of other issues.

When we have too little stress, with a deficit of neurotransmitters in our system, we experience the same symptoms. The key to optimal brain function is to strive for the golden mean, with just the right amount of stimulation resulting in the ideal amount of neurotransmitters in our system.

When we are in excess, we may need to pause and do deep breathing. We may need to take a nap. Meditation may be a good option. Anything that helps the body clear some of those neurotransmitters.

When we have a deficit, we probably need to get off the couch and move our bodies. We may need to identify some small, simple tasks we can get done to get some quick wins that pump some dopamine into our system. Perhaps we need to put on our ambition playlist.

The Golden Mean and Conflict

Another area where I love to explore the golden mean is how we engage in conflict. When I conduct DiSC workshops, I love to walk people through how the different DiSC styles engage in conflict. Each style has a healthy form of conflict when they achieve the golden mean. When they rely too heavily on that mode, it can turn unhealthy.

For example, I have the S or steadiness style. I have a natural tendency to focus on the needs of others. When I engage in productive conflict, I ensure every voice is heard. I listen to each perspective and help ensure others do as well.

When I rely too heavily on this style, I focus too much on the needs of others and don’t prioritize my own needs. This could result in me caving in to please someone else rather than advocating for my perspective. People with other styles could take this behavior to the other extreme, focusing exclusively on their viewpoint and digging their heels in to win an argument rather than engaging in open dialogue with the rest of the team.

The Golden Mean and Running

In training for my next marathon, the golden mean has been on my mind a lot. I previously shared my BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) of running a sub-3-hour marathon. I am in the middle of an ambitious training plan involving many miles, time, and mental and physical discipline. I enjoy pushing myself and the mental and physical fitness that comes from my training.

And yet, over the past few weeks, I have received many signals from my body and the universe that I’m out of alignment with the golden mean. I’m not injured, but my legs and feet are telling me it’s too much. My life priorities are also shifting. I want to devote more time to my coaching practice. I want to dedicate more time to meditation. I want to spend more time reading and learning. As with all of us, there are not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do.

This past weekend, my body felt burnt out on my long run. I cut the run short and skipped the next day entirely (something I don’t do). I could tell I needed to rest. I felt it intuitively. In the following days, I had the data to back it up, as my Oura ring readiness and sleep scores reached the highest levels I have ever seen. I have been overtraining, and it’s impacting my well-being.

And so, I’m adapting my training and retiring my sub-3-hour marathon goal. This does not mean I will stop running – it doesn’t even mean I’ll stop running marathons. Too little exercise is also a vice. The golden mean lies somewhere in between no running and hardcore training.

As the universe loves to do with me, it offered a gift to let me know I was on the right track. As I recognized the need to back off my training, I learned my application to the Big Sur Marathon for 2024 was selected. This is one of the most beautiful courses in the world, and very difficult to get into. It is a sign from the universe that it’s okay to keep running marathons but focus on the experience, not the time.

Putting It Into Practice

Consider an area of life where you find yourself getting out of balance.

  • What does “too much” feel like in this situation? How does it feel in your body? What emotions do you experience?
  • What does “too little feel like?
  • What does the golden mean feel like?
  • What is one thing you can shift to bring this area of life more in line with the golden mean?

Helping someone identify techniques to shift their perspective and align with the golden mean is one of my favorite areas to explore in coaching.

If you’d like to learn more, schedule time with me.

Want to comment? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

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