Apotheosis podcast episode 23: Finding the golden mean. "Courage is a mean in relation to feelings of fear and confidence." ~Aristotle

Episode 23: Finding the golden mean

Ryan D Thompson Discernment, Hellenism, Skills

Key ideas

How much is too much? Or not enough? Cultivate the skill of seeing things on a spectrum – and finding the “golden mean” between two extremes.

  • It’s easy to fall into the trap of the extremes: either too much or too little. However, those extremes rarely lead us to good places.
  • Aristotle captured this idea in his Doctrine of the Mean, indicating that we can cultivate our best qualities when we seek the mean between the extremes – that point somewhere in the middle that is right for us in that context in that time.
  • One of his examples pertains to courage, which as he describes “is a mean with relation to feelings of fear and confidence.” Too much fear leads to cowardice. Too little fear, or overconfidence, leads to recklessness. 
  • Depending on our experience, skill, people involved, and the context, we exercise our discernment to identify “how much” or “how little” is right for the situation. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer.


Hashtag “the hustle is real.” We’re bombarded with these kinds of messages all the time. The modern hustle culture tells us that success only comes to those who push the hardest, work the longest hours, and run round the clock in the aggressive pursuit of their goals. Hashtag “no days off,” and all that. Whether you call it hustle culture, grind culture, or, as they used to say, workaholism, it’s easy to see how harmful this lifestyle can be. You sacrifice your physical and mental health, relationships, and other life experiences in an attempt to satisfy insatiable ambition.

So is the answer to work as little as possible, then? To live a life of leisure, clocking out as soon as we can (or maybe barely even clocking in at all) and cracking open a cold one?

These are opposing extremes, both with significant consequences. Too much work, and you might just work yourself into an early grave. Too little, and you might never achieve anything you dream of achieving. It’s the difference between burnout and never lighting a fire to begin with.

Most likely, a better approach is to find somewhere in the middle. Pushing just hard enough, just often enough to make steady progress. Not pushing so hard you burn out – but enough to make a breakthrough. Each of us needs to find the right level for our individual needs in each new situation.

This situation points to a powerful insight dating back to the Ancient Greeks – Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

This is the first episode in season 2 of Apotheosis, which will introduce this doctrine from Aristotle. It is a useful concept and will appear again in future episodes. Before we dive in, though, for anyone out there who’s been listening for a while, you might notice something different. I’ve done some rethinking and envisioning for the podcast. I decided to rebrand from the Changemakers Field Guide to something that gets more to the heart of my vision for this work. 

The social, environmental, and political challenges we face are complex and resistant to our best efforts. To meet these challenges, we have to be at our absolute best. We have to strive for constant improvement. We have to reach our peak capacities as leaders. Thus, Apotheosis: the highest or best part of something. 

But there’s another conception of apotheosis that relates to this effort. In the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell, the hero undergoes unimaginable trials and tribulations. Then, at some point, after reaching their darkest moment or most difficult challenge – often emerging from a real or metaphorical cave – the hero comes in contact with the divine. This moment of touching the divine is the hero’s apotheosis. The hero transcends the limits of ordinary mortal perception and capability, tapping into a sense of deep compassion and concern for the welfare of others. The fruit of this transcendence usually involves capturing some kind of elixir. And bringing that elixir back for the benefit of others.

So apotheosis, in this sense, means transforming ourselves so that we can help transform the world. These symbolic stories of mythical heroes have, throughout human history, served to help us tap into our potential as leaders.

We have our work cut out for us, there’s no doubt. Fortunately, we have access to wisdom and knowledge in a way that’s unprecedented in human history. We can learn the best insights from the greatest minds that ever lived. 

And one of those insights is Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, an idea that has informed this podcast and other areas of my life. Sometimes called the Golden Mean, this teaching guides us to cultivate the virtue of discernment. In every situation, we should seek the ideal point between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Neither too much nor too little.

One of the examples Aristotle offers pertains to courage. As Aristotle describes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “Courage is a mean with regard to fear and confidence.” Courage is the golden mean between two extremes, the vices of cowardice on one side and recklessness on the other. Courage can only arise when there is something to fear. Too little fear causes recklessness, whereas too much fear causes cowardice. The right amount of fear involves respect for the danger but a willingness to face that danger due to confidence in one’s abilities. Courage only comes after developing the relevant skills to meet those particular kinds of dangers. 

Another example from Aristotle looks at temperance: the mean between the extremes of gluttony and abstinence. The virtue of temperance means living with self-control or moderation – identifying how much enjoyment or pleasure is the right amount in a given situation. In a society obsessed with pleasure and entertainment, this virtue is a helpful reminder.

We could also see this doctrine in effect with patience: the golden mean between being pushy or a pushover. Or with generosity: the golden mean between a stingy miser and a fool easily parted with his money. Or back to the hustle culture example at the start, finding the mean between a life of lazy leisure and working ourselves until we have a breakdown.

An important takeaway from Aristotle’s teaching is recognizing the spectrum underlying many situations we find ourselves in. We often see things in binary: it’s either this, or it’s that. A person is either brave or cowardly. A policy is liberal or conservative. The situation is good or bad.

In reality, few things are ever as cut and dry as these opposing pairs. It’s up to us to find the right point, to identify where the ideal conditions or actions lie on the spectrum.

Practicing the doctrine of the mean reminds us that every situation is different. Depending on our experience, skill, people involved, and the context, we exercise discernment to identify how much or how little is right for the situation. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer.

As I kick off season 2 of Apotheosis, we’ll see this doctrine appear again and again. Finding the golden mean is a fundamental idea for this podcast. It relates to many themes we’ll explore this season, including maintaining calm under fire, cultivating hope and resolve, and making multifaceted decisions.

That’s all for now. Join me again next week as I kick off a new series about practices for being calm under fire. In the meantime, check out the Project Indra website. I recently did some major revamping of the site to make it easier to find information related to specific skills for impact leaders. You can subscribe there for irregular newsletter updates, and feel free to subscribe to Apotheosis on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a moment to leave a review or a quick rating, that’s always very helpful. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License