The Merit of Moderation/ The Golden Mean; or 50 Shades of Grey!

13 Mar

school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511

So I experienced a mild form of an age old affliction – writer’s block. To get over it, I started re-reading old posts on my blog – and realized that many of them talk about seemingly contradictory concepts, in personal as well as professional life – doing vs. managing; theory x vs. theory y; focus vs. multitasking; strength enhancement vs. weakness consolidation etc etc. Also, in most of them, my advice at the end is pretty much – the golden mean. In effect, what I’m propounding most often is – be transactional/ situational. It’s in general impractical to practice “extreme” behavior – you really need to adapt to circumstances, which very often means get some kind of balance. I.e., there are no blacks or whites but shades of grey – 50 or not, I can’t say (have to confess btw I didn’t manage to get through the book – the only others I havnt gotten through in my entire life are Midnight’s children – Salman Rushdie and The Good earth – Pearl S Buck).

50 shades of grey

Aristotle and Socrates both advised this – their philosophy was – the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Wise men across the ages and lands have endorsed this view – Icarus of the wings dying because he did not follow his dad’s advice to “fly the middle course”; Confucious and his “doctrine of mean” (The Doctrine of the Mean represents moderation, rectitude, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety. The guiding principle is that one should never act in excess) – also called the unwobbling pivot; the saying at the temple of Delphi (Nothing in excess) being the most famous examples.

Golden-Mean

Moderation is an admirable trait really. We get advised moderation in everything – drink not more than 2 glasses of wine a week, eat not more than one tablespoon of sugar per week, watch no more than 5 hours of TV, exercise no more than 4 hrs a week (you wish!)..

This advise to follow moderation vs extremism is closely linked maybe to our desire to “have it all” – we want to eat our cake and have it too – which maybe means we are afraid to put a stake on the ground. While debating choice of school boards for my 7th grader (IGCSE vs ICSE – what’s your vote incidentally?) with a fellow mom, we were saying that while M is an extremely competitive super hyper and therefore highly stressed child – who gets up at 5.30 every morning in order to prep for lessons, continuously nags her mother to “study with her” and gets upset because the mum does not know Math and Science well; and btw, tops the class; R is the complete opposite – I don’t know when she has exams; she is not uncompetitive – she is anti-competition. So, she out of principle does not want to know how someone else did/ what was the highest mark in class etc. The day before exams – one can find R catching up for the 12th time on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Therefore, mum continuously nags R to ‘study with her” (to no avail ofcourse). As the other mom and I were commiserating – wouldn’t it be great if we had a child that was kind of the union of these two traits – K worries about M’s health and I worry about R not maximizing her potential. A child that had some of M’s drive and some of Ri’s phlegmatism would be a SUPER child – golden mean!

perf

Its kind of like the universal truth of employee behavior types. In many cases, you have the hard working, never say no employees – but they do only what you say, don’t have the spark that propels them forward. And then you have the really bright guys/ the live wires, but they come with a lot of angst/ maintenance issues/ they are your highest attrition risks…wouldn’t it be nice if you got a good mix of the two – the golden mean – the perfect employee!

perfect employee

Coming back to shades of gray, actually a) blacks or whites don’t exist – and anyways characters with shades of grey (remember Severus Snape – arguably the most heart wrenching character in the Harry Potter series?) are far more interesting than “pi” or “evil” ones.

snape

Let’s look at it mathematically – average (or arithmetic mean if you want to be exact) essentially shows the tendency of a data set to graduate towards the center. The law of averages states that outcomes of a random event will “even out” within a small sample. It shows a more or less predictable ratio between the number of random trials of an event and its occurrences – i.e., basically it expects probability to catch up with you sooner or later :). That’s the reason why in competitive sports, they take out outlier scores when they get to averages for performance (think gymnastics and swimming). The average rules our life at work too – not only do we view a lot of data by averages, we evaluate ourselves and others by averages as well (remember bell curve).

average

I recently came across a funny on this:
One graph telling the other: You’re below average.
The other one responding: You sure are mean! 🙂

I have to say, in most cases i agree with this whole golden mean thing – I am a “mean” kind of person – I “mean” balanced, circumspect, not extreme. In an argument, I am able to see both sides of the coin. In our partnership at work, I was often the voice of reason. I like Bangalore precisely because of its moderate weather.

The only thing, there’s a streak in me that says – hey, mean is fine, but are you kind of depriving yourself of the “highs” and “lows” of living, of “passion”, of “experience” by following the mean? Look at electricity and currents – AC vs. DC – one sees volatile highs and lows – from the peak of pleasure to the depth of despair; while one is always calm. I would certainly prefer to see the highs of life even if there is a chance of a fall – rather than spend my life in a vegetative apathetic state. In addition, what I DON’T subscribe to – is the concept of “average” performance – to me, anything worth doing, is worth doing well. So, i DO believe in maximising performance, which certainly is an extreme/ outlier :). Which basically means, that even here – in my advice to follow the mean, there is no extreme – in general, “mean” is good; but you should absolutely go out and render “extreme” behavior from time to time, otherwise you lose out on a lot of pleasure!

Ofcourse, if I tell my kids about “mean” all they know is Taylor Swift and Mean – here it is – not half bad, huh?

taylor swift

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4 Responses to “The Merit of Moderation/ The Golden Mean; or 50 Shades of Grey!”

  1. Dhruv March 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    a lot of learning in this short read… truly said..some of the greatest philosophers have the idea of ‘middle ground’ as the cornerstone of their ideas, for eg. take Hegel’s dialectic, the most important philosophical idea since Plato’s logic, but distorted to the extreme by leftists and rightists alike….in the legacy of Hegel’s idea..this article hits the nail on its head.

    • joshsang March 14, 2013 at 11:59 am #

      yep – its certainly ignited the imgination of lots of philosophers..

  2. wendynewell March 14, 2013 at 1:47 am #

    50 Shades of Grey is a horrible book. At least for the 1/3 of it that I read and I’m horrified I even got that far through it.

    It’s always hard to be someone who lives in grey and have to explain it to people who live in black and white. The shades are always more balanced.

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