How to be the best you can be? This is the question Confucius raises in 6.29 of the Analects. His answer is that it’s by applying the “golden mean” (中庸 /zhōngyōng), a dynamic process that enables you to maintain a constant state of balance in your character and attitude towards life.
In 6.18, Confucius describes the two key forces that drive the application of the golden mean. Native substance (質/zhì) and cultural refinement (文/wén) comprise a complementary and conflicting duality that needs to be constantly tweaked to maintain the optimum equilibrium. If you don’t put enough focus on learning, you risk becoming as coarse as a peasant; if you put too much focus on learning, you risk becoming as pedantic as a clerk. The goal is to hit the mark in the middle.
It’s important to note that the golden mean isn’t a static target. It’s a process of constant self-improvement that enables you to deal with ever more complex challenges. The more successful you become in your career, the more you need to restrain the complacency and perhaps even arrogance that will inevitably accompany it. The fitter and stronger you become from working out in the gym, the more careful you need to be that you don’t get a serious injury by pushing yourself too far.
Confucius laments in 6.29 that virtually nobody even attempts to apply the golden mean, saying: “It’s been rare among the people for a long time.” He really should have added that just because other people aren’t interested in achieving “the highest level of virtue”, that shouldn’t deter you from working towards it if you truly want to be the best you can be.
I took this image at the Shanghai Confucius Temple. You can read more about it here.