EDIT: Hello from the future! This post is part of the old blog. That means it may be deprecated. However, I deemed it valuable enough to keep around. The new blog starts here!

I have rarely been more in tune with a book than I was with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Plot-wise it's a simple story: a dad and his son go on a motorcycle trip across the United-States. Content-wise it is a real treasure trove.

Now, this is one of those hugely popular books. The front cover of my edition says:

The provocative, profound, and deeply affecting modern classic that has inspired millions

The back adds another dollop:

One of the most important and influential books written in the past half-century [...] powerful, moving, and penetrating [...] breathtaking meditation [...] this uniquely exhilarating modern classic is both touching and transcendent, resonant with the myriad confusions of existence...

This is on the book covers, so imagine what is out there. Or don't and actually scour the internet for what people are saying! Obviously its praise is how I came to learn about it, but it also made me weary of the content. Is this another of those reality/fiction/meaning of life books that conceals self-help advice? I have read The Alchemist, The Fifth Mountain and Veronika Decides to Die already. Will this be more of the same? In brief, can it really survive the hype?

Well, the book is not what it is hyped up to be. By that I mean it is not really 'provocative', 'breathtaking' or 'exhilarating'. It is rather calmly introspective like blown wheat in a deserted plain. It is thought enriching in a way I do not think I have ever read in a book and about things that are so common to our daily lives.

Like I did previously, I will just highlight things I found interesting or things I want to make clear for myself in the present context -the book was published in the 70's. I will summarize the gumption traps section today. This is even more for me than my previous book palaver. No order, not much framing, just what I want to make clear in my head and be able to reference later. Let's start this Chautauqua.

Gumption Traps

A lot of things can get you down over the course of the day when solving problems and interacting with technology. Instead of a blanket I am too tired statement, a recognition of the reasons behind the mounting frustrations can help a lot in dealing with a world that seems increasingly technologically elusive and out of tune with us. This frustration is what Pirsig refers to as loss of gumption. Gumption is this eagerness in accomplishing things and harmony with the quality of the world. What bogs us down are gumption traps.

In this section of the book, Pirsig goes Aristotlean on us and starts building a tree of things. An illustration is good in this case.

Those traps can be split into two groups: external and internal traps. The external traps are those coming from the environment while internal traps are those mostly due to oneself.

External Traps

Again an illustration is good.

The out-of-sequence reassembly setback is when, after hours of work assembling something, you realize a key piece is missing that will require all that has been achieved to be redone. The example in the book relates to physical motorcycle maintenance but other contexts are equally as appropriate. This occurrs to me in research more often than I dare to admit. Oh, there is this paper that already covers some of that! Now I have to review everything...

To fend it off, two weapons are given: handbook and visual cues. Transcribe to a handbook the steps undertaken. This way you keep track of things and can reassemble them from a reliable source rather than from your unreliable head. I always do that when Maintaining my computer. Visual cues complement this approach. They are basically a more user-friendly handbook. Instead of collecting all the information in a single source you need to constantly switch to, you can embed it in the environment you use. Making your surroundings support your goal is quite satisfying.

Intermittent failures are a real bummer. They are the random problems of large systems. Sometimes my computer stops connecting to the local network. Then it reconnects after one or two or ten reboots. Are you testing a distributed deadlock detection algorithm? The joy of debugging! These are among the worst problems and there are two things you can do about them: wait (sometimes it will resolve itself) or take note and correlate events. Maybe an explanation can be reached over time - don't rush into it.

The final problem is definitely more on the physical side and that is the problem of bad or broken parts. Ideally to get over it, one builds a relationship with a part expert that can help out, or one looks out for price cuts and deals or finally one builds his or her own parts. It's the difference between contacting a resourceful person, checking out the alternatives or building the defective or missing entity oneself. When I am getting frustrated with a piece of software this is what I tend to do: look for help from knowledgeable sources, look for alternatives or consider doing it myself.

Internal Hang-ups

Internal hang-ups are all about your state of mind. These are the truly important ones to my mind (!). Getting a grip on those will boost your morale significantly. The picture:

Value Traps

Value traps are the most prevalent and dangerous. Watch out! They are worth another diagram.

It is eerie how prescient of the problems of our times these hang-ups from the seventies are. People don't change that much over time.

Value rigidity, I must admit, has been a curse to me. Valude rigidity is when you ascribe a value to the world before the world brings you this value. It is having set perceptions or principles or mindsets and not derogating from them in the face of their inappropriateness. I know why this defective behaviour is happening, so I will solve it this way. It still doesn't work, well maybe I haven't tried enough, or the problem is in the feedback mechanism... Never does the notion that our own values might be the issue come to us. Reassess and slow down. Let the world bring you the real underlying value. Just stare at the facts (or feelings) and let them nibble you in the directions you need.

Ego is often at the source of value rigidity but can be a problem on its own. The ego hang-up is when one starts to build an artificial persona and finds himself defending it beyond measure. It is a process of isolation from the world that gradually renders one belligerent with facts and other people. Be humble and open.

Don't go to the other side of the pendulum and fall into anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes my bĂȘte noire: it is the fear that you will do everything wrong and so you don't start anything. This is the part that is associated with impostor syndrome. Even worse is that the unnecessary fuss and nervousness embeds itself into what you are doing in the form of errors that further fuel the anxiety. This self-destructive spiral makes anxiety one of the most dangerous hang-ups.

To overcome this debilitating state of mind there are two things: list what you will do (again) and come to terms with making mistakes. Putting your anxiety to use in listing the things you want to do or cover is a good venting opportunity that doubles as a way to concretize nebulous fears. Also know that you will make mistakes and so you might be better off by going straight ahead rather than zigzaging around your fears. Try to do what you can and consider the mistakes as opportunities to learn and to readjust your values (see value rigidity).

The next gumption trap is boredom: you are bored and so you make mistakes. What is more interesting in this section is Pirsig's remark on the split between production welders and maintenance welders. Maintenance welders find working on the same problems boring while production welders are satisfied with it. You find this split everywhere you look in technology: project maintainer versus original author, serial entrepreneur versus long-term CEO... It is not that one is lamer than the other, but rather that prima facie boringness often times hides deeper problems that might be quite interesting if not immediately solvable. Simple contemplation of these kinds of problems may be very rewarding. Be Zen.

Finally impatience is the state of mind where your expectations are not matching the reality. Frustration at oneself and others often follows. Know that estimating things is HARD. Even if you have done it before because you have never done it after having done it the present number of times you've done it! Reduce your expectations and give yourself indefinite amount of time. This is difficult in practice but one has to try to reach that state of mind.

Truth Traps

There is only one discussed here and it is the binary truth trap. We would often like for every statement to be false or true. But ascribing this dichotomy on the world is rarely appropriate: the statements we make are too refined for that. Maybe or I don't know (or even can't know) is often the better answer. Learn to unask the question via the Zen mu expansion (see GEB for more on that). It is surprising the cognitive load this saves over the course of a day. It is also disturbing...

Psychomotor Traps

We finish with psychomotor traps -traps that block immediate mental initiation of physical movements. Those are the things that block our physical interaction with the world. Illustration please!

Insensitivity is a lack of level-appropriate feeling for what you are manipulating. This screw won't... just... come... off! <and a whole piece of plastic rips apart with it>. Understanding the chracteristics of the material used (and the reasons such characteristics are used) helps avoid these issues. Adapt to the environment a hand.

Speaking of environment at hand, the last two traps are bad environment and bad tools. If you want to do stuff and be content doing them, it pays off to have a clean, supporting environment with good tools. It may seem like a luxury but it pays off in productivity. Get to know your tools, but really get to adapt them to your usage. You will gradually reap benefits from it. This is a no-brainer and brings us back to external traps (I personally see these more as external traps myself)!


Thanks for sticking around so long! That rounds out some of the problems that might be getting you down as you interact with the world. The tree division of these issues is especially examplary of what I got from the book: a breaking tool to separate ideas into smaller ones. It is neat to see it used to such effectiveness.

I might cover other things at other times!