Sunday, May 13, 2007


Currently I am reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I've been meaning to read this book since I worked at Waldenbooks in Southridge and every Christmas, people would come in to buy it for a nephew or grandson because it was such a meaningful book to them. I am currently reading it with a student of mine who has been a difficult student to reach. He is smart, articulate and intuitive but doesn't want to “fit in” or “play the system.” However, his strong need to be different and independent is going to cost him in some lost opportunities. I'm hoping this book will touch a part of him and help him figure out his direction in life.

The book is very complex, as the subtitle says, “An Inquiry into Values.” The author uses the physical journey of a motorcycle trip across the US to set up his premise of a Chautauqua – an ongoing lecture about various topics which all revolve around the idea of Quality. The story weaves between the past ( his early years as a searching/seeking philosopher Phaedrus), the present (his journey on the motorcycle with his son, Chris) and the future (what really is Quality?)

One idea that has captured my interest is the discussion of “gumption.” Pirsig says, “A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption.” pg 310 Harper Perennial edition. According to gumption is:

“1. initiative; aggressiveness; resourcefulness: With his gumption he'll make a success of himself.
2. courage; spunk; guts: It takes gumption to quit a high-paying job.
3. common sense; shrewdness. “

This idea of gumption has stuck with me because I see a serious lack of it in my students. When something gets tough, many of my students quit or complain that the task was too hard or they don't know how to do it. There isn't enough of the initiative, aggressiveness and resourcefulness in students, which will take them past the difficult and into confidence. This brings to mind several questions. Why don't students have gumption? How can students gain gumption? Can gumption be taught?

Pirsig continues with a listing of “gumption traps.” The first is category are those traps caused by external circumstances or “setbacks” and the second is “primarily within yourself . . hang-ups.” pg 312. Both types of traps drain gumption and create anger and frustration. Although Pirsig relates this ideas specifically to the maintenance of a motorcycle, many of the ideas have applications to other areas of life.

One type of setback is “out-of-sequence-reassembly.” When we do things to quickly, or without thought, a step of the task may be left out, which ruins the entire task. I've done this often in cooking, when I think I've used an ingredient, yet when the cake is baked, it is only ½ inch think and heavier than lead. I missed a set. As my dad says, “Haste makes waste.” To prevent this, Pirisig explains two of his techniques – taking good notes and laying everything out.

Another setback is intermittent failure. This is when something works some of the time, but not always. When it works, you think you have the problem fixed, but then, it doesn't work again. To understand what was really wrong, you have to recreate the environment of the failure. Or, look at the pattern of the failure – what other factors figure into the failure and try to eliminate them.

Finally, parts problems. In this setback, you know what part needs replacing but can't get the part – either it is out of stock and needs to be ordered, the part is misnamed/labeled so you don't get the right one, or the quality of the new part doesn't match the original. Pirsig's solution to this problem is learning to create his own parts.

The internal traps, or hang-ups, Pirsig says, come from values, truth and muscle. If someone has a rigid view of the problem and the world, and he/she can't see from another point of view, then the solutions may not be found. When we expect a certain outcome, and it doesn't happen, it is difficult to see beyond our expectations. This also applies to making judgements – when we judge something or someone quickly, it is hard to see past our first impression to see the reality of the situation. But, ego also forces us to not truly see a situation. With a large ego, it is hard to admit mistake or failure, therefore many people prefer dishonesty with themselves rather than the reality. Yet the opposite of ego is anxiety, which will paralyze people just as easily as ego. If a person is to anxious they will do nothing. Finally, boredom often goes hand in hand with ego, but is a step further. With boredom, there is no attention to the task and mistakes – big and small are made, which may lead to impatience. This is caused by “an underestimation of the amount of time a job will take. . . Impatience is the first reaction against a setback and can soon turn to anger if you're not careful.” pg 325

I think it is important for students to recognize their own setbacks and hang-ups and before they begin blaming the task or the material, address the setback or hang-up. As Pirsig says, “You're bound to discover plenty of them [setbacks or hang-ups] for yourself on almost every job. Perhaps the best single thing to learn is to recognize a value trap when you're in it and work on that before you continue on the machine.” pg 325-326.