I had the privilege of working with a very talented coder who swore that he learned everything he needed to know about coding from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that he re-read it regularly, making new discoveries each time. So after more than 20 years since I last read this, I decided to give it another go.
There is certainly quite a bit in this book that resonates with much more recent research on work and motivation. While I don’t think I can capture it all, I’ll try to cover a bit of what stood out to me.
Pirsig does a great job of capturing the essence of what has recently been called “Flow” in this bit:
So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. That was what it was about that wall in Korea. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality.
And his section on what he calls “gumption” resonates strongly with the recent research on “grit” as a determinant of success. Interestingly, Pirsig goes on for quite a bit about how to acquire and hang on to gumption, which is a focus for many modern educators. Here’s his description of gumption:
Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.
Here’s a fascinating bit about the pleasure of doing a job well, even if it’s not a perfect job:
Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with — and they are all, sooner or later, dull — and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going.
Finally, a bit about how doing work well ultimately impacts yourself:
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.
It seems clear to me that in many ways, Pirsig was ahead of his times. Or maybe he’s influenced the current generation of research in lots of interesting ways. Any way you slice it, this book is worth a careful read, maybe even regularly.