Robert Pirsig didn’t set out in life to change American pop philosophy, or to inspire designers, yet he certainly accomplished both. The writer, mechanic, tinkerer, and philosophizer passed away this week at the age of 88, but he leaves us with a classic text on mindfulness, process and observation. His immensely popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a mechanically minded adventure story about a motorcycle tour with his son, but the layers of philosophical questions inside are still useful at any age or level of motorcycle-interest.
Rejected by over 100 publishers before being picked up in 1974, it’s also a case study in dedication to a project. In the decades since it’s inspired innumerable copycats, literary responses, tattoos, mechanics, and critical thinkers.
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Most obituary pieces have focused on Pirsig’s early high school graduation and army recruitment, where he encountered Eastern philosophy in the service, or his later adventures navigating a sailboat across the ocean in the days before GPS. But I’d argue that his interim years bouncing between menial and mechanical jobs, technical writing and treatment for mental health were just as formative, rooting his high fallutin thinking in utterly concrete experience.
While it can drift into pure narrative, mechanical musing, or deeply navel-gazing philosophical critique of belief systems, Zen and the Art… blends the three in such a way that even the most esoteric moments carry a glint of the relatable. Here are a few choice quotes from a book about nearly everything, with particular savor for design thinkers.
On committing to an effort:
“The pencil is mightier than the pen.”
“Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values. In motorcycle maintenance, you MUST rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values makes this impossible.”
On testing and perception:
“The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”
“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”
Conversely, on the intangibility of “quality”:
“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”
“We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”
On systems thinking:
“There is a perennial classical question that asks which part of the motorcycle, which grain of sand in which pile, is the Buddha. Obviously to ask that question is to look in the wrong direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. But just as obviously to ask the question is to look in the right direction, for the Buddha is everywhere.”
On the basis for good work:
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”
“To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then *it* will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it *is* all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”
“Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all. Often this, rather than “laziness” is the real reason you find it hard to get started”
On resistance and new technology:
“This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that’s what it is. Blind alley, though. If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.”
These days Zen and the Art… clearly carries a western and male perspective, often dated, but the questions posed are worth holding onto, perhaps especially when they call the author’s own voice into question. Isn’t that where our critical breakthroughs usually come from?