Case in point is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I had heard people talk about it, and I’d had people recommend it to me. Since I don’t ride motorcycles and have no interest in them, I kept wondering why people would think that I would want to read a book on motorcycle maintenance. To be honest, it didn’t sound all that interesting.
After reading a post on Sean Murphy’s blog, where he talks mostly about startups, I had a change of heart. Sean had pulled a few quotes from the book and related them to discerning the future and running a startup. It intrigued me because the quotes he pulled from the book didn’t relate to repairing motorcycles. It felt like there was something bigger lurking behind that title that had frightened me away in the past. As it turns out, there was.
Having read the book, it’s hard to explain to someone what it is really about. As strange as it may sound, I believe that the book means different things to everyone who reads it. In fact, I would probably get something different from the book if I were to read it again. For me, at the least the first time around, I found that Pirsig used the idea of motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor to how one approaches things in their life, whether it is in their professional life (i.e. at work) or in their personal life (i.e. at home). Here is a selection of quotes from the book that resonated with me.
“The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
“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.”
“A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.”
“You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence.”
“When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.”
“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.”
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
If I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was much younger, I doubt I would have enjoyed it. I would have found it heavy, philosophical, and preachy. But I’ve been on on an interesting personal journey over the last couple of years. I’ve spent a lot more time focusing on my mental state of mind and spiritual being. I’ve come to the conclusion that training and feeding my mind properly on a daily basis is just as important as the care I put into training and feeding my physical body. I’ve spent on a lot more time reading, studying, and practicing philosophy. I’ve started to journal on a daily basis. I’ve taken up the practice of daily meditation.
So for me, the book was the perfect companion on my journey to becoming more self-aware. It sparked a lot of self reflection. The book helped me to learn more about myself, about others, and about the world around me.
If you’re on a similar journey of improving your mental state of being, working on your self-awareness, practicing philosophy, and feeding your spiritual being, then you will thoroughly enjoy the book. I really liked how Pirsig wrote the book from the heart and tackled some very difficult internal conflicts through his protrayal of the main character. The book makes many interesting points, and there is a lot that you can learn from the book, take away, and apply to your daily life.
For these reasons, I’ve put the book into my Must Reads. It had a significant influence on me, and, if you are on a similar personal journey, I expect it will have a significant influence on you as well.