This is a comprehensive summary of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
Odd book for sure. Definitely brilliant. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance transitions from (initially) a book about fixing your motorcycle to a book about self-discovery to finally a book about defining quality. Along with that, the plot introduces us to important philosophical concepts from both Eastern and Western cultures. But it’s more than just a mere introduction. Robert Pirsig swiftly presents the main principles of philosophy while unraveling the mystery around a life worth living. All of this wrapped in a compelling story.
The Core Idea:
Aside from maintaining a motorcycle – which is just a set for a much deeper storyline – the narrative presented by Pirsig aims to bug your mind with something much more profound: “What’s best?” How can you define quality, and why do you need to pursue this question in the first place? Turns out, that life devoted to good is a life well-lived. The conclusion, sort of, is that you have a duty towards yourself. To strive towards the greatest virtue – achieving areté (excellence).
Reason To Read:
It’s rare to find books that are both interesting and educational. This book doesn’t teach, though. At least not in a sense we’re used to – a person laying down the facts. No. The book slowly unravels philosophical insights to a point where it feels like a totally different book from what you initially thought. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an absurd search for defining the quality of everything. No wonder why the protagonist reached a point of insanity while tackling this question.
- Universities are only buildings. True knowledge is a lifelong journey. It’s a state of mind. It’s not tied to a building.
- Producing quality works starts with acquiring the right values. When we have a noble cause in mind, creating good work becomes easier.
- It’s not hard to take care of a motorcycle. What’s hard is keeping the right attitude towards maintaining a cycle for a long period of time.
7 Key Lessons From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
Lesson #1: Careless Attitude Towards What You Do Leads To Mediocre Work
It seems obvious.
If you’re uninvolved. If you don’t quite care. You won’t produce any meaningful results no matter how simple the task is.
The problem itself is not the lack of involvement, though. It’s the lack of awareness.
In the book, there are two opposing beliefs about how one should approach maintaining his cycle.
The narrator owns an older motorcycle which he learned how to fix all by himself. On the opposite side is his friend John. A person who is carefully avoiding giving any thought about the subject of why one should care for his bike. For this reason, he chose a BMW. A machine of proven excellence. The reasoning of John is that you should own quality things but you should count on someone else to take care of them. An expert.
“If something is not working, it’s not my problem. The mechanic needs to figure it out.” That’s how John views his cycle.
On the other side of the equation is the concept of the narrator. “It’s my problem to teach myself how this works and my job to take care of my things!”
Having a piece of machinery, even if it’s good, requires maintenance and involvement. Simply hoping that something won’t break won’t get you far. It’s not enough to count on.
This need to be responsible for the things you own proves at a scene later presented.
When the story introduced us to the so-called experts. The mechanics who had to fix the narrator’s cycle.
The author describes their shop as “that nightmare place” and the people inside as “spectators” who were simply wandering inside with a wrench in their hand who “butchered” his bike.
The point here is that if you don’t identify with what you do, your performance won’t be any better than a chimpanzee bashing a bare metal with a rock. Lack of participation hinders thinking. And when thinking is suppressed, the outcome suffers.
This happens a lot in our age.
We are seeking to buy quality things but strategically avoid taking care of them. We hope that they will last, but that’s the only thing we do – we hope.
On top of this all, we don’t identify with what we do. We don’t say, “I am a mechanic.” We say, “I work there.” As if the job is something else. Something outside of ourselves.
When this happens – and this happens a lot. When we completely detach ourselves from what we do. Nothing meaningful is produced. We live doing something, a job, but have nothing to do with it.
“There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.” Robert M. Pirsig
Lesson #2: Don’t Just Own Pretty Things, Understand How They Are Made
There is a 99% chance that you love to observe pretty things. We all do. Staring at art or at a beautiful building can be a transcending experience. Your eyes glaze at the perfect corners, the perfect shapes, and you feel better without knowing why exactly.
Equality important than looking at art is understanding how art is created. By saying art, here, we’re not talking only about paintings or sculptures, of course. Consider everything beautiful.
According to the main character in the book, that’s how we should look at the world. We should try to understand how stuff work. Not simply own them or romanticize about having more of them.
In other words, there are two ways we see the world as presented in the book: romantic and classical.
The romantic understanding is primarily passive. You feed your appetite by simply consuming. You are drawn to beautiful objects as flies are to flowers. However, you have little desire to understand why they are beautiful. The fact that they are is satisfying.
Classical is the other understanding. Here, you are more interested in why something is beautiful. Satisfaction comes from seeing the mechanics. What is under the hood? You want to see the blueprints of the building, not simply the building.
If we go a step further, we can conclude that the romantic mode is an act of pure pleasure-seeking. Shallow and absent of valuable substance. You don’t contribute much to society. You observe only the outside of something. Never getting interested in why it’s there or what makes this thing, or person, beautiful and motivated.
The classics don’t get too excited about the beauty of things. Sure, they appreciate a nice construction or a colorful canvas. But they are more interested in deconstructing the piece and thinking about how the author reached this point: What type of paint was used?; How many years of work?; Why did the person want to draw this in the first place?
As said in the book, “Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”
Romantic people, guided only by a desire to gain positive sensations miss an important point. Classics, on the other hand, by swiftly pointing out the faults in an object – even if it’s beautiful – can ruin its reputation in the eyes of others.
With a sharp knife, a classic mind cuts through the nice packaging and by applying logic, explains why something is good or, conversely, why it is bad.
For instance, when you don’t think much about owning a motorcycle, it will surely feel good in your head… You imagine yourself riding. The freedom. How awesome you’ll look on the bike. The pictures you’re going to share with others when on your cycle, etc.
Only when you apply analytical thought you can see the full picture. The faults. We start to see the dirt. The need to push the motorcycle uphill sometimes. The need to maintain the vehicle. We understand how things really work. And then, something dies. We kill the magic. Riding a cycle is no longer only cool. It’s also hard work.
Although we should preserve our romantic view. We should also wake up our analytical selves. Our classic self. A beautiful object – if it’s only beautiful – is rarely useful. The purpose of something, if any, lies deeper. It’s up to us to find it.
“John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.” Robert M. Pirsig
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