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.
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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
- Lesson #2: Don’t Just Own Pretty Things, Understand How They Are Made
- Lesson #3: The Real University Is Not A Building. It’s a State of Mind
- Lesson #4: Remove Grading To See Who Is Really Interested In The Topic
- Lesson #5: Enthusiasm And Worthy Values Are The Backbone of Quality Work
- Lesson #6: Having And Maintaining The Right Attitude Towards Life Is Essential
- Lesson #7: Disobedient Truth-Seeker Instead Of A Follower
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
Lesson #3: The Real University Is Not A Building. It’s a State of Mind
Deceiving. That’s how we can define universities. They work hard to instill a dangerous concept in our fragile minds. More precisely, that learning happens only on their ground.
The university you admire. The school that will cost you a liver of tuition fees to study there is nothing more than a group of buildings where conditions for learning existing things are made favorable.
“The real University,” as described in the book, “is a state of mind.”
A person craving knowledge doesn’t see schools as the holy ground for learning. Nor he will stop learning after he’s out of school. He doesn’t identify the class as the only place where a person should learn and experiment. It’s a way of living. A lifestyle.
We’re made to believe that the buildings where desks are carefully aligned towards the teachers are the only places for learning. That the walls inside schools radiate new knowledge and supercharge the brain. But as churches are only places where people profess their faith – real faith happens beyond the building – universities should be approached the same way. Only as a location. A temporary stop in your lifelong journey of learning.
There is a huge difference between these two concepts but it’s hardly accepted by society. Confusion occurs when you tell someone that they should learn outside of school.
How they cannot see it?
University rarely produces new knowledge. They teach only what has long been discovered. What’s taught there is never inspiring enough for someone to become a discoverer. A true inventor. Schools only admire the past inventors.
We graduate. We start to work reasonably hard, seeking a comfortable life. Hoping that we should never have to learn new things. The inner emptiness that occurs from this repetitive way of living is dulled thanks to the pleasurable activities available.
Don’t let the monotonous way knowledge is presented in institutions kill your creativity. Apart from learning in school and at your job. Learn on your own. Preserve the skill of learning. Hone it. This will help you see, and finally exit the cage you didn’t even know existed around you in the first place.
“The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.” Robert M. Pirsig
Lesson #4: Remove Grading To See Who Is Really Interested In The Topic
The biggest problem of our world is the dogmatic slave mentality.
The author describes it perfectly, “a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and-whip grading, a mule mentality which said, `Ìf you don’t whip me, I won’t work.” He didn’t get whipped. He didn’t work.”
Phædrus, the insane professor, the hero in the story, while pursing the odd question – What is quality? And before being labeled as clinically insane, decided to create an experiment.
He removed the grading system from his class.
The reasoning was simple. If you don’t pursue grades, you’re not focusing on what the teacher or what society wants from you. You’re focusing on what you want to express. Besides, you figure out what exactly interests you.
The experiment of the professor proved his hunch about his most ambitious students. The brighter and serious students weren’t listening because they wanted a better grade. They were there, in the classroom, because they wanted to learn. They were interested in the subject. Conversely, the ones who were only there for the grades stopped pushing. It didn’t make sense for them to try harder.
Our whole world revolves around a life of imitation.
We imitate what the teacher wants in school because we need his approval. The same uninspiring process is later applied to our jobs.
You imitate what your boss tells you to do so you can keep your job. There is little room for innovation. Because, innovation, can lead to “bad grades” or no sales. Therefore, dismissal.
In other words, the world wants to put us inside a particular framework. You repeat the words by your professor, you get an A. You diverge and express what you actually want to say, and you get sent to the principal.
After years in “the system”, students stop trying to come up with new ideas. New ideas are not met favorably, therefore are avoided.
This kills creativity.
But that’s not even the worst.
Probably the saddest part is that we become so obsessed with imitating that if we don’t have anyone to imitate, we block. We hit a brick wall.
We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to think because we have followed others all our lives. Following orders.
The text offers a new approach.
When you remove the grading. When for a moment you stop thinking about the salary a job can offer. The fake status symbols created by society. You start to see clearly. Recognize what you really want. You spot your true desires.
A new type of ambition starts to run through your veins. You are motivated by the things you can learn. The things you can create. The person you can become. Not from artificially created things to follow.
You become a free man.
“He’d no longer be a grade-motivated person. He’d be a knowledge-motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from inside. He’d be a free man.” Robert M. Pirsig
Lesson #5: Enthusiasm And Worthy Values Are The Backbone of Quality Work
There are always two ways to do something.
A beautiful, clean way to fix a motorcycle and a sluggish, vile way of doing it.
In the first case, you are careful and you want to arrive at the highest quality of work. You don’t rush. You pay full attention to what you are doing because you care.
The second case is about “just getting the job done.” You don’t quite care about whether something is good, you want to get it out of the way.
This leads to the question: What is quality and why is it important?
A book that starts with tips on how to maintain a motorcycle eventually evolves in the philosophical pursuit of quality. Not just on how to fix vehicles, but how to live a worthy life.
To address this question, Phædrus – the mad professor – goes through a series of internal dialogues. Investigates what the greatest philosophical figures of our time consider virtuous.
Finally, he arrives at the following conclusion: To create quality work, you need to have a sense of what’s good.
Creating quality work is an endless pursuit where the craftsman is not doing something simply for the financial merits. He is fully involved in the process of creating. He is interested in the subject. Being one with the object he wants to create. He’s full of enthusiasm about the job. Plainly, he cares about what he’s doing.
But there is something extra that is underneath this eagerness to produce well-rounded products. It’s having the right set of values.
If you don’t have the right incentives. If you are not noble and honest. You’re immoral. Thus, the end result will be something hostile and probably damaging for others.
You will create a well-crafted product. But a harmful well-crafted product.
The heart must be pure and noble to create products, thoughts, ideas, that are not only beneficial for us. But for society. This means that the starting place to make improvements is improving ourselves. Understanding what’s good by observing other good people. Then, doing good.
The real “motorcycle” we are working on is ourselves. When we have the right “fuel” inside and the correct “destination” in mind, the path is always pleasant and worthy.
“Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.” Robert M. Pirsig
Lesson #6: Having And Maintaining The Right Attitude Towards Life Is Essential
It is not hard to take care of a motorcycle. It is hard to maintain the right attitude to maintain a cycle for a long period of time. That’s hard.
Being good today doesn’t count. You have to be good every day.
Quality, it seems, is simply preserving an ambitious and glorious attitude towards what you’re doing.
That’s hard work.
The real evil to all of our suffering is not the tools we create. The tools that end up wasting our time – TV, smartphones, the online wasteland in the eyes of social media. These are not harmful per se. It’s our attitude towards these things.
All simplification done by the modern man can corrupt us if not properly approached.
We can use our phones for good and bad purposes. We can use the elements described in the periodic table for equally beneficial or hazardous reasons.
Similarly, we can produce good work today. Start a business with the goal to help people in a certain area of their lives. But if we don’t preserve the right approach, we might end up only chasing the dollar signs.
Yes, you can produce good work today. You can not waste time online today. You can donate money today.
To keep producing quality work. To keep living a worthy life. You need to maintain this approach all the time. Not just for today.
Clearly, this is not an easy task.
It’s hard to keep pushing for excellence with age and with all of the distractions in the real world.
Yet, it’s not impossible.
We can adopt the mindset of the ancient Greek warriors.
These heroic gladiators were not moved by riches or fame. They kept fighting and kept their spirit high inspired by a sense of duty. Not so much duty towards others. But a duty towards themselves to keep improving. The Greek word that can describe their endless pursuit is the following: areté. Meaning excellence.
And not just excellence at doing one thing. But an excellent generalist. Doing everything with care and the right mindset. Respectful towards others and towards themselves. Open for life and not disturbed by the fact that obstacles surely lie ahead.
Areté, according to the author is the highest good. The missing piece that completes the puzzle. The component that can upgrade the world to a somehow more bearable place.
As soon as one understands that better is the path forward, the sooner he loses something.
You begin to see that what you currently have, what you currently do, is probably wrong. Only how you get better counts. It’s a hard attitude to maintain. But the right one.
“Kitto had more to say about this areté of the ancient Greeks. ‘When we meet areté in Plato,” he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavour of it. ‘Virtue, at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; areté, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.'” Robert M. Pirsig
Lesson #7: Disobedient Truth-Seeker Instead Of A Follower
Phædrus, the truth-seeker. The protagonist in the book. Or the alter-ego of the author that sees philosophy as the highest echelon for having a meaningful life and understanding the entire world, is labeled as a wolf. A lonely wolf.
While in the text the name Phædrus is said to mean wolf. The actual name translates to “bright” or “radiant” based on trusted online sources.
Why use the word wolf then?
For one main reason, the character is misunderstood.
Before the ending, Phædrus is described to have a verbal boxing match in front of the whole class with “The Chairman” of the school where he’s teaching and studying.
The Chairman, however, instead of having an intellectual discussion. Instead of using the opportunity to come up with an interesting new concept about philosophy and the meaning of life thanks to the verbal fistfight. Plus, help everyone in the classroom to upgrade their thinking, is simply trying to protect his credentials. He’s afraid of Phædrus because of his cleverness. He’s not in the pursuit of knowledge, the author observes, he’s simply a lonely old shepherd who is trying to prevent his pack of sheep from seeing his doubts and insecurities.
This realization forces the main character to leave the university and never return.
Schools, systems, every man-made organization is built not on strength. But on the weakness of the individual.
If you’re strong, you’re a threat to the system. Only if you’re weak, you are considered a worthy citizen. Not because the system, society, wants to help you. But because the system wants to control you.
When you confront the rules you basically say farewell to your chances of integration into the system. Into the common. You become a wolf. You become Phædrus.
But that’s probably a good thing.
As mentioned in the book, “Quality for sheep is what the shepherd says.”
When you are sheep, you don’t decide what is good. You are told what is good.
If you don’t appeal to what the shepherd says, you will be excommunicated. If you agree, you’re a mare follower. However, this always means that you’re not advancing. You are only obeying.
To come up with new ideas. To have a worthy way of living. This always involves some sort of isolation and being misunderstood.
You need to be free from social authority, from the social boundaries caging our thoughts to create new interesting thoughts. Have discussions with people who are equally crazy as you.
Disobedience, I guess, is a worthy quality that can be leveraged.
“Phædrus sits staring out the window feeling sorry for this old shepherd and his classroom sheep and dogs and sorry for himself that he will never be one of them. Then, when the bell rings, he leaves forever.” Robert M. Pirsig
- Cut through the obvious: An untrained observer will never see underneath the surface. What’s inside. He draws satisfaction from merely consuming nice things (the romantic mode). Therefore, he will always do physical labor. In contrast, if you sharpen your intellectual scalpel, you can dissect. Cut the cushy wrapping and see what’s happening inside (the classic mode). Spot the mechanics. How things work and why they operate the way they do. Great mechanics, and great people in general, spend most of their time in careful observation and precise thinking. Working for them is thinking. That’s why they rarely do a lot of physical labor. They work with their heads and move only when they are absolutely sure what they should do. This careful approach – transitioning from romantic to classic – can save you extra work and prevent you from taking the wrong turn in life.
- Define your journey: One short phrase from the book stood out for me. It’s the following: “There’s nothing up ahead that’s any better than it is right here.” We are always in a hurry. Wanting to get going. Always rushing to our destination without realizing that the journey is far more enjoyable than arriving. Phædrus pursues knowledge. But he realizes that there is never an ending. There is always something new to learn, and instead of feeling extra guilty about what he doesn’t know, he’s contented with what he learned today. Conversely, The Chairman of the university mentioned in the story has arrived. He thinks he knows everything and thus feels threatened by someone who is questioning his views. Life is a constant journey. Don’t aim to arrive. Aim to keep going. And to avoid getting “lost”, constantly monitor the following: 1) Where you are now; 2) Where you’ve been; 3) Where you’re going; 4) Where you want to get.
- Have the right attitude: What was mentioned above is worth repeating. Namely, that it’s not hard to obtain the right mindset towards something. It’s hard to maintain it. It’s good that we are generous, polite, eat healthy meals, and keep our minds focused. It’s hard to do these things, these good things, all the time over a long period of time. Even harder when we are emotionally unstable or physically exhausted. The parallel storyline in the book is about a person maintaining his bike while traveling along the twisted roads of the USA. That, I think, it’s the way the author wants to share the twists and turns of real life while maintaining yourself. The point is to prevent yourself from arriving. Arriving at a destination will feel good for a short period of time. Same as having the right attitude. We need to keep traveling to maintain an open mind and the right attitude towards the things we’re doing.
- Pursue quality: To get better at what you do. To produce quality work, you need to reframe your concept of quality. We are too obsessed with the wrong incentives. We want money and fame because everyone wants money and fame. However, is this what we really want, or is it something we want because everyone else is chasing? Only when we reach these false idols, we realize how hollow they are. We keep working reasonably hard to maintain an image self-imposed by society only to keep feeling intellectually unsatisfied. Fulfillment comes from removing the grades, the scores, the objectives society thinks are important – a title or some sort of ideal. When you remove the outside influence about what you do, you will understand if you’re actually interested in what you do. If – putting the salary aside – you don’t feel satisfied with what you do. Then you probably need to do something else. This will also help you start producing quality work, not simply work.
- Define quality: People define quality work differently. Not because quality is different. But because people are different. We all have different levels of experience and we judge based on what we know. What we know, though. Is not the complete picture. How can we get better? It’s a complex process. But one thing is certain, there is never an ending. Something good. Something beautiful. Needs to be both visually appealing and inherently logical. But more importantly. It should always be powered by the right values. Values that are always improving. Values that benefit not only the person producing the thing, but also the people around the maker. It’s not an easy task because you need to put your ego aside. It requires seeing others not as mere customers, but as people. You don’t want to make them followers – sheep. You do your work in a way that you want all of you to move together as equals.
Commentary and Key Takeaway
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a strange book. A philosophical discussion about what is quality and why pursuing it should be your main aim in life. All of this, wrapped in a mysterious narrative about a formally insane professor who is now roaming the endless roads of the USA and fixing his cycle.
He is, not, however, only maintaining his bike. The metaphor is used to describe the maintenance of his soul.
The author portrays an inner battle happening in the main character that aims to answer an intriguing question. Namely, what is good and what is not good?
Then, after touching base with the works of some of the most profound minds ever existed – Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. He concludes that a person’s goal should be not only to produce good work. But to consistently outperform his previous achievements.
The highest virtue is areté. In translation from Greek, excellence.
It’s not only an intellectually stimulating book. It’s a piece of storytelling excellence.
Robert M. Pirsig will help you uncover the sinister and inhuman incentives of most popular organizations – including universities. So you can see the light. Disobey the dogmatic officials and adopt the right attitude towards life. A carrying attitude towards what you’re doing.
We are made to believe that a structure with a label church, university, or office, is the only place where the common activities arising from these structures should be practiced. It’s quite the opposite. If the idea about faith, knowledge, work, don’t exist in your mind, you’ll never care enough for them. These things will only happen when you are in the right building. Therefore, there won’t be any meaningful work produced. It’s worth looking at knowledge as a way of living, not a process with an ending destination.
“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.” Robert M. Pirsig
“A train really isn’t a train if it can’t go anywhere. In the process of examining the train and subdividing it into parts we’ve inadvertently stopped it, so that it real y isn’t a train we are examining. That’s why we get stuck. The real train of knowledge isn’t a static entity that can be stopped and subdivided. It’s always going somewhere. On a track called Quality.” Robert M. Pirsig
“Areté implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency…or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.” Robert M. Pirsig