Zen and the Art of
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the story of a man (or is it a ghost, a wolf, a lunatic?) searching for Quality.
Yes indeed, "Quality". Capital Q.
In his relationship with his son, his cross-country quest, his teaching, his marriage, his doctorate thesis — he pursues quality but never finds it; eventually, losing his mind in the process.
He rightfully questions others' approach to quality. First, his road trip companions have a complete disregard, a total denial of quality — at least when it comes to technology. Later, his professors tread the opposite path, defining quality to a point that all mystery is removed — leaving only bland definitions that can never quite stand up to Quality itself. But, in the end, he too searches for it in the wrong place.
Phaedrus, who the story follows through the narrator's memories, is equally unable to connect with Quality. Precisely because he is unable to connect with those around him, he is unable to see that Quality is the connection of perception and expectation. Instead, defining quality as the intersection of reality and perception, believing that Quality itself is the creator of reality, not a part of it, he misses that without expectation, there can be no Quality. There can, of course, be perception, but without the expectation of that perception, there is no Quality.
Consider an example. You go to the furniture store and spend thousands on a new couch. In the store, the couch passes the first tests of quality: it looks nice, it sits comfortably, and it is in your price range. At their intersection, reality and perception met with your expectations, creating Quality.
Since you discovered Quality in the couch, you bring it home. You set it up, and settle in for a movie. But! Your kid spills their drink all over your new couch. You furiously pause the movie, taking care not to take your anger out on your kid (after all, accidents happen). But the couch will not clean. You try sprays, you try the vacuum, you get out the steam cleaner, but the stain perseveres. Now, your perception and reality have met with expectation again. This time they did not live up to it. You no longer have Quality. You expected the couch to be easier to clean, more resilient to stains.
Nothing changed about the couch. It's still the same couch you found Quality in. Nothing changed about you, you had the same expectations the entire time. But expectation, perception, and reality intersected in a new way. This time, instead of forming Quality, it destroyed it.
Quality, at its essence, is the connection of a human, their desire, their expectation, with reality — through perception.
He misses this as he misses all forms of connection. He is unable to connect with his road trip companions, sulking silently, occasionally offering off-putting remarks about his son. His son, most egregiously of all, he is unable to connect with. Even as his son desperately tries to reach out, to offer connection, he broods; at the very least he is capable of understanding that he misses the connection. Yet, he cannot understand why, or how it intersects with his search for Quality.
In the end, he is unable to connect with himself. Phaedrus, at least, loses even his connection with reality, with his self, he loses his family, his job, everything.
All along, the hints are right there under the narrator's nose. His connection to his motorcycle. His search for peace. On his journey, he is unable to find a meaningful connection with his son, with nature, with friends, with his old college town (because he has no idea what he is looking for, his expectations can never be met).
In fact, the only place he seems capable of finding Quality is in his relationship with his motorcycle, which he presents as both a metaphor for relationship with technology, and a platform off which he explains the Romantic, Classic thought-divide. It is while maintaining the bike that he reveals one of the most useful thoughts of the book:
Peace of mind isn't at all superficial to technical work. It's the whole thing. That which produces it is good work and that which destroys it is bad work. The specs, the measuring instruments, the quality control, the final check-out, these are all means toward the end of satisfying the peace of mind of those responsible for the work. What really counts in the end is their peace of mind, nothing else.
Peace of mind. That is his expectation for the maintenance he performs on the bike, for technology in general. He is able to find Quality in his bike because his expectations are met. He does not expect it to work perfectly at all times. Unlike his travel companions, he does not expect to get through the trip without maintenance. When he does maintain the bike, he does not expect it to be easy. To the contrary, he lists a number of "gumption" traps and how to avoid them. He is aware of and ready for the work required to keep the bike humming along. These expectations allow him to intersect with the bike in a way he is totally unable to in any other relationship.
But I lied, his motorcycle is not the only place he finds Quality. He also finds it in his teaching of rhetoric, where he produces another wonderful quote:
If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then it might be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.
He brings this idea up in several places. First, when he refuses to define Quality, instead choosing to let it be undefined. Again, when he advises his students in writing, to simply allow themselves to be stuck, then write something, anything. And finally, in one of the few genuine connections he is able to manage with his son, as he advises him to get started on a letter to his mother.
This idea flows naturally from another that came before it:
For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.
When generating ideas, whether in a laboratory or a journal, it's the ideas that are infinite and cheap. What is difficult is understanding. What is difficult is follow-through. So, when you set out with the expectation that the right idea will flow out of the ether — straight to your brain — you are bound to miss Quality. You are waiting for the right idea, but that's not how it works. Ideas are cheap, infinite, worthless. Moreover, just because you have an idea doesn't mean you understand it. So, what's the solution? To get stuck. To empty yourself of ideas. To empty yourself of the idea that you understand your ideas.
Once you're stuck, you no longer expect the idea to just come to you. Once you're stuck, you no longer think you understand what you don't understand. Now, you can do something, anything, just to get moving. You can focus on that one thing without pretension, without expectation that anything will come from it. Then, you'll find that you've once again intersected with Quality. Because it all comes from expectation. In this case, you removed rather than set expectations. Or, the right expectation was to have no expectation at all. Or, the right expectation all along was that you had to work thoroughly through an idea before you could know if it was right or wrong.
The book is beautifully infuriating, filled with the failures of fatherhood on display for all to see. Stuffed to the brim with little tips about motorcycle maintenance, overcoming difficulty with technology, rethinking our relationship with the scientific method.
But, Quality? Well, that depends on your expectations.