‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance‘ by Robert Pirsig is a modern classic. When I first read this book I didn’t quite get the zen I was looking for. But then again maybe I was trying too hard which isn’t very zen-like. It is a wonderful book and although I missed many of the metaphors I gleaned some solid advice on how to enjoy my work. I think Pirsig’s motorcycle maintenance tips can help us in our day-to-day life. I’ve even dared to add a few tips of my own.
Gumption is psychic gasoline
Pirsig describes ‘gumption’ as your enthusiasm and zeal for a task or a project.
If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good. Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.
‘Gumption traps’ are the factors that steal your enthusiasm for your work and prevent that zen-like feeling of doing high-quality work. Pirsig categorises all of these ‘traps’, at various levels of thought, but I want to the really concrete physical or environmental traps.
- Bad Tools – “by far the most frustrating gumption trap is inadequate tools.” – A solid tip for the data center.
- Boredom – “One solution to boredom on certain kinds of jobs such as greasing and oil changing and tuning is to turn them into a kind of ritual.” Same goes for patching, racking, iinbox cleaning, config verification, patching plans, BoM preparation etc. If it’s not physical task it may be better to skip the ritual, make it into a procedure, then get it automated.
- Lighting – “Pay attention to adequate lighting. It’s amazing the number of mistakes a little light can prevent”. Not so much for networking, but brilliant advice for the home workshop.
- Temperature – “If you’re too cold, for example, you’ll hurry and probably make mistakes. If you’re too hot your anger threshold gets much lower.”
- Position – “Avoid out-of-position work when possible. A small stool on either side of the cycle will increase your patience greatly and you’ll be much less likely to damage the assemblies you’re working on.” Are you completely comfortable doing your work?
- Mechanics Feel – “Handle precision parts gently. You’ll never be sorry. If you have a tendency to bang things around, take more time and try to develop a little more respect for the accomplishment that a precision part represents.” Same goes for change management. Respect the network and take a light touch. Know that the network can make your life a misery if it so chooses.
The next traps are my own, but they are fundamental to my productivity.
- Hunger – My number one gumption trap. I cannot concentrate when I’m hungry, and I know myself well enough not to pretend otherwise. I also get a little whiny.
- Water – Your body (especially your brain) needs water to function properly. If you’re a coffee maniac like me, you need to offset the diuretic effects of the coffee. Drink lots. As an added bonus, you get a forced break from your desktop at regular intervals.
- Toilet – So…. take a bio break. I know you had ‘almost got it fixed’ for the last 30 minutes, but stop hopping about like a 5-year old a birthday party and take that break. Otherwise you’re just faking productivity.
- Breathing – I haven’t quite got this sorted, but I do use ‘deep breathing’ for anger management.
- Noise – I use headphones regularly in the office, or work from home when necessary. If you find music distracting like I do, then give simplynoise.com a go. As an Irishman living in Seattle you’d think I’d be sick of rain, but I use rainymood.com to block out external noise.
We work in a crazy, complex and rapidly changing world. We invest a lot of time in our work, and deserve to get high-quality results. Take a moment or two and check if you’re falling prey to factors that steal satisfaction and quality from your work. I am slowly building my own list of ‘gumption traps’ and I catch myself earlier each time I fall into them.
What are your gumption traps? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
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