Pirsig was right about a few things

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mikenixon
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Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

I'm neither a religionist nor a philosopher (some would argue I am both), so that very much written by Robert Pirsig, the somewhat famous author of the 1974 cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I see as sticks and brambles obscuring the beautiful roses that appear throughout the tome. Gems, these are. Bright flashes of insight penned by the 170 IQ computer manual tech writer, university professor, philosopher, Hindi devotee, and degreed journalist (and one-time mental patient) before his passing away at 80 years of age fewer than three years ago.

Don't misunderstand. Pirsig himself disavowed any connection with Zen and his project, admiringly naming the book after another author's, written some 25 years prior, titled, Zen in the Art of Archery, and which similarly celebrated subconscious pleasure states and their influence on excellence. There is nothing religious either there or here.

Following then are just a few of many of Pirsig's insights I enjoy so much, snatches of brilliance that as a career mechanic I find resonating with my own views. I apologize for taking the liberty of shortening some sentences and adding a few parentheses, only for the sake of clarity.

Pg 23 The indifference of mechanics
"Why did they butcher it so? The radio was a clue. You can't really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as haying anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable. Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse. But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easy-going—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5pm or whenever, 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."

Pirsig, in relating an unfortunate experience with a motorcycle repair shop, posits some important and very valid conclusions. Not many will agree with the comment about radios, I suspect, but I feel pretty strongly about it. I found the constant barrage of rock music the most irritating part of being a shop mechanic working for other people. I am so happy to be away from that, I can't even tell you. Believe what you want, that stuff makes a difference in your mental state. Further, I heartily concur in the observation that many mechanics I have known seemed to work as if their minds were somewhere else. Disengaged. "Working for the weekend," as the saying goes. I'm sure I have at times been guilty of it myself.

Pg 84 Mechanical work is logical
"Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it’s some kind of a “knack” or some kind of “affinity for machines”. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself."

Though most mechanics schools simply immerse their students in the physical work of maintenance and repair, and rightly so, at some point the element of reasoning things out logically becomes extremely important. It seems a mark of our culture to believe in shortcuts--for everything. When dealing with electrical malfunctions, but also when diagnosing engine performance issues, I find the people I help by email and by phone are not willing to be scientific, systematic. They think it too much bother, it seems. There can be many explanations for this, but the gross misinformation and knee-jerk diagnostic approaches prevalent in online media don't help matters.

Pg 92 Mechanical work is essentially cerebral
Now I want to talk about logic. (Problem solving) is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive (going from observation to knowledge) and deductive (going from knowledge to observation) inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. (One) sets up hypotheses for these (possible problems) and tests them. By asking the right questions and choosing the right tests and drawing the right conclusions, the mechanic works his way down the (decision tree) of the motorcycle hierarchy until he has found the exact cause or causes of the failure. An untrained observer will see only physical labor. But the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. He is concentrating on mental images, hierarchies. He is looking at underlying form."

This paragraph is golden and begins to explain how many of those outside the industry mistakenly view a mechanic's work. Everything performed on a motorcycle is important and deserves careful attention to detail. However, tere is very little of real benefit that is performed in terms of repair or maintenance that is not the better for careful thought, study, and wide-eyed observation.

"The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure (assumptions) haven't misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know. There's not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn't suffered from that one so much that he’s not (intuitively) on guard. That’s the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you (instead) get careless or go romanticizing things, giving them a flourish here and there, (your own ignorance) will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don’t give it opportunities."

Maybe my favorite Pirsig quote! I love this! Not only is it brilliant, it's so very true! Even after 46 years as mechanic, I still occasionally find myself questioning long-held assumptions and consequently learning new ways of looking at something I thought I really understood.

Pg 266 The state of mind that results in doing quality work
"Sometimes just putting off the job for five minutes is enough. When you do you can almost feel yourself grow toward that inner peace of mind that reveals it all. That which turns its back on this inner calm and the quality it reveals is bad maintenance. That which turns toward it is good."

When the troubleshooting struggle starts feeling like a struggle, it's a tipoff that you are at that moment troubleshooting two things at once -- the machine and yourself. The combination sums up to a battle. You have to disengage from that.

"You can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do. Artists, they (give) patience, care and attentiveness to what they’re doing, but more than this —there’s a kind of inner peace of mind that isn’t contrived but results from a harmony with the work. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together and his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right. Somehow (as a society) we’ve gotten into an unfortunate separation of those moments from (our) work. The mechanic I’m talking about (the pro) doesn’t make this separation."

Yes! Everyone knows that one of the signs of a pro is economy of motion. His hands go cleanly, smoothly, unhesitatingly from one step in a complex operation to the next. But there's a mental version of this also, and it is very fulfilling. The joy the mechanic experiences in his work increases as he gets closer to perfecting and finishing the task, not because of mere completion, but because the machine and the mind are in a kind of agreement, a partnership, as the optimum condition and adjustment of the assembly is reached. It results in a secure, happy confidence that the end result is going to work well. It's an extremely pleasurable experience.

Notes:
The New York Times called the book, profoundly important. Extraordinary, said Newsweek. A horn of plenty, from the Los Angeles Times.

In the book's preface, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, "it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either." His words, not mine.
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by 05c50 »

Another great article Mike. Just like Pirsig's book, some of it may need to be read more than once to fully absorb what is being said, and some readers may not fully "get it".

Through out my career in the automotive repair business, I've had the pleasure of witnessing some (in my mind) great technicians. We used to call them mechanics when I started out, but that's another story. These guys were the ones that would truly think about what they were doing. They were the ones that would follow the diagnosis trees without assuming the next step and jump ahead. Also as each step was performed, they would try to understand exactly what the step was trying to prove.
Many mechanics (technicians?) would assume that they knew the cause of a problem and jump right to that repair with less than favorable results. In my mind, similar to finding a destination on a map and taking the shortest route without checking for tolls, contruction zones, etc. that might impact my journey.
As far as listening to the radio, in a large shop, it can become quite a problem. Twenty radios all playing different music seems to just add to the chaos. The first large shop that I worked in had piped in music (I think they called it Muzak) that played a repetitive track over and over. After a short time we didn't even notice the music, but we would be able to tell you the next song without even thinking.

Thanks again

...........Paul
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

:)
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by Sagebrush »

I read the book a couple of years after it came out and remember thinking it was way too long on Zen and way too short on motorcycle maintenance. I might have a different opinion now if I read it again but I'm too lazy.
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

Sagebrush wrote:I read the book a couple of years after it came out and remember thinking it was way too long on Zen and way too short on motorcycle maintenance. I might have a different opinion now if I read it again but I'm too lazy.
Me too. Why I put page numbers. :)
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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mikenixon wrote:
Sagebrush wrote:I read the book a couple of years after it came out and remember thinking it was way too long on Zen and way too short on motorcycle maintenance. I might have a different opinion now if I read it again but I'm too lazy.
Me too. Why I included page numbers. :)
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

05c50 wrote:...career in the automotive repair business...truly think about what they were doing...follow the diagnosis trees without assuming the next step and jump ahead...understand exactly what the step was trying to prove.
Glad you related to the article. Thanks for sharing about your vocation. Cool stuff.
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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mikenixon wrote:
mikenixon wrote:
Sagebrush wrote:I ... remember thinking it was way too long on Zen and way too short on motorcycle maintenance." "Me too."
Mike and Sage,

May I respectfully disagree? The book is obviously the best selling philosophy book to date and it got that way because while most of us lack the training in the field to rigorously challenge Pirsig's points in philosophy the book remains amazing intellectual entertainment. I've been reading the book since 1975 in that I reread it every so often, usually about every 4 or 5 years, so I can see how my reactions and answers to Pirsig's questions change. I also, like Mike, keep spotting and reacting to Pirsig’s insights into our modern life. (Eventually I bought a hard back copy. The paperbacks kept wearing out.) At it's core, the book asks questions about values and about how people relate to technology and knowledge, which is, if anything, even more timely now than when the book came out. The mechanism Pirsig uses to tell his stories and pose his questions is a motorcycle trip with traveling companions who aren't very mechanically adept. He calls their non-technical attitude romantic and his more technically sympathetic or rational point of view classical. To contrast the two perspectives Pirsig uses a series of discussions about how his companions relate to the bike they're riding versus his more technical viewpoint. These discussions lead to further explorations of scientific method and thought and discussions of what constitutes "quality". The insights and examples he uses of motorcycle engineering and maintenance are simply vehicles to set the stage for his real message and I suspect were chosen because the principals and ideas of motorcycle tech would be more familiar to most readers than say, electronics or aeronautics. So, from my point of view, the book isn't very much about motorcycle maintenance at all, except in the most indirect fashion. The motorcycle trip and fixing the bikes are there to give us a comfortable and familiar departure point and base to return to when Pirsig takes us off on one of his intellectually rugged but rewarding side trips. Having said that, I certainly agree that many of Pirsig's insights into maintenance and the severe rationality of repairing any fairly complex machine are spot on and as worth repeating now as when he wrote the book and our Gold Wings were new.

As an aside, it's interesting to think what Pirsig's reaction would be to people's attitude towards knowledge now, when every scientific discipline is questioned and even having an education seems deprecated by many. What would he have made of those folks who question the validity of the scientific process which indicates the reality of climate change or the worth of immunizing children? Extreme romantics perhaps? As I mentioned, in many ways his book is even more timely now than when written 45 years ago.

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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Here's a photo apparently taken by Pirsig on that bike trip showing his son and his traveling companions, the Sutherlands. They're on the Beemer and the Honda is Pirsig's.

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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

Good points, Chris. And great picture!
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Boy oh boy, did this strike a cord. In my case, it was 22 years of C130 maintenance with the Air Force. Everything mentioned in the article, I experienced there, often daily. Almost none took the time to really troubleshoot, instead going with the "this fixed it last time" mantra. I even had one fellow tell me after changing the same part several times, "you ever buy a pack of light bulbs and have one bad right out of the box?" And this was a career mechanic on the civil service side of the house.

In my life around aviation in general, I ran across few who took Pirsig's view of things, whether in maintenance or operations. The lessons I remember came from mentors who asked "why?", and then looked for answers to that question.
Thanks again, Obi-Wan. :crosso
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by mikenixon »

Good comment! I find that troubleshooting is often reinterpreted as shooting in the dark. :)
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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Post by rcmatt007 »

I have often said to the interns I teach (first year residents). "Of course it looks easy when I get a history from a patient, I have been doing this a long time."

I was talking with an intern once and told him that I had woke up last night thinking about what was going on with the patient we had seen yesterday. He sort of chuckled with a kind of "you actually think about patients in the middle of the night" look. I told him of course I did and when he got good at doing this he would do that too.
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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flyday58 wrote:In my case, it was 22 years of C130 maintenance with the Air Force.
Yay! A fellow maintainer!

I did 24 years active duty and then a further 6 as a contractor for the USAF before calling it quits. I had to, I was getting as deaf as I wanted to get. So I did the GI Bill for a history degree and reinvented myself as a secondary teacher and went back overseas teaching for DoDDS. I'm retired for good now but I do miss fooling around with airplanes and working the equipment on the bench. Even more, I miss the people.

Yeah, all too often I'd see less than real effort on the flight line and worked to cultivate integrity and pride in the guys and gals who worked for me. "Good enough for Government work" isn't! But, I also saw kids who wouldn't settle for the bare minimum when repairing a radio or TACAN in the shop or fixing the jet on the line and who would have a real sense of pride when they put their name on that yellow serviceable tag or signed off the aircraft forms. It comes back to Pirsig's point about being involved and conscious of the process and mindful of what is good.
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Re: Pirsig was right about a few things

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I ran across an interesting article in the Smithsonian magazine a couple of weeks ago about Pirsig's old Honda being donated to and accepted by the Smithsonian Institution to add to their National Museum of American History collection. Along with the bike Pirsig's widow donated a manuscript of the book along with a first edition and some riding gear from the trip.

Here's the article: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithson ... 180973836/
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