If you’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you’re about 30 years late to a super self-aware party. Get ye to a bookstore. The bestselling Robert Pirsig novel is a great beginner’s guide to philosophy that’s framed as a biker’s road trip of self-discovery. It’s a book with some yin to its literary yang: it’s heavy and light, playful and serious, and it’s a great way to wrap your ahead around new worldviews. Falling somewhere between thinking-for-dummies and a challenging academic treatise, the 1974 modern masterpiece has a lot of smart things to say about ambition, achievement, and figuring yourself out.It’s about the destination as much as the journey, and even several decades after its debut, it offers great lessons for riders and non-riders alike.
- It’s All About Attitude
“Is it hard?”
“Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”
A major lesson to be taken from the now-classic book, what matters the absolute most to those seeking zen (and motorcycle maintenance) is your attitude. While there are many disappointments in life and everything can easily go (of be thought of as) sour, it’s the joy that you take in the little things (like mechanical work — tinkering, if you will) that really matters. Living a life of mindfulness, resilience, and perserverance, can and will change all of your circumstances. Investigating the way that you approach things also matters, and being aware of the way that you conceptualize of things can lead you to better maintenance — on a motorcycle and beyond.
- The Big Things Are Just as Easy to Miss as the Little Ones
One passage reads: “Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.” It’s a gentle reminder that often we can’t see the forest through the trees, and vice versa. This key concept of the book (that the general leads to the specific and that they enshroud one another without careful consideration and lots of parsing) is an important message to heed, whether you’re motoring down the open road with the wind in your hair and the sun at your back, or simply sitting — meditating, breathing — and doing a zen amount of nothing.
- Best Versus New
Early in the book, Pirsig jumps into the battle between “What is new?” and “What is best?” that will define much of the story. The lesson to glean is that, if you’re not careful, you can get so caught up in freshness that you overlook quality. If you’re too focused on always having the flashiest motorcycle and the newest, cool accessories, you’re doing it completely wrong. What truly matters is overall quality, and how well your bike’s parts work in concert. It’s a fascinating discussion that reminds us to be mindful that new rarely means best.
- Peace of Mind Isn’t Superficial
Still waters, as they say, run deep. Whether you’re a worrier, a warrior, or just longing for that Easy Rider-style sense of freedom, to believe that it’s OK just to search for peace of mind is relaxing in and of itself, to say nothing of attaining it. And once you’ve achieved peace of mind, you can concentrate on a clear-headed apprehension of the world around you. Whether you’re performing bike maintenance or performing well at work, you’ll do (and feel) better when your mind is calm enough to get the job done.
- Science and Art Are Equally Important
Pirsig writes of the problem of “artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge.” He rightly argues that you’ve got to have a basic understanding of both to get along. Although the tides are slowly changing — often artists have technical knowledge, and some programmers, engineers, or scientists also produce creative works — it’s still a challange to bridge the gap. A rounded skill set is a fantastic asset, in life and in riding, as you’ve got to have both roadlust and the know-how to change a flat.
- Language Has Its Limits
Your knowledge of language defines the limits of your world. Those that speak English, boolean logic, math, music, and Latin have the ability to have a more advanced worldview than those confined to one language simply don’t. If you want to get ahead, succeed in your field, or just have a decent conversation about bikes, you’ll need different “languages” to do so. Communication is a key element of professional and personal relationships, and to having a better idea of our world. Can you speak the “language” of motorcycle maintenance? Well, then, you’re a step above most.
- It’s All in Your Head
The short version: Everything in your life, from physical objects to feelings, starts out as an idea. It could be in your head, or in someone else’s. Pirsig uses the construction and assembly of a motorcycle to make the point that the bike isn’t one thing, but a package of hundreds of tiny ones, each dreamed up and built for a bigger purpose. And you too are built of a million little pieces, so embrace yourself in ideas. Take a plunge and try your hand at something new, be it motorcycle maintenance or a “bucket list” goal.
- Don’t Rely on Mechanics
The book discusses Romantic versus Classical worldviews, but, for the cyclist, the lesson to be taken is this: be the guy that can fix his own bike. It’s more valuable to be classic and practical; be your own mechanic. Be zen; be in tune with your machine. The Romantic buys a wonderful motorcycle, doesn’t learn to maintain it, and — when it inevitably breaks — must rely on others to maintain his bike.
- Technology Is Ugly, but Also Kind of Beautiful
There are points in the book where technology is demonized as dehumanizing. Which it is. Nonverbal communication, email, social media — all of these things make it harder to connect with people as humans, and not just distributors of information. But technology also connects us in new and exciting ways, and design advances bring us better motorcycles. Love it or hate it, the future is now. And for bikers, that is a beautiful thing.