Gumption Traps

Recently for me, ‘reading’ has meant ‘listening’ to audio books on my commute to and from work.  I’ve listened to many new books while travelling but have also revisited some favourites from the past.  One such book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I first read it, old school paper book, in the 80s and the brown edged paperback is a treasured possession that follows me from one house to another.  In a recent bout of nostalgia I trawled through books from my past in audio format and found a version of ZAMM in Audible and quickly downloaded and spent a happy week listening to it while traveling to work.

One of my favourite sections is where the author, Robert Pirsig, describes ‘Gumption Traps’.


Gumption is a term that Robert Pirsig uses to describe the attitude needed to accomplish a task with ‘quality’.  He describes an initial statement from a Japanese list of assembly instructions that it required ‘peace of mind’.  ‘Gumption traps’ are those situations that would rob you of gumption and ‘peace of mind’.  At the risk of Aristotelean categorisation, he identified two groups of ‘gumption traps’, those that are the result of external situations, or setbacks, and those that are the result of internal situations, or hangups.

He goes on to give some examples of different setbacks – my favourite is the ‘out of sequence reassembly setback’ – where you try to reassemble something only to find that you’ve missed something and it doesn’t go back together.  He suggests some techniques for dealing with the setbacks to reduce the negative effect on gumption.  For instance to try to avoid the ‘out of sequence reassembly setback’, he suggests making clear notes about the disassembly with things like, order, interesting facts about the disassembly, and noting orientation and condition of the parts.

The he looks at the hangups and again discusses some examples of the sort of hangups that will rob you of gumption.  Again in an Aristotelean feat of categorisation he identified three types of hangups – value hangups, truth hangups and muscle hangups.  Examples of the value hangups are ego and value fixidity, with muscle insensitivity and bad surroundings as examples of the muscle hangups.  He introduced the concept of mu a Japanese term for ‘no thing’, when discussing truth hangups and the ‘yes/no logic trap’ to suggest a middle way out of a false duality of either/or or yes/no.  Ask a different question and try to look at the problem in a different way that may open up further options.

While the examples he gives are all relevant to the activity of Motorcycle Maintenance – hence the title of the book – they have their equivalent in any activity.  The current movement of ‘Software Craftsmanship’ has a similar attitude of ‘taking care’ and being mindful of ‘Quality’.