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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Podcast: Notes and themes from Zen and the Artwork of Motorbike Upkeep by Robert Pirsig

by Tom Johnson on Dec 15, 2023



These are some notes and ideas from studying Robert Pirsig’s traditional philosophical novel, Zen and the Artwork of Motorbike Upkeep, printed in 1974. My studying right here focuses extra on the technical writing features and themes from the guide. Some themes embody Basic versus Romantic modes of thought, the idea of High quality, our relationship with expertise, doing your individual upkeep, caring in regards to the work, peace of thoughts, methods considering, a number of paths by way of an issue, troubleshooting, being in-the-scene versus eliminated, the street journey, easy motion, going with the stream, touring alongside the backroads, and presence within the second. I additionally embody some questions on these themes to immediate dialogue (these notes had been initially ready for a guide membership).

The slides are right here.

Observe: Photos are from DALLE (which notoriously misspells picture textual content). Some notes under are AI-assisted.

What’s the guide about?

ZAMM notes: What's the book about

Bridging the duality between expertise and artwork

  • In ZAMM, the narrator explores the false dichotomy between rational (logic, evaluation) and romantic (instinct, implicit data) views, arguing that they’re complementary quite than opposing forces.
  • High quality transcends this duality, embodying each the precision and effectivity of expertise and the instinct and artistry of romanticism.
  • By partaking in motorbike upkeep, the narrator demonstrates how these two modes of thought can harmoniously coexist.

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides fairly as comfortably within the circuits of a digital laptop or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does on the prime of a mountain or within the petals of a flower. To suppose in any other case is to demean the Buddha…which is to demean oneself.” (p. 26)

Therapeutic inside duality

  • The narrator’s journey additionally entails reconciling his previous self (troubled with psychological sickness, sufficient to bear electro-shock remedy) along with his current id. He experiences echoes of his former self as he tries to grasp who he was and who he’s now.
  • He additionally struggles to attach along with his son Chris, driving on the again of his motorbike and doubtlessly displaying early indicators of comparable psychological sickness.
  • By way of the method of motorbike upkeep and the street journey, he overcomes the duality between his present and former self, between himself and Chris, between rationality and instinct, and finds social/mental concord.

Query: What stood out to you in regards to the guide? Any specific anecdotes or themes?

What’s the historic context?

ZAMM notes: What's the historical context?

  • Counterculture of the Nineteen Sixties: ZAMM was printed in 1974, within the aftermath of the countercultural motion of the Nineteen Sixties. The counterculture rejected conventional values, together with the embrace of expertise.
  • Hippie tradition and expertise: Hippies related expertise with the Vietnam Warfare, authorities surveillance, and environmental degradation.
  • Publish-countercultural motion: ZAMM emerged throughout a interval of transition, the place the countercultural impulses had been fading and a brand new perspective was rising.
  • Reconciliation with expertise: Pirsig’s guide sought to reconcile the anti-technology sentiments of the counterculture with a extra constructive and empowering view of expertise.
  • Humanistic expertise: ZAMM argued that expertise may very well be a instrument for human connection, creativity, and self-expression.
  • Emphasis on individualism and self-reliance: The guide additionally mirrored the post-countercultural emphasis on individualism and self-reliance. The narrator’s emphasis on motorbike upkeep as a private and transformative expertise exemplifies this concept.
  • Zen Buddhism: Pirsig was influenced by Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the significance of mindfulness, instinct, and interconnectedness. The narrator seeks to heal the ugly relationship with expertise by displaying that Buddha is within the machine.

Query: Have been cultural situations excellent for the guide to take off (as Pirsig says within the postscript), making it dated to the time? Or do we now have the same cultural context now?

Main themes within the guide

Basic versus omantic Mmdes of thought

ZAMM notes: Classic versus Romantic Modes of Thought

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying kind itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily by way of quick look.” (p. 72-74)

“To a romantic this traditional mode usually seems boring, awkward and ugly, like mechanical upkeep itself. All the pieces is by way of items and elements and parts and relationships. Nothing is found out till it’s run by way of the pc a dozen occasions. All the pieces’s acquired to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endlessly gray. The loss of life pressure. Throughout the traditional mode, nonetheless, the romantic has some appearances of his personal. Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Usually a parasite who can’t or is not going to carry his personal weight. An actual drag on society. By now these battle strains ought to sound somewhat acquainted.” (p. 72-74)

“To place it in additional concrete phrases: If you wish to construct a manufacturing unit, or repair a bike, or set a nation proper with out getting caught, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object data, though crucial, isn’t sufficient. You need to have some feeling for the standard of the work. You need to have a way of what’s good. That’s what carries you ahead. This sense isn’t simply one thing you’re born with, though you might be born with it. It’s additionally one thing you’ll be able to develop. It’s not simply “instinct,” not simply unexplainable “talent” or “expertise.” It’s the direct results of contact with fundamental actuality, High quality, which dualistic motive has up to now tended to hide.” (p. 284)

Query: In your work, how do you draw upon each rational and romantic/intuitive modes of understanding? Can we over-index on the rational?

* associated: [Write the Docs presentation](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHVAKNdvihE) on supplementing technical processes with extra people-oriented aspects, enter

High quality

ZAMM notes: Quality

“High quality—you recognize what it’s, but you don’t know what it’s. However that’s self-contradictory. However some issues are higher than others, that’s, they’ve extra high quality.” (p. 184)

“I believe there’s such a factor as High quality, however that as quickly as you attempt to outline it, one thing goes haywire. You may’t do it.” (p. 205-06)

Query: How are you aware in case your work/product displays the High quality features the narrator talks about? Does High quality describe merchandise that “simply work” or which “delight”?

* High quality is felt quite than outlined, exists past realm of rational dissection
* High quality akin to the Tao, a guiding pressure that results in a great way of doing issues
* like good writing — simple to establish, arduous to outline

Our Relationship with Expertise

ZAMM notes: Our Relationship with Technology

“It’s not the motorbike upkeep, not the tap. It’s all of expertise they’ll’t take. After which all types of issues began tumbling into place and I knew that was it. Sylvia’s irritation at a good friend who thought laptop programming was ‘inventive.’ All their drawings and work and pictures and not using a technological factor in them. In fact she’s not going to get mad at that faucet, I believed. You at all times suppress momentary anger at one thing you deeply and completely hate. In fact John indicators off each time the topic of cycle restore comes up, even when it’s apparent he’s struggling for it. That’s expertise. And positive, after all, clearly. It’s so easy once you see it. To get away from expertise out into the nation within the recent air and sunshine is why they’re on the motorbike within the first place. For me to carry it again to them simply on the level and place the place they suppose they’ve lastly escaped it simply frosts each of them, tremendously. That’s why the dialog at all times breaks and freezes when the topic comes up.” (p. 23)

“However, that doesn’t sound correct both. The ‘it’ is a form of pressure that offers rise to expertise, one thing undefined, however inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a loss of life pressure. One thing hideous they’re operating from however know they’ll by no means escape. I’m placing it method too closely right here however in a much less emphatic and fewer outlined method that is what it’s. Someplace there are individuals who perceive it and run it however these are technologists, they usually converse an inhuman language when describing what they do. It’s all elements and relationships of unheard-of issues that by no means make any sense regardless of how usually you hear about them. And their issues, their monster retains consuming up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there’s no option to strike again at it, and hardly any option to escape it.” (p. 24)


  • What’s our relationship with expertise — ugly or stunning? Can we dive in to study new and unfamiliar issues, or resist them?
  • Is the narrator’s central objective to repair this ugly relationship with expertise? Why is that this a subject he cares a lot about?
* anecdotes: the narrator vs. John, fixing the unfastened handlebars with a beer can

Doing Your Personal Upkeep

ZAMM notes: Our Relationship with Technology

“I suppose I forgot to say John is a musician, a drummer, who works with teams throughout city and makes a fairly truthful revenue from it. I suppose he simply thinks about the whole lot the way in which he thinks about drumming…which is to say he doesn’t actually give it some thought in any respect. He simply does it. Is with it. He simply responded to fixing his motorbike with a beer can the way in which he would reply to somebody dragging the beat whereas he was taking part in. It simply did a giant thud with him and that was it. He didn’t need any a part of it. ….

“He actually does care about expertise. It’s simply that on this different dimension he will get all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It simply received’t swing for him. He tries to swing it with none rational remeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches provides up and simply form of places a blanket curse on that entire nuts-and-bolts scene. He is not going to or can’t imagine there’s something on this world for which grooving will not be the way in which to go.” (p. 57)

Query: What do you repair your self and why? How does it change your relationship with expertise?

* fixing my bike

Caring in regards to the Work

ZAMM notes: Caring about the Work

“Whereas at work I used to be interested by this similar lack of care within the digital laptop manuals I used to be modifying. Writing and modifying technical manuals is what I do for a dwelling the opposite eleven months of the yr and I knew they had been filled with errors, ambiguities, omissions and data so utterly screwed up you needed to learn them six occasions to make any sense out of them. However what struck me for the primary time was the settlement of those manuals with the spectator perspective I had seen within the store. These had been spectator manuals. It was constructed into the format of them. Implicit in each line is the concept that “Right here is the machine, remoted in time and in area from the whole lot else within the universe. It has no relationship to you, you haven’t any relationship to it, apart from to show sure switches, preserve voltage ranges, verify for error situations—” and so forth. That’s it. The mechanics of their perspective towards the machine had been actually taking no completely different perspective from the guide’s towards the machine, or from the perspective I had after I introduced it in there. We had been all spectators. And it occurred to me there isn’t a guide that offers with the actual enterprise of motorbike upkeep, an important facet of all. Caring about what you might be doing is taken into account both unimportant or taken as a right.” (p. 34)

Query: How do you study to care in regards to the work you do? Do you actually care in regards to the code or documentation you’re creating? How are you going to care when you’re in spectator mode?

* Store mechanics ruining his engine
* dialog with Chris close to the tip, can he have a bike, sure, if he cares
* the narrator’s analysis of writing a 600 web page technical guide with no time
* associated: colleague does not like taking bike into store, says they do not repair it proper
* associated: my store expertise, low-quality elements, whole replacements, excessive prices. Bike restore teacher stated substitute is less complicated and quicker for bike outlets than restore. 100% confidence that substitute will repair the issue.

Peace of Thoughts

ZAMM notes: Peace of Mind

“So the factor to do when engaged on a bike, as in another job, is to domesticate the peace of thoughts which doesn’t separate one’s self from one’s environment. When that’s completed efficiently then the whole lot else follows naturally. Peace of thoughts produces proper values, proper values produce proper ideas. Proper ideas produce proper actions and proper actions produce work which shall be a cloth reflection for others to see of the serenity on the heart of all of it. “ (p. 294-97)

Query: Is that this the appropriate mode to realize to determine issues out? Is that this persistence and peace of thoughts what skilled technical employees possess?

* crucial to assembling the BBQ
* associated: Calm Meditation earlier than digging into some new huge function to doc. A lot of tech writing entails studying arduous, unfamiliar issues, swimming in developer area and different domains

Methods Considering

ZAMM notes: Systems Thinking

“The field “motorbike” comprises the packing containers “parts” and “features.” The field “parts” comprises the packing containers “energy meeting” and “operating meeting,” and so forth. There are various other forms of constructions produced by different operators akin to “causes” which produce lengthy chain constructions of the shape, “A causes B which causes C which causes D,” and so forth. A practical description of the motorbike makes use of this construction. The operator’s “exists,” “equals,” and “implies” produce nonetheless different constructions. These constructions are usually interrelated in patterns and paths so advanced and so huge nobody particular person can perceive greater than a small a part of them in his lifetime. The general title of those interrelated constructions, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and construction of causation are simply species, is system. The motorbike is a system. An actual system.” (p. 101-102)


  • Does deeper understanding, the sort that results in intuitive considering, require a methods view strategy first?
  • Ought to tech docs start with a excessive stage, or attempt to at all times peel again the excessive stage?
* understanding the engine and its elements
* associated: the Geo Developer Information and why the methods view is not extra sought out?
* associated: bike restore workshop on the Middle for Bicycle Restore

A number of Paths by way of a Drawback

ZAMM notes: Multiple Paths through a Problem

“These rotisserie directions start and finish completely with the machine. However the form of strategy I’m interested by doesn’t lower it off so narrowly. What’s actually angering about directions of this type is that they suggest there’s just one option to put this rotisserie collectively…their method. And that presumption wipes out all of the creativity. Really there are a whole bunch of how to place the rotisserie collectively and once they make you observe only one method with out displaying you the general drawback the directions turn out to be arduous to observe in such a method as to not make errors. You lose feeling for the work. And never solely that, it’s impossible that they’ve advised you one of the simplest ways.” (p. 163-67)


  • With docs, ought to we steer away from being prescriptive a few single strategy? Do novices want this? Does it do them a disservice in the long term?

  • Do docs introduce a fiction about the appropriate option to do issues? a technique of assembling one thing? issues happen when you add notes about a number of choices, versatile sequences, and many others. finally ends up requiring notes about tradeoffs, extra problem to judge and guarantee accuracy. however results in shallow person expertise.

* the barbecue meeting directions
* how tech docs get written — first interview with the obtainable engineer turns into the method


ZAMM notes: Troubleshooting

“However now contemplate the truth that regardless of how arduous you attempt to hold on to it, this stuckness is certain to vanish. Your thoughts will naturally and freely transfer towards an answer. Until you’re a actual grasp at staying caught you’ll be able to’t forestall this. The worry of stuckness is useless as a result of the longer you keep caught the extra you see the High quality…actuality that will get you unstuck each time.”

“Let’s contemplate a reevaluation of the scenario during which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all potential conditions, however the absolute best scenario you possibly can be in. In any case, it’s precisely this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to a lot hassle to induce; by way of koans, deep respiration, sitting nonetheless and the like. Your thoughts is empty, you’ve gotten a “hollow-flexible” perspective of “newbie’s thoughts.” You’re proper on the entrance finish of the practice of information, on the observe of actuality itself. Contemplate, for a change, that this can be a second to be not feared however cultivated. In case your thoughts is really, profoundly caught, then you could be significantly better off than when it was loaded with concepts.” (p. 285-86)

Query: Which of the gumption traps is essentially the most pervasive? How do you take away all assumptions and study to see one thing recent? Does having the appropriate instruments make an enormous distinction?

* Troubleshooting a caught screw; avoiding gumption traps
* associated: troubleshooting Docgen output, did not see configuration in service.yaml proper beneath our nostril
* associated: making an attempt to repair the hub axle with out having the appropriate cone wrench. now constructing a motorcycle store in my storage.
* associated: fixing unfastened axles, considering it is fastened, then realizing it isn’t. similar with adjusting barrel adjuster on derailleur — thought it was fastened, then realized I would distorted the cable rigidity and launched worse issues.

Being in-the-scene versus Eliminated

ZAMM notes: Being in-the-scene versus Removed

“You see issues vacationing on a bike in a method that’s utterly completely different from another. In a automobile you’re at all times in a compartment, and since you’re used to it you don’t understand that by way of that automobile window the whole lot you see is simply extra TV. You’re a passive observer and it’s all transferring by you boringly in a body. On a cycle the body is gone. You’re utterly involved with all of it. You’re within the scene, not simply watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by 5 inches under your foot is the actual factor, the identical stuff you stroll on, it’s proper there, so blurred you’ll be able to’t concentrate on it, but you’ll be able to put your foot down and contact it anytime, and the entire thing, the entire expertise, isn’t faraway from quick consciousness.” (p. 12)

Query: Is there an analogy to the person expertise right here? Buying and selling time between mental exploration and the person expertise?

* being on a bike as an alternative of a automobile; being within the open, uncooked components
* storms, chilly, warmth — feeling all of it
* associated: private expertise driving motorbike cross-country. soaking moist in storm, however then quickly dry afterwards. feeling the weather, visceral immersion in uncooked components.

The Street Journey

ZAMM notes: The Road Trip

“Until you’re keen on hollering you don’t make nice conversations on a operating cycle. As an alternative you spend your time being conscious of issues and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the temper of the climate and issues remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, interested by issues at nice leisure and size with out being hurried and with out feeling you’re shedding time.”

Query: Is there worth in occurring a street journey, particularly when you’ve gotten one thing to type out in your thoughts? what number of nice novels have been written with this journey paradigm? Kerouc’s On the Street? Can we have fun the automobile for its skill to supply us freedom on the street like this?

* alternative for reflection, sustained deep thought

Easy Motion, Going with the Move

ZAMM notes: Effortless Action, Going with the Flow

“Mountains needs to be climbed with as little effort as potential and with out want. The fact of your individual nature ought to decide the velocity. For those who turn out to be stressed, velocity up. For those who turn out to be winded, decelerate. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, once you’re now not considering forward, every footstep isn’t only a means to an finish however a singular occasion in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock appears to be like unfastened. From this place the snow is much less seen, despite the fact that nearer. These are issues you must discover anyway. To dwell just for some future objective is shallow. It’s the edges of the mountain which maintain life, not the highest. Right here’s the place issues develop. (p. 204)

Query: Is there a form of knowledge in adopting an strategy of easy motion, going with the stream? Taoist parable of falling into river, driving ebbs and stream to secure floor.

* the unstructured route, stream of their trip
* climbing the mountain
* associated: resisting strict objectives and timeboxes and as an alternative going with the stream and really feel of what you ought to be engaged on. way more stress-free. might be irritating to timebox your day for productiveness solely to seek out that life retains getting in the way in which.

Touring alongside the Backroads

ZAMM notes: Traveling along the Backroads

“It was some years in the past that my spouse and I and our associates first started to catch on to those roads. We took them occasionally for selection or for a shortcut to a different primary freeway, and every time the surroundings was grand and we left the street with a sense of rest and delight. We did this time after time earlier than realizing what ought to have been apparent: these roads are actually completely different from the primary ones. The entire tempo of life and character of the individuals who dwell alongside them are completely different. They’re not going wherever. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of issues is one thing they know all about. It’s the others, those who moved to the cities years in the past and their misplaced offspring, who’ve all however forgotten it. The invention was an actual discover. I’ve questioned why it took us so lengthy to catch on. We noticed it and but we didn’t see it. Or quite we had been skilled to not see it. Conned, maybe, into considering that the actual motion was metropolitan and all this was simply boring hinterland. It was a puzzling factor. The reality knocks on the door and also you say, ‘Go away, I’m searching for the reality,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.” (p. 13)

Presence within the Second

ZAMM notes: Presence in the Moment

“I really feel glad to be right here, and nonetheless somewhat unhappy to be right here too. Generally it’s somewhat higher to journey than to reach.” (p. 119)

Query: Can we a lot concentrate on the discharge quite than the method of writing/coding/constructing?

* higher to journey than to reach
* associated: what mindfulness means. avoiding the rabbithole of scattered considering, as an alternative specializing in the small print of the surroundings exterior of you. might be sport altering.
* The journey vs. the vacation spot


Web page references come from this model of *Zen and the Artwork of Motorbike Upkeep (Toronto ; New York :Bantam, 1975), which you’ll learn on-line right here. I truly learn this model, printed in 2005, but it surely was simpler to seek out quotes within the PDF.

Listed below are some scholarly sources offering a tech comm perspective on the guide:

  • “Exploring High quality: What Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Artwork of Motorbike Upkeep Can Educate Us About Technical Communication”. IEEE Transactions on Skilled Communication.

  • Beck, C. E. (1994). The Most Well-known But Uncommon Technical Author. Technical Communication, 41(2), 354–357.

This guide chapter offers historicaly context for the guide:

  • Williams, R. J. (2014). *The Buddha within the Machine : Artwork, expertise, and the assembly of east and west Yale College Press.

Right here’s a podcast I recorded with Dan Grabski on the guide and associated themes: Podcast: Tech writing and Zen and the Artwork of Motorbike Upkeep, with Dan Grabski.

Music from the podcast is from Simon Fowler’s Small Steps, retrieved from uppbeat.io.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I am an API technical author primarily based within the Seattle space. On this weblog, I write about matters associated to technical writing and communication — akin to software program documentation, API documentation, AI, info structure, content material technique, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and extra. Take a look at my API documentation course when you’re searching for extra data about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course part for extra on the most recent in AI and tech comm.

For those who’re a technical author and need to carry on prime of the most recent tendencies within the tech comm, make sure you subscribe to e mail updates under. You may also study extra about me or contact me. Lastly, notice that the opinions I specific on my weblog are my very own factors of view, not that of my employer.

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