ZAMM’s Practical Advice from the Philosophical – Gumption and its Traps

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the 1973 classic of philosophy, is filled with profound and practical observations on all manner of our relationships with being. These reflections and revelations are so numerous, and so useful, that to attempt to condense them into one blog does not do the book or ourselves any favors. I propose the objective is to use the book as a guide to live a better life. If that is the case, then it makes sense to break these useful and edifying concepts down into usable bits. This blog addresses the notion of “Gumption”, the drive that keeps us working productively toward our goals, while always keeping us oriented toward the “Good”. This includes a brief overview of Quality, a discussion of gumption and it’s barriers or “traps”, and what are the remedies. Endeavors of all sorts should be approached with the Zen “beginner’s mind” – an open and fresh outlook, or as they say in psychodynamic circles – without memory or desire.

The narrator of ZAMM presents much of his philosophical reflections in the form of written “Chautauquas” – which were sort of travelling Ted Talks of a bygone era “to inform and edify”. This blog is derived from the “Gumption Chautauqua” in chapter 25.


Quality is the sort of dynamic underlying pattern that can be detected as what is Good. Some ways to point the finger at the moon: it is the bridge between Science and Art. It is the sense of value that emerges between your purpose and the environment. It tells the right direction to go. It is the purposeful and right track of a well-constructed train of classical knowledge (roughly science, forms) led on the track of Quality by romantic knowledge (roughly art, aesthetic).


This quaint, old-fashioned word aptly describes a real-world application of Quality and how it guides the orientation towards value. It is the “psychic gasoline’ that keeps the endeavor going. When someone taps into Quality, they are “filled with gumption”:

A person filled with gumption does not does not sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He is in front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption

Gumption, however, can get stuck or disappear altogether through “gumption traps”, things that force you off the track of Quality. These are what lead to frustration, anger and just wanting to give up. They can be “setbacks” – external/environmental problems, or (using 70’s terminology “hang ups”, internal problems.

External problems, setbacks, are pretty obvious. When forces beyond your control come between you and your goal, there is not much you can do, especially if you are pushing yourself to tackle something particularly difficult, or which you are still learning and are lacking previous experience. The remedies to “setback” generally involve slowing down, rather than hurrying up to make up for the time you’ve lost. In this way, you can often solve the problem with a clearer vision – or realize you have to start again. A way to prevent this trap, or at least reduce its likelihood, is to try to be as organized as you can. Setbacks often go hand in hand with paid employment, so it’s important to somehow acknowledge that the pressure of “deadlines” or leaving the office sooner rather than later will likely be undermining.

The second category of gumption traps, “hang ups“,  venture into the category of self-improvement and the more “spiritual’ realm. These traps can be divided in seemingly infinite ways, but Pirsig puts these hang ups into three categories: value traps, which block affective understanding, truth traps, which block cognitive understanding, and muscle traps, which involve your bodily relationship to the problem.

Value traps

These occur when you have a set idea of how something should be. Facts are infinite, so your present value creates the facts you see. You see facts, but you don’t see all of them, because you are stuck in an old value system. This is a time to drop your idea of the way things “should” be, and deal with what is. An example of this sort of barrier is the South Indian Monkey Trap, in which a monkey can stick it’s hand into a trap and grab rice within, but can’t pull both it’s hand and the rice out. If it wants to escape capture, it must temporarily drop the value system that puts food at the top of the value hierarchy and relinquish the handful rice. The remedy is again, reminiscent of the Zen vein that runs throughout the book, is to pause deliberately and allow new facts to emerge.

Value traps are perpetuated by sub-traps including ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience traps. These will all be familiar to all of us, and need to be observed and remedied if you want to reconnect with Quality and get back on track.

  • Ego – If your ego is tied up in your endeavor, and if the subtext of your goal is to somehow bolster your positive vision of yourself, or that your successful accomplishment will be highly regarded by others, you will get stuck quickly in a value trap. A high estimation of yourself weakens the ability to recognize new facts. You won’t admit your mistakes and will become defensive. If you aren’t naturally modest, fake it until you make it. This is a tool in lieu of true beginner’s mind. Assume you don’t know what you’re doing and let the emerging facts prove otherwise, which some won’t and some will.
  • Anxiety – this is a trap many of us know well. Anxiety can arrest your desire to do anything at all, and can masquerade as laziness. This stems from a desire not to err. The remedy is to educate yourself to the best of your ability on how to reach your goal. The act of educating yourself is both distracting and compelling, so is anxiety reducing in itself. Education always increases confidence and interest in any project.
  • Boredom: You aren’t seeing things freshly. Your Zen beginner’s mind has become jaded. This is a setup for mistakes. Stop what you’re doing and do something else for a while. Sleep and caffeine can be remedies as well. For Pirsig, the most boring task is cleaning the motorcycle. But using this tedious chore as an opportunity to reacquaint himself with the parts and the whole, it was infused with interest.
  • Impatience: If you underestimate the time it will take you to achieve your goal, impatience and eventually anger will easily set in. It is common to underestimate time, so internalize this and don’t fall into the habit of telling yourself or others in giving rigid time frames when at all possible. Immediate goals may have to take precedence over long-term goals, which is a value trap compromise that must sometimes be made. Organization, again, is a time-saver.

Truth Traps

When a Zen monk was asked, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” the monk replied “mu” – “no thing”; there is no answer. You are not asking the right question. If a question cannot be answered with a yes or no, a zero or one, un-ask the question. You now need to “think outside the box”. The content of the question needs to be enlarged. It is obvious all computer data is zero and one. Oh really? What about when it’s turned off? MU! Your answer is beyond the question.

Muscle Traps

These include inadequate tools, and bad surroundings. Make sure your work environment is optimal as can be achieved. This might include adequate lighting, temperature, a bad chair, too hot or cold etc. This also includes practice. If what you are working on requires some degree of dexterity, you may have to develop a “feel” for what you are doing.


So, if you solve all the gumption traps, the track to your goal is clear and all you have to do is drive the train, right? Not really. If you don’t live in Quality at other times in your life, what makes you think you can automatically evoke the remedies and the beginner’s mind just when you are goal-driven? This really is the crux of the whole Chautauqua. Ultimately, the real train you are driving, the real motorcycle you are maintaining, is the cycle of yourself. Your environment and yourself, in very Eastern terms, is one and the same. “They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together”. Ultimately, the highest goal is to live a Quality Existence. The remedies for the barriers to Quality are not just ways to solve problems, setbacks and hangups; they are also spiritual “practice”.

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