Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

A report on quality

“Never give up”. Unfortunately, this is an advice that most people will never follow. But some people think different, they believe so much in what they do that giving up is not even an option. This seems to be the case of Robert Pirsig, author of the famous book Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was first published in 1974. Since its launch, the book has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and became available in 23 different languages. But this success didn’t come easy, the book was rejected 121 times before its first publication — more rejections than any other best-seller — according to the Guinness Book Of Records. The world should be thankful for Pirsig’s persistence.

This book can be defined as an autobiography since it’s based on actual occurrences. However, as mentioned by the author, much has changed for rhetorical purposes. According to Pirsig, during a interview to BBC, the very first thing that he wrote was its title. Maybe that’s the reason why the book is not exactly about Zen Buddhism or motorcycles either, but it uses both topics to talk about life’s meaning and his favorite topic: “quality”.

Although quality is the main topic of the book, it is not the only topic. I believe that If a book can be summarized successfully, then the book is not necessary. An article should be enough. This is not the case of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a very deep, complex and beautiful book, with so many insights that can and should be applied by any one in any field in order to build a better life.

With that said, the purpose of this report is not to summarize the book, but to talk about some of its amazing ideas and how they can help building great products and brands with it.

The Classic vs Romantic Duality

One of the biggest ideas in ZAMM (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is the understanding that the world is a system divided into two opposite polarities, that represent completely different ways of being. One polarity is called “Classic” and the other “Romantic”:

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance…The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate…The classic mode, by contrast proceeds by reason and by laws…Although motorcycle ride is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”

This duality is still “common” more than 40 years after the book was written, and the majority of people and products seem to still be living in this dual reality, tending to one opposite side or the other. But the fact that it is “common” doesn’t mean that it is natural. As Pirsig mentions:

“This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long that you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated…At present we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there’s no rational format for any understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts … thin art … because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly. The time for real reunification of art and technology is really long overdue…”.

The split between art and technology, mentioned above, is one of the best illustrations of this “classic vs romantic” duality. In the book art is defined as “…the Godhead as revealed in the works of man…”, and technology “…is simply the making of things…”. By definition, they seem to be different things, but in reality they are just parts of the same thing and should never be separated:

“Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant art. The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them”.

This duality may sound right because we are so used to it, but it is wrong. The point is that this separation is actually the cause of lack of harmony in the world, or “ugliness” if you will.

I believe that this “ugliness” can be interpreted in many ways, it’s not just ugly products, it’s ugly results to society, environment pollution, unsustainable growth, crazy consumerism. Art without technique is ugly; technique without art is also ugly; functional products without design are ugly; great design without a good functionality is meaningless and therefore ugly; a great product without branding is boring and a great brand without a good product is a lie. The list goes on and on, and one of the goals of Pirsig with ZAMM is to find peace of mind by handling this technological “ugliness”.

The Solution

In the beginning of the book the author states that it should in no way be associated with that great body of information related to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. However, his solution to ugliness presented in the book seems very close to the “middle path” to enlightenment followed by Buddhists.

This “middle path” is the union of both sides and it should never be a result of a trade-off. In other words, it shouldn’t be “a little bit of design” combined with “a little bit of functionality”. It shouldn’t be prioritizing profit above all things and then investing 1% of your profit in a separate social cause just to look good. It shouldn’t be making a beautiful design to cover your ugly car motor. This is what the author calls “styling” and it is far from Quality.

So what is Quality? The author spends a good deal of his time trying to define it, but in order to simplify:

Quality = Harmony = Excellence = Worth = Goodness

As mentioned in the book:

“…one can meditate on the fact that the old english roots for Buddha and Quality, God and good, appear to be identical.”

In other words, Quality is transcending this duality of “classic vs. romantic” aiming the product “enlightenment”, a place where this duality isn’t present any more and you can really have both things in a good way.

With that said, the question that naturally arises is: “Ok, but how?”. The first step is the understanding that quality is a internal work, that the real cycle you should work on is the cycle called “yourself”.

The second step is to “cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through”. This inner quietness is the way to be able to see what looks good, understand the reasons why it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds.

The final and most important step is to care about what you do, and in order to really care you must feel that you are one with what you are doing. Pirsig puts it beautifully:

“One says of him that he is “interested” in what he’s doing, that he’s “involved” in his work. What produces this involvement is, at the cutting edge of consciousness, an absence of any sense of separateness of subject and object. “Being with it,” “being a natural,” “taking hold”… the idea of a duality of self and object doesn’t dominate one’s consciousness. When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to “care” about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing. When one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.”

A case study from the headphone market

The headphone market is great to talk about quality and the “classic vs. romantic” duality. For this case study I’ve chosen three of the biggest brands available on the market: Sennheiser; Beats and Bose. For each brand a specific model of headphone was picked, all of them were on the price range of US$ 300.00 and therefore, direct competitors. The models are listed below:

  • Beats Studio 2.0 OverEar
  • Bose QuietComfort 25
  • Sennheiser HD 600

On the pure “romantic” side there is Beats, a “hip” product with amazing branding, great design and available in more than ten colors. However, regarding the sound, it has a mediocre performance, making many specialists call it a “lie”.

On the pure “classic” side there is Sennheiser. Many specialists consider it to be one of the best sounding headphones of all time. The sound performance is close to perfection. On the other hand, due to the lack of branding and design, it can be viewed as an old and “square” headphone. In other words, it doesn’t make you feel cool and proud by wearing it because it lacks the romantic/branding side.

Finally between the two brands there is Bose. Their product has a good sound performance, and “ok” branding & design. It is available in three colors and comes in a beautiful case. In many ways It seems to be following the “middle path” to Quality, but it’s not, because it still in the “dual” reality (they chose the trade-off of having some design combined with some sound performance) and many consider it a “boring” product.

The chart above shows how the three brands are related. The X axis represents the level of technological performance, and the Y axis represents the branding/design performance level.

One can defend the fact that this is just the positioning of the brand and that there is market available for the different positions. It’s true that there is market available for all three brands and they all can be considered successful, specially now that the the whole market of headphones in growing fast. However, in order to create a real breakthrough, to compete in the famous and desired “blue ocean”, it is necessary to transcend this duality. In practical terms, the goal is to combine Sennheiser’s functionality and sound performance with Beats’ branding and design, all in the same product.

This combination is much easier when you are able develop a new product concept, in this case you can start with quality as your primarily intention, including it in the “DNA” of you product. In order to do so, you start with why, being very clear on what you believe as a company and why do you care about it. This first step is critical, because as mentioned in ZAMM, caring is the inverse side of Quality. Then, after that, you can work on the how you are going to differentiate, and on what you will offer to the market. The point here is that when you have a strong enough “reason why”, you can always find a way to a Quality “how” and “what”.

It is definitely not easy to achieve this quality sweet spot, but it is possible because some people have made it, and when this happens the world is changed.

Success Cases

One proof that it is possible to achieve this Quality spot is Steve Jobs. Although is difficult to find a direct mention from Jobs about reading ZAMM, it seems clear that he’s read it and based his business philosophy on it. As he said during the iPad launch in 2011:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes or hearts sing…”.

Through Job’s leadership Apple’s changed the world by building products that combined art & technology; branding/design & functionality; in a way to achieve real quality. Steve really understood the meaning of quality.

Steve Jobs speach during the iPad launch in 2011

Another entrepreneur who really understands quality is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Yvon was able to build an amazing brand, that on the romantic side is good to environment and the society, looks really good in terms of design and makes people feel really proud of using it; and on the classic side has great functional products that are made to last for life. This is basically an “Enlighted” brand and definitely a benchmark for many.


The world needs entrepreneurs who really understand quality in order to make it a better place, that’s why I think the venture capitalist Brad Feld is absolutely right when the says in his blog that every entrepreneur should read Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I personally believe that a life without quality is not worth living. As Charles Wright used to sing “whatever you do, do it good”. Do what you really believe, and care about what you do. That’s how you build great products, great lives and make a difference in the world.

“…Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with…and they are all, sooner or later, dull…and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves…My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved… I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource…individual worth…We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do.”

In the end, there seems to be no real way to Quality, because Quality is the way.

This report was originally published for a graded project at Stanford Continuing Studies.

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