Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and Entrepreneurship

In 1999 I spent a summer in Denmark taking a course in international business. As part of the class we were required to read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” While I don’t think Pirsig intended it, the book has many good lessons for entrepreneurs.

Supposedly, the book is about the “metaphysics of quality,” but I don’t see that at all. I’ve read it several times now and I am convinced the book is about a man that views the world as significantly different from the way others view it. He believes very strongly that he is right. He knows that he is smarter than most (I want to say his IQ was 170+), yet he feels an incredibly strong pull to just fit in. That’s the dilemma. Does he stand up for what he believes, or does he go with the flow to make his life easier?

The very premise of the book echoes a problem that most entrepreneurs face. They see something wrong in an industry. They see a way to improve a product or service, or a way to introduce a new business model to consumers. They believe strongly in their idea, but few others do. And of course, even if the idea is a good one the battle to bring it to market and survive can be painful. Established competitors will try to crush you with their money and power. Customers may not initially embrace your new idea because of the comfortable inertia of the status quo. Do you stand up for what you believe and launch the business, or do you go with the flow and stick with whatever makes your life simple and easy?

Pirsig struggles with this question throughout and never provides a solid answer. But that is okay, because he does provide some insight into how to determine the answer for yourself. What follows are things would-be entrepreneurs need to think about, and how they tie in with Pirsig’s ideas.

Focus – Zen is all about living in the moment – paying attention to the here and now. People sometimes think that it means you shouldn’t plan or save or think about the future, that you should go with your gut or live life spontaneously. That is wrong. It just means you should focus. If you are planning, focus on planning. If you are saving, focus on saving. Entrepreneurs need focus. Why? Because you have at least 147 things to do at any given moment, and you cannot possibly do them all.

People in startups usually work crazy hours because at that point, the people have more time than the company has money. If you have lots of money and something needs to be done, you hire someone. If you don’t have any money then someone already on staff has to do it, and that usually means coming in before nine and staying past five. Even then, you can’t get all of your things done. That is why you have to focus. You have to decide what is most important. This is hard for some people to accept. Some things will inevitably go undone, or be pushed off into the future in hopes they can be done at a later date. It is hard to let these things go, and sometimes they will sit there in the back of your mind, nagging you, until you acknowledge them. This is especially problematic when you have a certain task that is very important to you personally, but not that important to the goals of the business. Marketing people want to perfect the marketing when really they should be hiring staff. Finance people want to run some numbers when really they should be fixing quality issues in the product. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it is common for people to have trouble letting go of their pet tasks. Entrepreneurs can’t be distracted by that, though. You have to be ruthless with your attention. Focus like a zen master.

Seek others opinions, but with a grain of salt. Don’t change course unless you really believe you need to. Don’t do it just because other people think you need to. You know your business better than anyone else. Listen to yourself. Otherwise, you will end up like feeling like Pirsig when he wrote “what i am is a heretic who’s recanted, and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.”

Don’t get comfortable. Pirsig makes a great point when he writes “what makes the world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness. Familiarity can blind you too.” If you have ever started a business, there is a very good chance that your product or service was very different one year later. That is fine. It’s actually very common. When you have an initial idea, there is much to learn to take it to market. During the process, you can incorporate new information to tweak it a bit. After your initial launch, your competitors may decide to provide similar offerings and you might have to tweak your again. All these tweaks can add up to substantial change. Don’t be afraid of them. If you get too comfortable and start cruising, you will miss out on the tweaks you need to make.

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Do the grunt work if you have to. After describing some things about a motorcycle problem Pirsig notes that “The first things to be observed about this description is so obvious you have to hold it down or it will drown out every other obersvation. This is: It is just duller than ditchwater…Few romantics get beyond that point. But if you can hold down that most obvious observation, some other things can be noticed that do not at first appear.” Some people want to be an entrepreneur because it seems glamorous. They want to tell their friends they have their own business. Don’t be that stupid. Entrepreneurs that are in it for the romance refuse to do the boring stuff, but sometimes it has to be done (particularly in the early days when money is tight). Planning and strategy and team building is all great fun, but when push comes to shove you have to ship products (or perform services), and those things don’t get it done. Yes, it can be boring. You have to suck it up. But doing so is beneficial because it helps you “feel” the business at the most basic levels. You can learn a lot from that experience that you can turn around and apply at the higher levels too.

Do it for the love of the game. Pirsig writes about higher levels of thought…“Few people travel here. There’s no real profit to be made from wandering through it, yet like this high country of the material world all around us, it has its own austere beauty that to some people make the hardships of traveling through it seem worthwhile.” Pirsig encourages people to think because it is enjoyable. And really, that is why you should become an entrepreneur – because you enjoy it. Most entrepreneurs never get rich. Most work WAY more than corporate types (often for less money), but it’s a work that is filled with passion and emotion and can be much more rewarding than anything else you have ever done. It can even be addictive.

Do it for the love of the game. Yes, I’m saying it twice because it is important. Pirsig writes that “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” In other words, enjoy the ride, enjoy the process, enjoy being an entrepreneur. If you only enjoy being rich and you see entrepreneurship simply as a path to get there, you will probably fail.

Don’t worry about getting stuck. It can be a good thing. Evelyn Rodriguez explains it much better than I can.

Develop gumption. Pirsig writes that “The gumption filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it.” Unfortunately, gumption is in short supply these days.

As I said at the beginning, this book isn’t supposed to be about entrepreneurship, but it turns out to be useful for entrepreneurs because it is about something deeper – the challenges of life. And nowhere are they more manifest than when you are on your own starting up.