Pirsig’s Gumptionology 101

Because with great power comes great respronsitrillitrance


Gumption describes exactly what happens to someone when they connect with quality … they get filled with gumption. A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things, he is at the front of the train of his own awareness watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. The gumption filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see, feel and hear the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. In climbing and other physical pursuits, gumption is akin to “flow state”.

An adequate supply of Gumption is the first and most important tool. Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there is no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it, there is absolutely no way in the world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed … it’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all time and preserved above anything else is gumption.

Gumption Traps

There are innumerable kinds of gumption traps. Essentially anything that can cause one to lose sight of quality and thus lose ones enthusiasm for what one is doing.

There are two main types of gumption traps:

  1. Setbacks – When you are thrown off the quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances
  2. Hang-ups? – When you are thrown off the quality track by conditions that arise within yourself

Examples of Setbacks (External)

The Out-of-Sequence Reassembly Setback. This typically rears its ugly head right when you think you have it all just about done. You begin the reassembly and then notice a part that was left out. Everything has to come apart again, and this is a major gumption trap. This can require a substantial rest period to re-gain gumption (Pirsig jokes a duration of a month)


  1. Notebook used to write down order of disassembly and note anything worthwhile for reassembly later on. Notes should pay attention to left hand and right hand, and up and down orientations, and color coding and conditions of wires.
  2. Newspapers opened out on the floor of the garage with all the parts laid out left to right and top to bottom in order of disassembly.


  1. Gumption can be salvaged by the knowledge that information may have been gained and that the second assembly will be quicker/cleaner.

The Intermittent Failure Setback. The thing that is wrong becomes right just as you start to fix it. Electrical shorts often fit into this category due to things bouncing around as you ride. As soon as you stop things are okay. All you can really do it try to get things to go wrong again. These become gumption traps when they fool you into thinking you have the thing fixed.


  1. Wait a descent amount of time before assuming things are fixed (few hundred miles using the motorcycle example).


  • Actually more of a gumption trap to the owner who has to take the problem to professionals again and again than to those who struggle through the process themselves, due to knowledge they will gain. You will be more prepared to work on it when the intermittent occurs than professionals.
  • Be mentally prepared for a long fishing expedition

The Parts Setback. The price of the parts are often jacked up due to you not being a commercial mechanic. Also the part might not fit. It is always a major gumption trap to spend the money only to get home and learn that the part you just purchased will not work.


  1. Know your suppliers, know who is most helpful. Get to know them on a first name basis.
  2. Keep an eye out for price cutters.
  3. Always take the old part with you to prevent getting the wrong part.
  4. Take along machinist calipers with you to be sure you have precise measurements and can compare.
  5. If you have the time, money, and patience, learn to machine your own parts.


  • The work of machining your own parts becomes gumption building.

Examples of Hang-ups (Internal)

Value Traps – Those that block effective understanding, the largest and most dangerous group of hang-ups. Generally best to recognize value traps when you are in them and to work on getting through trap before proceeding with work on your project.

Value Rigidity – Most widespread of value traps. If your values are rigid you cannot learn new facts.


  1. Slow down deliberately to go over ground you have gone over before to verify that the things you thought were important are really important. Just stare at the machine and be interested.
  2. Chase nibbles when fishing. Go from motorcycle mechanic to motorcycle scientist.
  3. Check your ego at the door … be humble. If you have to, fake modesty.


  • Often shows up in pre-mature diagnosis. Have to clear your head of old assumptions.
    • We pre-select what we think has value meaning for our problem and ignore the rest.
    • Example of South Indian Monkey Trap, monkey values rice over life, trapped by its value rigidity. Stop yanking and stare at the coconut.

Anxiety – So sure you will do everything wrong you are often afraid to do anything at all.


  1. Work out your anxieties on paper.
  2. Read every book and magazine you can on the subject.
  3. You are chasing piece of mind.
  4. Organize things.
  5. Avoid fidgety things that can create more problems later on.


  • Results from over-motivation, can leads to all kind of errors of excessive fussiness. Jump to conclusions and chase all kinds of errors.
  • It’s okay to make mistake, take solace in the fact that you are least getting an education.

BoredomNot seeing things freshly and lost your beginners mind.Opposite of anxiety, commonly goes with ego problems.


  1. When you are bored … STOP! Go to a show, take a nap, call it a day, turn on TV.
  2. Sleep. It is easy to sleep when you are bored, and hard to be bored when you are well-rested.
  3. Keep a cup of coffee at the ready.
  4. Turn boring jobs into rituals … reacquaint yourself with the familiar.


  • If you press on through boredom you are inviting the BIG mistake.
  • If coffee and rest don’t help you might be suffering from deeper quality problems.  

Impatience – Close to boredom, caused by underestimation for amount of time a job will take.  


  1. If possible allow an indefinite amount of time for the job, especially for unfamiliar work.
  2. Value flexibility … overall goals must be scaled down in importance, and immediate goals must be scaled up.


  • Cleaning up shop is a good example of a scaled down goal. Helps you scale down impatience by helping you find what you are looking for.  

Truth Traps – When the context of your question is too small for nature’s answers.


  1. When your answer to a test is indeterminate that means that either your tests aren’t doing what you think they are or that your understanding of the context of the question needs to be enlarged.
  2. Do not throw away Mu answers. They are every bit as vital (or more so) than yes or no answers.


  • Strong statement could be made that science grows more by its Mu (non-discrete) answers more than its yes or no answers.
  • Yes or no answers confirm or deny hypothesis. Mu is beyond the hypothesis.

Muscle Traps – Those that block psycho-motor behavior. 


  1. Buy good tools. Good second hand tools are better than inferior new ones.
  2. Bad surroundings fall into this as well. Make sure you have adequate lighting, heat, air, etc.
  3. Avoid out of position work when possible.
  4. Take the time to insure you do not damage things while working on the problem. Handle precision parts gently.
  5. Take more time.


  • Primary example is inadequate tools. Muscular insensitivity is another example (bull in china shop).

All in all Pirsig’s outline of gumption traps provide a shortcut to living life. His intention is that if we are aware of the traps that we fall into, and in some cases the underlying cause of those traps, that we can more easily address them, climb out of them, move on and grow. As we get more comfortable and familiar with that process we improve our quality and the snowball continues to roll and grow.

Notes: Watch out for gumption desperation, where you hurry up wildly in an effort to restore gumption to make up for lost time. That just creates more mistakes. Know when to take a long break from your projects.

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