If you haven’t read the Robert Pirsig classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you are missing out on some great classic philosophy that can be applied to many different aspects of your life. I’m lucky that Curagami CTO Jarrod Swart decided to recommend it to me recently.

This morning I was thinking about a specific section and how much it reminds me of digital marketing and all the BS that surrounds it. Things like “Best Time To Post” and “Headlines Should Have 7 Words” or even articles that will tell you the right way to behave on Twitter.

Following Instructions

correct assemblyAbout halfway through the book, the main character is talking with an old friend (a college professor) who was struggling with assembly instructions for an outdoor barbecue rotisserie…

While I’m describing some of the agonies of misinterpretation that bad cross-referencing can produce, I’ve a feeling that this isn’t why DeWeese found them so hard to understand. It’s just the lack of smoothness and continuity which threw him off. He’s unable to comprehend things when they appear in the ugly, chopped-up, grotesque sentence style common to engineering and technical writing. Science works with chunks and bits and pieces of things with the continuity presumed, and DeWeese works only with the continuities of things with the chunks and bits and pieces presumed. What he really wants me to damn is the lack of artistic continuity, something an engineer couldn’t care less about.

It hangs up, really, on the classic-romantic split, like everything else about technology. But Chris, meanwhile, takes the instructions and folds them around in a way I hadn’t thought of so that the illustration sits there right next to the text. I double-take this, then triple-take it and feel like a movie cartoon character who has just walked beyond the edge of a cliff but hasn’t fallen yet because he hasn’t realized his predicament.

I nod, and there’s silence, and then I realize my predicament, then a long laughter as I pound Chris on the top of the head all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. When the laughter subsides, I say, “Well, anyway—” but the laughter starts all over again. “What I wanted to say,” I finally get in, “is that I’ve a set of instructions at home which open up great realms for the improvement of technical writing. They begin, ‘Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.’ ” This produces more laughter, but Sylvia and Gennie and the sculptor give sharp looks of recognition.

Peace of Mind

car troubleThe first thing that Pirsig mentions is obvious, and we’ve all bumped into it when we work with or around people who “don’t get it”. As the scene continues to unfold, a deeper way of thinking about the world – or just digital marketing – is revealed.

“That’s a good instruction,” the sculptor says. Gennie nods too. “That’s kind of why I saved it,” I say.

“At first I laughed because of memories of bicycles I’d put together and, of course, the unintended slur on Japanese manufacture. But there’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.”

John looks at me apprehensively. I look at him with equal apprehension. We both laugh. He says, “The professor will now expound.”

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”

Getting to Your Best

peace of mindIf you’re skimming this article, re-read that last paragraph and think about that for a minute. How many times have you looked back at something you worked on right after a fight with a co-worker, or too late at night, or rushing to meet a deadline – was it your best work?

“It’s an unconventional concept,” I say, “but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

DeWeese asks, “What if the machine is wrong and I feel peaceful about it?”

I reply, “That’s self-contradictory. If you really don’t care you aren’t going to know it’s wrong. The thought’ll never occur to you. The act of pronouncing it wrong’s a form of caring.”

I add, “What’s more common is that you feel unpeaceful even if it’s right, and I think that’s the actual case here. In this case, if you’re worried, it isn’t right. That means it isn’t checked out thoroughly enough. In any industrial situation a machine that isn’t checked out is a ‘down’ machine and can’t be used even though it may work perfectly. Your worry about the rotisserie is the same thing. You haven’t completed the ultimate requirement of achieving peace of mind, because you feel these instructions were too complicated and you may not have understood them correctly.”

DeWeese asks, “Well, how would you change them so I would get this peace of mind?”

“That would require a lot more study than I’ve just given them now. The whole thing goes very deep. These rotisserie instructions begin and end exclusively with the machine. But the kind of approach I’m thinking about doesn’t cut it off so narrowly. What’s really angering about instructions of this sort is that they imply there’s only one way to put this rotisserie together…their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity. Actually there are hundreds of ways to put the rotisserie together and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem the instructions become hard to follow in such a way as not to make mistakes. You lose feeling for the work. And not only that, it’s very unlikely that they’ve told you the best way.”

“But they’re from the factory,” John says.

The Factory

factory workersThis is my favorite part of this chapter. It’s John’s reply, “They’re from the factory.”

We’re all looking for someone or something to set our guideposts and guard rails for us. When we find someone who says something we are comfortable with, we nod in agreement and then relax – we can stop thinking, stop questioning, stop testing.

“I’m from the factory too,” I say “and I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tells you…that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.” They all look surprised. “I might have known,” DeWeese says.

“It’s the format,” I say. “No writer can buck it. Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is. And when you presume there’s just one right way to do things, of course the instructions begin and end exclusively with the rotisserie. But if you have to choose among an infinite number of ways to put it together then the relation of the machine to you, and the relation of the machine and you to the rest of the world, has to be considered, because the selection from many choices, the art of the work is just as dependent upon your own mind and spirit as it is upon the material of the machine. That’s why you need the peace of mind.”

“Actually this idea isn’t so strange,” I continue. “Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

“Sounds like art,” the instructor says.

“Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”

So tell me, are you an artist or an instruction follower?

Marty Riff

Phil’s post is so important I’m going to pick up on some of the lines he draws. The difference between artist and instruction follower is so profound. One has a future one doesn’t.

Yet our systems are remained geared to produce instruction followers. Artists are seen as disruptive threats. People who don’t fit in:

Who “fits in” anymore?

Seth Godin’s book We are All Weird: The Myth of Mass and the End of Compliance is one of my favorite “fast reads”. Chris Brogan picked up with Seth’s book left off with his recent book The Freaks Shall Inherit the earth.

Great books you should read, but they miss the PAIN and anguish such a journey implies. I wish Godin and Brogan were in charge of the world’s pace of change. They are not.

How do I know this? I’ve always been a “freak” or “disruptive person” and have the battle scares to prove it. The world wants you, me and everyone we know to sit down and shut up.

Brogan and Godin live on top of a mountain. They get to be themselves and get paid. Godin’s first disruption was sold to Yahoo for millions allowing him to move his disruptive ways to publishing. Brogan’s writing and speaking scaled the mountain too.

Below the summit artists aren’t treated nearly so well. In the trenches businesses, the government and educators just want YOU to sit down and shut up. They PAY Godin thousands to preach one thing even as they plan to crush every idea he stands for (lol).

I’m being dramatic for effect, but not inaccurate. I’ve been accused of being pugnacious and overly sensitive. That may be true coming as it does after a lifetime of fighting for validity, legitimacy and an honest evaluation.

When I purchased a computer with $5,000 I didn’t have in 1981 (dual disk drive IBM PC with 640k of ram) senior managers at M&M/Mars wondered why I was “playing” with a “toy”. When I was promoted to M&M’s national office to work on the S.M.A.R.T. system half of my job was evangelizing technologies sales and marketing benefits. I would judge my strike rate at around 25%.

25% of the audience was curious and wanted to know more. 25% were opposed and ready do condemn and stop the future as if such a thing is possible. 50% were confused but willing to listen to a story.

You MUST Become An Artist

What Godin and Brogan won’t tell you is how devastating the “artist” journey can become. Life on top of the mountain with its pristine infinite views wipes memory of what it took to get there clean.

The good news is you will live in FREAKIER times than me. Startups, apps and questioning “authority” has made enough people (Godin and Brogan among them) wealthy some of the “kill ’em on sight” reactions are being calmed. Some, but not all of pain is being removed.

BETTER doesn’t mean zero. When Phil and I created Curagami I was shocked at how much “sit down and shut up” or “you don’t have permission” BS exists in startups. Don’t be fooled by the “We Need Rebels” banner flying outside, some companies are mean, stupid and sweatshops even if there is a foosball table and a “cool company culture”.

The real test of any company’s ability to support and incorporate artists is how they treat rebels. If rebels are venerated, sought out and listened to WORK THERE. If talk doesn’t match walk RUN.

You MUST become an artist and understand everything that statement means such as:

  • You will be rejected more (and I mean YOU personally not just your ideas).
  • When you aren’t understood many people will ATTACK (avoid these people if at all possible).
  • You NEED a support system of other artists (not to complain to as much as learn from).
  • You must be MORE confident than most so WORK OUT and keep yourself in shape (great cheap source of confidence).
  • Don’t ever JUST do your core competence. RISK regularly and get toasted intellectually regularly (keeps you humble and honest).
  • Create something every damn day.

It doesn’t matter WHAT you do, become an artist by making anything you do art as described so well in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and by my great partner Phil Buckley.