‘Love’ is quality. Art directed by Design Kompany’s boss-man, now a charming 4.
‘What is quality?’ asks Robert Pirsig, relentlessly, in his masterful book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Twelve years after making an attempt to start Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’ve just finished it.
It didn’t “do anything” for me in my early 20s, but I am glad this time I got through to the end. (It wouldn’t “do anything” for me now if I hadn’t.) But “quality” is the theme I set for January for Kismuth, my forthcoming book project’s email community.
Delving into the heart of it, that’s significant. Only on the deep insides of a thing do you find its true nature, its quality. Lessons learned with widsom, right?
Back in my 20s, nonplussed, I’d simply stayed on ZAMM’s surface, wondering things like if my laundry was done or who was cooking noodles Thursday. But all this time later, things are different. I’m not so concerned about the day to day stuff. I want to know about things that are meaningful.
So this time, reading along, I focused.
And then, I cried.
(I always do this when things are extremely good. Dali’s Dream, Michelangelo’s David. Crater Lake. And now, ZAMM.)
This is the passage that evoked the tears:
Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau: “You never gain something but that you lose something.” And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost.
He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth—but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it. —Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The wind beneath a Carolina blue sky
Minutes after feeling the bubbling up of that thing, that gut response to a thing that so plainly makes clear what is in your own heart, well, I felt strangely lightheaded. I had to get out of the apartment.
So I set the volume down on the kitchen, um, desk. (It’s not a table. It’s a desk.)
I put ZAMM there, gently, and then, I went for a walk. Around Duke’s east campus.
On a well-loved and worn route that goes in more or less a square, where you can join that current of joggers, strollers, walkers, students, after-work groups, families and other people just about any time of day or evening.
That’s what I wanted to do.
Get near humanity.
Be somewhere I knew well, again.
You Can’t Go Home Again, wrote Asheville literary great Thomas Wolfe. Another brilliant, giant book. Yet the tall trees and the broad sunlight remind me that North Carolina is, in fact, home, and I’m happy to look up at the lines the branches make on the Carolina blue skies, to see if something is there that I missed the last time around.
That’s how it was that two hours passed. I walked and walked, turning over in my mind the great revelation of how it came about that all the muck is here, things like plastic bags strewn about, or discarded Big Gulp cups in styrofoam broken on the sidewalk to the park, or the lack of attention to the care of shrubs and plants and children. It’s so easy to fall into it. The trap. The one that says, follow the herd, make the most money, don’t worry about compromising your soul along the way…
Another passage from ZAMM:
His four hours of sleep have dwindled down to two and then to nothing. It is all over. He will not be going back to the study of Aristotelian rhetoric. Neither will he return to the teaching of that subject. It is over. He begins to walk the streets, his mind spinning.
The city closes in on him now, and in his strange perspective it becomes the antithesis of what he believes. The citadel not of Quality, the citadel of form and substance. Substance in the form of steel sheets and girders, substance in the form of concrete piers and roads, in the form of brick, of asphalt, of auto parts, old radios, and rails, dead carcasses of animals that once grazed the prairies. Form and substance without Quality. That is the soul of this place. Blind, huge, sinister and inhuman: seen by the light of fire flaring upward in the night from the blast furnaces in the south, through heavy coal smoke deeper and denser into the neon of BEER and PIZZA and LAUNDROMAT signs and unknown and meaningless signs along straight streets going off into other straight streets forever.
If it was all bricks and concrete, pure forms of substance, clearly and openly, he might survive. It is the little, pathetic attempts at Quality that kill. The plastic false fireplace in the apartment, shaped and waiting to contain a flame that can never exist. Or the hedge in front of the apartment building with a few square feet of grass behind it. A few square feet of grass, after Montana. If they just left out the hedge and grass it would be all right. Now it serves only to draw attention to what has been lost. —Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Where is the emptiness coming from?
We’re scurrying about in a materialistic, feeling-free world.
We have our daily grind, we buy the next generation of any electronic gadget we can afford, we consume television mindlessly, and we otherwise numb ourselves with addictive drugs, bad sex, and worse alcohol. Where does that lead us? Czech economist Tomáš Sedláček says modern times in developed countries lead to mindless zombies, people who are separated from their souls.
Is it that bad, really? What about love, and awe, and wonder? I do think that people, citizens in these exact places, are looking for more meaning in their lives. That’s what I’ve discovered here at Design Kompany, anyways. People see us and they see the almost-20 years of conversations we’ve had with so many different kinds of folks, who all want meaning in their lives. Connection. To belong to something. To care, to figure out what it is that’s been… lost.
I think an era of enchantment is dawning. It’s coming, not in a great wave, but slowly. One person at a time. Matter of fact, I’ve gotten more hope. At least a segment of America’s leaders—spiritual, business, intellectual, or all of the above—are moving us towards more quality-filled days, where wonder and awe will matter again.
“Quality fans out in waves,” Pirsig writes. People add more and more to the world, and the good stuff amplifies as these circles propagate. The better it is, better it gets, for all of us. I like this metaphor. It’s good.
Some takeaways I got that relate directly to design thinking, which is what we’re all about here, are these:
- quality is more than mere form :: design is more than appliqué
- thinking critically matters way more than rote memorization
- you can’t jump ahead to a solution without a good conversation that gets you thinking wide and broad, first
- knowing a thing intellectually doesn’t mean you have an emotional connection
- to feel a thing deeply means spending time with it, and caring about it
- sometimes there’s no “yes” or “no” answer, yet we are living in a time that likes to block things off into 1s and 0s.
- and sometimes, just sometimes, the kind of art that moves us, sometimes to tears
ZAMM is an example of this last.
How do you catalogue worthiness?
Reading ZAMM took fits and starts. It’s a hefty work that requires lots of pause to incubate, digest, and process. Like anything worth doing, of course.
The entire book is about a guy (the author) and his kid, and their motorcycle trip around Montana, and San Francisco. (I guess disinterest in road trips and father-son stories when I was younger made me think this book wasn’t for me. Chalk it up to being a Gen X’er and not caring about too terribly much.) But now, as an older person, I’m noticing the important parts.
The ones that point out that the way we’re living today in America is devoid of quality, most of the time, because we don’t value it. Heck, we don’t even know what it is!
We’re just looking at things from the outside, on the surface. We’re seeing forms. We separate out what it means to be a horse, Pirsig gives as an example, into this abstract intellectual quality of “horseness.” A real horse can be living and breathing and even dying, but doesn’t have “horseness” because the essence of it, in our modern way of looking at things, has been removed. We’ve separated it. We’ve intellectualized the heart of the thing, and in doing so, killed something important without realizing it.
Soulfulness. Grooviness. Quality. All of these things that resonate with making something and being in the zone, and feeling that it connects because it’s… beautiful. Beauty is gone.
Let me expand.
We’ve made everything into an intellectual argument, and based it on reason. The Church of Reason, as Pirsig puts it. And that’s killed off something. Call it beauty, or goodness, or essence, it’s impossible to appreciate it in the same way we might had we been more like the people who lived before the Greeks. (Before, specifically, Aristotle, if you read Pirsig’s book.) When God and oneness and quiet space and all of that wasn’t intellectualized into concepts, but rather, just was. (Enter Joseph Campbell here, imaginarily, for another few paragraphs.)
This, I’m convinced, ties into something that I’m going to call the “new” feminine mystique. The fascination with the yin energy, the returning to the softer part of our humanity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you’re going to have some part of you that’s yin. The thing is, we stuff it. Without getting closer to the side of us that feels, that intuits, that responds emotionally to beauty and love, we’re going to go to the grave without having had or experienced meaning. You can have “emotional impotence.” Whole cities have this. You feel it in your bones when you take the subways and buses, you feel… empty. I wish Pirsig could have spent more time on how quality relates to sex. Not gender, that’s too hard because its loaded and we have preconceptions. I’m talking about the act of sex as one way to… reach something higher. Joining, you could say. Getting back to oneness. (But I understand this is the place the author takes his sequel, Lila?)
Some part of me thinks I could have just read ZAMM instead of going to college. Him and Joseph Campbell. Actually, all of me thinks that, except for the tiny part that says, “Well, then you wouldn’t have met Akira Morita, and you wouldn’t have made those t-shirts that got you started on thinking along the lines of this book, anyways.” And you wouldn’t have boss-man, now four, who reflects with myriad hidden mirrors the parts of both of you that are there, and does this without clouds. Unabashed honesty. That’s why I’ve led this post with the graphic, LOVE. Boss-man, now four and a half, is ultimately this household’s great teacher of what quality is. Even the final lines of ZAMM hint at this, as the father and son reach some kind of unstated understanding, as the son begins to stand and see what his father has, all along, from the front of the motorbike. (“That’s it,” the author writes. “We’ve won it. You can kind of tell these things.”)
Ultimately, I’ve learned that Pirsig’s book is about a bigger search, the search for Quality, which he capitalizes. I was always looking for quality, too. Somehow, through a twist of events that no one could have plotted, I wound up in a few countries and got to know quite a few people who, like me, were in search of meaning, too.
And that’s the only reason this works. This blog. This studio. People who find us also care about quality. Not just making something fast, and quick. That wouldn’t be honest. It wouldn’t be authentic, or real. It would just be… fast and quick. Even though business coaches told us it was stupid to put “meaning” as one of our “desired outcomes” when we set up in 2006, we did. We also put “make a business that we can live off of, while we raise a small child.” That’s all we wanted. Connection, and meaning. But now I know that it was more. It was quality we were looking for.
Yet the business strategist we worked with didn’t get us. The SCORE people didn’t, either. We didn’t have anything to go on, with zero background in business or anything close. I grew up in a house that believed in the American dream, though, so I never doubted that we could “make it happen” for ourselves. That’s been the good part. And now, it’s evolving, too. You see it everywhere, the clamor for love. Acceptance. Joy. People want wonder. Enchantment. That’s what’s really important. Meaning.
Getting to the good stuff
People want things that matter. That count. Better ways to connect. To feel. To feel! I think what they were looking for is also what Pirsig was, in his book. They wanted more quality. I began to understand what that meant, slowly, over the course of getting to know so many people who were looking to uncovering who they really are.
(There’s a great quote coming up about the True Self, and Quality, and the relation thereof. In a bit)
But do you know what I mean? The uncovering of who you really are. In that process, you can undo the work that so many institutions have done. You can unravel the things that you’ve been taught you’re “supposed” to do. It’s hard, but it’s significant. It’s the only way.
And then, something happens. You peel back enough layers, and there it is. The good stuff. Pirsig says this is going deeper than just the surface, going beyond mere substance and form. And I believe him.
Deep in the core, that’s where there’s the real good stuff. Each and every one of us has a true self that needs to be discovered, and expressed.
Quantum physicists have already proved to us that we cannot know anything for certain, that things that do happen simply fall that way by chance. Probabilities. I wrote a blog series “In Search of Meaning” in part to delve into that query. But it failed. In the writing, I’d hoped for bigger things, like arriving at some… “truth.” Of course, the Internet can only help so much with that. You have to have conversations with people, read old books on paper, and get out and about to think things over and see where the endpoints of various strings connect. Or don’t. That’s okay, too.
The Japanese word, mu, comes up in Pirsig’s book. Something I first learned about when I did my year abroad in Kyoto, in 1995-96. Sometimes there’s not a “yes” or a “no,” but a “nothing.” People in the West have a very tough time with this idea. I’ve gotten into very awkward moments in intellectual arguments around this. But the thing is, you can’t “argue” Buddhism. You can’t “argue” Zen.
This is not a sitcom
My parents came to visit a few weekends ago, and they wanted me to plan something for us to do together. The rules: It couldn’t be just going out to eat. And they didn’t want to walk around. I asked, “Well, what do you like to do?” And my mother said, “We don’t know.”
When I visit their home, something that hasn’t happened for months now, I feel like I’m in a box on the edge of the universe. There’s nothing there but television. And magazines. Lot of womens’ magazines, which is how I started to create a series inspired by the advertisements. A pressing plasticity, that of picture-perfection.
Philosophically, my folks are still 180 degrees away from me. I don’t judge, but I stay a little far away, because I’ve had a hard time trying to explain that love and meaning matter to me more than success and stacking up of titles.
That’s probably why this passage resonated deeply with me:
There’s this primary America of freeways and jet flights and TV and movie spectaculars. And people caught up in this primary America seem to go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what’s immediately around them.
The media have convinced them that what’s right around them is unimportant. And that’s why they’re lonely. You see it in their faces. First the little flicker of searching, and then when they look at you, you’re just a kind of an object. You don’t count. You’re not what they’re looking for. You’re not on TV. —Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I felt sad inside, reading this. Because it’s true.
Trusting the process, making the new
Art, though, is an answer. Expression of something more deep. Feeling that, and giving it a space to hold. Sometimes you start making things, and you don’t quite know why. But then, after a lot of time and practice, you see that it’s going somewhere. That the playing around phase, the exploration phase, has begun to morph into something else. The becoming.
A few years ago at MAKE, a roundtable we hosted on the topic, “the creative process,” a guest named John Wendelbo said this is a phase he calls “flapping.” Like a bird, looking about for somewhere to go, flapping happens. Sometime, eventually, the bird will make its swoop. But until then, it’s exploring, looking. At Design Kompany, we call this, “play.”
For the author of ZAMM, his time of exploring is when he’s trying to figure out how to fix a bike. He’ll fiddle, look, listen, try something. Then, once it’s obvious, he’ll go in to get that exact thing. For the bird, it’s the fish. For DK, it’s the concept. The very same idea. You look, you try things, you don’t overwork it, and then when you’re ready, you make the move.
No shortcuts to quality
Without that work to explore, there’s no way to get to the actual issue and fix a thing.
You can spend a long time looking in the wrong places, taking apart the bits that don’t need taking apart. You could even make what Pirsig calls “the Big Mistake,” which ends up costing you a whole lot. Anxiety leads to this. People who are just trying anything, for the sake of Doing Something. They’re the ones that are going to get stuck in that place, the place of not knowing how one thing led to another and now everything you think was working is broken.
And there is so much anxiety in our culture and society today, it’s crazy. I see it when I go to the YMCA, and people tell me all kinds of stories in the sauna. I guess we feel like that’s the only place we can let our guard down, for a bit.
On the authentic, and the search for meaning
Pirsig’s narrator, on his trip, gets over to Crater Lake. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the same reaction to it as I did, when I saw it. (He didn’t like the manicured parts of the national park, but he may have been distracted trying to parent his son, who from the author’s point of view seemed to be a bit of a drag.) For me, Crater Lake was so blue I melted, mesmerized by its shapely, azure depths. Probabilities.
Authenticity is a buzzword among marketing people lately, mostly because we have so much more of the not-quality stuff hanging around. It’s nearly free to put “your stuff out there,” and you can even print a 3D clump of anything you like, which will probably end up in 10 years in some landfill like GI Joe figures and Slinkies and Barbies and “jelly shoes.” Low quality.
There are passages in ZAMM that talk about ugly plastic kids’ toys. Whew. For all of boss-man’s life, I’ve resisted the “gift giving” of things. He turned one, two, three, then four, and each time, I had to make a stink about it. I’ve avoided Christmas events with my family for the last two years, not just because of this, but partly. The little guy gets this, because we have a book, and it’s called The Gift of Nothing. I love this story. In it, the thing that’s left when you subtract the “stuff” is the relationship between the giver and the givee. They’re just there, spending time together. Quality time.
Joseph Pine, in his TED talk, says: “No experience is inauthentic. Experience happens inside of us.” I sat up on the edge of my office chair when that line came up. Curious to hear more about the idea that just because one reality says X, it doesn’t mean Y can’t be true, or JZ^-4, for that matter, at the same time.
Pine talked about this from a business perspective. As an owner, you want customers to perceive your experience as authentic. That’s what he said. The big question was, ‘how do you render authenticity?’ He says:
Let me go back to what Lionel Trilling, in his seminal book on authenticity, Sincerity and Authenticity, points to as the seminal point at which authenticity entered the lexicon… And that is, to no surprise, in Shakespeare, and in his play, Hamlet. And there is one part in this play, Hamlet, where the most fake of all the characters in Hamlet, Polonius, says something profoundly real. At the end of a laundry list of advice he’s giving to his son, Laertes, he says this: And this above all: to thine own self be true. And it doth follow, as night the day, that thou canst not then be false to any man. And those three verses are the core of authenticity. —Joseph Pine
And there it is.
“To thine own self be true.”
Our work: find our true self, and the expression thereof
Quality is what you like, but it’s more than than that.
It’s about going deep, and uncovering this important part of what it is that emanates from our best selves, our true selves. That’s what author William Isaacs said, when I emailed him with Pirsig’s giant question, “What is quality?” Isaacs wrote the book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, one of our key texts for the Year of Dialogue project over at Orangutan Swing. So I was really moved when he wrote back with this succinct gem:
Quality is that which emerges from the true core of a person when they are willing and in position to express it. It emerges from the True Self, which is not the same as the small ego self with which people tend to identify.
We can discern quality because it carries a resonance with that which is true within us. This requires a level of perception beyond mere intellectual grasping, which tends not to be seen as valid by those trained in strict rational traditions.
But anyone who has known instinctually how to make the right next stroke of the brush, speak the right next word, or make the right next move, has done so by acting with a level of perception that is resonant with both training and habit, but also subtle awareness of this deeper essence, and is not merely doing a rational calculation in their head… We do the right thing, the quality thing, because we love to… —William Isaacs
This note made me cry, too.
Gaining confidence, I gathered more responses from people I admire, whom I think consider things broadly, and don’t make snap decisions just because the surface woos them one way or the next. There was Kate Allison, an editor of the blog, The Displaced Nation, who compared quality to music. Here’s what she said:
Then there was Brian Schneider, who’s based in San Franciso and designs games for a living. Here’s what he said:
This idea that something grows in quality over time, that you begin to recognize its essence and feel a connection to it once you spend some time with it, that reminds me of relationships. Good ones. Quality ones. Relationships take time, and feelings change with time, too. But you know, with time, if they’re good. You know the low quality ones, too, with the same intuition.
Another friend, Tom Gerhardt of Studio Neat put it like this:
By the time people had responded to me, telling me what they thought about quality, and how they interpreted the word and what I meant, I was beginning to feel like I had a lot of things going on in my head. I also wanted to take the time to consider quality apart from “thingness,” as in, whether an object has quality, or not. I was really intrigued by the other things, the big abstract ideas (big surprise, right?) about what quality, or lack thereof, implied about our existence and experiences.
But by the time I got to the end of ZAMM, everything started to fit neatly. I’d been flapping for a long time, and then, I got it. Quality is love. Quality is love! You fall in love with something that you care about over time. You feel something. You find meaning and connection. And when it’s good, you have oneness. There it was.
Last weekend, I met a one day old baby. And that’s when I could confirm it. That I knew. Reason and everything else that we have in Western modern philosophy and the way we approach our lives doesn’t factor this one thing in: mystery. The awe and enchantment of meeting a person whom we have no idea what she will become. Become! The potentialities are endless, the moments still to come, the being is all there is, right now, in this moment.
At the end of all this thinking, here’s what I uncovered:
Beauty isn’t about visual aesthetics. It’s much, much more than that. It’s about the cohesive, contained, truth of a thing—expressed.
A bit of perspective
The universe started 15 billion years ago, as an infinitely dense point. How do we know what anything really is, unless we consider this vastness? I’m really curious about the length, width, and breadth of consciousness and understanding, and those are the things I’m writing about now, weekly, over here.
Well, I’ve said quite a bit here. What do YOU think? What is quality?