Gumption Traps

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceA few months ago I had the treat of getting to spend some time with my old college roommate, Nick. He and his wife and one-year old little girl came to town about a month before my wedding. When I told Nick about Mysterious Flame and what it’s all about, he said it reminded him of a section in a book we read back in school, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the author talks about “Gumption Traps.” I decided to re-read the book.

Gumption traps are those things that slow your momentum. “Gumption” is one of those fun words that is really a synonym for “enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm literally means “filled with God (Greek theos).” When you’re enthusiastic about something, you’re ready to jump in. You roll up your sleeves. You’re energetic. But when you’ve lost your gumption you just don’t feel like doing whatever it is you’ve set out to do. You get unhappy and maybe a little depressed. There are a lot of ways to restore your gumption, like going fishing, napping in a hammock in the summer, or lying on the beach. The problem is, there’s no “intellectual justification” for those things that seem to be just being lazy. However, when you recharge your gumption, things that bugged you before you took that vacation, they no longer bother you so much. You’ve got renewed enthusiasm. Says Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before. He hasn’t been wasting time. It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.

But what to do about all the little things that sap your gumption and drain your enthusiasm? Pirsig in his book goes on for several pages about different gumption traps, joking that he’d like to start a new whole academic field and call it Gumptionology. Ever on the analytic side of things, the author breaks them down into several kinds and catalogues them, which we’ll sum up here.

It’s important to remember that there are two primary sources of gumption traps: external, which are really setbacks, and internal, which are really your own hang-ups of some kind. Knowing where the source is helps you figure out the solution, whether it’s something outside of you, or something to do with your own approach to the problem that’s keeping you stuck.

External setbacks come in a variety of forms, and there are a number of strategies for dealing with them, many of which are already available if you do a little research. Most of the time, though, hard work and experience pay off and you’re faster at overcoming those setbacks. You learn to not get too sure of yourself, since some things keep cropping back up when you think you have them licked. While external setbacks can be frustrating, it’s the internal hangups that you really have to watch for.

Internal Hangups

There are three kinds of internal hangups:

  1. value traps
  2. truth traps
  3. muscle traps

Value Traps

Value traps are the ones where your thinking is not as clear as it should be. Value rigidity is the first one. It is a refusal to value anything other than a certain thing just because it “has” to be that way. A lot of times a solution will be staring you in the face, but you’re in too much of a hurry to notice it. Slow down — stare at it for a while! It’s very much like a fisherman sitting and waiting for a nibble. Value rigidity is usually an ego problem. Lose the ego and be humble. Let yourself be surprised, and solutions will show themselves.

Anxiety is another value trap, and it shows itself in excessive fussiness, overdoing things, and messing things up with your own nervousness. It leads you into a downward spiral. You have to relax and realize that everybody messes up, even the old pros.

Boredom is yet another value trap. The problem is that you’re no longer seeing freshly like a beginner. The best solution is to just stop and refill the well. Take a break. Go sleep. Or drink a cup of coffee. If you’re still bored when you get back to your project, it’s very likely that there are deeper distractions that you need to deal with before you can move forward.

Impatience is the next, and it’s often the first reaction to any sort of setback. When this happens, again you need to slow down, but allow yourself twice as much time as you think you need to so that you don’t rush and mess things up. Rachet up your immediate goals and forget about the overall goals for the moment.

Truth Traps

Truth traps come in the form of mistaken dualistic thinking, which is a common problem in Western societies. Our culture is based on the assumption that every question has a yes or no answer. Sometimes there’s a third option. Or the question you’ve asked is too small. Sometimes what you’re after is just plain irrelevant. When you hit a truth trap, don’t give up and think you’ve just been spinning your wheels. The reality is that you probably need to broaden your focus or shift your attention to something else.

Muscle Traps

Muscle traps deal with your physical capabilities and available tools. If you have inadequate equipment, you’re likely to get more frustrated than if you have the best tools you can afford. You won’t regret having good gear. You can also be influenced by your physical surroundings: if you’re hot, you get frustrated and angry easily; if you’re cold, you get in a hurry and make mistakes and hurt yourself easily. Comfort and ergonomics are more important than a lot of people give them credit for. Another aspect of muscle traps involves muscular insensitivity or “mechanic’s feel.” Train yourself to know how far you can push your materials and tools. This is one of those things that comes with experience.

Live Right!

Finally, the way you live predisposes you to avoid traps and see the right facts that will help you solve problems. As Pirsig puts it:

If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharper on the seventh?


6 Comments. Add your own below.

  1. […] is right up there with Gumption Traps, and is a gumption trap in itself. Fortunately, though, dealing with stuckness is something that […]


  2. […] talked about gumption traps a lot recently: gumption traps in general and in specific for artists and graphic designers. Gumption traps, or creative blocks as […]


  3. Great post Brad. I read this book a few years ago and I was a really a fan at the time. It is really easy to forget the simple lessons that the book presents in our creative/entrepreneur-based work lives.

    Stop, go take a nap, drink a cup of coffee. Best advice I have heard all day.

    Thanks for the reminder, Will


  4. Thanks, Will! Yeah, ZMM is one of those books full of all kinds of great evergreen topics, regardless of what you do.


  5. […] the book is when Pirsig talks about “not getting stuck” and you find some of his ideas here and here. As a software developer, I really found this part of the book […]


  6. Thanks, Gustaf.


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