My understanding of the concept of personal power - or as I now call it “gumption” - comes in large part from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that book, there is a section where he discusses the “gumption traps that [he has] known.” There, he describes many of his thoughts about the idea of gumption. The best way to understand gumption would be to go read Pirsig’s book. Failing that, let me offer a few select passages.
“I like the word “gumption” because it’s so homely and so forlorn and out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along. It’s an old Scottish word, once used a lot by pioneers, but which, like “kin,” seems to have dropped out of use. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.”
I can’t take the time to delve into what Pirsig means by Quality. For that you really will have to read the book. But I love this passage because it gets at the heart of Pirsig’s - and my own - usage of gumption without trying to rigorously define it. Another passage. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to explain gumption, so much as give you a feeling for it.
“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. But it’s nothing exotic. That’s why I like the word.”
Gumption is a fascinating subject to me. It encompasses the idea of motivation, but it also goes farther. When you enter into the idea of gumption, you also enter a conversation about how to recognize and sustain it in yourself. It provides a qualitative description for an emotional/psychic phenomenon. Most importantly, thinking about the concept of gumption and about gumption traps allowed me to start thinking of how I can live in a way that avoids them. It also allowed and encouraged me to start thinking about how I could build gumption. As Robert Pirsig says: “Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.”
Gumption is, at it’s best, a mind-hack. I’m using hack here in the sense that it is used by the website Lifehacker, which is in the tradition of the great computer hacker’s described by the programmer and author Eric Scott Raymond. In essence, this means a clever trick; an unexpected way of doing things that has greater Quality. By leveraging the ideas of gumption I can hack my own mind to work in ways that are more aligned with how I really want to be in the world. This idea actually goes back to one of my favorite proverb’s.
“If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” –Jiddu Krishnamurti
I first ran across this quote when I was probably 13. Young, and highly impressionable, but this piece of wisdom has stuck with me and shaped my life ever since then. Because of it, when I use the idea of gumption to try and make myself more productive, I go about it in a very particular way.
One of the most powerful gumption hacks that I have found is cleaning. This is related to a conversation I had a long time ago with one of my mother’s friends. I was washing the dishes, and complaining about it. He asked me “Why are you doing the dishes?” I was confused, and told him I was doing the dishes because I had to. He responded, clarifying:
“No, I mean are you doing the dishes so that the dishes will be done? Or are you doing the dishes to do the dishes?”
This started a spirited and engaging conversation that did an admirable job of distracting me from noticing that I was still washing dishes. I’m not sure that I understood it at the time, but what he was talking about was essentially mindfulness and presence.
By “doing the dishes so that the dishes will be done” I was mentally residing in the future where the dishes were already done. This caused me to have impatience. This produced a troubled state of mind. To put it in the language of gumption, seeing washing dishes as a task to be completed caused them to be a gumption sink.
Today though, I use dish-washing as a way to build gumption. When I’m facing a large homework task, or an overwhelming project I go and I wash dishes for a time. It’s a sort of meditation for me, engaging my body, inhabiting it in a mindful way. It strengthens my sense of control over my life, and helps prepare me to start working on things that are otherwise too hard to approach. As I’ve continued this practice over the years I’ve found something interesting: my base level of gumption has increased. Because of this, the difficulty of tasks that I can approach unaided has increased dramatically.
A really remarkable example of this was my final quarter at Western. I had a 17 credit schedule, the most intense load I had ever taken. On top of that, three of the four classes I was enrolled in had large projects with long due dates and the fourth had a large amount of daily work. This combination of assignments has long been one of my weak points; I don’t plan long term well, and I also don’t work well under extreme pressure. The daily work always seems to be of greater urgency because of the nearer deadlines. But the large projects always demand more time than I tend to predict. My desire to do everything well then leads me to work frantically as soon as I realize I don’t have as much time as I need. Then at a certain point I simply can’t work at all because the tension is too great. Looking back, it is clear to me that I simply could not have handled that kind of workload when I was a freshman in college. It’s not clear that I could have dealt with it even two years previously. However, my final quarter went much better in many ways than my first quarter.
It took a long time for me to get to that point. Many other things have contributed to my mindset. Conversations with fascinating people, many excellent teachers. And of course, so many books.