gumption and the intermittent failure

If the South’s summer heat and humidity bear any consolation, it is that I have to seek shelter in the house for much of the day and thus am able to extend my reading.

I enjoyed the first third of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig but struggled as the protagonist ascended higher into the mountain and into rarefied philosophical issues for which I was not prepared.  Now in the last third of the book the running is easier.  His thoughts on gumption and practical issues of machine maintenance bring back memories.

At p. 310 he says “I like the word “gumption” because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along”.  I recall “gumption” too with affection.  The only time I heard it used was by Tommy Cairns our lecturer in cost accounting at my university in Johannesburg during the early 70’s.  His lectures were punctuated by reference to a general lack of gumption and the criticality of gumption for success.

Now, many years later I see it dancing on the pages of Pirsig’s book before me, such as “Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.  If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed.  But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed.”

One of the gumption traps he refers to is the “intermittent failure” which fools you into thinking you have an engine problem fixed and then it recurs.  He suggests methods to identify and fix the problem with the advice that “In some intermittents you have to resign yourself to a long fishing expedition, but no matter how tedious that gets it’s never as tedious as taking the machine to a commercial mechanic five times”.

All of which brings back my second memory.  When I lived in London I had a Morris Minor – a two door beetle-like friend (formerly a police car) which I worked on extensively and affectionately called “Elbee” for its licence plate.  Elbee developed an intermittent fault – when I rounded corners quickly the electrics would falter.  I searched everywhere for the culprit, without success.  Elbee’s tools were kept in a rollup bag and one day, upon lifting the bag, I noticed an aimless, loose wire beneath.  This was an earthing wire held in place by the tool bag and I figured that when I cornered and put Elbee through her paces, the bag shifted and the wire lost contact with the frame.  It was an easy fix to secure the wire.

Elbee receiving a new clutch. The suburban street was my workshop

4 thoughts on “gumption and the intermittent failure”

  1. I like that gumption emphasizes the ‘fishing’ nature of problem resolution – often perseverance is more important for identifying the problem than for fixing the problem itself.

  2. Pirsig’s life is something of a tragedy. His son, as I understand from people around the boy in the last couple years of his life, was badly messed up in his head; he was 18 and just getting his feet under him when he was killed in a mugging in San Francisco. But the book is very fine. It’s been a long long time since I read it, but I remember the his reasoning and philosophizing carries a whole lot of truth and no falsehoods the I recall. Pirsig was was ridden by his own demons and writing the book was itself a real triumph.


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