Pirsig’s Quality and Job’s Perfection

 

Introduction

        Steve Jobs. It is indisputable that in his pursuit of excellent products, he changed the world. Steve constantly was searching for perfection in everything, pushing himself and those around him beyond what they thought was possible. The biography Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson, is a profound journey through the life of this amazing man and the incredible development of the most valuable company in the world, Apple. In this essay, I will be addressing and interweaving a few main things: 1. Jobs’ pursuit of incredibly high-quality products and his obsession with the intersection of art and technology; 2. The importance of having grit and gumption as an entrepreneur; and 3. Quality and Gumption as explored in the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), written by Robert M. Pirsig. This essay will cover some important traits for entrepreneurs from class, such as perseverance and grit by referencing Jobs’ life and his obsession with quality. Then it will connect parallels from the two aforementioned novels and show that the pursuit of quality is of the utmost importance both as a person and as an entrepreneur on the road to success. It will also expand on the concept of grit from the week ten reading by introducing gumption as a product of Pirsig’s ‘Quality.’

        

Part One

        In class and in the textbook we have talked to some length about different traits of successful entrepreneurs. Some of these traits are: perseverance, resilience, being open to rejection, being comfortable with discomfort, being creative, having prior experience in an industry, having strong social networks, and having grit. While Steve Jobs had all of these things throughout his life, which certainly contributed to his success, one key thing that is missing from this list is arguably Jobs’ most valuable trait: his obsession with perfection and high-quality products. At his funeral, his wife said about him the following: “His mind was never a captive of reality. He possessed an epic sense of possibility. He looked at things from the standpoint of perfection” (Isaacson, 530). Steve was always looking beyond the realm of possibility that most normal people live in, he was incredibly hard to satisfy, and he was always searching for the perfection. In his development of products, he strived over and over again to create the best things he could. When Steve was a child his father taught him one of the most important lessons he would ever learn. “It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. ‘He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see’” (6). For the rest of his life, Steve would keep this lesson at the forefront of his mind. In every product he made, he would insist on perfection, whether it be rounded edges of rectangles for the first iMac or beautiful screws inside computers where they would likely never be seen. In an interview with Fortune magazine Jobs said that “‘Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in the successive outer layers’” (316). Jobs was obsessed with simple, understandable, and high-quality, perfect products.

One of Steve’s greatest traits was his intuition to simply know how high-quality something was (I will touch more on this as it connects to ZAMM in part 2). Steve, in his twenties, became a pursuer of the zen ways of Buddhism, which would lead to both his understanding of simplicity and to his incredible intuitive nature. In the chapter about Jobs’ legacy, Isaacson says the following about Steve:

Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead (522).

Steve trained his whole life in the ways of sensing the future, understanding the quality of things, and taking the necessary steps to pursue perfection. He simply would not settle. He had grit. For Steve, one of the things that pushed him to develop the highest quality products was his love of art and his understanding of the intersection between art and technology, between romantic and classic.

Being a visionary comes down to understanding what is missing today and making it real tomorrow. What Steve decided was missing in all the industries he aimed at  personal computing, music, phones, and tablets — were high-quality products that fit right at the crossroads of art and technology. Towards the end of his life at the launch of the iPad 2, he made it very clear what he meant by this intersection. “‘It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing’” (485). What made and still makes Apple an amazing organization was and is its intrinsic pursuit of products that make hearts sing. This “architecture that was bred not just into the organization he had built, but into his own soul” was and is today the driving force of innovation and excellence at Apple. “The iPod became the essence of everything Apple was destined to be: poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology, design that’s bold and simple” (362). Steve was always focused with his laser-like mind on the importance of this intersection because he knew that at this intersection came products that consumers love and understand intuitively and products that break away from the pack and lead the way in innovation. Ron Johnson said about Steve: “For Steve, less is always more, simpler is always better. Therefore, if you can build a glass box with fewer elements, it’s better, it’s simpler, and it’s at the forefront of technology. That’s where Steve likes to be, both in his products and his stores” (347). Steve always pushed himself and those around him to be at the forefront, to be at the top of the ladder of quality, by placing himself at the intersection of art and technology.

Part Two

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig talks extensively about the concept of Quality, which he eventually, refuses to ‘define’ and lets the Ancient Greeks philosophers give a shot at defining:

“And what is written well and what is written badly — need we ask Lysias or any other poet or orator who ever wrote or will write either a political or other work, in meter or out of meter, poet or prose writer, to teach us this?’ What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good — need we ask anyone to tell us these things” (405, Pirsig)?

        Essentially, what he means by this is that Quality is something that humans know inherently, intuitively. This idea directly supports Steve’s obsession with Quality and his intuitive understanding of high-Quality. Consequently, Steve would consistently become irate with all of the knock-off versions of his products. Adam Osborne, one of the first inventors of a computer once said “adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous.” Jobs laughed at him for days and said “he’s not making art, he’s making shit” (112, Isaacson). While Osborne’s creation was not a knockoff of Job’s, Jobs had the same attitude towards Bill Gates and his Microsoft products for many years. He would always say that Microsoft’s biggest problem was that they were never at the top because they couldn’t innovate for themselves and thus they couldn’t have the best, highest quality products. Many times Jobs would say that companies like Sony, Microsoft, and eventually even Google ‘just didn’t get it.’ Apple’s competitors were unable to innovate and produce high-quality products because they lacked Steve’s understanding of the intersection of art and technology.

        In ZAMM, Pirsig writes extensively about this intersection, just as Steve praises it as one the most important things to understand. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was released in 1974, just three years before the Apple II, arguably Jobs’ first immensely high-quality product. Jobs applied his father’s lesson of perfection inside and out “to the layout of the circuit board inside the Apple II. He rejected the initial design because the lines we not straight enough” (68, Isaacson). At this time in America, there was a post-hippie movement rebelling against technology and Steve knew it. He knew that the way forward in the world was to be hip, artistic, and to really lead the way in connecting technology and art. Pirsig says about Quality that it is capable of splitting a world into “hip and square, classic and romantic, technological and humanistic.” He follows this by explaining that if it can split these things apart “it can unite a world already split along these lines into one.” He says that “a real understanding of Quality doesn’t just serve the system, or even beat or escape it. A real understanding of Quality captures the system, tames it, and puts it to work for one’s personal use, while leaving one completely free to fulfill his inner destiny” (225, Pirsig). This connection of Pirsig’s ‘Quality’ and Steve’s understanding of perfection and inherent belief in the creation of perfect things is amazing.

In the same period in time, these two men were developing a point of view about the world that brought together the two movements at the time: anti-tech, pro-art and pro-art, anti-tech. Pirsig and Jobs experienced great waves of success following their devotion to Quality and understanding of the magical intersection. An article in LiveMint magazine praises Pirsig as “probably the most read modern philosopher” and attributes his success to the “post-hippie, post-psychedelic, Vietnam-scarred” era of America (Sarkar). Jobs’ success is clearer and more numbers-based. With the Apple II being the money maker of Apple in the late 70s, when Apple went public their valuation went from about 5,000 USD at the end of 1977 to about 1.8 billion USD at the beginning of 1980. This is an insane demonstration of a unicorn business and it came about because Steve was so focused on creating the best, highest Quality product he could at just the right time. An important factor of a quality product is timing, In John Ballard Ph.D.’s, blog post from October 2012, he shares Steve’s thoughts from an interview. “Now, again, quality isn’t just the product or the service; it’s having the right product… Knowing where the market’s going and having the most innovative products is just as much a part of quality as the quality of the construction of the product when you have it” (Ballard). Steve knew that timing was a key component of a good product and this helped him create and execute perfect ‘visions of tomorrow.’ Because Steve was so obsessed with perfection, he knew how to push the envelope and how to pursue great, extremely high-quality things with gusto and with grit.

Grit is a quality that brings with it an increased probability of success in life. Grit is defined in the article from week 10 as “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth). In the article, the researchers explain a few studies that explore grit as it relates to success in different areas of life: University, West Point, and Spelling Bees. The authors address how higher levels of grit lead directly to higher odds of success. For instance, they show that cadets at West Point with plus one standard deviation of grit are 60% more likely to succeed than those without. What they don’t mention is where the grit comes from. They talk about how level of engagement and effort as a child leads to greater levels of grit as an adult, but this does not seem to encapsulate the whole concept and seems to be missing some crucial things. In today’s world, grit is a replaceable word. The words grit and gumption are nearly interchangeable. Gumption is one of the most important topics discussed in ZAMM. Pirsig provides a much better explanation of where gumption comes from than the authors of the article do for grit, so for the sake of this paper, let us assume that the two words are interchangeable and let us rely on Pirsig to explain to us how it is possible to acquire these qualities.

        Just like Jobs was always at the forefront of technology, Pirsig talks about being at the forefront of one’s own life or metaphorically speaking, train… Gumption:

I like it because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption. The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of “enthusiasm,” which means literally “filled with theos,” or God, or Quality. See how that fits? A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption (310, Pirsig).

        The Cambridge dictionary defines gumption as “the ability to decide what is the best thing to do in a particular situation, and to do it with energy and determination.” If, like Pirsig says, gumption is derived from a connection with and an understanding of Quality and gumption means what the dictionary defines it as, then Steve Jobs was the ideal personification of gumption. Having gumption or grit in modern day society often is interchangeable with ideas such as ‘giving it one’s all’ and ‘doing whatever it takes to succeed.’ As far as qualities of entrepreneurs go, this is probably the most important one that there is. And like Pirsig shows, it comes from a dedication to Quality. Steve certainly was dedicated to quality and thus he was energized by his gumption to never give up, to persevere, and to be utterly stoic in the face of challenges and setbacks.

        

Conclusion

Arts and Technology. Quality. Gumption. Grit. Success. What has been shown in this paper? The theory comes together as a simple series of ideas. Understanding the intersection of art and technology and more accurately understanding emotions and sciences leads to a deep attachment to Quality. From here, a devotion to Quality leads to being full of gumption and capable of being gritty. This means success. By doing whatever it takes to create the best possible things, a person is empowered to become their best self, and to have the biggest impact on the world. In the Entrepreneur magazine, there is an article about transforming situations and reframing challenges by having a “whatever it takes” attitude (Zubin). Steve was often admired as being different, being a changemaker. He knew what was important to him — Quality — and he pursued it with all his might. Pirsig’s main character in his novel did the same thing and was perceived to be crazy. People who commit, who are filled with gumption, who pursue living a life full of Quality are perceived as crazy every day because inherent to this kind of life is a commitment to one’s uniqueness. Success is derived from understanding what Quality means in a person’s life and going after it with gumption and grit: doing whatever it takes to manifest one’s highest vision in the world. To end with a cliche but powerful quote from Apple, I leave it at this:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do (531, Isaacson).


Works Cited

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster.

Pirsig, R. M. (1999). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Harper Collins.

Sarkar, D. D. (2017, April 25). The unlikely success of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Retrieved from https://www.livemint.com/Consumer/8XfvlMJvnDhNGIIePILxfK/The-unlikely-success-of-Robert-Pirsigs-Zen-and-the-Art-of-M.html

Steve Jobs on Quality. (2012, October 10). Retrieved from http://www.johnballardphd.com/blog/steve-jobs-on-quality

Zack, Z. (2016, January 15). ‘Whatever It Takes’ Attitude always works. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/269631

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

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