Zen and the art of pet project maintainence

I recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig and its central thread on the Metaphysics of Quality resonated with me. At the risk of butchering an engrossing book, I’ll summarise: Pirsig posits Quality is at the knife-edge of experience, preceding the subjective/objective duality of modern life. Quality cannot be defined but we all recognise it when we see it. We are drawn to it. It is a fundamental, guiding force of reality.

A moment of epiphany comes in the book when Pirsig realises this nebulous concept he’s been grappling with is basically interchangeable with the Chinese philosophical concept of Tao. Tao likewise cannot be defined. It simply is. The two are also mysteriously similar to Plato’s Form of the Good, the source of all other Forms. They all seem to be getting at much the same thing.

I don’t want to get into philosophy here, partly because I’d do a bad job of it but mainly because what’s lingered with me is the question of where this force - call it Quality, Tao, Goodness, whatever - surfaces most often in my life, because I recognised what Pirsig describes and it’s important to me.

The answer I’ve settled on is similarly vague, but roughly covers the worlds of personal projects, hobbies, side hustles and so on. I’m not talking about things we make to earn money, or get a job, or impress people. I’m talking about the stuff we make because we want to make it. The things we do because we want to do them. These share a certain freedom from many of the forces that pull work away from Quality.

A passage from verse 15 of the classic Taoist text Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu speaks to a state that pet projects lend themselves to:

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

This resonates with me. Many of the best things I’ve made fall under the pet project umbrella, be they in workplace environments or my own time. I couldn’t explain to you how teeline.online reached its current state. Amidst long periods of stillness action happened when it happened, and here we are. The same is true of Audioxide and The Whale-Lines. My most ‘productive’ spells were seldom the result of me forcing myself. They just… happened, and when they did it felt good.

There is a looseness to side projects, a freedom to iterate and evolve that shares more with the ancient Chinese concept of Wu Wei - effortless action, or nonaction - than with en vogue approaches like agile development. The absence of pressure or expectation allows for improvements to surface in their own time, and insofar as one competes at all it is in the spirit of play.

Wu Wei is not an ethos at home in a lot of workplaces. Indefinable concepts like Pirsig’s Quality or Plato’s Idea of the Good don’t lend themselves to methodology flowcharts. Though I’m yet to try it, I doubt nonaction is a winning angle for performance reviews. All too often there is time only for action.

Workplace environments can and do facilitate Quality sometimes, of course, but the lovely thing about pet projects is that their lack of destructive or distracting forces leaves a natural flow towards goodness for its own sake. This is what happens when we make things just because we want to. That’s why personal projects are so often the natural home for Quality - or at least the honest pursuit of it. Do we always get there? I certainly don’t, but the effort brings its own bliss sometimes.

I guess what I’m getting at by writing this is to remind myself of the value of personal projects - or rather, creating conditions in which they can arise. We can’t force it and shouldn’t try. What we can do is turn up, sit, and wait for the water to clear.