A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is “Remove side cover plate” in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There’s no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick.
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.
This isn’t a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck. In traditional maintenance this is the worst of all moments, so bad that you have avoided even thinking about it before you come to it.
The book’s no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don’t need any scientific experiments to find out what’s wrong. It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is an hypothesis for how you’re going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn’t provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they’re around.
This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge hammer if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you’re inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It’s just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.
What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination - “unstuckness”, in other words - are completely outside its domain.
We’re still stuck on that screw and the only way it’s going to get unstuck is by abandoning further examination of the screw according to traditional scientific method. That won’t work. What we have to do is examine traditional scientific method in the light of that stuck screw.
We have been looking at that screw “objectively”. According to the doctrine of “objectivity”, which is integral with traditional scientific method, what we like or don’t like about that screw has nothing to do with our correct thinking. We should not evaluate what we see. We should keep our mind a blank tablet which nature fills for us, and then reason disinterestedly from the facts we observe.
But when we stop and think about it disinterestedly, in terms of this stuck screw, we begin to see that this whole idea of disinterested observation is silly. Where are those facts? What are we going to observe disinterestedly? The torn slot? The immovable side cover plate? The color of the paint job? The speedometer? The sissy bar? As Poincaré would have said, there are an infinite number of facts about the motorcycle, and the right ones don’t just dance up and introduce themselves. The right facts, the ones we really need, are not only passive, they are damned elusive, and we’re not going to just sit back and “observe” them. We’re going to have to be in there looking for them or we’re going to be here a long time. Forever. As Poincaré pointed out, there must be a subliminal choice of what we observe.
The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care!
. . .
Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. Your mind is empty, you have a “hollow-flexible” attitude of “beginner’s mind”. You’re right at the front end of the train of knowledge, at the track of reality itself. Consider, for a change, that this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.
The solution to the problem often at first seems unimportant or undesirable, but the state of stuckness allows it, in time, to assume its true importance. It seemed small because your previous rigid evaluation which led to the stuckness made it small.
But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can’t prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What’s really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.
Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors.
-Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
Today was the first full day I dedicated to Tic Tac Toe in Clojure. I did not get very far. I got stuck, and I want to tell you a little bit about it.
When I don’t know something I tend to be very cautious and hesitant. When I don’t know something, I feel uncomfortable because there’s a (misguided) part of me that thinks I should know it. The less I think I know something, the more I want to be certain that I do that something correctly (whatever that means). In an effort, to do things correctly, I copy (and paste), I look for the easy way out, the path that’s been taken so many times it’s now a four lane highway, and if I can’t find such a path I get mopey and frustrated, no closer to getting unstuck. This tends to be true of most of my experience in software development and certainly true of my current foray into Clojure.
Things go wrong right from the get go. I’ve put the emphasis on myself, on my own pride and insecurities, and not on the code. This is a mistake. I’ve ceased to care about the quality of the code, I only want to protect myself from feeling incompetent by doing things “right”. When I get stuck, I have no recourse, I can only feel sorry for myself and my shortcomings until someone wiser and more able shows me the way. However, if I can let my worries and desires dissolve and accept the fact that I am stuck, I can start to care about the code, I can start to see the seemingly inconsequential and irrelevant in their true forms, and I can start to get unstuck.