Mindful Engineering

If you’ve ever wanted to pick the brain of an engineer, save yourself the trouble of getting a hold of one and read, “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.” I have come to find that engineers are very busy people on both a physical and intellectual scale. For a reference, here is what the book looks like:

Inside the engineer's mind
Inside the engineer’s mind

When I was first referred to this book I expected a blan, textbook-style novel on how motorcycles work (a topic I honestly was apprehensive to read 400+ pages on.) To my surprise aside from the occasional excerpts of  how-to’s and explanations of the functionality of the way a motorbike works, this novel goes in to great philosophic detail on looking at things (engineering maintenance emphasised) from a bigger picture and the type of person it makes you.

In the beginning of the book the main character, his son, and two friends (husband and wife) embark on a cross-country adventure on their (two total) road motorcycles. The main character is the type that fully understands how his bike functions and brings with him almost all the tools to fix any repair you can imagine (and some you can’t.) This everyday maintenance and occasional repair is seen to him as an enjoyable task that he has little to no negative feelings towards. At times he is seen as a bit of a worrier by his friends and his son for how often he checks his bike and how he adjusts his riding style according to the weather. His friend John on the other hand leans to the other end of the spectrum of things. When John sees that his bike is having issues, his first thought is to take it to a mechanic and have them deal with it.

Right away I identified this as the majority of the population of the cycling community. We have those who are more mechanically inclined (usually mountain bikers) to those who would rather leave their problems to a mechanic (your typical road cyclist.) I will wholeheartedly admit to clinging to the road cyclist stereotype of dumping my mechanical bike problems to my nearest mechanic; until I began reading this book.

The author goes into detail of why he thinks they behave in these different ways. John sees knowledge of how something functions and what to do with things go wrong as a form of technology. A type of technology he has purchased his bike to escape from. So when things do end up going wrong, he sees this as shackling him from the freedoms he wishes to experience on the road. The author does not have the same views. He goes into further detail of how the understanding and process of maintenance requires the right type of attitude towards the problem. There are a lot of what he calls, “traps” that come with repairs that we tend to fall into. Traps like anger, boredom, misunderstanding, and poor tools. This comes back to the title of the book. It takes a zen like approach to be what the author calls a good mechanic.

A few days ago while I was still reading this book, I heard a podcast of two car mechanics taking calls from callers attempting to diagnose their car issues. Listening to this is quite remarkable. It’s like going to the doctor’s office and having a very good diagnosis stem from about four or five questions (with a lot of humor in between.) While listening to this particular episode, a mechanics wife called with a lot of questions on how her husband’s brain works.

You can listen to the particular segment here, but I would like to point out a few questions (and answers) that stood out to me:


One question was: When someone takes their car into a shop, the mechanic tells them it will be about four days to repair and only on the afternoon of the fourth day to the physical repairs get done?

The hosts had a descriptive answer which surprised me as much as the wife. Not only is mechanics a psychically draining task, you have to mentally prepare just as much which is why they give such extended ETA’s. This makes a lot of sense and explains how I have lived most of my life. We have all procrastinated in our lives, but the way I see it we are just mentally preparing ourselves the same way a car mechanic prepares to rebuild an engine.

This explains why I it is hard for me to talk about how a race went once all is said and done. I am emotionally drained and need an extended amount of time to gather myself and eventually share how things went (just a heads up to those of you that love to asks these questions. Give me about three to five days to get back to you on post-race results unless I bring it up first.)

Once this mental readiness has been met, nothing but success will follow. There is a type of focus that is hard to put into words, but once it has been established, zen has been reached and (as cliche as is may sound) “Houston, we have liftoff. Whether I decide to read a book, or ride beyond my comfort zone, as long as this zen-like focus is recognized and emphasized you are invincible.

Remember that scene in the movie, “Fight Club” Where Brad Pitt pours lye on the kissed hand of Edward Norton? If you haven’t I’ve retrieved it to refresh your memory:

This sums up what I am trying to say in a nutshell. I saw a plateauing of my cycling progress because I reached a point in where I became too distracted either on the pain in my legs, the things I had to do after the ride, or how much longer the entirety of the ride was going to last. Brad Pit is trying to explain this zen-minded focus through a gritty example. Despite how much we the viewer imagine the pain Cornelius is going through, he is going about solving the problem the wrong way. We have to give into the pain, recognize it is there, and think of a logical and beneficial approach to solving the problem no matter how damaging it may be.

This all goes back to the mechanical focus one must have to be a good engineer. The book also justifies this frame of mind with a lot of philisophical references. He mentions big names like Plato, Socrates, Phaedrus, and a few others. Phaedrus is one who he focuses the most on and his concept of quality. This intermittently takes up a third of the book, it is a good break from the repetitious stories of riding, stopping, refueling, checking the wear on the bike, and preparing for the next parts of the ride.

This has given me a whole new perspective on life and my approach to everyday (and not so everyday) tasks. I look forward to applying to this in things like my training for upcoming races. I can clearly see from my last embarrassment of a race that my head was clearly not in the game. Along with a healthy functioning foot and a new perspective on how and why I ride, I will be training to live more in the moment when physical and mental blocks come my way.



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