Near the end of his best-selling 1974 novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig addressed the avoidance of “gumption traps” that drain one’s enthusiasm for, and attunement with, the process of accomplishing something—in his extended example (and analogy), of tuning and repairing a motorcycle.
Warning that “[t]he field is enormous and only a beginning sketch can be attempted here,” he recommended such practices as maintaining “a notebook in which I write down the order of disassembly and note anything unusual that might give trouble in reassembly later on”; keeping “newspapers opened out on the floor of the garage in which all the parts are laid left-to-right and top-to-bottom in the order in which you read a page,” to aid in efficient and complete reassembly; becoming familiar with suppliers of parts; and, in some cases, machining one’s own parts.
Pirsig also provided remedies for “internal gumption traps,” such as “an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values” (“slow down deliberately and go over ground that you’ve been over before”); ego (“fake the attitude of modesty anyway”); anxiety (read deeply on the subject; and make to-do lists); boredom (turn routine tasks “into a kind of ritual”); and impatience (“best handled by allowing an indefinite time for the job, particularly new jobs that require unfamiliar techniques; by doubling the allotted time when circumstances force time planning; and by scaling down the scope of what you want to do”).
Finally, he suggested that to overcome “psychomotor traps,” workers use good-quality tools, and arrange for comfortable lighting, temperature, and props. (“A small stool on either side of the cycle will increase your patience greatly.”)
In focusing on undistracted immersion in activity, Pirsig prefigured, in some ways, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1991 examination of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and of attaining “Zen-like” states while off the zafu (meditation cushion).
But for corporate directors, officers, and their counsel, an even more relevant elaboration of Pirsig’s meditations is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which not only distills, but also waters (back) down for a popular audience, solutions from his and Amos Tversky’s decades of pioneering investigations in “behavioral economics” (also known as “neuroeconomics”), especially with regard to “cognitive biases.”
Chapter 2.02(E) of my book on governance commended Kahneman’s intensely practical work to the attention (so to speak) of every director and officer, because an executive’s “essential function is to make decisions, often under time and emotional pressure and with imprecise and incomplete information. Her fiduciary duties of care and loyalty thus require her to understand and minimize the ways in which her own mental tools and techniques might be flawed or compromised.” (Almost half a century ago, in a different context, The Main Ingredient both cautioned and consoled, “Everybody plays the fool sometime. . . . They never tell you so in school.”)
Moreover, “such a cognitive curriculum would. . . help to immunize executives against aggressive attempts by their competitors, creditors, and customers to exploit the dozens of vulnerabilities” detailed in Kahneman’s classic and its numerous successors. Lawyers “could. . . apply this information to enhance their own adversarial and cooperative efforts, as well as the ways in which they offer recommendations to clients.”
Despite all of his experiments and expertise (and his Nobel Prize in economics), Kahneman acknowledged that, in his own decision-making, “I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely.”
However, he observed that, “Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures. Organizations can institute and enforce the application of useful checklists, as well as more elaborate exercises.”
In addition to describing more than three dozen such vulnerabilities, my book identifies a variety of protective processes that boards and their counsel could adopt.
Special concerns include: preventing collaborations from amplifying and compounding the errors of constituents (as in “groupthink”); anticipating whether records generated by such techniques could be later be used in legal actions against executives; accepting the “unnatural” and unintuitive approaches of some of these procedures; and determining when, where, and by how much to depart from relying on (one’s own, the group’s, outsiders’, and the market’s) “rationality” when predicting a decision’s possible results and assessing their relative probabilities and utilities.
Directors, officers, and their counsel might incorporate variations of these methods into their personal pursuits and perspectives.
Pirsig reflected, “What I’m trying to come up with on these gumption traps, I guess, is shortcuts to living right”—and, famously, concluded, “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”