Zen and the Art of Weekly Accounting
A System to See Business, Life and Reality Better
The Test of The Machine
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, It’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”
– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Intention and The System
It starts with an intention,
And turns into The Word,
Sample progress in a row set
Precise, like hummingbird.
Compare the row set to intention
Accounting every week
Make predictions of the future
The system then will seek.
If still not good
Then you will know
Exactly what to do
Mind or system
Has to change
The fix is up to you.
From Sheet Metal to Spreadsheets
Thirty years ago, when I was applying to MBA programs, my dad asked, “Are you going to apply to Harvard?”
“No, Dad,” I snapped back. There was no way he could know what he was talking about.
My dad spent one year at Saint John Fisher College before dropping out and becoming a sheet metal worker in The Union.
“Your name isn’t on any buildings and we don’t know anyone who has ever even visited there. There’s no way I’ll get in. It would be a waste of time and money to apply.”
He thought about it and suddenly his face lit up with a smile. “Ok, I’ll bet you $100 you get in.”
I am the youngest of four children – two older brothers, and an older sister. We grew up playing cards and gambling for money with family almost every week.
Calculating odds was one of the highest valued skills a person could have in a family, in life, and by extension, the world. This bet didn’t require calculation.
I had already written a dozen essays applying to other schools. One more essay would be easy enough to slap together and win this bet.
“Ok, Dad, you’re on.”
I lost the bet and moved to Boston.
I was thinking about that day and the profound impact that bet had on my life. I remembered one of the essays questions from the application.
“If you were to attend and graduate from Harvard Business School, what would you do with your degree after graduating?”
Up until this application essay, I had followed in the footsteps of my older brothers.
Tom, the oldest, got a paper route when he was 12.
Todd, got a paper route when he was 12.
I got a paper route when I was 12.
When Tom turned 16,
He got a job at Howard Johnson’s.
Todd, got a job at Howard Johnson’s.
Howard Johnsons closed,
So I got a job at…Red Lobster.
When Tom turned 18,
He went to college at Clarkson in Potsdam (New York).
Todd went to (SUNY) Potsdam in Potsdam.
And I went to Clarkson in Potsdam.
When Tom was 21,
He got a job at GE.
I got a job at GE.
And Todd got a job at…Red Lobster.
While at GE,
Tom earned a masters degree in electrical engineering.
I earned a masters degree in electrical engineering.
When Tom also earned an MBA while working at GE, I saw my chance.
If you always do
What you’ve always done
Then you’ll always get
What you’ve always got.
It was time to write my own story, this application essay would be my shot.
What would I do with a Harvard MBA?
Here’s what I wrote:
After graduating from Harvard Business School I plan to work at a management consulting firm. I’d like to get experience with a variety of companies rapidly. I believe that will provide a capstone of practical business experience after graduating from HBS in the same way that the Edison Engineering Program at General Electric did after studying Electrical Engineering in college.
After that, I would like experience buying and selling companies. Then I would get experience with starting and growing companies before starting a company on my own. Ultimately, I plan to start and run my own company. I believe the experience and network I would gain by attending Harvard Business School, followed by the right set of experiences would dramatically increase my likelihood of success.
After building and selling my company, I would write a book and teach.
Looking back on it years later, I realized everything I wrote about my aspirations for my life happened.
How is that possible?
The only aspiration that I had written about in that essay that had not happened yet was…that I would write a book.
…So I started writing.
Practical Philosophical Truth
An Unintentional Haiku by my father.
You’re never going
to make any real money
just work’n for someone else.
Inspired by a descendant of the last Chief of the Comanche
I am the father of my sons
I am the one who comes before
I am the son of many men
Who struggled in life and war.
The “Boot Sequence” as taught to us by a friend
Today is the best day ever.
I am free to do whatever I want
I am the master of my universe and
I am the narrator of my own epic story.
The Art of Complicated Subjects
Born in garden sunlight
In harmony with spring
Living off the landscape
Like every living thing
Rivers smooth the mountains
Animals trim the trees
People help each other
In the evening breeze
Lessons passed through generations
Sharing information slow
Communication speeds up
Ending status quo
Stories group the people
Ideas swarm like bees
People fight each other
For imaginary needs
There is no way to stop it
The Word exacts its price
Defining Us distinct from Them
Was our only vice.
The Metaphysics of Quality
The poem Evolution conveys aspects of Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality as described in his book that inspired this one, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Pirsig’s book details a motorcycle trip with his son from Minneapolis through the Dakotas, Montana, and into the Pacific Northwest, with significant passages set in places like the Beartooth Mountains in Montana.
The journey is not just a physical one but also a deeply philosophical exploration. The narrative is as much about traversing the landscapes of the mind as it is about navigating the physical terrain of the American Midwest and West.
I read it soon after his second book, Lila, came out in 1991. I was a couple years out of engineering school, working at General Electric and living in Syracuse with my friend, Pete Radosta, “Speedo.”
Metaphysics is a big word and that makes it sound like complicated subject.
When big words and complicated subjects come up, you can almost hear people’s brains click off.
Hear that click? It’s not surprising, and there are good reasons it happens.
Complicated subjects have been institutionalized in the Church of Reason – educational institutions that certify people with degrees to convey their authority on a particular subject.
Priesthoods have formed around beliefs etched in stone generations before people knew the world was round.
Education systems rotely pass on the stories accepted by the priesthoods and politicians to children.
We memorize dates, events, people and stories important to the founding of our country, the history and the development of our constitution and our economy. We learn about the challenges people before us faced and overcame. This is how countries pass on and preserve the sories of their culture. Lessons passed through generations.
Viewed through that lens, history is simple.
A Ceaseless Dance
Different cultural systems bubble up and disappear. A few persist.
People struggle for resources
Within their cultural systems and
In the clash of cultural systems.
New technologies and new ideas change cultures.
Better systems inevitably proliferate or
Reach a tenuous balance of cultural market share.
Status quo is an illusion. Everything changes.
Society is a ceaseless dance between control and chaos.
Between people in various governance systems and
People unhappy with the way things are.
It usually takes a Brujo – a crazy person – to change things.
Sometimes it’s just the idea of a crazy person that drives the change.
Consider an idea as simple as wearing helmets when we ski.
From cracked skulls to crazy people
When I first learned to ski, nobody wore a helmet. If you saw a person wearing a helmet you might think they had a cracked skull. Today everyone wears a helmet. If you see someone not wearing a helmet you might think they need their head examined.
If you plotted the percentage of people not wearing a helmet over time from then until now it would look like this:
Initially, nearly 0% of skiers wore helmets. Now nearly 100% of skiers wear helmets.
The curve from 100% to 0% (or vice-versa) is called a Logistic Function or Sigmoid Function.
Underlying this function is a normal distribution. In a normal distribution of skiers, some were early helmet adopters and some were late helmet adopters.
Underlying our transition from being a population who does not wear helmets skiiing to being a population who does wear helmets skiing, is a normal distribution curve. On that curve, some of us are early adopters and some of us are late adopters.
That’s the graphical representation of “as more people see other people wearing helmets, more people are exposed to and adopt the behavior over time.”
How Systems Evolve
Such change across populations is common. There have been early and late adopters of every new idea and new technology.
Lots of systems evolve this way. We see it in the decades of transition from landlines to cell phones.
And in the eon’s long transition from early humans to Homo Sapiens.
It is similar in the adoption of housing, running water, sanitation system, electricity, color televisions, cable televisions and the Internet.
There was a time before everything in our lives. Something appears and changes everything.
Did you hear that? That click.
A gear long stuck was freed
To spin another story
To rewrite every creed.
Did you hear that? That whir.
A fan long silent slices blur.
Blade cuts through guts and blows the air
The smell of blood is everywhere.
Did you hear that? That grind.
That freed gear,
It seems, has spun
Another long stuck over here.
Did you see that? That flash.
The blind went up, a crack of light
Streams through pane
To bathe the blight.
Do you feel that? That breeze.
Through that broken window
The smoke and pain of war
I’m certain it will never be as it was before.
Did you hear that? That sigh.
Dusty faces staring
A mother holding baby
Too stunned to even cry.
How Ideas Proliferate
Sometimes stories we are told are labeled “divinely inspired”, initiated by a single founder who had some special connection to God. These stories were documented in holy books centuries ago and are no longer allowed to be edited or questioned.
Before Jesus Christ there was no Christianity. Before Mohammad, no Islam. Religious systems spread according to the same function – early adopters and late adopters – they don’t reach 100% of the population. They reach a tenuous balance of religious market share.
For stories that are not divinely inspired, founders rely on The Ones Who Came Before. Our ancestors. I say “The Ones” this way because, as we will cover in Part 2, native Americans word for God literally translates to “The One Behind the Sun.”
In order to grow their story, founders must invite and recruit others to their stories.
This transition from one system to another happens similarly for cultures, companies and people. It’s easier for a single person to change themselves than it is for a single person to change a culture or a company – but it starts the same way and the process is the same. It starts with an Intention.
When we cling to the past, to the way things were, it creates anxiety. We think “It shouldn’t be this way”, “they shouldn’t do that.” Especially today, that has led to Despair.
Society is crumbling
I know you see it too
The war machine is rumbling
Our leaders gone coo coo.
Lives better over centuries
But optimism’s popped
Supreme court taking liberties
Freedom’s progress stopped.
The food we’re fed is killing us
To grow the drug machine
Corruptions grip is chilling us
These profits are obscene.
The same machine is teaching us
But truth has split in two
Politics dividing us
Like black and white – Red / Blue
So what’s the point of all of this
Life’s lack of Quality
The stories we’ve been told
Just push anxiety
The Church of Reason blinds us
To what is plain to see
The beauty that surrounds us
From sea to shining sea.
Song of Metaphysics
There is another way to see the world. Metaphysics is that simple.
At first this won’t be easy
But very soon you‘ll see
We’re confused by a description
The map is not the territory
The word is not the thing.
The financials aren’t the business
A new song now to sing.
A song of metaphysics,
Quality and stories
Stories create reality and
That’s how we arrange it.
We’re surrounded by a many dream, and
We can learn to change it.
You might say that it’s impossible
But it’s our thing to dream it.
We’ve always dreamed a many dream
And then we have achieved it.
Now that you have heard it
It won’t be hard to see
When we tell a story
We create reality.
Part 1: The Practical
Welcome to the Real World
Birth School Work Death
Input process output
Food the use and waste
Feeds another system
That must consume in haste
Delays just make us hungry
They burned what was desire
To try to make a difference
Or just toss it in the fire
Input process output
The word, your brain, your job
Feeding you some money
Your life, it seems, they rob
In truth you are the giver
Of time to the machine,
Retirement the vision of
Some future life serene.
First Job Out
I hated my first job out of college. I was an electrical engineer working in a windowless lab in the most sunless city in America.
One February, the news said there was only 20 hours of sunshine for the entire month. I am certain I didn’t see it.
I landed in a cubicle in a windowless office because I was supposed to land there.
It felt pre-determined. My brother landed there seven years before me and he was still there. I could not do this 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year for 40 years until I retired.
This was not good.
Still, I got up and went to work the next day and the next.
At Least the Rent was Cheap
When I got to Syracuse, I moved in with Speedo. He was living in the top half of a 50 year old house in a city neighborhood with big houses and wide streets.
Importantly, it was minutes from the bars around the Syracuse University.
Speedo was the first person I met at college. He was the Resident Advisor on my floor and my next door neighbor. He became a Resident Director, founded the Sigma Chi Fraternity was recognized with Clarkson’s highest on the Phalanx Leadership Award. He graduated a year before I did, moved to Syracuse and took at job at a well respected civil engineering firm, O’brien & Gere.
The Test of the Machine
It was there, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I’ve written all over my copy of the book. This highlight stood out.
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”
If You're Not Happy, Get Happy
One day Speedo came home and said he was going to quit his job and move to Park City, Utah.
Confusion flooded my mind. This was 1990. Working remotely was not an option. The Internet existed, but the language of hypertext and web browsers had not yet been invented yet so hardly anyone used it. There were barely any cell phones.
“What are you going to do for work?” I asked.
“Ski Patrol,” Speedo said
Speedo was a leader of our college community. A man I had respected for years. With two words he upended everything I’d been taught about life. You’re not allowed to do that – you studied civil engineering and you have a Good Job at a great engineering firm. That is what you are supposed to do.
As he was packing up his U-Haul, I peppered him with questions. What are you thinking? What about your career? What do your parents think?
Speedo paused and said:
“If you’re not happy, get happy.”
There isn’t any other test.
Definition of a Good Life
The philosophy that had been handed down to both of us was the traditional definition of success.
To get a Good Life I was told to:
- Get good grades to get into a good college.
- Have a paper route to save money for college.
- Become an Eagle Scout to win a scholarship to pay for college.
- Study things in college to get a good job.
- Work 50 or 60 hours a week until you retire.
- Save for retirement. Mow your grass, rake your leaves.
- Go to church every Sunday. Thy Will Be Done.
But that definition had lead to a job I hated and to the job Speedo was leaving.
From that cubicle farm in a windowless office, I began to question everything I was taught from Catholicism to the idea of retirement as a worthy goal.
If I Could Ask Any Question
If I could ask any question,
Where would I start?
Would I ask about music
Would I ask about art?
Would I ask about conquest?
And power and pain?
Or ask about truth
And justice or rain?
Would I ask about God
Or ask about men?
Commandments or laws and
What about Zen?
Would I ask what to value?
Would I ask what to do?
Why am I here?
And what about you?
What thing, if you knew it,
Would make your life better?
Ask it and ask it, but
Don’t wait for a letter.
All human knowledge of
What seems to be known
Won’t help you right now
So put down your phone.
Insights don’t come
From scrolling at night.
Just sit quietly, dear, and
Tap into what’s right.