In my spare time, I enjoy tinkering with a 1987 Toyota Celica that I bought for $1000. I love this car, perhaps a little too much given my determination not to be materialistic, but it naturally has some of the irritations that come with a car that is 25 years old. I’ve found that my desire to correct its little defects sometimes falls victim to a gumption trap.
Robert Pirsig coined the term “gumption trap” in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A Wikipedia article on gumption traps describes them as “an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and become discouraged from starting or continuing a project.”
Pirsig divides these into two categories, setbacks and hang-ups. Setbacks are largely external, such as things not falling into place as you hoped, or unanticipated obstacles. Hang-ups (yeah, I know the word is somewhat dated) are largely internal in origin like anxiety or boredom.
Here are some of my most common gumption traps:
- Procrastination – Nothing is as demotivating to me as putting off what needs to be done and, as a result, getting a late start. I’m embarrassed to say that even a 15-minute delay in my morning routine represents a disproportionate obstacle to me! Antidote: I’ve learned by now that my best bet is to actually front-load anything I have to do; do as much of the work as early in the process as possible. Mondays are very important, as is the first few days of any project!
- Negative people – By creed, I believe I’m to love everyone, but there are people I find it difficult to like. I figure life is challenging enough without surrounding yourself with those who want to focus on what’s wrong. A definite gumption trap for me! Antidote: To paraphrase ancient wisdom, when you encounter someone trying to steal your happiness, wish him or her a silent blessing and move on.
- The wrong tools or not knowing how to use the right tools – Sometimes this is a literal problem, as I’ve found that my expert mechanic neighbor has just about every tool imaginable, while I do not. Sometimes this is just a metaphor, for example, my lack of musical talent works against me as I struggle valiantly to learn to play piano. Antidote: Learn that cultivating proper use of the tool is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. For example, learning proper public speaking will build you up in ways besides simply enabling you to accomplish that specific task.
- Looking to others to solve my problems – I’m much better about this than I was at one time in my life, but I still need to stay on guard to not be passive in the face of dissatisfaction. Antidote: You arrived where you are by many small or large decisions. That’s how you’ll make your way elsewhere.
Gumption is about enthusiasm, and maintaining your enthusiasm is largely about dealing with disappointment (as described in this excellent post by Mark Goulston). Notice those things that sap your enthusiasm, anticipate them and figure out how to avoid them, for it’s much easier to avoid a gumption trap than to climb out of it!