Check back periodically for new posts!

Swimming Upstream in the Current Ethos

February 13, 2019


Quality, Mastery, and Productive Activity


Robert Pirsig, George Leonard, and Erich Fromm are three of my favorite thinkers. They each have had a large influence on my life. They each embody a compassionate masculinity. And though they used different words and approached the topic from different angles, they were all interested in something similar.


Pirsig called it Quality. Leonard called it Mastery. Fromm called it Productive Activity.


Pirsig’s Quality occurs when an actor becomes so engaged in his or her act that there ceases to be a difference between the two — they became one. Leonard’s Mastery is a path; a lifelong practice of devotion to something or someone that yields unmatched fulfillment. Fromm’s Productive Activity is a process of using one’s full powers so that person and activity and result of activity are a single, continuous thread.


Unlike the more modern psychological concept flow, or a transient state of “being in the zone,” Quality, Mastery, and Productive Activity are enduring mindsets — underlying approaches to life that must be deliberately cultivated over time. They each result from deep caring and full engagement and point toward a way of living that is fulfilling, satisfying, and in harmony with the people and environment around you.


You’ve got to fully embrace what you’re doing — not every minute of it, but the totality of the journey — and you’ve got to be driven from within.


“Recognition is often unsatisfying and fame is like seawater for the thirsty. Love of

your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and good drink.” — Leonard


“The purpose of abolishing grades and degrees is not to punish mules or get rid of them but to provide an environment in which that mule can turn into a free man…He’d no longer be a grade-motivated person. He’d be a knowledge motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from the inside.” — Pirsig


Long-term meaning and fulfillment are often born out of struggle; but they beat short-term pleasure any day.


“Joy is what we experience in the process of growing nearer to the goal of becoming ourselves.” — Fromm


“For most people, the plateau can be a form of purgatory, flushing out hidden motivations…At the heart of it, mastery is a practice. Mastery is staying on the path.” — Leonard


True strength comes from humility and radical openness: Be caring, responsible, and respectful. Those who act toughest are often weakest.


“Caring, responsibility, respect, and knowledge are mutually interdependent. They are a syndrome of attitudes which are to be found in the mature person;that is, in the person who develops his own powers productively, who only wants to have what he has worked for, who has given up on narcissistic dreams of omniscience and omnipotence, who has acquired humility based on the inner-strength which only genuine Productive Activity can give.” — Fromm.


“The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.” — Pirsig


Cultivating a philosophy of life is a never-ending practice.


Pirsig’s Quality is about nurturing gumption, a persistent sticktoitiveness that withstands the resistance known as anxiety and ego. “I like the word gumption,” he writes, “because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along. I also like it because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption…A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.”


Leonard’s Mastery involves a five-step plan:

  • Seek instruction from those who are also on the path of mastery.

  • Practice continuously.

  • Surrender completely to your pursuit.

  • Rely on intuitive intention to direct the journey.

  • Don’t be scared to push on the razor’s edge.


Fromm’s Productive Activity is founded in four elements:

  • Self-discipline.

  • Concentration.

  • Patience.

  • Supreme concern.


Unfortunately, Quality, Mastery, and Productive Activity are antithetical to our current culture, which praises external results, prioritizes short-term gains over long-term growth, rewards the facade of toughness over humility, and pressures one toward conformity over individuality. Pursuing the path of Quality, Mastery, and Productive Activity is abnormal. But worth it.


You Are Not Your Beliefs


It can be incredibly maddening discussing just about any mildly controversial topic in our current environment. Discussions instantly turn into boxing matches, both sides taking to their corner and spewing out their best "facts" and arguments to back up their case.

Both sides sling arguments, likely regurgitating some television commentary they heard earlier. No one is really even listening. While one party is talking, the other is formulating their response, hoping for their own glorified "got ya" moment like they've seen so many times before on the latest cable-television news roundtable.

In the modern world, what was once constrained to the ill-timed mention of politics in an awkward moment at a family holiday gathering has permeated our day-to-day interactions and social media ranting.

But what seldom happens is that anyone changes their mind, or even considers doing so.

The reasons for this are endless: from no one actually listening, to a desire to "win," to our inbuilt confirmation bias.

But what I'm more concerned with is why we are so stubborn in the first place? Why does a belief on gun control, border walls, education, teaching sex ed, etc., rile us up so much that family relationships are strained and 100 comment threads on facebook ensue?

While there are a multitude of factors, I think it comes to one large misconception: we are our beliefs.

We intertwine what we believe with who we are. You can even see it in some of our verbiage. I am pro-choice/life. I am conservative/liberal.

When our beliefs and identity become interchangeable, it's no wonder that we react so defensively when an argument ensues. When we counter someone's views on gun control, they perceive it as a literal attack on their sense of self. You aren't addressing an argument, you are attacking them.

How do we combat our tendency to confuse our identity with what we believe? Step back and take a moment to realize that your beliefs will change, and that is totally and completely okay. Think back to when you were 10, 15, 20, 25, or 30?

Your beliefs on politics, religion, diets, fitness, training, and just about everything will shift, change, and sometimes completely flip. That's not a bad thing. If it comes from knowledge and introspection, it's great. Your beliefs should be based on evidence and understanding. Not based on how closely you currently identify with them.


If you want these newsletters delivered to your mailbox every week + membership to the Peak Performance book club + the most interesting links we come across each week, subscribe here!


To keep the conversation going, reach out to us online:

Twitter: @Bstulberg and @Stevemagness
Facebook: Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg
Instagram: Steve Magness
Youtube: Steve Magness

For past issues, view our archive.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Buy the Book!

the passion paradox flat_edited.jpg

Most Popular Articles

Join 10,000 others and subscribe to the Peak Performance newsletter!

Buy the Book!

the passion paradox flat_edited.jpg
  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon