The Gumption Function
My mom wasn’t Rosie the Riveter, but she was every bit as capable and bold.
Here is a very incomplete sampling of her talents:
- Appliance repair
- Auto repair
- Board & card games
- Crafts of all kinds
- Leather tooling
- Logic puzzles
- Macrame (yes kids, it existed pre-covid)
- Nursing (as a profession, but also at home. She once SuperGlued my brother’s head back together)
- Shooting (at tin cans, mainly)
- Square dancing
- Veterinary care (she spayed / neutered our pets herself)
- Wood burning
Not to mention her ability to car camp with four kids for two weeks straight…in a Ford van she converted herself by building box inserts and covering them with lawn cushions. (Yes, they slid forward whenever the driver braked hard, dumping us all on the floor. But hey, seat belts weren’t mandatory back then.)
Mom even had notions of taxidermy after finding a recently deceased Great Blue Heron on the roadside. Stuffed in a Hefty bag, it resided in our chest freezer for years, prohibiting any movement of the the sliding baskets and displacing the popsicles.
Mom was the living definition of gumption.
Shrewd and spirited initiative, resourcefulness, and imagination; these abounded. She had endless curiosity, teaching herself most of these skills before YouTube existed.
Where does gumption come from?
Mom inherited the tinkering gene from her father. Poppa was a Duke Engineering graduate who puttered endlessly in his shop, producing contraptions that were supposed to make life easier for my grandmother. Mimi herself was gifted as well. Despite severe arthritis that gnarled her hands and stilted her gait, she sewed clothes and made Instagram-worthy cakes for all occasions (a half-century before Instagram existed).
Certainly they all seeded my love of creativity, of games, of trying new things. Of industry and perseverance, too.
What was the source of their gumption? Both sets of my grandparents lived through the Great Depression when resourcefulness and resilience were required.
There was no throwaway fashion, no disposable electronics. People repaired engines, fixed furniture, patched trousers, darned socks. They were in it for the long haul, and they wanted things to last. Self-reliance was a mindset. Hope was their north star and gumption was their fuel.
“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.”
~Robert Pirsig, author Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Pirsig believed “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.”
Gearing up to take on complex tasks — whether tackling motorcycle maintenance, drafting a business plan, or doing your taxes — takes acumen and energy. Meeting these tasks head-on is peak gumption. But beware the traps.
Pirsig coined the term Gumption Traps: external events (“setbacks”) or ways of thinking (“hangups”) that sap motivation. If you’ve felt depleted lately, or lack enthusiasm for a project, you might be in a gumption trap. My trap usually is that I love to start things, but my enthusiasm wanes the longer a project goes. I lose energy, stall out, and need to refuel. That’s when I channel my mom, who was always willing to look at a challenge in a new way.
When I find myself in a trap and it’s time to get back to the front of my train, here are some things that help me get moving:
- Make a checklist
- Start an outline
- Take an inspiration break (music, art, design)
- Set a deadline
- Take a walk
- Play Wordle or another quick brain exercise
- Ask for help
- Remember my Why
What do you do? Let me know in the comments.
Today would have been Mom’s 85th birthday, had pancreatic cancer not taken her far too soon. I can only imagine she would have been elbow deep in new projects, learning new technologies, inventing new gadgets.
I may not have inherited her mechanical genius, but she did encourage me to pursue degrees in engineering and information systems. I don’t have Mom’s insatiable curiosity, but I’ll gladly dive down a Reddit rabbit hole. I also don’t have any roadkill in my deep freeze, but I do save wacky things in case they’ll be useful — just ask my long-suffering husband! In my quest to be more self-sufficient, my mom’s example lives on (as do her packrat tendencies).
When I find myself at a junction and need to gather gumption, I remember Mom’s unfailing confidence in her ability to create an outcome, even if she didn’t know yet how to get there. Faith enough to go forward into the unknown and figure it out.
I also remember her unfailing confidence in me. Will all her accomplishments, why would I start doubting her now?
p.s. Curious about your gumption quotient? In Gumptionade – The Booster For Your Self-Improvement Plan, Bob O’Connor shows that gumption is the power to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. He shows that gumption is courage + resourcefulness + common sense. Do you have buckets of gumption? This three-minute exercise is designed to give you some idea: