Several years ago, a friend recommended I pick up a copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book is a fictional account of a multi-day motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, in which the main character reflects on and grapples, philosophically, with what defines quality. I could understand why my friend recommended it. I have a conspicuous penchant for thoughtful, well-crafted products and my wife and I had recently returned from a multi-day adventure of our own on our shiny, red, Italian Vespa. However, in reading the novel, I found myself frustrated with the focal character, Phaedrus, and his maniacally inconclusive search for the meaning of quality.
I interact with quality objects—and occasionally their counterpart, poorly made objects—on a daily basis. I spend my days servicing and restoring primarily high-grade wristwatches. Over the course of my career, I’ve taken apart and rebuilt everything from Dollar Watches to six-figure Patek Philippe masterpieces. I can tell you, with utmost veracity, that it is not by happenstance that brands like Patek and Rolex have earned their reputation for high quality timepieces. Their products—and all of the ancillary supporting aspects developed around them—are designed and crafted with a long view. The materials they select to craft their timepieces from are durable and assiduously refined. Their cases and bracelets are forged from solid, noble metals that can be refinished to look like new. The fit and finish of components, inside and out, is impeccable. Deep thought and extensive testing are invested in each and every design detail; right down to the free-sprung balance wheel in all of the brands’ modern calibres, which enables them to keep more accurate time, for longer, than their competitors who skimp on this detail, unbeknownst to most purchasers. All of their timepieces are conceived of with their perpetuity in mind and well-considered affordances are made to facilitate their serviceability. Both brands have invested in building a broad service network to care for their clients’ watches over the longterm and, thanks to their thoughtful construction, when properly cared for, a timepiece from either marque will outlive its original owner.
It is, perhaps, because Phaedrus failed to look beyond the scope of his own existence that he and, by extension, his alter-ego, Pirsig, failed to define quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality outlasts us. Horween leather is renowned for its long-lasting durability. My titanium belt buckle will never wear through, like plated, base-metal buckles do, and its featherweight lightness augments its intended utility in keeping my pants up. My Osprey pack has seen near daily use for more than a decade and is no worse for wear than the day I first donned it. By contrast, I used to go through backpacks on a near annual basis. My Maui Jim sunglasses have proven resilient through a number of mishaps and, beyond their merit of outstanding protection from harmful UV radiation, their clarity and colour-saturation render me excited to wear them time and again. When my wife and I purchase a piece of furniture, we consider its construction carefully and endeavour only to invest in solid pieces we can foresee abiding with us for a lifetime. I found the book frustrating because the common thread that ties products like these and so many other quality objects together is clear as day to me: They endure.
Less tangible articles of quality, like music or literature, also endure. Centuries on, Shakespeare’s soliloquies still resonate with the inner thoughts of millions. Likewise, in the hands of skilled musicians, Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude can still stop people in their tracks and spellbind a crowd.
In computer programming, quality code is performant and written with clarity. Clearly written code that performs poorly, is bound to be rewritten, while performant code that is incomprehensible is liable to be disposed of when the codebase gets refactored in the future. Even better than clear & performant code, is code that is also intelligibly & concisely abstracted, enabling it to endure in multiplicity beyond the initial problem it was crafted to solve.
There are a multitude of factors that go into making a quality product—thoughtfulness, attention to detail, prudent selection of material—but all of these feed into the end result: A product that is built to last.
Quality is enduring.