February 16, 2021

Why Practical Application is the Best Way to Learn

I love reading, and I love learning. As you’re reading this, I guess you do too. But, despite my fondness of it, reading can only take you so far in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is one thing to learn about something by studying the theory of it, a la academia; it is an entirely different thing to go out into the world and do it. If you want to gain a deep understanding of a subject or develop a skill, you must experience it first-hand.

Take tennis as an arbitrary example. You could read everything ever written about playing the game. You could learn from the world’s best trainers listen to the secrets about technique and strategy that only the pros know. Does that mean that you could enter Wimbledon and hold your own? I don’t think so. For that, you would have to put in thousands of hours of practice on the court.

If you wanted to learn how to draw, you could spend years studying art history books and watching every YouTube tutorial you can find. But until you sit down and start drawing, you are never going to improve your ability.

It’s the same with martial arts. You could consume all the instructional resources in the world, but anyone with a modicum of training would school you if you went into combat with them. There is no substitute for first-hand experience and practice.

As the legendary Bruce Lee said;

“I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear one man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.”

When you experience something first-hand, especially over and over again, you develop an intimate understanding of it and discover details that can never be learned by study alone. There is a phrase I love that expresses this profound idea elegantly:

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice, there is.”

Don’t mistake having strong theoretical knowledge of something for a deep practical understanding of it. There is a philosophical thought experiment known as Mary’s Room, which illustrates this idea. Here’s the simplified version:

Mary is a world-class neurologist. She knows everything there is to know about how humans perceive colour. Yet, Mary has spent her entire life in a room that is decorated in monochrome, engaging with the outside world via video link that uses a black and white monitor. When Mary steps outside of the room and perceives colour in the real world for the first time, does she learn anything new?

I think it should be evident that Mary experiencing colour first-hand is qualitatively different from her theoretical knowledge of it.

How practice is different from theory

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule for acquiring mastery is well known these days. If you want to get good at something, you have to become experienced at doing it. Only then can you foresee and find solutions to the inevitable difficulties you will encounter when conducting all but the most basic of tasks.

Reality is more nuanced and unpredictable than any of us could imagine. Once you start engaging in an activity, you quickly realise that almost everything contains dozens of intricacies that cannot be accounted for by theoretical learning alone. These intricacies are hard to observe and can only be understood through first-hand experience.

This idea of theory being a poor substitute for practice applies to almost everything in life. Think how hard learning to drive a car was initially, even though you probably theoretically knew how to do it before you ever sat behind the wheel. Or imagine learning how to tie your shoelaces if you only had written instructions but no laces to practice with.

You probably wouldn’t be able to do it now, as an adult, let alone when you were a child. It was first-hand experience, not theoretical knowledge, that enabled you to develop these everyday skills.

Why this matters

These isolated examples may be small in scale, but the principle behind them also applies in contexts with greater complexity. Try building a business with a strong theoretical foundation in business management but no real-world experience. You will be in unchartered waters and on a new phase of the learning curve once your venture is off the ground.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Mike Tyson

Expect to encounter a few surprises and take a few knocks once you move from having things worked out on paper to real-world execution.

This concept has implications for how education is delivered and who you should look to learn from.

Mathematician Alfred Korzybski is famous for the coining the phrase  “The map is not the territory.” The academic environment is primarily structured around learning through theory. Its appearance of rigour, supported by a heavy emphasis on referencing respected sources, tricks us into over-emphasising the importance of theoretical understanding.

No matter how in-depth it may be, theoretical learning is still a reduction of reality. It is limited by its very nature, as illustrated by the thought experiment of Mary’s Room. Even if a conceptual model is useful, it must be applied correctly to be of value. Ultimately, it is the practical application of a theory (as well as the theory’s accuracy) that determines its effectiveness.

Theory only states what should happen, not what happens in reality. Even the most sophisticated theoretical models aren’t 100% accurate. Despite the use of advanced models and a wealth of real-time data, weather forecasts are frequently wrong, even in the short-term. Vaccines might be designed in the lab, but they still must be tested in the real world before we know whether they work.

Theory-based education is not enough

The aphorism, “Those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach,” is generally pretty accurate. There is no substitute for experience.

When evaluating the expertise of teachers and mentors, assess their real-world achievements before putting stock in their claims. A lack of experience often correlates to a lack of credibility.

Beware of the academic who has never had success in the field that they teach outside of academia. Beware the out of shape fitness instructor. Beware the business coach who has no track record of building successful businesses. If they haven’t done it themselves, how could they possibly know?

College graduates often get a shock when they enter the workplace for the first time. After three years of studying a subject, they usually think they have a good grasp of it. Yet they commonly start their first job and feel like they don’t have a clue what they are doing. The theoretical knowledge gathered in the classroom is often barely relevant or applicable in the real-world environment.

If you consider yourself knowledgeable about a subject that you have little first-hand experience in, you probably know less than you think you do. Conventional wisdom says that you don’t truly know something unless you can explain it simply enough for a six-year-old to understand. That level of simplification can be surprisingly hard to accomplish. All that detail you can draw on from books isn’t going to land with a six-year-old. True wisdom is born from direct experience and reflection. An afternoon of practice at something can be more enlightening than years of study.

The value of practice

Theoretical knowledge has value, of course. Theory and practise are two sides of the same coin. They inform and contextualise one other, and they add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Knowing what works best is great, but understanding why it works can help you get higher up the learning curve. Don’t rely solely on one or the other; ideally, you want both. But, if you must choose between them, go with practice every time.

Let’s put this another way; to become a heart surgeon, you have to graduate from med school, which requires a lot of theoretical studies. But who would you want to perform surgery on you? The top of the class graduate on their first day in theatre, or the experienced surgeon who finished middle of the class but has performed hundreds of successful surgeries? I’m guessing you would take the second option.

Practice, in the sense of deliberate repetition, is like shovelling snow off the path; every time you do it, it becomes easier to get to where you want to be. Don’t let a lack of theoretical knowledge hold you back from doing something you’re interested in.

Experience is the best way to learn. Take the plunge. Have fun, and worry about theory later. By stepping over the threshold, you begin your journey and open yourself up to discover more than you ever thought there was to know.

And, when looking for teachers, mentors and people to learn from, check their track record. Judge their credibility based not on what they understand in theory, but on what they have accomplished in reality. Because experience and failure are the greatest teachers of all.