Experience vs. TheoryI’m not a fan of the educational system that I was brought up with because I feel like I didn’t receive the maximum benefit from it. What I mean by that is that the two things I dreaded most throughout my school years (including college), reading and studying, are now two of my favorite activities.

In school, we’re taught theory and in many cases, we’re not really told how it can be used in real life. We’re forced to read and learn what others think we should read and learn and are often discouraged from learning about the things we’re most interested in. It’s no wonder that so many billionaires, who play by their own set of rules and focus on what they’re interested in, are dropouts who had no interest in learning about theory and instead opted to go out and try things out in the real world. Life, after all, isn’t a spectator sport.

The subject area that I expend so much of my energy with is public speaking — which is a perfect example of a subject where theory is almost useless. No matter how much you read about public speaking, you won’t become a great speaker unless you get up and do it. Likewise, you won’t become a successful entrepreneur by reading books and taking courses — you need to start a business.

Now does this all mean that theory is completely useless? Absolutely not. Again, two of my favorite activities are reading and learning, but in order to gain anything from either of those activities I need to put them into practice. You need both the learning and the experience to move forward. The experience is what moves you forward, the learning is what gets you there faster and with less bumps in the road. The challenge is to find the equilibrium point to provide yourself with the maximum benefit.

If you spend all your time learning, you’ll be able to talk a good game but you won’t go anywhere. If you spend all your time on experience, you may get places but risk a rougher road than necessary. This is why you need to experiment. When your learn something new, try it out right away. You’ll not only learn right away if it’s helpful, but if it is useful, you’ll remember it more because you’ve experienced it.

Keep in mind that it’s easier for us to remember experiences over theory. If you read an article (or even an entire guidebook) on a place you’ve never been, chances are you won’t be as familiar with it as a place that you’ve actually been to — even if you haven’t been to that place in over five years.

The reason for this is that experiences touch all five senses. For example, I’ve never been to Italy, but my grandparents and my mom were all born there, a number of friends and family members have been there and I’m in the process of planning a trip there in the next couple years. I’m extremely interested in Italy, but I couldn’t provide you with any advice if you were to be heading out there. However, if you were ask me about Las Vegas, where I’ve only been once (in 2001), I could give you plenty of advice because I have experiences there. I could tell you about how great the food tasted and which restaurants I enjoyed. I could tell you about the awe I felt as I watched the dancing water outside of the Bellagio set to some of my favorite music — and the scene at the end of the film, Ocean’s 11, does not do it justice, even on the big screen.

Looking back at high school and college, my favorite professors and teachers were those that did things other than teach- especially those that ran businesses since that was what I was most interested in. This was because they would share their experiences related to what they were teaching. And of course, the information that I have retained from my school years (even if they were decades ago) has been things that I have experienced. I tell my public speaking classes about a presentation that I bombed during my freshman year of high school about the lessons learned from there.

If you find that books, courses and the like aren’t helping you as much as you’d like them to, try putting the things you’re learning into practice and see where it takes you.

Personal Success: Experience vs. Theory
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3 thoughts on “Personal Success: Experience vs. Theory

  • September 8, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Excellent write-up. I never found theory interesting myself. Just like Jurassic Park three where Sam Neil’s character contrasts astronauts with astronomers. Life is much more interesting when you’re out there seeing things up close.

    “Success is how you define it”

  • April 27, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Very solid piece of writing James. I am just starting to try and apply this to my life. As someone who has struggled with hiding in his house more than battling anxiety/depression and going out into the world, I sit at home and read a lot of the times.

    Sometimes, that’s definitely what you feel like doing but there’s only so much you can accomplish with theory.

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