While listening to one of my greatest mentors (David Goggins), talk about his physical pursuits, he said something that immediately resonated with me. When asked about his thoughts about his own mental mastery, he brought up this idea of the theorist versus the practitioner. The (pure) theorist, he explained, is only half a scientist. One who sits behind a desk or in a lab and never sees the outside world with all its chaos, distractions, and messiness. While the practitioner is the person who actively engages a given task.
And I instantly fell in love with this idea.
At the risk of sounding dismissive about scientific data, I believe that we can classify theorists almost as passive learners of sorts. People that read textbooks, write journal articles, deliver or listen to lectures and write exams–usually in isolation. Conversely, active learners or practitioners, are those who ‘get their hands dirty’, they’re out in the field practicing, hustling, grinding and toiling away. It’s the practitioner who either applies the research gained by the theorists or does her own hands-on research herself. It’s the abstract versus the tangible.
One of the best examples that I can think of to illustrate this point, was when I was in Teacher’s College. Most of our school year was spent completing theory-based tasks in a university classroom in what could be characterized as scenario-driven learning. When it came time to complete the practical component of our studies–which was to work as student-teachers in actual classrooms, almost everyone echoed the same sentiments when we made our return back to our lecture halls. That we were all ill-prepared for the work that took place within the classrooms where we would hopefully be teaching someday.
Unlike pure theorists, practitioners understand that in order to learn something or get better at it, you need to go out into the ‘field’ and practice it.
Elite players like Michael Jordan or Serena Williams didn’t become professional basketball or tennis players by reading books about their respective sports. Nothing can or ever will, replace practice and personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong, theorists systematize, extrapolate, and publish given works and ideas. And they’re indeed important. But we also need people who go outside, take chances, get dirty, and see how the research is applied.