Blending theory and practice in a busy world

By Emerson Csorba

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.” — Elias & Merriam

Back in the summer of 2013, I sat down in an Italian restaurant in Munich, Germany, and had a discussion with my research supervisor Heather that has played an important role in where I am today. Seeing that I could head down a variety of life paths, she stated that I should forego academia completely and pursue business, spending even more time on Gen Y Inc. It was a tremendously valuable conversation: one that was tough in the moment, but worthwhile in the long term. Now a growing business with more opportunities coming down the pipeline, the company has significant potential and has brought with it invaluable learning.

During my time as a University of Alberta student, taking Sciences Politiques, I did well in classes, though never really learned much of value in them. Yes, multiculturalism/interculturalism, a basic understanding of the Canadian political system and Aristotelean political philosophy are all interesting; however, what use are they if one only talks about these things? During five years on campus, and in the ten months of co-leading a company full time, my learning outside of class has been of immense value — much more than anything discussed in conversations with peers during in-class lectures.

And so it was clear by my final year in class that academia is clearly not the happy life for me. I still question how someone can truly learn and understand something unless they have experienced it for themselves, going through the ups and downs of a particular challenge as opposed to simply talking about it. It’s one thing to discuss marketing theory in a textbook, reading the relevant “literature”; it’s another to get your hands dirty and learn how marketing tactics (articles in the media, for instance), can be used to manipulate people — for good or for bad. These experiences matter; they provide insights into human psychology and can be applied well throughout life.

Similarly, it’s one thing to talk about the Canadian political system in class, and argue about who a Premier will select as their new cabinet. But it’s another to go out there, meet the decision-makers, bring value to a team and influence decisions. In each case, the latter is what should garner respect — after all, this is the mark of someone who has gone out and learned first-hand. These people have internalized knowledge; the experiences have become a part of them. In short, they understand, or are at least working toward understanding deeply.

With that said, however, it is possible to act and nevertheless fail to reflect — and in turn, fail to grow. Although the in-class readings might have been tricky at the time, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” Marcus Aurelius’ “The Meditations” and Albert Bandura’s “The Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths” have been formative reads in my own development, shaping how I approach life. They complement the in-person experiences and make the reflection all the more rich. These reflections and de-briefs following volunteer and business engagements — some successful and some requiring improvement — are what allow us to take a few steps back but then jump forward, just as one gathers momentum and leaps across a creek. This reflection and introspection is meditative, in a way, and requires time set aside in our busy, hyperconnected world.

It’s with this in mind that I return to a quote shared by my research supervisor Heather during one of our presentations in Germany: “Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.” Had there been no desire to get my hands dirty and learn first-hand over the last five years, that conversation in Germany would never have occurred. However, it is the thinking and reflection following this conversation that has taken me to where I sit today: in an Iceland airport at 4:00 am MT (!), with a strong company and experiences that will further allow for learning and growth.

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