Theory vs Experience

Jan 5, 2015 · 4 min read

I wrote in my note for 2014 that “I think I’ve got some know-whats and it’s now time to translate them into the know-hows.”

After a year, I think I learned know-hows: to build a program, to work in a team, to deal with some people. But this kind of knowledge is not yet very valuable. For instance, from my own observations and research, I think I had a better conceptual understanding of how human relationships work. Now I need to experience myself to test if these conceptual understandings are flawed. Only then can I say I know it, and that knowledge becomes mine truly. “Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom”, to quote Siddhartha in the same novel by Hermann Hesse.

What is better, experience or theory? I believe most if not all would vote for the experience. I used to think simpler, “experience is king”. This view perhaps came as an extreme reaction to my childhood years of formal education with mostly irrelevant facts. I used to think that I’m very much a rebellious do-er by nature who regards rules in a very healthy way: “rules are guidelines applicable for 80% of the population — otherwise they would have been called laws”.

Yet when I started reading books in high school and browsing the internet, I fell in love with digging the theories too, especially about how people think and behave because I can rapidly test them in my own life. One of the best-and-worst feelings occurs when I realized that there was a theory that explains exactly my problem, after so much struggling on my own on projects like physical training or studying or dealing with people. I felt stupid (“Why didn’t I know this sooner!”) and motivated at the same time (“Darn, there seems to be a theory for everything I do”). Apparently if I look hard enough in this era of internet, someone else may have gone through a similar ordeal and done it better.

As a result I swung from “experience only” camp to the “too much theories” camp within a short period of time. Because Google is so readily available, I look up stuff so often to the point that I’m somewhat ashamed for my over-reliance sometimes. One thing I learned from my Computer Science class is that premature optimisation (aka trying too hard to be the best when I am not even that good yet) is the bane of programmers. It is like decorating the roof of a ten-story building while ignoring building the walls. This quote “Beware of too much cleverness” by the Buddha in the same novel Siddhartha sticked in my mind ever since high school. It’s a good warning for the over-analyzing tendency and the glorification of reason that pervades the environment and dominates my thinking right now.

Having been to both extremes camps, I can now find a balance. My current goal in life is still to learn and to help others learn, and I believe that the best way to learn is to enter any situation with a guess. Not necessarily my guess though. As much as I love coming up with my own “theory” and testing it out, if I judge someone else’s guess as better I’d be happy to go for that. If it produces good result, why not? One problem solved, more time to tackle more interesting problems. The more important advantage of adopting this approach is that it is still the doing that makes a piece of knowledge truly mine. It may be your idea, but it is my experiences. Of course, I am very thankful and will give you a lot of credit too. You feel good for helping me; I feel good for having my own problem solved; we live together in a better place.

Out of all the metaphors for life, I think one that resonated with me the most right now is “Life as a series of experiments”. If the ultimate weapon of seasoned adults is experience, then for young people is called Experiment. But I don’t want to spend too much time re-testing a theory. Sometimes it is nice to comfort myself or others people from making a mistake: “It is the experiment that fails. You succeeds in learning something new”. But I’m still not satisfied: why do I have to make the same mistakes that many others have made? I still haven’t figured out a good answer. Maybe you could help.

Going back to the original question: What is better, experience or theory? Regardless of the answer, I should just dismiss this unhelpful question. Because the best way is experience AND theory. Life is too short to be solving unworthy problems with plain guesses.

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    Khuyen Bui

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    I write to 1) con-fuse, or “mingle together” stories & storytellers 2) surprise myself 3) make meaningful distinctions. bit.ly/enzymeforthoughts-archive

    The Coffeelicious

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