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The Difference Between Theory and Practice

... and the Role Of Our Own Experience

Peter Pröll

Article by Peter Proell
Reading time: ca. 10 min


In our language usage, there are countless proverbs, sayings, and formulations that question the practical usefulness of theory:

  • "All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life."
  • "The practice is golden, the theory is wooden."
  • "Theoretically yes, ... but practically?"

They imply that individual experience is of immense value and more relevant to practice than any theory - in stark contrast to scientific knowledge, which is perceived as less helpful for the concrete situation.

However, every action is based on assumptions, beliefs, and hypotheses, in other words, on theory. The result of our actions - or rather, our interpretation of the result - is finally recorded as experience. Theory and practice cannot be separated. Sayings and proverbs that claim otherwise want to ignore existing knowledge and speak to a deeply rejecting attitude towards intellectuality, science, and thinking.

Think first and then act, and while acting, always keep thinking in mind.

Our theories, upon which we act, are often not conscious to us, and most of the time they are even contradictory. This also makes our actions unconscious and contradictory. An entrepreneur who described himself as 'very pragmatic' once claimed to me stiffly and firmly that he always acts without theory. That was the strongest contradiction in one's unconscious theory that I have encountered to date. Unconsciousness and contradictions are anything but unproblematic.

This frequent, invidious comparison of the practical and the theoretical with respect to the management of human resources has been a severe handicap to the progress in this field. [...] It has permitted the quack and the charlatan to peddle worthless gimmicks and programs.

Theory and practice cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. If we don't want to become victims of our own unconsciousness or even of quacks and charlatans, but rather act effectively, we must begin to think on the level of theories and create awareness. This often results in surprising insights - but it is demanding and challenging. In other words: we must want to do it!

After a lecture on behavior and engagement in companies, a guest approached me. He was completely enthusiastic, as illuminating and becoming aware of previously unconscious assumptions had given him completely new and more effective perspectives for action. THAT is the practical implication of theory-based work. Effectiveness and new options for action only arise through good theory.

A good theory must be appropriate to reality.

And how should we categorize our experiences? Experience is based on what happens to us through our actions in practical terms, which in turn depends on the theories and assumptions that underlie our actions. Experiences are thus dependent on our own theories and determined by them. If we are not aware of our theories, we have no way of shaping our worlds of experience.

But it gets even more devilish. There are only two types of experiences. On the one hand, there are experiences that confirm our theories - whether they are conscious or unconscious. On the other hand, there are experiences that have the potential to bring down our less suitable beliefs and often our entire worldview like a house of cards, thus offering the possibility of verifying or falsifying our theories. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous and vain fallacy! Neuroscience shows us that experiences that contradict our theories are filtered and reinterpreted in our perception in such a way that they appear confirming again. Without awareness of our theories, we are inevitably stuck in a circle. We keep confirming ourselves and are doomed to make the same experiences over and over again.

Experience is a bitch!

If we heavily rely on our experiences ("but in my experience..."), then in consequence, we only believe what we want to believe. This is both arrogant and dangerous. Fans of The Matrix would talk about the "blue pill". If we are satisfied with the status quo and our experiences, then that may seem valid to us. However, if we strive for a deeper understanding, consciousness, and true effectiveness in our actions, and if we want to gain the freedom to be able to switch and choose our worlds of experience, then we must inevitably begin at the level of theory, become aware of our assumptions and beliefs, check and dust them off. So, in the end, it's better to take the "red pill".

There is nothing more practical than a good theory!

Scientific theory and evidence beyond our deceptive experience are extremely helpful. Science is always trying to break self-deception and look deeper than just the superficial perception of our experiences. When our own experience contradicts the scientific theory, a learning opportunity arises. We should then find out why there is a contradiction ("Why did I have a different experience at this point?") instead of splitting the theory ("sounds good in theory") from reality ("but in practice..."). This works best through reading to build knowledge and identify contradictions and learning opportunities. And in subsequent discourse, to resolve contradictions and turn knowledge into applicable understanding.

Theory is not gray or wooden. All these proverbs and prejudices do not do justice to it. It is very much alive! And without it, there is no practice.

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