He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. – Leonardo da Vinci
The real world is complicated and one lifetime is not enough to learn anything about it. We’re lucky we live in an age where we can learn from others, and all we need to do is pick up a book and read.
Reading is important because people can talk a lot without saying very much. Writing is harder, it takes effort to construct sentences that make sense. And it’s much easier to parse them and decide whether they’re useful or plausible or probably wrong.
Of course people can write a lot of rubbish too, spinning a single idea into a 300 page epic but good writing, peer-reviewed academic writing, tries to avoid doing that. Each sentence in a paper has value, or should have value. It should be useful to the reader – explaining context, explaining what’s new and novel and explaining why the reader should care. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write a good paper. And why you should be receptive if you come across a good one.
In some disciplines ideas are enough – pure mathematics does not have to concern itself with the real world in order to do its thing. In the real world, however, theory and practice are inextricably intertwined. Your ideas about how people behave will affect the ways in which you treat them. If you believe people are fundamentally lazy you’ll create high-control organisations. If you think they are creative, you’ll allow latitude and space for exploration. If you think they can be trusted you’ll be happier with flexible working. What you think – the theories you hold – have a direct connection with the systems you construct.
And even an simple word like “system” will bring out the theory pedants. For some people a “system” is something that exists, like a computer system or a healthcare system. For others a “system” is a mental construct, they don’t exist in the real world but are instead mental models that people use to make it easier to think about the world out there.
The point of theory, however, is not to fight over the meaning of words but to help you do something useful. So what is theory anyway. Peter Checkland talks about it as a framework of ideas – related, connected thoughts that seem to explain why things work the way they do and can help guide action. Everyone has a framework of ideas that underpins how they act even if they’re not aware that it exists.
Once you take action you can reflect on your framework of ideas – first becoming aware of their existence and then critically evaluating the elements of the framework. It’s like a ball bouncing back and forth, first theory or maybe first practice – then to the other and back again. Theory guiding practice and practice informing theory. It’s a gradual process of awakening, becoming aware, questioning, seeking, developing, critiquing, arguing and explaining. In a nutshell, learning.
Life is about learning, learning about yourself, learning about the world and the people in it, and learning how you can make a difference.