In theory…

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many books about learning to ride a bicycle? What is there to explain? Turn the pedals when you want to move; the handlebars are for changing direction; use the back brakes for slowing down. It’s actually a straightforward enough thing to explain, but that’s not how we learn to ride a bike. A book can only explain how to do something; it can’t actually teach you to do it. The only way of learning how to do it is to do it. I know exactly how to play the piano – I understand it in great detail, but I can’t actually play the piano.

James Dyson famously tried 5,127 prototype designs when creating the first cyclone vacuum cleaner. He had taken a look at the maths behind the process and decided that the only way of really understanding it was by doing it, looking at the results, changing something, trying again, and so on. Not every change made a positive difference, of course, and some needed to be reversed. But it was a process of continuous improvement.

On a much bigger scale, and over a considerably longer time period, careers follow the same track – one of continuous improvement – looking at what works, what doesn’t, making changes steadily over time. Graduates and school-leavers are at the start of the process. They know how to be engineers, media analysts, doctors, meteorologists and so on – they just aren’t those things… yet. The only way they will become those things is by practising. There are plenty of doctors – “fully qualified” after intensive (and lengthy) university study – who readily admit to having been utterly terrified by their first contact with real patients, realising that they didn’t really know what they were doing. They knew all the theory, but none of the practice. It reminds me of a great quote (attributed to several people):

“In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.”

If it were simply a matter of knowing “loads of stuff”, we’d be fine with study. But clearly study isn’t enough on its own; we need the practice too. Work experience isn’t just a luxury for the few – it is part of the entire education process itself. It’s what actually qualifies someone to do the job, and to be the engineer, media analyst, doctor or meteorologist.


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