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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

The Theory Trap

How many people do you know who are professional learners?

They spend all their time researching, reading and learning but spend very little time actually putting into action the things they have learned. We call this The Theory Trap. When leaders are so focused and immersed in the theoretical aspects of a topic or project, they spend all their time there rather than executing. For example, we may want to learn a new language, go on a diet, become better at parenting, save or invest our money, and so on. So, we read books, blogs and tweets. We watch videos, listen to podcasts and other things. We overdo the learning side and fall into the theory trap.

There is no denying that if we do not have adequate knowledge that our project or initiative will perish. Our assumption lies somewhere within the notion that if we have better information, our results will be better. We think a new result requires new information. What we eventually (hopefully) realize is that new knowledge does not necessarily drive new results. Sometimes, learning something new can be a waste of time if the goal is to make progress. When we engage in practicing something, we are taking the action of deliberate repetition of the process with the intention of reaching a specific goal, such as improvement of the process or the result.

Deliberate and intention are our keywords because they indicate the difference between being active about practice instead of being passive in learning. Learning something new and practicing something new are very different activities and can yield very different results.

Learning something new can feel good. It can be exciting to our brains, specifically the Broca which has not taken in this information in the past, so it’s stimulated. This activity can be addictive like a drug which also can stimulate parts of our brains with chemicals. Learning something new can have an effect like this as well, and if we have particular driving motivational forces hard-wired into us, this feeling can be something we end up chasing because we enjoy it.

Practicing something new can also feel good. This excites people in the same way the learning would, but it is exciting particularly to goal-driven and results-driven individuals. These types of people can also get caught in a trap of sorts, always doing and never stopping to learn better methods and ways of doing things.

Getting caught up in the theory trap can actually be a way to avoid taking action on the goals and plans we make, and we say are important. Sometimes, reading a book or watching a video can make you feel like you are making progress on the goal without actually practicing the action that would advance you toward the outcome.

Learning to a point you get caught in the theory trap is not practice because you are not discovering how to apply your knowledge. Knowledge is not power but potential power. Applied knowledge is true power because that power is being expended toward movement in the direction of a tangible outcome.

Knowledge is not power but potential power. Applied knowledge is true power because that power is being expended toward movement in the direction of a tangible outcome.

Practicing your knowledge actively allows you to gain even more knowledge outside of theory because the mistakes you make while practicing reveal valuable insights. These insights help you improve your performance the next time you practice. Learning by itself can be valuable for you, but if you want to be valuable to others (which is the source of how we all get paid) you have to express your knowledge in some tangible and helpful way.

Getting yourself caught in a theory trap does not lead to progress. Don’t hide behind information or use learning as an excuse to delay the more difficult and more important choice of actually taking an action toward your vision, your dreams, your plans and your goals. Reasons and excuses are not going to get you where you want to go, true powerful results come from an obsession with getting yourself to take action.

For more resources, sign up for Tony’s Monday Morning Coaching Memo.

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