Learn by Doing, Then by Thinking

Danger: Hubris
Creative Commons License photo credit: toolmantim

Seth Roberts talks about his graduate school days and how he got into self-experimentation by way of the axiom that, “The best way to learn is to do:”

And then I was in the library and I came across an article about teaching mathematics and the article began, “The best way to learn is to do.” And I thought “Huh well that makes a lot of sense.” And I realized you know that it was a funny thing that that’s what I wasn’t doing: I was thinking. And I also thought to myself well I want to learn how to do experiments. And if the best way to learn is to do then I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do. And that was really a vast breakthrough in my graduate training and everything changed after that.

Quoted from a 10 minute presentation by Seth Roberts

Roberts’ goes on to apply these ideas to graduate students and professors, when he notes, “Grad students … worry too much about what to do. Professors often … do something more complex than necessary.”

This is a simple, but enormously important idea: we learn more by doing first than by thinking first. The idea lies at the foundation of empiricism. Despite its simple power, it seems that across all aspects of life, we show a clear preference for thinking over doing. Why?

One reason may be that we overestimate our ability to “figure things out” by thought alone—generally, this is hubris. Another reason for this preference for thinking is poor assumptions. For the novice, the presumption is that less experience, or fewer trials under your belt, must be supplanted with more reasoning and thought. Alternatively for the expert, the problem is reliance on accumulated experience to create a basis for reliable reasoning and thought.

Regardless of the “Why?,” thinking before doing causes problems. Specifically:

  • Thinking results in unnecessary complexity, which obfuscates our ability to interpret results,
  • Thinking sets expectations, biasing analysis towards certain results, and
  • Thinking is time-intensive, reducing resources that could be used doing.

These problems hinder our ability to learn—not just in scientific experiments, but in virtually every aspect of our lives. Here are just a few examples where I’ve seen the problem manifested:

  • Our education system is founded on thinking over doing. School boards think through what subjects students should learn. Even when choice is introduced such as in college, there are enormous costs to trying a lot of disparate subjects. Not surprisingly, students get locked into fields of study only to learn when it’s too expensive to do anything about it that they don’t particularly enjoy their chosen major. Conversely, look at blogging, which seems to result in a great deal of knowledge gathering, but is driven heavily by random curiosity.
  • More on blogging. Perhaps the triumph of blogging lies in the thoughtlessness of it. Sure, you put plenty of thought into a blog post as you are writing it, but unlike writing a book, the blog post is so much cheaper that you end up having many more iterations and much less “thinking” behind each individual post. Contrast blogging to the editorial thinking that is put into mainstream journalism. This thinking results in a lot of censorship — not in the classic “You can’t use that word” sense, but in the “I think your idea should be altered in X, Y, Z ways.” The result? More complex ideas. Fewer ideas. Bad ideas. (Added 4/17/09)
  • The same problem is seen with career choices. We think our way into a certain career versus learning what works and what doesn’t work by simply trying out different types of work. We try to think our way into figuring out our passions. It just doesn’t work.
  • Or apply the idea to William Glasser’s Control Theory. Glasser argues that it is difficult to impossible to change what we think or feel about something that happens to us. Thus, our best course of action is to simply do something.
  • Or consider another book: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert makes the point that, “We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.” Thinking through what we want is something we all do, yet it rarely is effective at leading to happiness. How often do we finally get what we want only to realize that the experience is not what we expected? This is a failure of thought.
  • Nassim Taleb harps on overreliance on thinking all the time. The Black Swan is essentially a book about hubris and the misguided belief that we can think through everything. As another example, Taleb doesn’t read the news because it formalizes thought, effectively handicapping our cognitive function by creating bias. In Nassim Taleb’s recent interview on EconTalk, he talks about “tinkering,” which is more or less just trying different stuff out and seeing what works, as a means to learn.
  • Or look at thinking over doing as it pertains to governments and political debate. Was there ever such an embodiment of preference for thinking over doing? Every government generally and every government program specifically is a thought-out experiment tested on a massive scale. Should it come as a surprise that governments and government programs are so dysfunctional? Observe how political philosophers consistently prefer thought to action, a la Folk Activism, dismissing attempts at trial and error or ignoring the importance of seeking new frontiers for experimentation, while arguing, “We’ve yet to see pure [ socialism | capitalism ]; therefore, you can’t say it wouldn’t work!”
  • I haven’t read Arnold Kling’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (Preface), but that’s at least partially because it hasn’t been published yet! In thinking about the question of children, two thoughts come to mind in relation to the doing/thinking problem (And both relate to Kling’s review of a study about how “Almost no one regrets having kids“:
    • Couples who choose not to have kids have overthought the problem and will almost certainly regret their decision not to have kids.
    • Parents who think they should only have two kids (for example) will likely end up wishing they had had more—it seems parents tend to think they should have more kids than they end up having!

    Having kids isn’t like waking up and making an omelette, so I realize that this one fits into the doing-vs-thinking paradigm a bit loosely, but nonetheless, it’s just another example of how thinking fails. (Added 4/17/09)

  • Life is the result of trial and error performed on a massive scale and is ongoing. As complex as a DNA molecule may be, the individual building blocks are simple. So here’s an example of doing (DNA replication) and simplicity leading to unfathomable complexity—life. Evolution is the triumph of doing and is clearly a thoughtless process. (Added 4/17/09)

As Seth Roberts realized in his graduate days, “I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do.” But why does doing first work better than thinking first? Perhaps it is because doing is fundamentally an iterative process: doing is trial. The idea of trial and error as a method of learning means making mistakes and learning from them. Making mistakes and figuring out what doesn’t work can also be desirable as evidence of absence. I further wonder if it is the sheer number of trials that spur the creation of knowledge. Could it be that the more experiments/trials/iterations, the greater the chance of winning the lottery and learning something truly worthwhile? Maybe so.

I can’t help but conclude that, regardless of the reasons, thinking should almost always be put on hold in favor of action. Stop thinking and start doing. Follow whims, opportunities, gut instincts, and curiosities. Observe as much as possible. Expect failure and realize that it is through innumerable failed attempts that one can stumble on success.

8 Replies to “Learn by Doing, Then by Thinking”

  1. David Byars just posted a great comment about saying “Yes!” having seen Jim Carrey’s movie “Yes Man” (haven’t seen it, but want to) and finding the underlying premise to resound in his life. I’m not going to quote DGB’s post here, but you should read it, and it has a lot to do with this considerably less witty post on doing versus thinking.

    Go here to read David Byars “Yes!”

    And the comment I left over there, I’m reproducing here:

    Awesome post. I couldn’t agree more, even as I know I personally cop out on my fair share of opportunities I’d be better off pursuing.

    Incidentally, I think this post has a great deal to do with my blog post today on how we should do first and think later. The gist is that we are terrible at thinking out what we should do with our lives, what jobs to pursue or “education” to get, what books to read (remember our discussion last night?), what philosophy or politics to espouse, or what hobbies to take up. We fundamentally suck at planning even as we think we are fantastically awesome at knowing what we want in life (This is the basic point of Stumbling on Happiness). What more, if we make mistakes, we’ve got these great mental immunity systems (our justifying brains) that are actually much better at justifying the stupid decisions we make than retroactively justifying the stupid decisions we didn’t make — in other words, regret is much more a bitch than screwing the pooch for pursuing some crazy dream (This is also from SoH).

    To sum up my comment:


    So we’re just better off doing

  2. Thanks for the shout! This article strikes a chord with me on several fronts.

    I particularly like the “doing rather than thinking” argument as it pertains to career choices and education.

    Almost everyone I know is unsatisfied (at least at some level) with their vocation. The constant thought seems to be “Well, I know there’s something out there I’m better at/ more passionate about/ grants me the opportunity to work with large quantities of green jello. Now, if I can just reason this out…” However, there isn’t some magical list of jobs out there that can convey to all lost souls what their experience would be like with each career. The only way of actually knowing is to try it out.

    So people stay with their current jobs for the sake of security and begin collecting expectations of other possible lives. These expectations become more and more glamorous in their starved minds as time goes by. Their lives become a dull insipid gray against the backdrop of their colorfully imaginative alternate realities. So here we have two problems: increased dissatisfaction with the status quo and unreasonable expectations of any change.

    On education: I’m a substitute teacher (among other things). I get a peek into the education system from time to time and catch a glimpse of the ineptitude of the people are who are making decisions on coursework.

    I recently taught a seventh grade “technology” class. I thought to myself, “Wow, I’ll bet kids these days are learning some pretty advanced stuff.”


    The lesson for that day was how to open, close, rename, and save Word documents. This was a fifty minute class. I managed to age eleven years in those forgettable fifty minutes.

    I feel I’m reasonably computer savvy, but your average nine year old can (and does, regularly) run circles around me. Here were these kids, who had the skills and wherewithal to have been learning some awesome graphic design program or making full scale movies, and they were learning things that came as naturally to them as talking or walking, and probably learned those basic computer skills around the same age. Might as well have been a breathing class.

    I’m just picturing the school board meeting where a bunch of computer illiterate fogies who don’t know a keyboard from their face and couldn’t write an email to save their lives are sitting around pounding their fists on the table saying things like:
    “Dammit, these kids should know how to use computers”
    “Yeah, then they can get on the internets and make money!”
    “No kid will use a typewriter on my watch!! Balderdash and poppycock!!”
    “Let’s go to the computer store! Susan, find a Rand McNally and get directions”
    “Crank up the horseless carriage!”

    I couldn’t believe how fundamentally misguided this curriculum was. I didn’t know that anyone could be that out of touch with reality. A classic case of a bunch of folks getting together and thinking things through, then throwing these overthought things into the mix, never to be re-evaluated again.

    Well, I got a little off-topic, and more than a little verbose, but I feel I’ve shared my two cents with a minimum of vitriol and no more than a modicum of disdain (and a tinge of nausea).


  3. While this subject can be very touchy for most people, my opinion is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do appreciate that youve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Thank you!

  4. This is a perfectly penned post. I enjoy an enlightening blog post that is likewise enjoyable and your authoring accomplishes each. Continue authoring and the everyone else will keep reading through.

  5. Justin!

    This is fabulous!

    For years, since around 1997 at least, I’ve dreamed of opening my own business. So I’d sit and think up an idea. Typically, I’d tear the idea apart and convince myself it’s stupid in the first place. Sometimes I’d think so much the idea would just fizzle. But I was CONVINCED I could think of EVERYTHING. And that’s the big kicker. I would think of 50 different situations that “might” arise. Which led to 100 different more options. Long story short, I suffered from analysis paralysis. I WOULD SIT AND THINK AND DO NOTHING, EVERY TIME!

    Over the last couple months this has all changed. I started listening to TONS of interviews of either successful entrepreneurs or up and coming entrepreneurs (mostly at coachradio.tv). And I’ve learned through their shared experiences.

    First, and this is the biggest one, to get where they were at, be it New York Times Best Seller, multi-millionaire, successful solo-preneur, ever single one of them ACTED. They DID SOMETHING! Without action, it’s hard to come by results.

    Second, I learned a very valuable lesson which you talk about above. I SMOTHERED myself with “hubris” (had to look that word up b/c I had no clue what you were talking about). But that was me. I assumed I could figure EVERYTHING out just by sitting around thinking. But the more I listened to interviews the more I realized I would have NEVER pieced together the stories I was listening to. I wouldn’t have thought that someone could start at point A and end up at point 36-b. I would have thought A to B to C… and NONE of that happened.

    So I made two decisions. 1) I would not wait to act until I “knew” everything. 2) I would DO SOMETHING! (check out this post I just put out about this: http://bit.ly/nJSLP8 )

    Honestly, I’m not where I want to be, but then I don’t even know where that is yet. But I can confidently say, “I’m getting there!”

    Thanks for a great post. I’ll be sending this one out to folks I care about!

  6. This seems to be loosely joined with Michael ellsberg’s book dealing with self-engineered education. (http://www.ellsberg.com/)

    Or as one of my friends use to say:
    Don’t talk about it be about it.

    I am just now flipping the switch from much more action than thinking. It took quite a bit of destruction to get me there. Killing many choices, brutal-as-possible self awareness, and surrounding myself with people that had done the same proved essential. A bit of pain helped.

    Were you a heavy thinker verses doer prior? If so, what kick-started the action?

    Btw, diggin your blog (and the OEM project)–I came here via Richard’s meat pizza post.

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