Note: There’s a bit of thinking here. But it’s thinking after doing.
The late Seth Roberts once wrote about his graduate school days, and how he got into self-experimentation. It was by way of the idea 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 (link long since lost to github, apparently)
Roberts practiced “learning by doing” throughout his life, always carrying out various experiments to see what he could discover.
It’s a simple, intriguing idea: you can learn more by doing first than you can by thinking first.
Why might this be the case?
Ways Thinking-First Creates Problems
Thinking before doing? causes problems. Consider these 3:
- Thinking adds unnecessary complexity before you’ve acquired the expertise born of experience, making it harder to interpret results,
- Thinking sets expectations, biasing analysis towards desired results, and
- Thinking is time-intensive, reducing resources that could be used doing.
It’s not that thinking is bad. Rather, it’s too easy for thinking to become un-tethered from reality. After all, “thinking” is just the running of simple simulations or models in our heads. Reality is far more rigorous and complex. Thus, by maintaining a bias to action (i.e. doing), we can stay grounded in reality.
Unfortunately, thinking-over-doing is pervasive in modernity, and the results aren’t great.
Consider just a few (8) examples:
- Our education system is built on thinking … and horribly broken. The foundation of education is built 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.
- Thinking doesn’t help you find a career. 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.
- You can’t think your way out of your mental state. 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. Our best course of action to change our mental state?Do something.
- We don’t know what will make us happy. 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.
- The power of tinkering as a means of discovery. And as Nassim Taleb puts it, “Understanding is a Poor Substitute for Convexity” (See his paper on this — PDF).Nassim Taleb harps on over-reliance 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. Also, here’s an old interview on EconTalk where Taleb talks about tinkering.)
- The state. 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!”
- Kids. I haven’t read Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (Preface). However, in thinking about the question of children, two thoughts come to mind in relation to the doing/thinking problem (And both relate to Caplan’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.
(Since originally writing this I have had three kids! I still completely agree with the above sentiment.)
- Life itself. 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.
Do More! (And Experiment Often!)
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. Perhaps it is the sheer number of trials that spur the creation of knowledge. Could it be that the more experiments, trials, and iterations, the greater the chance of winning the lottery and learning something truly worthwhile? Maybe so.
As a general rule (yes, exceptions surely exist!), consider putting thinking 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.
Updated April 2019. Originally published April 16, 2009. With special thanks and gratitude for the late Seth Roberts.