Combine your experiences with the wisdom of others
Let’s say you want to be great at a particular sport.
How do you approach it?
Certainly, a fundamental requirement is practice. “10,000 hours” and all that.
What else? If you only ever practiced by yourself, it’s unlikely you’d excel beyond a certain point.
So the second requirement is some sort of coaching or guidance. This teaching builds on the cumulative wisdom that has been accumulated over generations about how particular elements of that sport should be done.
Now, I am just using sport as an example as it demonstrates the point nicely.
In reality, however, this combination of real-world experience combined with information and wisdom from experts is fundamental to doing well in anything.
You will not get far gaining one without the other. Someone who performs their job every day in a certain way for years will not make progress unless she reaches for information from outside to guide improvements. Correspondingly, someone who extensively studies an area but never actually applies their knowledge to gain real-world experience will only gain an intellectual understanding of something, not an experiential one.
Don’t be a ‘wantrepeneur’
For some time, I have had the idea that I want to be an entrepreneur. I believe, if done well, it is a good way to contribute to society and it fits my natural inclinations.
Therefore, in the last 6 months, I have attended one full-day entrepreneurial conference and read more than 5 books with a strong business-focus. I am well-versed in the key principles of entrepreneurship; the lean startup, Angel and VC investing, good leadership, etc.
However, having not yet taken an entrepreneurial pursuit beyond the idea stage, this understanding remains purely intellectual. I am aware of the maxims but I don’t under the finer details; “fail fast” may often be true but not in all circumstances.
To go to the next step I must try creating something. If I don’t, I am simply a ‘wantrepeneur’. I would gain nothing from reading more books.
You can’t learn medicine from a textbook
In medicine, there is a huge amount of academic content to learn which can be overwhelming at times. Medical students spend significant amounts of time with their heads buried in textbooks and attending lectures, learning from the cumulative understanding passed down generations. This is important but it is only one aspect.
It is equally, if not more, important to meet real patients and gain experiential understanding. Textbooks describe the ‘classical’ examples of particular illnesses, but patients rarely fit this ‘classical’ pattern of symptoms – it is only by meeting many patients that you can learn to appreciate this and develop ‘clinical judgement’. You also learn many ‘meta-skills’ without even realising it; how to carry yourself, how to interact with patients and with other staff.
It can be easy to forget this when exams come around, particularly in academic universities which have a strong emphasis on detailed academic understanding.
The boatman and the scholar
There’s a parable which further demonstrates this point — I won’t copy and paste the whole thing in this post but here’s a link to check it out.