Theoreticians and Pragmatists

There are two distinct realities in a constant conflict with one another. How things are talked about and how things really are. People who inhabit the first reality are called theoreticians. They love to think and talk. They spend most of their waking hours in the space between their ears. They underestimate the value of experimentation. And they overestimate the power of prediction. If a theoretician wants to start running, he first researches the best running shoes, then he reads about what distances he should be running, what the best diet for a runner is, and what proper running form looks like. Theoreticians are often found in the confines of academia, but they exist in all fields. They can be identified by their love of planning and their willingness to book meetings. Thinking is the most important thing to the theoretician.

People in the second reality are called pragmatists. They learn through hands-on experience and have a strong bias for action. They're impatient when planning and believe you don't know what you don't know. You rarely hear a pragmatist say things like "ideally" or "I hope". Pragmatists operate in the real, messy, world. The one where ideal scenarios are the exception, not the rule. The pragmatist deals with problems as they are, not how they once were, or how they could be. And to him, that's all that matters. If a pragmatist wants to start running, he puts on his shoes and hits the fucking pavement. Pragmatists tend to be craftsmen that build tangible things. They're the intellectual descendants of Aristotle, who famously said: "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."

Conversely, theoreticians learn about something by reading about it. In casual conversation with a theoretician and a pragmatist, the theoretician comes across as far more articulate and knowledgeable. He knows all of the definitions, dates, and historical events for the topic being discussed. The pragmatist isn't as well versed in the semantics of the topic because he's too busy actually doing. In fact, the pragmatist doesn't read about the topic unless it's absolutely necessary. He's suspicious of how much value one can gain from talk or text. "Advice is meaningless without the experience of seeing where it came from." the pragmatist says. While the theoretician is reading up on musical theory, the pragmatist is playing the piano.

The school system was built by theoreticians. In school, you're constantly told that you need to get good grades to succeed in life. You learn about things by reading about them, and you're told you understand something if you can answer questions about it. But in the real world, no one cares if you had a 4.0 GPA in college. There are no multiple-choice tests in the wild. Do you know what they call a student who graduated med school with straight Cs? A doctor. Sure, academic performance can be a strong indicator of your trajectory in life, but it's far from a guarantee. And that's because school operates in the theoretician's reality. It's only an indicator of success because some of the traits that lead to success in the theoretician's reality also translate to the real world, like focus and discipline. But there are other traits that are never explicitly tested in the classroom, like communication skills and whether or not you're the type of person that someone would want to grab a beer with. And if you're completely inept in these departments, no level of focus, discipline, or intellect will help you to succeed.

Theoreticians, whose acquisition of knowledge comes from thinking, spend a lot of time studying the past and planning the future. They study history to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors without having to spend the time it took to make those mistakes. But can you really learn a lesson without having experienced it firsthand? Is the reason history repeats itself because nobody in a position of power ever cracked open a history book? Or is it human nature to believe that this time will be different? That the rules don't apply to you and that things have changed. If you can really learn a lifetime's worth of lessons from a week's worth of reading then the theoreticians may be on to something. Communist regimes could avoid spending decades building systems that are destined to fail. Governments could avoid waging unwinnable wars in the Middle East. And investors could avoid losing it all in obvious asset bubbles. But the pragmatist is skeptical of this reality. His mother always told him to wear his helmet while riding his bike. But it wasn't until he fell and got a concussion that he truly understood the advice.

The theoretician believes he can plan and predict the future. He develops complex theories about what the future looks like using even more complex models. And he has faith in the accuracy of his models because they use intricate mathematics that he studied in school. He can't help but feel that the words in his textbooks are irrefutable. How could he question the theory of a renowned Harvard math professor? To an outsider, the theoretician looks like an Oracle. Every prediction he tells you about comes true. His models are perfect. But it's important to ask yourself if the theoretician is being selective about which predictions he shares. Anyone can look like a genius by making millions of predictions and only talking about the one or two that came true.

Serious problems arise when you use predictions from a theoretician to make decisions in the real world. Modern Monetary Theorists, born and raised in the theoretician's reality, have convinced governments that it's okay to print as much money as they need without worrying about inflation. And we're actively experiencing the catastrophic consequences of this very wrong prediction. Unfortunately, it's people in the real world, not the theorists, who are left holding the bag. Modern monetary theorists don't have to pay for half the gas tank of the construction worker whose daily commute has doubled in cost. They don't have to subsidize the incomes of blue-collar families who can no longer afford rent. No, instead they get to rest comfortably in the bowels of academia, working on the sequel to their disastrous theory.

The pragmatist is skeptical of talk from people who don't have skin in the game. That's why he disregards the promises of politicians and the predictions of media pundits. He knows they're never held accountable for their mistakes. When seeking advice, the pragmatist doesn't ask someone what they'd do, he asks what they've done. He knows that advising someone to bet their life on something and betting your own life, are two completely different things. "Talk is free." says the pragmatist. And if talk is free, then planning and meetings are dirt cheap.

The idea that you can plan the outcomes of the future by having a meeting is almost universally accepted in corporations. Fantasies of businessmen in suit and tie solving the world's problems from a fluorescent-lit conference room have infiltrated the minds of employees across the globe. It's an attractive thought. You don't actually have to take action to produce results, you can just plan that action. The implementation is easy, the theoretician tells himself. It's the idea, the plan that matters. But as Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." And reality is guaranteed to hit your plan with a vicious right hook the moment it steps into the ring.

Most meetings are useless. Decisions are deferred, progress is postponed, and creation is canceled. These things don't happen in meetings. They happen in focused solitude and collaborative work sessions. And no, a meeting is not a collaborative work session. A team debating the path forward through the rigorous evaluation of each path's pros and cons is a collaborative work session. A meeting is a gathering of people, often too large for effective communication, who share status updates that could have easily been communicated via email. They're an exercise in text-to-speech for people that are too lazy to read and write. They're a form of laziness that provides the gratification of achievement through the illusion of progress. The theoretician loves meetings because they involve his favourite activity: talking. Meetings give the theoretician an opportunity to show how smart he is. He relishes in the oohs and ahhs he receives for his grandiose plans. He's deluded himself into believing that talking about something is the same as working on something.

The pragmatist detests useless meetings. He's fully aware that talking is not the same as working. His first instinct in the face of ambiguity isn't to book a meeting. It's to clearly communicate his thoughts in writing, then to leverage the technology at his disposal to get feedback on those thoughts. He values time above all else and is painfully aware of the cost of meetings. If his hand is forced and a meeting is required, he writes a succinct document to focus and facilitate the conversation. He speaks with brevity and refocuses the theoreticians in attendance who can't help but go off on tangents. And as soon as the meeting is over, he gets back to work. He knows that iteration beats the best plan. That great works are emergent, not scheduled. That great books are written one sentence at a time. That great programs are written one feature at a time. That great films are shot one scene at a time. And that the creators of these works had no idea what the final version would look like before they started.

No one lives exclusively in one reality or the other. The successful pragmatist has to spend some time strategizing. And there are lessons he learns from studying the past (the list is just smaller than you'd think). The successful theoretician eventually has to act. To stop talking and get to work. To write his theory.

You're better off spending most of your time in the pragmatist's reality. This is the reality that the ancients referred to as "the present". The only place where you're in control. The hard part is figuring out when you need to visit the theoretician's reality. And making sure that you don't stay there for too long.

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