Doing vs. Theorizing

There’s an interesting story in the book Art and Fear by David Bayles about an experiment that was conducted in a ceramics class.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.

All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.

Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Often times, the best way to learn is simply by doing. Reading, and researching will only get you so far.

I’ve seen this firsthand as I’ve been learning to lay tile.

When I first started, I had no idea what I was in for, so I did some research. I read articles, watched videos, and talked to people who had experience tiling. Eventually, I felt that I knew enough to get started, so I dove in.

The videos I watched and the tutorials I read made it seem so simple. You rip up the old floor, lay down some mortar, and set the new tile in place. It all seemed obvious.

But that couldn’t have been further from the case.

There were so many nuances that I didn’t anticipate. Ranging from figuring out how to deal with the edges of the tile, to what type of mortar and trowels to buy, I felt like I was constantly in over my head. I quickly lost track of the number of trips I had to make to the local hardware store.

But I learned.

With each new obstacle that came up, I picked up new nuggets about the tiling process. I learned how to prep the surface, how to apply the mortar, and how to lay the tile.

Eventually, with some much-needed help from my father-in-law, I finished my first two projects – a kitchen bathroom and kitchen floor – to some degree of satisfactory. And if I squinted hard enough, it actually didn’t look too bad. I was pretty proud of what I had done.

Until I walked on that kitchen floor for the first time.

And realized that the tile was so uneven that I almost stubbed my toe.

Coming into the project, I had known that aesthetics would be important. I took my time to lay every tile straight, and to use spacers as needed to keep everything consistent. I was meticulous in my measurements.

But I didn’t realize that I also needed to take special precautions to lay a smooth surface, especially when laying large tiles.

So I messed up. My first tile job wasn’t perfect.

So be it.

I learned from this mistake (among others) and I applied it when I tiled my fireplace, where I found more things that I didn’t know. I then applied those lessons when I tiled my bathroom. And so on.

I now feel like I have a pretty good grasp on tiling, and looking back there’s no way I could have gotten here without trial and error. I never could’ve picked up on all of the intricacies simply my researching and studying.

So it makes sense to me that the ceramic group that completed the most pieces ended up with the best quality.

Sometimes, the only way to really learn is by doing.


The idea of focusing on doing rather than pure research and theory applies over a wide range of situations.

Looking back on my years in school, this motto was key, Particularly in math and science courses, I found no better method for learning new concepts than trying as many examples as possible. As soon as I felt that I was starting to grasp a concept, I’d switch from theory to application. I’d do as many example problems as I could find, and as long as I had some indication of whether I was doing things correctly (e.g. if the answers were in the back of the book, or I had a teacher that I could check with), I’d be able to quickly figure out what I didn’t know, and see where I needed to improve.

I’m applying the same idea every week with Get the Most Out of High School blog.

I want to improve my writing abilities. So I could take classes online and do extensive research on the proper writing mechanics and techniques. And I actually do look for material and try to learn from the experts. But by far, the most impactful way for me to improve my writing abilities has been far simpler than that.

The key has simply been writing more. By forcing myself to put out a new article each week, I stick to a fairly strict deadline and I get to see what works and what doesn’t.

Same thing as I’ve been working on my ping pong game. At first, I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read different articles online. But I found that the effort wasn’t translating to the table.

Only when I started to consistently find time to practice, and apply all of the things I was learning, did I really start to see an improvement.


So with any skill you’re trying to learn, try to remember the example from the ceramic class.

Do your research. Look into the topic, and read what you can. Listen to your coaches, and learn from those who have gone before you.

But never lose sight of the importance of doing.

It’s so easy to get stuck behind a book or a computer screen. But the real magic comes from trial and error.