The Value of Theoretical And Practical Knowledge

A couple of recent guest posts have discussed the value of 4 year and online degrees as compared to learning on your own. While I’ve added some thoughts to the previous 2 posts, I wanted to clarify some thing in a post of my own.

In case you missed them here are the 2 guest posts I’m referring to.

Before anything else let me make it clear that I think knowledge is incredibly important to any career and life in general. In the signature to my email I add a line from a Bob Dylan song. Brownie points if you know the song.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

I use the quote as a reminder to always be learning something new and always striving to grow. The moment you stop doing either is the moment you stop being.

Albert Einstein

Theory vs. Practical

When it comes to knowledge there are different kinds of knowledge and different ways of acquiring each kind. On one side is theory and on the other side is the practical application of theory. Both types of knowledge are important and both make you better at whatever you do.

I think those who advance the furthest in life tend to be those who acquire knowledge at both ends of the spectrum and acquire it in a variety of ways.

Theoretical knowledge — teaches the why. It helps you understand why one technique works where another fails. It shows you the whole forest, builds the context, and helps you set strategy. Where self education is concerned theory prepares you to set a direction for your future education. Theory teaches you through the experience of others.

Theoretical knowledge can often lead to a deeper understand of a concept through seeing it in context of a greater whole and understanding the why behind it..

Practical knowledge — helps you acquire the specific techniques that become the tools of your trade. It sits much closer to your actual day-to-day work. There are some things you can only learn through doing and experiencing. Where theory is often taught in the ideal of a vacuum, the practical is learned through the reality of life.

Practical knowledge can often lead to a deeper understanding of a concept through the act of doing and personal experience.

Both of the above are important. You won’t survive in any career unless you can bring results and to do that you need practical knowledge. There’s no avoiding it.

At the same time learning how to solve a specific problem only teaches you how to solve that same problem again. Practice can only take you so far. Theory helps you apply what you learned solving one problem to different problems.

University of Colorado at Boulder

Formal Education vs Self Learning

Formal education tends to lean toward the theory side of the spectrum and teaching things to yourself tends to lean toward the practical. You can learn both through either method, but each tends to give you a little more of one over the other.

The key to getting all of the knowledge you need is to understand that whichever route you’ve chosen you’ve probably gained a lot more of one side of the knowledge equation and need to spend some time acquiring knowledge from the other end to balance your education.

If you go the 4 year degree route realize that many people in the work force can already perform the specifics of your job better than you can. It’s up to you to put in the time gaining the practical experience you need to complement the theory you learned. While in school don’t pass on opportunities to gain the practical. Apply for that internship. Try to get a summer job in your chosen profession no matter what the specific job.

If you skip school and go straight to the workforce, understand that you need to acquire the big picture view of what you’re doing. Grab some books on the fundamentals. Audit courses at nearby colleges. Set a more formal path for your own education beyond the day to day. Be more active in understanding why different techniques work as they do. Devote some time to studying themes in your craft.

In the middle is the online education. Its formality offers a chance to learn theory, yet many online courses aim to get you into the workforce as soon as possible. They may not excel at either end, but they do offer you the balance in the middle.

Georgetown Diploma

Is That Piece of Paper Worth It?

The question above really depends on your specific goals and the path you plan on taking through your career. If your plan is to go into business for yourself then no, the paper that certifies you earned a degree is meaningless. I can tell you that none of my clients have ever asked to see my degrees.

Then again if my business was in an office that clients physically visited, I bet hanging a degree from a prestigious university behind me would help close deals.

If you plan on working for someone else the degree takes on more importance and the the larger the entity you want to work for the greater the importance of that degree. When you’re beginning your career you have no experience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 18, 22, or 50. You start without experience like everyone else.

Without experience it can be hard to find a job. That piece of paper with the degree on it, isn’t experience, but it’s a recommendation from a trusted source that says you have the framework in place to gain the practical experience. The degree tells others you have a strong foundation on which to build.

Thomas Edison


As I’ve said throughout this post and everywhere else I’ve ever talked about this topic, the education you get is more important than where you get that education. You can easily find examples of people who did and didn’t go to school who went on to great success. You can equally find examples of people who did and didn’t go to school who ended up as great failures.

There is a theoretical side and a practical side to knowledge and both are valuable. The true masters of any craft or discipline understand both ends of the spectrum. They put in the hours to acquire the practical techniques while also putting in the time to understand how those techniques fit into a larger context and tradition and why they work.

Whether or not you go to school or jump directly into the workforce is a personal decision that’s based on a variety of factors. Do you need to start earning a living right away? How do you best learn? Will you be able to pick up the theory and context on your own? Do you need more time gaining the practical experience?

Only you can answer those questions and only you can determine which is the better path to start out on. However, focusing only on one side while ignoring the other will limit you in ways you may never even realize.

« »

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. “The degree tells others you have a strong foundation on which to build.” As a lecturer, this is the pass-port for those who will be graduating next year to enter not only into employments/jobs but higher education.

  2. I found your article while researching “concepts + theories versus practical.”

    Reading about MBTI (Meyers Briggs Type Indicator) there are questions discerning whether you are better with concepts/theories or the practical.

    After reading your piece, I better understand how to differentiate. More simply put, MBTI wants to know–do you rely more on the experience of others or your own?


    • I never really thought about MBTI as relying on your own experience or the experience of others, but I can see how the personality types can be divided along those lines. Interesting.

      I do think that’s a lot of how theory vs practical shakes out and as you can tell I think both are important.

  3. like this article. it was very helpful. thanks for the insight on the importance of theory in education


  4. Hello Steve, I am Deepti from India. I really liked your article. I am facing the same problem at my workplace. I am being compared with juniors. I had gained knowledge in the past but today I am not able to apply it in my work as I don’t really read about that knowledge anymore.

    Is there anything you can help me with? I did not gain enough practical experience when I was supposed to.And today I miss that.

  5. Im working on my research about industrial pharmacy placement programs and this has proven to be truly helpful. thank you very much Mr Bradley.

  6. Thnx guys it helped me a lot in my school project but also motivated me to studies thnx a lot I would like you to publish an article on motivation in studies that how can we divert our mind toward studies more

  7. I did like the clarity and the simplicity of your expression used to explain complex concepts. Despite the fact that English is second language I was still able to understand you perfectly. Thank you for your insights

  8. Very well balanced artical. Well done. I would state from a practical areana and not having the theoretical schooling success as a small business owner is difficult with out the (legal and insurable ) support a B eng. offers.

  9. Steven,
    Thank you for your post and for keeping it online since 2012. I’ve been literally stuck at answering a simple question by forcing a long answer (see example in this sentence).

    Your brief section “Theory vs. Practical” was just the piece I needed to keep moving.

    Thanks —

  10. Absolutely true. Theory plus practical knowledge on the job can lead to excellence. Nice article. Must be appreciated. Thanks.

  11. Steven, You are one gifted writer. You write with vigorous clarity. Thanks for writing these articles. As someone who has been very fortunate to have landed an internship as a designer right after high school (now working full time), I can not stress enough how your insights ring true to me. In my workplace, I was given the freedom to learn in the job, as long as I deliver results. While I do have an eye for design and intuition to guide my decisions, I could not articulate the REASON for my designs. I was getting a lot of PRACTICAL, but not THEORY. I don’t know why it works, to me it just does! I’m glad I have found your article – it is the perfect starting point. I appreciate it.


    • Thanks Josh. That’s kind of you to say and I’m glad if I could help make something clearer. I spent a lot of time in school after high school and learned a lot of theory. When I went out into the real world, I could tell I didn’t have the same amount of practical knowledge. I came at this from the other side. I understood what I should do, but I wasn’t able to do it.

      When it came to learning web design and development I learned a lot on my own by doing, but also read a lot and learned what I could of the theory. I learned it later in life and knew both the practical and theoretical were important and tried to learn both ways.

      I think it’s generally more important to get it to work than understand why it worked, but when you understand why you can apply your solution to many other problems and I think it also helps you figure out other solutions that just work. The theory can give you ideas about what to try in the first place.

      Thanks again and I’m glad I could give you a starting point.

  12. As a student, I have always felt both theory as well as practical knowledge are required in equal measures. For education is not merely a few degrees which a person can hold but is the perfect use of the mind and the usage of one’s discretions to make his decisions. A degree is merely like a recommendation from a close friend. Practical knowledge is absolutely required to put this knowledge into use in day to day situations. I loved reading your article. Thank You

  13. Thinking is a tool for handling information and converting the same to Knowledge. In U S A information is free, but not knowledge, because knowledge is an outcome of thinking skills!, the quote from Dr. Zoltan J Acks, Director General, International Institute for S M E s, U S A. That is from his speech delivered in 2005 at M/s Institute for Small and Medium Enterprises Development ( I S E D ), Cochin, South India.

    • To me theoretical knowledge is independent of practical knowledge but practical knowledge is dependant of theoretical knowledge.For a person to have a perfect work results he/she should be knowing the theoretical knowledge about it. An engineer who has a theoretical knowledge about something has many various ways of designing something (practical) Anyway I appreciate the discussio..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *