By Jimmy Warden
A lot of people believe that they practice what they preach. They truly believe that they live by the advice that they freely give to others. These are people that are always talking something that everyone should be doing. However, they don’t always follow through with what they’re telling others to do. In reality, these people are theorists. Not practitioners.
What is a theorist?
A theorist is a knowledgeable person who knows a lot about a certain subject, is able to give great information to others about it, but they don’t always practice the ideas they preach about. Maybe they are doing it some of the time, or maybe even most of the time, but they are not doing it all of the time. They are talking the talk, but not as frequently walking the walk. They are people that believe their knowledge is enough for them to be seen as an expert, even if they don’t have much experience engaging with the specific topic.
The challenge is that experience is where true wisdom is. If a person cannot speak of how they’ve applied their knowledge in their own lives, can they truly be classified as an expert? To them, perhaps, but that can be a bit grandiose. For example, the teacher or mentor who preaches to their student or mentee about emotional regulation, but gets emotionally befuddled when a few things get thrown off kilter.
This is when the student or mentee can benefit more by receiving advice from a practitioner.
What is a practitioner?
A practitioner is a person who is knowledgeable and can give great advice like a theorist, but they’ve also immersed themselves in what they’re knowledgeable about. They consistently follow through and actually practice what they preach. David Goggins once said: “A practitioner is someone who writes the book while they’re suffering”. Essentially, Goggins is saying that they’re coming up with ideas and theories that they’ll share with others by experimenting through trial and error. Practitioners are putting in the time, they’re putting in the effort, they’re making mistakes, and challenging themselves as a way to show their credibility. They’re driven by the process of becoming great at what they do, and they’re often quite humble because they don’t feel the need to prove themselves.
A great example of this could be that emotional regulation mentor or teacher practicing what they preach by not only teaching the techniques, but modeling the techniques, and explaining how they’ve been beneficial to emotional regulation in daily life. Not only that, but going into details about the times that they’ve actually used specific techniques in specific contexts. These are true demonstrations of application in one’s life. And that’s where practice comes into play. Where and when is it used in life.
Am I a theorist or a practitioner?
This is a question that is up to each of us to figure out. It’s figuring out which of the two descriptions resonated more with us. If the idea that we don’t always practice what we preach to others (or to ourselves in our own heads) resonated with us, chances are we are theorists. If we often tell people about helpful or thought-provoking ideas, but we don’t do much with them ourselves, chances are we are theorists. We have some great ideas, but we aren’t always following through.
If we often tell people about helpful or thought-provoking ideas, and we often follow through with those ideas in our own lives in specific contexts, chances are we are more of a practitioner than we originally thought.
When distinguishing between theorist or practitioner, it all boils down to consistency in application of the ideas we find meaningful to apply in our lives and in the lives of others.
How do I transition from theory to practice?
There are a few key concepts to think about when trying to go from theory to practice, or trying to put theory into practice.
- Think about who you would like to become
- Think of a “swarm” of identity-based habits or behaviors that could connect to the person you would like to become
- Continue to refine your practice daily
The first concept comes from a recently published book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. In the second chapter of his book, Clear discusses the importance of trying to build an identity of who we want to become. Do we want to be in the best shape of our lives? Do we want to handle our emotions more effectively? Do we want to manage our finances more effectively? This brainstorm (or succession of brainstorms) can help us think about the second key concept: thinking of a swarm of behaviors or actions that relate to that identity.
Step two comes from another book, Tiny Habits, by Dr. BJ Fogg. These can be small, simple habits, or one-time actions. If we’re trying to get in the best shape of our lives, maybe it means that we get rid of the sweets we hide in our top cupboard (one-time action), or we decide to add a side of greens to each meal (small habit). Maybe we walk away from a conversation when we notice we’re too emotionally aroused (one-time action), or start to meditate for five minutes upon waking each day (small habit). Maybe we pay off some debt today (one-time action), or maybe we put twenty-five dollars a month into our savings account (small habits).
These two steps will help us apply the ideas that we’ve learned by thinking about the specificities of who we want to be, and how we’ll become that person. Not only that, but it will give us tangible evidence as to whether or not we are becoming that person. We will know each day whether or not we are making progress towards the person we are trying to become.
This is why the third step is potentially the most crucial, and that is to refine your practice each day. If we are not consistently analyzing after applying, a lot can be lost or not made aware of. There is the potential that we are not actually on the right path of becoming the person that we want to become and instead we are aimlessly living like before. If we want to become practitioners, we need to be aware of how consistently (or not consistently) we are meeting our own expectations for ourselves. When we have that baseline, we are able to make adjustments to our practice as needed.
Let’s strive to be the best practitioners that we can be. The world needs more people to not just talk about it, but also be about it.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. Penguin Random House Publisher.
Fogg, B.J. (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Habits that Change Everything. Mariner Publishing,