Theory prepares you. Experience grounds you.

I didn’t start out my career in technology. I was told that by the time I was 18 I had to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! Looking back that was an insane notion; but at the time that was the path. How quickly that mindset would change.

Shortly after I graduated with a degree in Psychology I found a job working as a cognitive rehabilitation therapist. This was a fancy title for personal support worker with a focus on clients who suffered traumatic brain injuries. I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and behaviour, so this particular path was quite intriguing. The job itself was far more complex than the way it was sold to me, initially.

I was helping clients out of bed, assisting in their learning to walk and speak with other specialists such as speech-language pathologists and physiotherapists. I would move on quickly to working with Neurologists in different countries, in addition to mitigating conflict between clients and their families. The most difficult of the latter was to console those who lost loved ones in spirit and mind, though not in body. It was an awe inspired, stressful start to my post-academic life.

While the theory I learned in University was relatively easy to grasp, applying the principles was almost impossible, and at times, not even relevant. The work involved pivoting and shifting around emotions, requirements from other professionals, and reminding clients of their own goals and objectives.

It was by far the most challenging job in my career to date. But it was because of those experiences, not in spite of them, that I was able to understand the value of learning from many disciplines.

In technology we work in a world of best practices, processes, tools, and in many circumstances are asked to cram the complexity of the human condition into a binary state. I discovered early in my career that it’s important to learn about some theory up front, but one should quickly dive into the experience of solving problems.

One of the great storytellers in the medical community that I discovered – as I’ve read everything he’s written – was Dr. Oliver Sacks. His work provided a richer understanding of the brain and the scientific reasons for outcomes around human behaviour.

In “On the Move” he shares the earliest experiences of his personal life and that of the start of his career in neurology. The quote below is a good reminder that every thought leader in every industry started from the theoretical but were largely unprepared for the real world experiences that lay ahead.

My pre-med studies in anatomy and physiology at Oxford had not prepared me in the least for real medicine. Seeing patients, listening to them, trying to enter (or at least imagine) their experiences and predicaments, feeling concerned for them, taking responsibility for them, was quite new to me. PAtients were real, often passionate individuals with real problems – and sometimes choices – of an often agonizing sort. It was not just a question of diagnosis and treatment; much graver questions could present themselves – questions about the quality of life and whether life was even WORTH living in some circumstances.

On The Move by Dr. Oliver Sacks