How the food bank taught me about theory versus practice

201512-pexels-SW_Gabriela+LupuMy family and I volunteered at the Houston Food Bank over the holidays. We spent an afternoon in the warehouse, sorting incoming food donations.

I realized something almost immediately after we started. The fulfillment I got from volunteering was stronger than I anticipated.

Before we volunteered, I expected to feel fulfilled. I knew that organizations like the food bank appreciate volunteers’ time just as much as, if not more than, their money. I knew how short-handed those kinds of facilities can get, and how much I would be able to contribute.

There was a big difference in knowing the facts academically, and experiencing them practically. And that difference sits between theory and practice.

You’ve seen it at your own job. A handful of people are equally capable on paper. But their experience differs. Even if they have the same number of years on the job, they’ve worked in different functions, tackling different tasks, collaborating with different people.

The real constraint, in this scenario, is time. It’s quicker to understand theory than to pursue practice. When faced with a particular challenge, we always have to decide whether we’ll apply theory or practice.

What’s one career-related example? Mentorship. It’s easy to understand the value of a mentor theoretically.

A mentor shares life experience, and professional experience, that will help you overcome an array of obstacles. A mentor offers safety that a supervisor doesn’t. A mentor tutors you about topics that are best learned face-to-face.

But mentorship is difficult to utilize in practice. It takes time to find the right mentor. You have to coordinate schedules to find common time where neither of you are distracted. You have to do your homework, identifying those few questions whose answers could make a meaningful difference in your professional life.

Theory versus practice shows up in all kinds of professional topics. Career development is easy to appreciate academically, and difficult to implement practically. We talk about development, say the right words, read the right stories. But we rarely follow through as thoroughly as we know we should.

Volunteering at the food bank showed me the power of practice, when it piggybacks theory. I knew I would feel better after volunteering my time for a worthy cause. But actually experiencing that feeling was different.

It shook some cobwebs loose, reminding me that the experiencing self has some important lessons for the knowing self. Keep that in mind as you develop your career. Make sure to capture important experiences, in addition to all the valuable book learning.

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