“No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.”
You’ve probably heard a couple of these ones before: work hard, work smart, get connections, move to Los Angeles or New York City, fake it till you make it, build better habits, get out of your comfort zone.
Yet the oldest and most time-tested success strategy of them all is always overlooked: trial and error.
Writing in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, options trader turned scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents a simple yet incredibly powerful idea: trial and error is the best success strategy. In fact, it’s the only strategy that has worked consistently well in human history.
Historians, academics, and researchers (collectively “theorists”) are quick to point to theories to explain why things work. For example, a theorist would say that we are able to fly planes today because of the theories and formulas of Aerodynamics and Aerospace engineering.
Yet this idea that the theory comes before the practice is, quite simply, incorrect; it has zero supporting evidence. Innovation has naturally been a lot messier than that.
For example, the jet engine was created and used to fly planes before the underlying theory of how they worked was established.
“Scranton showed that we have been building and using jet engines in a completely trial-and-error experiential manner, without anyone truly understanding the theory. Builders needed the original engineers who knew how to twist things to make the engine work. Theory came later, in a lame way, to satisfy the intellectual bean counter. But that’s not what you tend to read in standard histories of technology: my son, who studies aerospace engineering, was not aware of this.”
Taleb presents an even more extreme example: geometry in Mathematics. In school, we learn that geometry was invented by the ancient Greeks and that once they had those magical formulas, they were able to do extraordinary things.
But this is another case of history being taught wrong. People were building houses, bridges, pyramids, temples, and other complex structures long before geometric theories were formally established.
“We all learn geometry from textbooks based on axioms, like, say, Euclid’s Book of Elements, and tend to think that it is thanks to such learning that we today have these beautiful geometric shapes in buildings, from houses to cathedrals; to think the opposite would be anathema. So I speculated immediately that the ancients developed an interest in Euclid’s geometry and other mathematics because they were already using these methods, derived by tinkering and experiential knowledge, otherwise they would not have bothered at all. This is similar to the story of the wheel: recall that the steam engine had been discovered and developed by the Greeks some two millennia before the Industrial Revolution. It is just that things that are implemented tend to want to be born from practice, not theory.”
The best example has to be that of cooking. Humans have been cooking things in one way or another, using heating, mixing ingredients, and adding spices, for thousands of years.
Was there a book called “The theories of cooking” written thousands of years ago?
Most definitely not!
Taleb puts it best:
“These recipes are derived entirely without conjectures about the chemistry of taste buds, with no role for any “epistemic base” to generate theories out of theories. Nobody is fooled so far by the process. As Dan Ariely once observed, we cannot reverse engineer the taste of food from looking at the nutritional label. And we can observe ancestral heuristics at work: generations of collective tinkering resulting in the evolution of recipes. These food recipes are embedded in cultures. Cooking schools are entirely apprenticeship based.”
There are several other examples of invention coming before theory in the book in chapter 15 if you would like to read more.
Practice Comes Before Theory
As Taleb has shown, the practice comes before the theory. That is the most natural way of invention.
It’s difficult to think of theories for how to build a plane if you’ve never flown one before and seen it working. It’s difficult to know exactly how to build a business, dance, cook, invest, engineer, or perform surgery if you’ve never done it before. You can read a bit about your subject to get some background knowledge before diving in, but real learning comes from the experience of actually doing.
This naturally leads us to the powerful conclusion: trial and error is the best and most consistent success strategy.
With trial and error, you are getting direct practice through experimentation. This experimentation produces the best kind of evidence: real evidence that you know for sure works because you’ve done it yourself. You have real experiences that generated real value for you. Thereafter, if you want, you can package your experiences into a unifying theory to explain why things worked out well.
When the Wright brothers were trying to fly the first-ever plane, many of their competitors were trying to come up with theories and formulas for how to fly the plane. But guess what the brothers did? They tried to fly the damn plane. They built aircraft and (tried to) put them up in the air. Based on the degree of success of the plane’s flight, they could adjust their mechanism to improve their craft. They certainly did have some theories, but they only became solid and established after they knew for sure they matched the success of flying the plane.
Speed and Options
Trial and error gets you the fastest possible feedback. Immediately after your experiment, you get information back about the success or failure. Based on that information you can adjust the course and iterate. You repeat that process many times and eventually, you’ll have learned through real-world experience what works and what doesn’t.
Trial and error also gives you the advantage of mass sampling. When you first start out on something new, whether it be a new career path, investment choice, relationship, or business, there’s no knowing for sure if it’s going to work out. You might be confident, but you’re not 100% certain. The only way to be 100% certain is to try it out for yourself.
This idea of maximizing your options through mass sampling is perfect because you get exposed to the maximum amount of upside. Rather than staying blindly stuck on the first available path, you try out several and pick which one works best. This way, you have a far higher chance of landing on something you do succeed in.
Don’t just try one business idea, try 10. Give yourself the opportunity to test the waters and see for yourself, with real evidence, what the best business for you is. Then you can confidently commit yourself to a winning venture.
Don’t tunnel yourself down one specialist career path but rather stay relatively broad and flexible, at least early on. Along the way, you can always acquire very transferrable skills like managing people, sales, programming, and financials. Specialize once you’ve found the dream job that you can go all-in on.
Read many different books. Hang out with many different types of people. Go to wildly different events. Test out different investment strategies. Try different hobbies. Give yourself as many options as you possibly can.
Trial and error is the most effective strategy because it is the most connected with reality. It never fails over a long enough time period — eventually, you strike on what you’re looking for or, at the very least, learn many valuable lessons from the experience. It’s fast, direct, and always exposes you to the maximum amount of upside.
Trial and error is the best and most antifragile success strategy. It’s been applied successfully for thousands of years, leading to amazing innovations such as the lightbulb, the airplane, and modern buildings. In particular, trial and error gives you the following key advantages:
- Direct feedback — by trying you get first-hand experience of what works and what doesn’t
- Fast learning — you see right away if the thing you try worked or not
- Options — trial and error gives you the opportunity to try every possible option, maximizing your upside
The more you try then the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more you succeed.
** All quotes in this article are from Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder