August 18, 2023

Experiential, theoretical, intellectual and functional


Prolific people transform even the smallest events or situations into breakthroughs in thinking and action.

And it’s not an accident. Their learning and growth is systematic, not just sporadic.

As my mentor always used to tell me, we learn not from our experiences, but from intelligent reflection upon them.

Today I’m going to take you through my method for doing so. The four phases are experiential, theoretical, intellectual and functional. Each of them has two subphases. And all of them get harder, more complex and less popular as we progress down the chain.

I’ll explore them generically, and then I’ll share a mini case study so you can see them come to life.

Starting with the foundation of all human life and learning:

Experience. A particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something.

Think of it as the soil upon which all growth is built. Whether it’s a short interaction with a neighborhood dog, a conversation with a coworker, riding the bus to the market, traveling to a foreign country with your family, or a full blown traumatic event like getting carried into the night by a swarm of angry locusts, everything at its core is an experience that happens to us.

And it all matters. It’s all usable for something. There is nobody alive who doesn’t experience things. Once an experience occurs, we instantly develop:

Feelings, thoughts and emotions in response to it. Beginning with sensation level reactions.

Literal, simple bodily feelings. A twitchy stomach, sweaty back, flushed skin, aroused genitals, tight chest, and so on.

This is when the complexity of this process begins to set in. Whatever arises inside of us, our challenge is trusting that it’s not good or bad or right or wrong, it’s simply information. Most people struggle at this phase, since not everyone’s willing to notice their feelings, name them, and wait before acting upon them.

What’s more, the ability to have an experience and trust that there is something going inside of us that’s worth mining for wisdom, that takes years to master.

Okay, at this point, we have completed the experiential phase. Now that we’ve had an experience and felt our internal responses, it’s time to shift into the theoretical. Getting out of the body and into the mind.

Which kicks off with observations, questions, distinctions and reflections about what’s happened.

This my favorite part of the growth process, because we’re activate our curiosity and looking for patterns and clues. Wondering what that feeling, generated by the experience, wants from us.

Maybe it’s a call to action, to simply a request to be acknowledged and heard. Again, the skill of taking a pause in the face of a strong emotional stimulus isn’t natural. In that space between the stimulus and response, we have to train ourselves to choose our own response.

At this point in the second theoretical phase, critical thinking engages and we form opinions, assertions, assumptions and theories about ourselves and the world. Connecting the dots and hypothesizing about what’s going on around us.

Now, our judgments most likely rest on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty, and that’s okay. Because we have to start somewhere.

Only then can we shift into the third phase, which is:

Intellectual. We put on our technical hats and verify what we encountered into more concrete understanding.

To do so, we leverage existing data, testing, research, insights and perspectives. Like a good scientist, we see what the literature suggests. Requiring us to step outside of our bodies and minds and broaden our circle of empathy.

Such validation tools show us the implications of our experience, like whether we’re crazy, alone, onto something big, have discovered nothing new, or somewhere in between.

Again, this is a step many people choose to leap frog over. They’re not interested in confirming their thoughts and feelings. Only blowing smoke up their own ass and whoever else’s ass is nearby.

But the intellectual part is a huge phase of the process. Only by triangulating our experiences with external evidence can we build real, usable principles and philosophies to improve our lives. Unless we’ve put intellectual rigor behind our assumptions, then we’ll never uncover the fundamental laws and truths from which useful action can be taken.

From this point, we’re able to shift into the final stage. We’ve already done the experiential, theoretical and intellectual, so now it’s time to get:

Functional. We convert what’s happened to us into some utilitarian purpose, capable of serving a purpose that makes valuable improvements to our condition.

This is my other favorite part of the process, because it gives me a chance to engage my marketing muscles. It’s about naming things. Merchandising your language. Since you’ve had an experience that made you feel, think and wonder about yourself and the world, now you can classify it.

Give it a more useful form to human eyes and ears. Create a branded term makes this palatable and memorable. Which ultimately creates a recommendation so anyone can take action to achieve a specific outcome in their own lives.

If you want to achieve leaps and bounds in your learning and growth, it’s got to be systematic, not just sporadic.

Experience isn’t enough. Intelligent reflection upon it is the difference maker.

How will you turn small events or situations into breakthroughs in thinking and action?