Moving from theory to practice

“In his great book about the philosophical roots of modern cognitive behavioural therapy, Donald Robertson tells us that the ancient philosophers weren’t interested in merely understanding how to live optimally, they were committed to actually LIVING optimally.”

     – Brian Johnson (Founder of Heroic), +1: Warriors vs. Librarians

Brian Johnson is one of the most inspiring and useful teachers I’ve encountered and has taught me a lot about optimal living. While he sometimes falls short of my epistemic standards and preference for conceptual clarity, his content is full of day-to-day wisdom and I’m careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this two-minute video (see quote above) he gets at something which most of us, especially those of us with strong intellectual inclinations, can benefit a lot from. In fact, it’s sufficiently promising to set the stage for one of the first posts for my site and I’ll now walk us through my somewhat more rigorous and expanded version grounded in the experience I’ve accumulated as a coach (i.e., someone who facilitates change in individuals – sometimes over years) and keen personal developer.

Theory and emotional insights are important but not sufficient

I claim that theory (e.g., rigorous conceptual models or big ideas) and emotionally charged insights (e.g., “Wow! I get upset and antagonistic in discussions because I deep down have a need to be perceived as extremely smart”) are exceptionally important for our development, but they’re rarely sufficient for real-world progress.

Example: Self-compassion

We might listen to a podcast episode on self-compassion with the brilliant Kristin Neff and find the concept intuitively useful as well as epistemically promising due to the research supporting its value – even for ambitious high-achievers who might worry that they’ll “lose their edge” or become complacent. However, from there most of us won’t reap the full fruits (or the 80/20 value) of this potentially life-changing concept, trait, and bundle of skills. Why? Well, let me (crudely) describe the two approaches we might use to bring something like self-compassion to a state where it provides value.

Approach 1 – theoretical


  • Use the initial knowledge and excitement to think about self-compassion a bit more.
  • Randomly and non-deliberately put some of the techniques mentioned into practice for the next couple of days.
  • If we’re really digging it, read the book and excitedly tell a friend about it.
  • Continue to think about it until the moment it becomes remotely boring and loses novelty or that we, intellectually, fall in love and crave consuming more information – likely related to something completely different.


Self-compassion remains conceptual knowledge without any behavioral or real-world change while suffering from the forgetting curve. Especially because applying it when it’s most needed (i.e., when we’re beating ourselves up for a suboptimal e-mail or comparing ourselves to people who appear smarter or more impactful) is really hard. In Brian’s words, the idea was cataloged in the library of our minds – as opposed to being brought into the arena of our moment-to-moment experience.

Approach 2 – theory → practice


  • Use the initial conceptual knowledge and excitement to confirm that this is something that would indeed improve our lives if consistently implemented (or lived).
    • This could be to i) pragmatically review Kristin’s research and book from the perspective of “should I believe in this?” and “are the effects promising?” or ii) simply trust the renowned researcher and your own first-pass judgment (15 min to a few hours).
  • Nail down the specifics of the practice. 
    • 1. Become mindful (notice what’s going on in your experience without judgment and extensive cognitive interpretations). 
    • 2. Connect with our common humanity (Recall that virtually all of us experience this hardship in one shape or form. None of us are fully exonerated from the ups and downs of the human experience.). 
    • 3. Kindness (Relate to ourselves in a kind and empowering way. Like a wise and caring friend or parent.)
  • Add it to a tracking sheet or journal and reflect on it each day to make it part of our everyday awareness and habits.
    • “How did I embody self-compassion today?”
    • “How can I treat myself with more self-compassion tomorrow?”
  • Continue to do this for the next couple of months, also when it’s kind of boring and we don’t feel like it, and share examples of our progress with friends (or our coaches) while iteratively improving and tailoring it to ourselves.


Self-compassion is now largely habitual and procedural knowledge and constitutes an intimate part of the relationship we have with ourselves – moment-to-moment. In Brian’s words, we brought the idea into the arena of life and took an important step towards living optimally. Of course, we’ll fall short because real-world and long-term change takes persistent practice and no one is perfect and you and I aren’t going to be the first ones (I personally deliberately gave up on that on November 24th 2021 which is in my thoughtsaver deck).



Useful high-quality theory and emotional insights are crucial and it’s important that we seek out ever more promising ones. However, let’s not put them on a pedestal and perpetually crave more information while merely cataloging them in the library of our minds. Instead, let’s find the theory and big ideas that serve us well in the current point in life and diligently and consistently implement them as practices and start living a heroic, wise, and self-compassionate life. Moving from theory to practice. From the library to the arena of our lives. We got this!

PS. The +1 referenced above is from by Heroic and was recently made free – I hope you’ll give it a shot.