This is an interesting expression that I came across very recently while reading a Tamil magazine. The literal meaning is that you can't cook the stew by just having a painting of a bottle gourd. Apparently, this proverb has different interpretations and is applicable to a variety of contexts. However, the most often implied meaning goes something like this:

"Theoretical or textbook knowledge (a picture of a bottle gourd) alone is not enough. Practical know-how (metaphorically refers to a real bottle gourd) is also important to accomplish things (making the stew)".

In short, knowledge gained through practice always trumps knowledge gained by reading textbooks alone.

I searched and found an expression - "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing"[TFD] but it emphasizes being over-confident after gaining a small amount of knowledge.

For those interested in knowing the actual Tamil proverb, it is "ஏட்டுச் சுரைக்காய் கூட்டுக்கு உதவாது"

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    We have "Experience is the best teacher".
    – TimR
    Feb 19, 2016 at 11:20
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    What about practice makes perfect?
    – Yay
    Feb 19, 2016 at 11:21
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    @TimRomano - To me, You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs conveys that in order to gain something one must be ready to make sacrifices. I'm sorry but I can't use it.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Feb 19, 2016 at 11:34
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    @BiscuitBoy: That suggestion of making sacrifices is not the only way it's used. It can also convey the idea that to accomplish something requires you to engage in the nitty gritty details of actually doing the work required. Achieving things requires more than a plan of action. There's also the action.
    – TimR
    Feb 19, 2016 at 12:01
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    Not commonly used but Gandalf says in The Two Towers, "The burned hand teaches best", which I've always liked - although the connotation is clearly most about learning from mistakes in particular, not just from any kind of experience. Feb 19, 2016 at 18:29

11 Answers 11


Here's one that highlights the problem with relying only on the theoretical at the expense of the practical:

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is. - reported by Walter J. Savitch, originator unknown but possibly Jan van de Snepscheut according to snopes.com

(Thanks to @DCShannon for the snopes link for attribution.)


"The map is not the territory" is a common expression, especially among military veterans.


There is a specific example of a well-known snowclone, by Ernst F. Schumacher:

An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.

Apart from the weight metaphor, though, it's disappointingly mundane. I'd prefer it if the bottlegourd / stew saying caught on.


Experience is the best teacher

You will learn more from things that happen to you in real life than you will from hearing about or studying things that happen to other people.


Nothing beats experience has been used for at least 50 years. Surprisingly, Google ngrams doesn't show any occurrence before year 1965.


The following saying is used to suggest that practice is more important than theory:

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach:

  • Prov. People who are able to do something well can do that thing for a living, while people who are not able to do anything that well make a living by teaching. (Used to disparage teachers. From George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman.)

    • Bob: I'm so discouraged. My writing teacher told me my novel is hopeless. Jane: Don't listen to her, Bob. Remember: those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
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    Interesting. Shouldn't there be a comma after "those who can't?". Also, isn't this phrase (after looking at the example sentence) a little offensive to teachers?
    – BiscuitBoy
    Feb 19, 2016 at 11:32
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    @BiscuitBoy - the fact I was immediately downvoted is probably an indication that someone may have taken it personally. I think it is an interesting expression that stresses the efforts and the difficulties required in translating theories into practice. (Anyway I don't think that teaching is an easy job )
    – user66974
    Feb 19, 2016 at 11:37
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    Yes, it is somewhat offensive to teachers, and usually uttered by people who have no idea how hard that job is, but as a one-time teacher, could I add that after a particularly annoying lecture on education theory, delivered by a very out-of-touch lecturer, one of my fellow-students added the punch-line: Those who can't teach, teach teachers. Feb 19, 2016 at 11:51
  • Teaching is hard because of the skills needed are rare. As a programmer, I would make a lousy teacher because I lack things like patience with idiots.
    – Engineer
    Feb 19, 2016 at 19:50
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    I think it's perfect and shouldn't be taken personally. And that's why they say ".... The great teacher inspires."
    – haha
    Feb 19, 2016 at 22:16

To reflect the theoretical versus empirical knowledge spirit of the saying, try

"To learn how to swim, you have to get wet."

Referring to a thing that you can't learn how to do by discussing or thinking about it.


The difference between theory and practice is practice.

is the best saying that directly translates the sentiment about theoretical vs. practical knowledge, but culturally in the US the sentiment is not widely expressed in terms of this saying. Rather, it is expressed in a sort of popular disdain for theoretical learning and the arrogance that sometimes accompanies it. There is a famous saying attributed to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) along these lines:

I never let my children's schooling get in the way of their education.

but more commonly it's expressed in the dismissal of seemingly unrealistic or impractical proposed solutions to problems, with the term "book-learning" used as the pejorative.

However, I read "A painting of bottlegourd is worthless while preparing stew” as more equivalent to the suggested "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", which means that having an image, or direct knowledge, of what you need to complete a task is not the same thing as having the thing itself. In other words, knowing theoretically what will solve your problem is not the same thing as having solved it.


If you're emphasizing the fact that the painting, while intended to be food, isn't actually worth anything as food, here's a phrase that might work:

A: Here's my (practically worthless) contribution.

B: That and a dollar'll get you a cup of coffee.

The implication is that the thing being presented doesn't actually make any progress towards your goal (a cup of coffee), that you'll still have to put in the full price if you want any.

(Sometimes I hear this phrase with a larger dollar amount, now that coffee is rarely just a dollar.)


I normally try to cite good sources here, but for this one the best I can do is... As seen on a poster:

A picture is worth a thousand words, but memories are priceless.

Less directly related is this (also from a poster):


10% of what we read

20% of what we hear

30% of what we see

50% of what we see and hear

70% of what we discuss with others

80% of what we personally experience

95% or what we teach others

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    This doesn't seem to be related to how practice is what gets things done and so is better than theory. Feb 19, 2016 at 21:54

Janet Black:

Doctor Manhattan as you know the Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face analogizing humankind's proximity to extinction, midnight representing the threat of nuclear war. As of now it stands at four minutes to midnight. Would you agree that we are that close to annihilation?

Jon Osterman:

My father was a watch maker. He abandoned it when Einstein discovered time is relative. I would only agree that a symbolic clock is as nourishing to the intellect as photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.

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