Book smarts vs. Street smarts

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics readers submit.

[Note: Polarizing questions are silly since rarely in life do you have to make such exclusive choices. Often you can find a way to obtain both, not either/or. For fun assume you've stolen my lunch money and refuse to give it back until I play along and pick a side. Also see: The false dichotomy of false dichotomies]

There is no doubt in my mind street smarts kicks book smarts ass. To be street smart means you have situational awareness. You can assess the environment you are in, who is in it, and what the available angles are. Being on the street, or in the trenches, or whatever low to the ground metaphor you prefer, requires you learn to trust your own judgment about people and what matters. This skill, regardless of where you develop it, is of great value everywhere in life regardless of how far from the streets you are.

Most important perhaps, being street smart comes from experience. It means you’ve learned how to take what has happened to you, good or bad, think about it, and learn to improve from it. The prime distinction between street smarts and book smarts is who is at the center of the knowledge. On the street, it’s you. In a book it’s you trying to absorb someone elses take on the world, and however amazing the writer is, you are at best one degree removed from the actual experience. Street smarts means you’ve put yourself at risk and survived. Or thrived. Or have scars. You’ve been tested and have a bank of courage to depend on when you are tested again. Being street smart can lead to book smarts as the street smart sense what works and what doesn’t, and adapt accordingly.

Book smarts, as I’ve framed it, means someone who is good at following the rules. These are people who get straight A’s, sit in the front, and perhaps enjoy crossword puzzles. They like things that have singular right answers. They like to believe the volume, and precision, of their knowledge can somehow compensate for their lack of experience applying it in the real world. Thinking about things has value, but imagining how you will handle a tough situation is a world away from actually being in one (As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club – “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”).

Like the stereotypical ROTC idiot in war movies (e.g. The Thin Red Line, Aliens 2) who outranks the much more competent and experienced, but less well pedigreed sergeant, the book smart confuse pretense with reality, and only learn of the difference when it is too late. Or worse, even after the fact, they insist on seeking out more books and degrees rather than recognizing they are trying to improve the wrong skills: they are half blind by their own choice since they insist on looking at the world with only one eye.

I say all this as someone who has a deep love for books, and who has some degree of what might be called book smarts. But it’s that knowledge, used in service of street smarts, that best explains whatever I’ve achieved in life.

 

58 Responses to “Book smarts vs. Street smarts”

  1. Scott Berkun

    Motely Fool has an article on this – focuses on going to college as the criteria for being book smart which is perhaps narrower than mine. But does have some interested examples from the CEO ranks. The other downside is the focus on the TV show The Apprentice, a show, like many other reality TV shows, that emphasizes the asshole approach to getting ahead.

    Reply
  2. Josh Maher

    Unfortunately you are contradicting yourself at the end of your statement…

    “it

    Reply
  3. Scott Berkun

    Josh: It’s hard to contradict yourself when you don’t entirely buy the premise, which I admitted early on :)

    But to defend the position I did choose to take, if I could only have one, it’d be street smarts. I think I have better odds of deriving what I would get from books through other means, than the other way around. I can’t prove this, but I do believe it.

    Reply
  4. josemaria

    I think this is a bit different. I work with many street-smart people and they have some blind zones that they are not aware of. They follow other rules: their own, and they are inflexible about that. If you expose to repetitive patterns you began to believe that this experiences is the reality, and you are less aware of the now famous “black swans”.

    Book-smart people can have less experience, but they have a map of the world. An incorrect map, but one made by thousands of contributions that have been verified. This knowledge have a limit, but it’s much better because you know where you are and what is around you. Of course, this map can be outdated, but you can violate the rules when you think it’s necessary.

    There are genius in both camps, but you need both kinds of knowledge.

    Geeks like to reduce every problem to a few variables, but this doesn’t work. This is the reason why personnel selection process doesn’t always work.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Jose: that’s a sound argument. Thanks for making it.

      You’ve made me think there’s something else that’s more important in both cases and that’s the capacity to admit there is more going on that your realize.

      Or put another way, you can read a book or live on the streets and learning nothing in either case. The ability to extract knowledge from experience, or from books, is the important thing.

      It’s also worth noting that which books you read makes a huge difference on what you might learn, just as which streets you choose to hang out on matters.

      Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Jose – A better question your post made me think of:

      How do you find your blind spots? And what do you do about it?

      This is perhaps a much better question and prediction of who you’ll become than the book smarts vs. street smarts thing.

      Reply
    • Anonymous

      Biased opinion…then you claim that you aren’t street smart. Also, street smart is more than you think. For instance, if you ask any prior service member or a military veteran, they will say that most officers can’t read a map. There seems to be no common sense, in they bookish knowledge. However, I do agree with some that goes with book knowledge, but often times that makes a person blinded by their arrogance. I think your the type who is arrogant.

      Reply
  5. josemaria

    Well, put yourself in difficult situations. Most people kills for opportunities to learn. I know of people who prefer a job where they will learn to a well paid but boring job.

    I don’t believe in genious, it’s impossible that so many good musician live in the same period of time near Viena. And it’s impossible that so many good programmers/developers/startup-founders live in the SF Bay Area in USA.

    It’s constant growing opportunities and learning from great experiences what make this possible. If you live in a country or work in a company without exciting new problems you will not learn anything, because constant knowledge, being complex or not, will be accumulated by some persons and they will not share it, living in silos, as it’s a source of power.

    This reminds me something I read from a neuroscientist. He said that if you want to experiment a long live (to feel as if every day it’s important and long) you must constantly learn new things because the brain “compiles” routinary things and you feel as if times run too quickly.

    If you have worked in domains out of computing, you will learn that there are many complex domains where knowledge silos are not accesibles. I’m now in the global commerce domain and it’s really incredible how many things you must know to move goods from one port to another. Just to move a container through a custom require from you all your knowledge.

    I’m taking a good course on that, and many people there are street-smarts. They all have good stories about incredible things, and give really good tips and tricks about that world. But then you need the book smarts to know about international agreements, laws and so.

    It’s the same in every domain.

    Reply
  6. Brent

    Good article and points. I also agree with Jose. I feel that you need to know both in order to recognize opportunities or traps. In my corp job, I see high level managers miss huge things because they cannot think outside of their limited training – and I also see street smart players who can’t play the game long enough to win or carve their own path.

    I personally want to know what rainbow sorbet tastes like in order to know I prefer chocolate. Not just read about it.

    Thanks !

    Reply
  7. BenAlabaster

    Great post, however, one thing you don’t touch on is that street smarts are only really obtained by first hand knowledge – i.e. that which has happened directly to you or what you’ve seen happen to those around you.

    My mother always taught me that life is too short to learn everything from your own mistakes. You need to learn from everyone else’s too.

    Book smarts are the lessons learned from many other people’s fortunes, insights and mistakes – in a shorter amount of time than I could possibly learn them all myself.

    Street smarts allows you to see and understand which of those lessons should be heeded, which can be ignored and those which aren’t really lessons at all, but red herrings, distractions and outright fabrications.

    I would have a hard time choosing one from the other, because without book smarts, I’d have to learn everything for myself first hand which is a long and arduous journey. But without street smarts, especially with the advent of the internet and the masses of complete garbage that comes with it, I’d be learning a lot of false lessons unnecessarily and wasting a lot of valuable time.

    Thus, there is no useful way to separate one from the other when you’re applying them to the real world.

    Reply
  8. Anirban Bhattacharya

    Well, to start with, I would rather prefer to be a book smart than a streetsmart. Street smart is not a choice; it is something you are exposed upon, forced to live and you survived with all your zeal and courage. A street smart never starts with the will to be a streetsmart. Generally it is his destiny which brings him there.

    But I agree, that to excel a book smart needs to go down to road and try to match his knowledge with all hands-on skill. And the combination of both can take you to the pinnacle.

    Reply
  9. Joel D Canfield

    “who is at the center of the knowledge”

    That’s super, Scott.

    I agree that, if I had to choose one or the other, I’ll take experience over books (and I say that as a guy who’s written four and has four in the works, and reads about one a week.)

    But, we don’t have to choose, for ourselves at least. If you’re hiring, yeah; there are a lotta people with a piece of paper but no experience. Not a tough call for me.

    For myself, I read books to see what they have to teach me, but as you say, I do it with myself in the center. If someone teaches something that I know is ‘wrong’, I’m not likely to change my mind.

    If I experience something totally contrary to what I believe, you’d best believe it’s got my full attention.

    Reply
  10. Mike Nitabach

    In my experience, the bottom line here is that the only way to really learn is to make mistakes, and the only way to make mistakes is to try shit and fail. You can’t fail while reading something in a book or listening to someone tell you something, and thus you can’t make mistakes, and consequently can’t learn.

    Reply
  11. Devdas Bhagat

    To me, book smarts allow for strategic thinking. Street smarts are tactical, here and now. It’s a different mindset for an entirely different class of problem.

    Ideally, you want both together, but that isn’t always possible. As some of the other commentators have said, book smarts give you a map, street smarts don’t.

    Also, book smarts tell you when to apply those street smarts. Street smartness is highly contextual, and outside that context, they lose big.

    Reply
  12. g2e

    It seems that there is no one key to success in life. Academic knowledge and intellectual ability certainly play a big part in the foundation of a successful career. But it also requires vision, charisma, a good work ethic, and not a bit of intuition to pull everything together. Success is not behind just one door. It’s behind several doors, and series of doors, so you’re going to need more than one key.

    Reply
  13. Jeff

    I saw this quote the other day: “Every time I encounter someone saying that they aren’t ‘book smart’ but they are ‘street smart’, I always hear, ‘I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart.’”

    Very true.

    Reply
  14. David Bandel

    Your article only exemplifies anti-intellectualism.

    What you describe as street smarts is really just another byproduct of having high general intelligence.

    Any distinction between ‘street smarts’ which is just what people with low intelligence call ‘wisdom’ and ‘book smarts’ which is just what people with low intelligence use to refer to the more apparent features of people with high intelligence is a totally arbitrary one and exists only to give the common idiot a way out of facing his shortcomings.

    In short, you are an idiot and you know it. Not that deep down either. You resent people who aren’t idiots. All you’re trying to do is bring them down to your level by acting like their possession of something implies their lack of something else.

    Sad really. Not just how little intelligence and the brain are understood by sheep like you. But how bitter your ilk are about having such weak intellects.

    Reply
  15. C-Master

    @ David Bandel

    I think the article is right on and I think it is good to have both. But any successful person will tell you that they had to get out there and *try* and make mistakes, while others were caught in “analysis paralysis”. I’ve always been well rounded and have done many things, and I am a massive, massive reader. One of the biggest around. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my resourcefulness and real world skills. Things they *don’t* teach in school. People who live at their own devices are sheep? People in school are trained to be sheep and keep the middle class going. They follow the crowd and do what the world tells them they should do.

    I started my own company and paid for my own schooling, and I’m glad to be finished. To see people take out staggering amounts of loans for something they think will bring them the “easy life” and it won’t more often than not is sad. Intelligence is a broad concept and a key of intelligence is the ability to adapt, and guess what. Those with street smarts adapt faster because they are able to change their way of thinking to adapt to their situation, where “book smart” people tend to fall into line and do what the world tells them. I’m blessed to have the street smarts to make my own way, and the book smarts to help advance me.

    I have a friend who believes in everything the book tells him although he has very little real world experience. He takes the word of a book as the gospel truth and he’ll be the guy who goes back to school and gets several degrees to avoid facing the real world. A world carved by others.

    There is no map when you have street smarts because you have to carve your own way. I prefer the path less taken because it is more rewarding. I am an entrepreneur myself and I know that there’s no map for the path I take, whereas most “book smart” people go for security. Hence the saying “A students work for C students”. It’s not the “smarts” per se, it’s the mindset. One likes a controlled environment with a “right answer” and a “wrong answer” and the other likes to make their own way. Grades or not, it has a valid point and why some of the worlds most successful people dropped out of school or didn’t finish or didn’t do good in it. They were making their own way.

    Reply
    • snowy

      I couldn’t have said it better C-Master! Wow, this guy David Bandel is out bashing irrationally anything that his thoughts won’t conform too!

      I work for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as a computational scientist, and I cannot tell you how much it frustrates me to see these world-class scientists and physicists lack practical intelligence! They are happy plugging away their equations and formulations into models, but wouldn’t know a squat about their finances! Take away the government funding, and they would land in the ‘un-employed’ pool in a heart-beat, and wouldn’t know where to go from there.

      I worked for another world-class research institute before now, with the highest concentration of Ph.D’s in the Sciences from top schools. The story was very similar to what I see now. These people have zero survival skills, and make very average to below average salaries, in-spite of their uber IQs.

      I am happy to say that I won’t be working with the strictly book smarts much longer, and would gladly trade-in a couple of my degrees for being more practical!

      Reply
  16. tanner

    I peronally believe book smarts and street smarts are both extremely important in being sucessful in life. Street smarts helps you deal with conflicts, but book smarts is having a strong base of knowledge. Which also is very important. Personally I belive that street smart is much more important to have than book smart. Yes knowing facts is cool, but in real life situations you need to be able to roll with the punches and deal with obstacles put in front of you. Another point is when you’re working for any company you’re almost always working with other people and I personally enjoy working with people who are street smart. Please give me your opinion. Who would you enjoy working with more?

    Reply
  17. John Smith

    Street smarts are often overlooked by the “geniuses” of the world. Take a surgeon for example. He/she will spend years in med school learning procedure after procedure, simply because that’s what they must know to excel at their job. But if you throw that surgeon into the real world, in a tough situation. They’ll most likely look for the way out by analyzing the situation for logical key points, then use that point to try to make a move based on what another author or published has told them. This way of thinking in the real world isn’t the most helpful for there are too many variables that may throw the situation into a whole direction at any moment in time. In order to get prosper you need to be able to adapt to these variables and make a decision or move based on what may happen or what will happen. This knowledge is mostly and more easily gained when using street smarts.

    Reply
  18. Shelly

    I believe that street smart and book smart are both important assets in life. Life experiences are more active and hands on but school education can teach you in different ways.

    Reply
  19. Jack Fonchez

    Hello, sup Tanner. In response to your question, I’d much rather be a book smart person. And I am. As a highschool student, I am studying the average, boring ciriculum… so I can go on to college, and probably find some job rotting in an office… living the life of that guy from Office Space. Sure, I won’t enjoy it, but you know what? That’s what’s considered normal and successful. What can you do with street smarts unless you are from the inner city where you need to know how to react when you are ambushed by muggers? Im a suburban kid, and therefore I have no need for streetsmarts.

    Reply
  20. Shelly

    John Smith, I believe that both book smart and street smart are important assets in life. Your example of a surgeon can not support this because if a surgeon is only basing things off of street smart they really have nothing. If they go to work on a pacient and they only have street smarts then they may know some things but they will not be able to do their best in getting that pacient to a well being. If they only have street smart then you are risking the pacients life. Therefore people need street smart and book smart.

    Reply
  21. John Smith

    Shelly,
    You’re putting words in my mouth. I completely agree with what you’re saying and that’s the point I was trying to get through. He/she would have the book smarts to keep a paitent in a good state. But their street smarts or real worl experiences would be lacking.

    Reply
  22. tanner

    Jack, street smarts aren’t needed for avoiding muggers thats what guns are for. Being in an office you definetly need streetsmarts. When doing buissness things never go as planed and when you make a mistake if you learn from it next time an obstacle is put in your way you’ll know how to deal with those problems more easily. For example as a highschool student when you have a new teacher and your about to take your first test from them you don’t know if you should prepare for the test by studying short answer questions, essay questions, or multiple choice questions. After you take your first test you’ll know what their tests are like and you should be more sucessful on your next test. Also school doesn’t teach you how to deal with problems. Life expirience does.

    Reply
  23. Jack Fonchez

    Wait! Unless they are math problems, Tanner.

    Reply
    • Kyle Ann

      Ha Ha Tanner, that is why I said a balance is probably best, but street smart people use many forms of math on a daily basis. It is just not called math. The street smart know how to apply knowledge while book smart have the knowledge, but don’t know where to put it,

      Reply
  24. yavnik

    when a person himself always trying to put as a book smart in his society he is always being ignored by the street smarts.really book smarts are always trying to find answers from the life, at last its being all gets complicated.so i think after getting knowledge every book smart has to put it practically in the society to adjust himself.

    Reply
  25. Kyle Ann

    I agree about street smarts kicking book smarts ass, but having a nice balance of the two is probably best. I like to think about what will happen when all the wealth and possessions disappear; you can bet I will be hanging with the street smart crowd.

    Reply
  26. Aleena Siddiqui

    i do agree wid u that street smart can kick d ass of book smart. bt u can see it’s jst in the case when there is implication of practical knowledge, experience and all dat.
    In today’s world you c, every1 needs a luxuries life, money fame etc. 4 dat one needs a good job….. and all comes to a point dat 1 needs degree. mere practical knowledge can’t make you work in a MNC which ask 4 qualification, 4 a degree.
    so better there should be bookish knowledge also which could make u succeed in catching ur goal.

    Reply
  27. Thomas Duff

    In a perfect world, I’d give the edge to street smarts. If a street smart person wants, they can read the books to get the book smarts part of the equation. All too often, a book smart person lacks the preparation or skill to get the street smarts (as it’s a lot harder and more painful).

    Personally, I’m far more book smart than street smart, much to my dismay…

    Reply
  28. Dan S

    For me, street smarts is a means to an end. Book smart is an end. The pleasure of finding things out.

    Reply
    • snwin

      If the book is a street atlas, all the more reason to pick a street smart person. He/she would simply use a GPS app in their smart phones! These days people seem to carry their smart-phones everywhere, even to the rest-rooms. Where is the need to know a street atlas?

      Reply
    • Dan S

      A Useful book. Not an interesting book. A means to an end. A World Atlas on the other hand is a means to an edification.

      Reply
  29. ROHAN APURV SINHA

    hey guys……is it not possible of having a conventional car and driving it street smartly.?..(metaphorically speaking….)
    why are you distinguishing the streetsmarts from conventional intelligents as u call……
    can’t one be a wise..academically strong still streetsmart in the daily life….well i guess there can be….
    being streetsmart adds an advantage….don’t you think so?

    i know what my plans ae…but i am unaware of the problems i would face…so i can tackle them streetsmartly….
    sebastian vettel…before a race knows about the circuit and every turn….but he does not know if alonso would be behind him on the next turn or hamilton would be ahead….he has to act at that moment as the situation demands…..
    life is not an f1 race but it often is…..
    i would go for streetsmarts…..

    Reply
  30. ROHAN APURV SINHA

    and i don’t think so that streetsmarts are academically weak…..its the life that demands streetsmartness……problems come unconventionally ….so it should be tackled unconventionally too..i guess….

    Reply
  31. SB

    Nice article, by the way in my opinion we need to have experience to heighten the two, book and street smarts/awareness. You make some valid observations about the skills that street experience offers but at the same time the article starts by describing dichotomies, which then is ironic that you would say one is better over another because this comparison is a false dichotomy. Maybe this is the intention to let readers figure out that we can and should make our efforts to have both types of intellects.

    Alot of people I’ve been around tend to have the ability to be both street and book smart. Its just one or the other usually weighs in more for their decision making, which distinguishes their way of thinking.

    2A close friend, for example has always expressed his street knowledge ever since a young age and it seems like entreupenuirial ways of thinking comes way more naturally for him as opposed to more book smart friends. This is just one case I’m sure millions of university students are great entrepreneurs as well. I just wanted to point out that both ways of thinking can and should be improved on since they each offer a unique perspective and benefit us.

    Reply
  32. Elizabeth Griffin

    It’s interesting to me to see people go back and forth over which is better… especially the people who bash each side. Yikes.

    Ideally, we all want both. I am more of street-smart person who can handle extreme situations, high stress, can adapt quickly, and am very resourceful. I hated college because it lacked immediate action, yet, without finishing, it gets held against me. My analytical skills are overlooked and assumed underdeveloped. But the same goes for someone who spent all their time in the classroom. They have great knowledge but can be paralyzed so easily by stress and pressure.

    Ultimately, I think it’s about having both. I hope that some day we can offer more college programs that engage personalities like mine. I think if someone had connected with me earlier on then I would have finished school. Instead of going back now and finishing only because I realize not having the papers to prove I read the book slows the pace of my professional growth.

    Personally, this was a great article to find. Glad it came up in my Google search.

    Reply
  33. Rasputin77

    n case of war or chaos if i will be a captain in army and have to pick up my soldiers,will be street smarts,not that i ignore the book smarts,but i honestly i believe that street smarts they will be more innovative and have more chances to survive in harsh environments. I’m just old school guy,i know most of people think a war can be win with intelligence and that might be on the side of the book smart,but isn’t street smart can be blend of both,but book smart i’m doubt can be blend with street smart.A book smart will be to spoiled to adapt self to a street smart,but a street smart will have no choice and has to adapt in self to learn the craft to book smart as well,but remember the advantage of street smart is is not a spoiled brat

    Reply
  34. Martin Krastev

    What is this crap, a support group for the retarded… There are no such things as book smarts or street smarts… The people who are successful at absorbing knowledge from the “the street” also happen to be the same who absorb knowledge from other indirect sources. Only the most base and retarded of individuals pride themselves on the idea of “learning through experience”. What makes people useful is being able to figure out the implications of an event before experiencing it. Short of that, anyone with an iq higher then 15 points can learn through experience.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Martin: I confess to being among the most base and retarded of individuals.

      However it seems your affliction is an inability to read the first full paragraph of missives you then comment on.

      Reply
  35. Michael McGinn

    Fantastic article. taking the road less traveled, earning your degree through hard knocks develops road scholars. I would much rather learn how to avoid mistakes from someone that made the mistakes and lived through it to tell the tail then to listen to someone that thinks they know the best way to crack an egg that has never fried an omelet.

    Each day you survive earns you an A for the day because life gives you the final test first and then let’s you study for it later.

    Reply
    • Dan S

      What’s the obsession with not making mistakes? Yes, many can be avoided, but in general I like to learn to avoid them by making them. You can only learn so much from other people’s mistakes. You learn entirely different things, things directly pertinent to you, by making them yourself. To twist Twain:

      “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he [cannot learn from someone else]”

      http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/marktwain105031.html

      Reply
  36. Sav

    Thanks for writing,

    The article was great and I enjoyed reading it and the comments below

    Reply
  37. KYAJ

    issue is that when street smarts start to read books,they become smarter and wiser,and they will posses flexible menality,which is important when you want make money,in future they will become senators or members of government,WHY?,because they have more influense in envirement than the others,because they know where money is,where you can get them and the most important how you can get them,GOVERNMENT AND PEOPLE WIH DIPLOMES NEED THEM.IT IS STREET SMARTS WHO BECAME HIGH QUALIFIED SPECIALISTS,WHO BECOME LEADERS IN WORKPLACE OR SOMEWHERE ELSE.
    What concernes book smarts they have knowlegdes,information but they cant use them,and any time when they will try to use their knowledges they will be cheated by STREET SMARTS>

    Reply
  38. Umlaut

    Interesting discussion. After roaming the world for decades I can say:
    “Street Smarts kept me alive, Book Smarts explained why”.

    Reply

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