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 have truly binary choices. Both is often an option. But they are fun: so please assume someone took my lunch and refused to give it back until I picked 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.

 

88 Responses to “Book smarts vs. Street smarts”

  1. Taeyang Jr.

    Just to set an example in regardings to the topic, when the economy comes down to a threat where individuals will be drafted to war, street smarts will doubt less and think of strategies in order to survive through the battlefield,while on the other hand book smarts are hesitating about what they can do next to survive.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      Bull crap. Street smarts will make you run into a blood bath without preparing, mental smarts will plan an attack careful with no lose end.

      Reply
      1. Will

        Dan you are both correct and wrong. Street smarts doesn’t mean a person will blindly run into danger. They are more likely to slow down and look at the entire picture, observing the various things that are occurring and make a decision to move. A book smart person would do the same thing, however, a book smart person may rely to heavily on their book knowledge and, if never encountered dangerous situations, will make the wrong decision, because they will solely depend on book knowledge. Now, a person who is street smarts and book smarts, will absolutely fair better than the other two with only the singular smarts.

        Reply
  2. Mike Lalji

    Street smarts comes through experiences. Experience is therefore the mother of wisdom.Trouble brings experience and experience brings wisdom. Experience without learning is better than learning without experience. Knowledge without practice makes but half an artist.Experience is the best teacher, so live and learn.Failure teaches success as once bitten twice shy.Surely, experiential knowledge outweighs book smarts. That’s been my experience.

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth Griffin

      I agree but would add one thing. Reflection is key. Experience without reflection is often history repeating.

      Reply
    2. anonymous

      What a know-it-all you are just like the author of this stupid article is. You think that being book smart suck? That’s bullshit! Without being book smart, how will you learn anything?

      If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you’re pro-jock and anti-nerd. Well, I favor nerds over jocks any day. Plus, I think that adventure’s overrated. So let homebodies be and let all people learn however they want.

      Reply
      1. Scott Berkun

        I’m really more of a know-it-some.

        > let all people learn however they want.

        This is perhaps the only sentence in your comment that makes much sense.

        Reply
        1. Annie

          I agree with the fact that being book smart is important. How else do you get into a good college and get a great job? I mean, they won’t accept you unless your resume is good – therefore you need good grades. Also, experience can only be gained if one is book smart. They would otherwise have no idea what they’re doing and have consistent failure. Although, these are equally important – I’m not trying to belittle street smarts

          Reply
          1. Elle

            While I get where you’re coming from, there are exceptions. I left school willingly at 15. I was a straight A student at the time, but had lots of family drama happening and had to get a job to help my mom make ends meat. I’m now in my thirties, and a successful transplant living in NYC. I work as an executive personal assistant, a job that typically requires a bachelors degree and has a very generous salary. I don’t envourage anyone to drop out of school. Yet, I also realize that the public school curriculum is not for everyone. Sometimes its best to create your own path 😉 I never returned to school, but at the same time, I have never stopped learning through observation and keen listening.

          2. Will

            you are missing the entire point of the conversation. being street smart is “better” in most situations of safety compare to book smart, where you are oblivious to the visible dangers. If you are street smart you have a better understanding of the cues that indicate potential dangers and threats. Most book smart people who are solely book smart tend to miss those cues. Of course everyone needs book smarts that’s an obvious but those who lack street smarts tend to walk find themselves in more dangerous or uncomfortable situations.

        2. malachi

          It was a good article Scott.

          Reply
      2. Rodzina

        Through experience how you think people came up with inventions they didn’t have a book they use the things that was already around them!!!!

        Reply
    3. bucks rimbar

      So true…and apt.

      Reply
  3. Stephanie

    Thank you, this has made me feel better about myself.

    Reply
  4. Jennie

    You mentioned you don’t believe in strict dichotomies, so that’s good. That being established, you can read a book about a situation and then apply that knowledge to a situation, and that way enhance the overall outcome. Book smarts without street smarts creates inapplicable solutions, but, as someone else said before me, street smarts without book smarts makes us repeat history. People go through different phases in life too. Sometimes people think more than do, and other times they do more than think. Combining the two is most powerful. I majored in psychology for college, and I am in social work for grad school. What is sharpening me into a better social worker are the internships, and my current job. However, the background knowledge is there as a guiding force, as opposed to a final solution. I know counseling techniques, and can pick ones over others based on how well they have worked in the past. I like social work better than psychology though, because you mentioned, psychology is just the mind/brain, but social work is in the environment/context more. My bias here is being someone who was book smart but with no experience/ common sense growing up. I had to gain that later. College and the real world was a rough transition. Everyone has their biases though. People need to communicate and figure solutions that are creative and address problems, but that are also applicable. Don’t write off the needs too quickly, we can come in handy ;)

    Reply
    1. anonymous

      Am I glad you pointed that out to the author of this article? Without book smarts, knowledge falls apart.

      And about nerds, we need them in the world. Without them, Earth would revert back to either the Middle Ages or ancient times.

      Reply
  5. Shreya

    Being street smart helps greatly…. But sometimes you have to be book smart too…. 😊

    Reply
    1. Ignis Flyy

      i would like to support you. but still sometimes, if you are not book smart, you can excel in some situations.
      taking an example of math question, even if you are book smart, you all the formulae, you might now be able to apply them being a book smart. but if you’re a street smart, you can derive a formula by yourself, even you can solve a math question by your own without using a formula.

      Reply
  6. Delia

    It’s not either or- both are useful. If you want a cure for a disease you’ll want a book smart person with hints of “street smart” kicking in wheras if you’re out on the streets as a bum you’d definetly need street smarts at a higher level than book smarts. The world doesn’t operate in binaries, the rich “book smart” bankers that are conning billions also need a bit of street smart to con the ordinary person whereas the street smart person would have no chance unless they also possessed some book smarts too.

    And Ignis, I think with your analogy you’re confusing understanding and knowledge- understanding doesn’t belong to the domain of street smart or book smart.

    Reply

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