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.


74 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.

  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.

    1. Elizabeth Griffin

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

  3. Stephanie

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

  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 ;)

  5. Shreya

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


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