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.

 

114 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
        1. Roy

          You need courage to acquire street smarts..street smarts is practical knowledge..book smart is based theoretical knowledge.

          Reply
          1. Nic

            Sure. It is a comparison of what we do (street smart) vs what we ,think (book smart)

        2. Roy

          Right exactly right..its those cues the seperate book smart from street smart..and if your in a leadership position the different between these 2 words become way more evident. It is street smarts that prompts one to write books..because you can write a book about something you don’t know nothing about. Hence the HOLY BIBLE

          Reply
          1. Roy

            U can’t write about something you know nothing about.

          2. Jake

            What are you people talking abou!? In the end it’s the “Gamers” that will save everyone because they’ve done it a million times before. Street and book smart?? Please, know your place.

  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
      1. Ishamarr Swain

        Well said.

        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. Leah

        What? I will this lady that wrote about ‘Street- smart vs Study smart!!! I can tell you, I have been through a lot in my life on my own,without my family. I brought myself up! I had been in care as a child, ran away from home at 16 years old because of my unhappiness at home. It, in fact , affected my schooling as a consequence as well as bullied at school too. So, the mention of this & never been in trouble! Worked in banking etc self taught! X

        Reply
        1. Leah

          Also, may l comment, have traveled on my own, lived in Guadeloupe (French West Indies). Lived there for 5 and a half years. I did well in French at school getting highest score in my year! But, most of it was ” useless!” I learnt quicker to speak fluently. I am & will always be “Streetwise!” And for this, I have great experience & don’t hold on nor fear the past I embrace it! It’s a “qualification” in my eyes! 👍🙏😊

          Reply
    3. bucks rimbar

      So true…and apt.

      Reply
    4. Metralanette Sherman

      First, I believe that experience is not the best teacher, but it is the most definitive. Street smart people…are people who are street geniuses.They know everything about the streets. Except everything from a to z about how the street came to be. Book smart people…are people who sit down, shut their mouths and listen, with respect for knowledge. They don’t know everything, so they commit to learning everything possible. God fearing people is the key. So street smart people please stop making fun of those who are not, street start. Book smart people, street smart people are different. But not better or worse than you. Just different. Choice is a gift from God. Appreciate that gift. Choose God. Be God smart!

      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
  7. Bri

    I am honsetly both. My mother lets me walk around town by myself. I have extremely good ears, trust problems, and fists. But, I also have all A’s. I would say I’m in between.

    Reply
  8. Sienna

    I think this post is correct in a way, but when you are book smart you don’t nesscarily have to get straight As or play chess or stuff like that. I think it’s more of just using past information inside of using wits; but not every book smart is a straight A student. I’m more book smart than street smart yet I still manage to get Bs and Cs

    Reply
    1. Jesse

      Bill Gates, Billionaire
      Mark Zucherberg, Billionaire

      Hmmm, you take your pick…..

      Reply
  9. Alex S.

    I think ‘street smarts’ were thought up to make stupid people feel better.

    It’s similar to the argument, ‘What really is intelligence?’

    Reply
  10. Sandra

    This article seems a little defensive on the “street smart” side.

    First of all, no one person is 100% “street smart” or 100% “book smart”. We are all some combination of both.

    Also, consider a war situation. Like WWII. Yes, you need people on the front lines. You also need people in Bletchley Park cracking the German code. You also need Churchill, who was VERY “book smart” to be able to make decisions based on his knowledge of history and strategy (he liked to play Chess, apparently, a totally useless book smart thing, right? But he won the freaking war).

    Yes, you need to be street smart. Everyone does. Some very nerdy people overlook this aspect of their own personal development, and can get away with it, because they are so book smart they are able to ….. for example, get into Harvard for free. Otherwise, they may have joined the military and learned a bunch of things about being in Fight Club but they never find themselves in that position.

    As a “book smart” person, who is also not a complete “street smart” idiot…..defensiveness about “book smarts” smells of an inferiority complex. If “book smart” people should learn “street smarts”…it goes the other way as well.

    You don’t win a war with a bunch of soldiers independently using their street smarts to individually survive. Someone has to sit back and take the whole thing into perspective.

    Reply
  11. Diogo Falcão

    I think that the comparison between streets smarts and book smarts are similar to the compartison between knowledge and wiston. Knowledge is something that you can learn usgin books for example (similar to book smarts) and Wiston is how you can use some information (similar to streets smarts). I think that you put your opinion too much in this text, no one can be better than something who has both skills, you can’t compare like this. I really thing that street smarts are much important than books smarts, however, a guy who is really good in the “street experience” can’t go too far whitout a minimum of knowledge and vice versa.

    Reply
  12. Raphael Pimentel

    I partially agree with you. Experience really matters and it is an important aspect to be considered when it comes to street smarts. However, being a book smart is like taking a step back in order to take two steps forward. He is able to size up everything which surounds him based on his source of information he stored up previously. That gives him a clear bunch of options clustered in what is like to be beneficial or prejudicial so to as he can thrive painless . On the other hand, street smarts face sudden situations and they are highly expected to pull it off by pain, even though that brings about him new ways to overcome emerging issues. Therefore, street smarts may always be choiceless at first, meanwhile book smarts are likely to be more sensitive regarding general situations.

    Reply
  13. Najla

    Dan,

    I agree with you when you wrote in the beggining of the text that polarizing questions could be not a good option .
    So, in my opinion, we should have a balance between the knowledge that we get on the streeets and the one that we get on the books.
    Both have drawbacks and benefits, but we should have some theory to succeed in our practical life experience.

    Reply
  14. Fernanda Souza

    No one has only book smart or street smart. We have to pass and learn for each stage or both, on same time.
    To have experience is necessary to live the situation, but also it is important to prepare for its. When you are a child, you don’t have much experience, you don’t have much “street smarts”, but this is acceptable, because this stage for you study and learn (similar book smarts). With time, you are learning and teaching, because you have some or total experience on situations (similar street smarts).
    So, street smarts are very important, but depending of life stage, book smarts are more important, for me.

    Reply
  15. Mariana Gomes

    I think that your opinion was to conservative. Just because someone likes to read more than do action stuff, doesn’t mean that he can’t solve unexpected issues. We are in the 21st century, there are no more borders to knowledge, one person doesn’t have just ONE personality, we are in the multidiversity age.
    The books are a good source of knowledge, they can help us to undestand situations and how to prevent them from hapeen. And even if does, you will still know what to do.
    The same gools to the street smarts, the only diference is that they learned the way it took them longer to acquire the agility and knowledge needed to solve the problems. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t take a book and start to read to become better.

    Reply
  16. Arthur Justino

    i think the ideal setting is when you are both, as much street smart as book smart, because if you have the experience of life and the knowledge of the books, you can deal with any situation, we don’t need to compare these two, but rather improve them.

    Reply
  17. Eduarda Gumercindo

    This article generalized and polarized the existence of book smarts and street smarts. No one is totally one of them. Being a street smart makes you a person with situational awareness. On the other hand, being a book smart means that you handle some situations with an intellectual point of view based on facts gained chiefly from books. So having a little of each makes you express your best version.

    Reply
  18. fernando pinheiro da silva

    I consider it very opportune, because it allows us to see the good side of both worlds.
    analyzing the street smarts side , where skills are need to survive, allowing you to see an environment to identify whether an area is risky or not.
    Analyzing the book amarts side, you can see that the skills are restricted to the literary environment, not being able to identify if an external environment is hostile or not
    saying better are two great abilities but characteristics completely distinc

    Reply

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