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.


136 Responses to “Book smarts vs. Street smarts”

  1. Son

    I think street smart is better than book smart because if you don’t have experience then how would you know what to do and when to do it. I also think this article is awesome because it helps me understand more about being street smart.

  2. foxyfluff

    I think booksmart people could be dangerous, given enough time. Like who developed Nuclear weapons? Or who is out there operating Drones doing attacks in Syria while sitting at a computer in Iowa or those new robot soldiers?

    1. rarar

      You forget the part where the book smart people are usually scientists who works for the masterminds – the street smart people.

  3. Brad Shoc

    Thanks for this great article! A good definition between Street Smarts and Book Smarts. I just wrote a post about building street reputation and I listed there pros about having Street Smarts, so I was thinking if it would be okay for you if I link this article to that post? I would like to show my readers this article:)



    1. FCN

      I don’t think book smart is that better coz without u having the talent of being in the street you won’t be able to know what to do and when to do it

  4. Quincy

    Dope article. So true

  5. Chris Del

    I faced life upstate when I was 18. In my gang, I did the shit nobody wanted to do. I enjoyed this article because it compliments my level of intelligence. Street smarts are priceless and valuable. Book smarts are a dime a dozen.

    1. Ten

      People who claim to be street smart are dumb people in denial who love to bring down book smart people. You need a little bit of both to have a good life lol

      1. Ambrosia

        Ten, I think people who face a lot of adversity in life have valuable real-life experience to bring to the table and that is the point in this article I believe. I don’t know how you can call that dumb people in denial. It gets frustrating to be told about life from people that have barely scratched the surface, but they’ve read statistics in a book so they know… no they don’t. They are completely disconnected with no skin in the game. I agree you need both, but one is valued in society more than the other. Street smart is the underdog of intelligence because people are uncomfortable facing the life you had to live through to gain it.

  6. Street

    Book smart people are only reading and learning from the stories created by street smart people

  7. William

    Both are equal in my opinion. The street smart people are those that live it. But when the street smart people get into a jam, or trouble they have to face the book smart people. Drs. Judges. Lawyers for help. When you have a person who has both that’s a plus!!


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