Book Smart or Street Smart


A topic that has been in my mind for a while now, is the eternal debate between being book smart and street smart and which is better. Book smart is an adjective that refers to the learning or education one gets and describes a person whose knowledge greatly derives from book-learning, as opposed to practical experience, or street smarts. Book smart is knowledge derived from facts, science and communication and is explicit knowledge. Street smart, on the other hand, is procedural or practical knowledge on how to accomplish something. It is often tacit knowledge, which means that it can be difficult to transfer to another person through writing it down or verbalising it.

Someone who is known as being book smart people is usually well-read and often have read the classics, know facts and information that many other people don’t and are usually good at things like trivia games and crossword puzzles. The stereotype of a book-smart person is someone who deals with ordinary but challenging situations, especially bad or difficult ones, only from an intellectual point of view by basing their decisions strictly on available facts, accumulated knowledge, or personal insights primarily obtained from an educational environment. Book smart people are good with exams and academically inclined and enjoy the structure of the learning environment. They believe value lies in knowing things and reading things and are sometimes described as smart dumb people. In fact, in Tamil, there is a term for such people known as Padicha Muttal which means an educated fool

On the other hand, people who are good at dealing with practical life problems have lots of street-smarts. They may not be as educated or read as much as those with book smarts, but they have something just as valuable – the ability to use their experiences in many different situations. They are very aware of their surroundings. The stereotype of a street-smart person is someone who knows how to handle practical situations in everyday life necessary to get things done but is not as inherently educated or gifted academically.

In their most extreme and negative stereotypes, book-smart people are essentially naive, easily manipulated, unfeeling, and display bad judgment in ordinary situations while street-smart people are unintelligent and incapable of achieving higher education, but are more passionate and can usually find an answer to a problem through trial and error.

In my opinion, neither alone is good and a combination of book smarts with a dash of street smartness is what differentiates the wheat from the chaff. A highly educated person should not be derided for the advantages they may have and at the same time, just having a certificate does not prove that they know. Conversely, street-smart people are often demeaned simply because they are classified as those who didn’t have the grades to study at an institute of higher learning. Sometimes they are much smarter than those who are highly qualified.

Politics, power, social dynamics, leadership abilities, professional networks, and social status play a big part in an individual’s ability to succeed in life. To succeed in this environment, a person needs to navigate successfully in an opaque world and make the right decisions. In many situations and, in most industries, with the possible exception of teaching and academia, being book smart but not street smart is a distinct disadvantage. Being street smart doesn’t mean one is uneducated, undereducated or unintelligent and dumb. Being street smart means one is more aware of what is happening around them. They have environmental and situational awareness and can judge a situation so they can react to it accordingly. Street smartness comes from life’s experiences and situations that one would have encountered.

Someone who is only book smart, with low to no street smartness will only have the theoretical aspects of what he or she has learnt, but will not know if the theory works in real life. But, without the foundation of that theory, maybe the practical applications can only go so far. So a combination of both is where you hit that sweet spot. The key to success in the workplace and, in all aspects of life, is to have some, actually quite a bit of street smartness. With only book knowledge, when an individual enters the real world, the going is get tough. In these situations, those with street smarts are ready to fight and defend themselves because they have prepared themselves for these moments. This is where their expertise comes into play. They have the world experience, which trumps the book smarts word experience every single time. They have life skills, which trumps the abstract learning of those with bookish knowledge and they know and understand their environment and who is in it.

For someone who is not very street smart, and I count myself in this, here are some good tips to increase your confidence levels.

Recognise your faults and use setbacks to learn and grow. Get in there, the environment you want to succeed in and immerse yourself in it. Get involved with all the nitty-gritty of the work you are doing and be completely hands-on. Learn from mistakes and make sure every experience, whether positive or negative, teaches you something, even if it is what not to do. Doing so will make you more accustomed, more comfortable, and more aware of your world. Also, learn to look for opportunities that are everywhere, but need a keen eye to spot. Acknowledge that people are different and so keep track of their biases, consciously put them aside and judge each person on their merit. That will make you more effective at evaluating people. Choose what feels most certain rather than what’s most logical. And this is something I struggle with, I feel some decisions, and then my logical brain takes over and I change my decision which more often than not backfires. If something is too perfect, too simple, then it’s probably not right, you need to prod and find out more. Everything you do, keep an eye on the future and not just be in the present. A street-smart person puts aside the primal pull of scarcity and assesses value based on utility. In some cases, they may even profit off of other people’s obsession with scarcity.

Become more aware, detach yourself from your emotions because emotions lead to poor decision-making skills, slow down your thinking and become more deliberate using logic which allows seeing through manipulative efforts to choose what’s best for you rather than what feels emotionally satisfying will make you more street smart, even if you are not one now.

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