May 30, 2023
The CBS Post


Book Smart vs Street Smart: Who’s the Master?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famed Crime and Punishment once said, “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”

Translated loosely, it means intelligence comes in many shapes and forms. While in educated circles, intelligence might be paramount to good grades or a high intellect, in the real world, the truly intelligent go beyond these forms of conventional knowledge.

The conventional image of a book smart individual is someone well educated, someone who deals with ordinary but challenging situations only from an intellectual point of view by basing their decisions strictly on available facts and accumulated knowledge. Being street smart means to have a good situational understanding and the ability to make judgements instantly. The person might not be inherently educated or gifted academically but more likely be practical and pragmatic.

When it comes to the real world, street smarts outshine book smarts because no volume of knowledge can compensate for the inability to apply it in real life situations. Studying probable scenarios and devising solutions for it through various types of analysis is significantly different from encountering those situations in real life. The real world and the academic world do not operate in the same way. In the academic world, there is a structure, rules and a timeline to be followed. The entire year, in fact, every day is planned out for you in advance. Everything in the academic world is structured to be fair. However, the real world does not function in the same way. The real world has constantly changing variables and no defined structure or path. Experiential learning is the key to success. You come across various obstacles and learn to address them with your acquired knowledge and past experiences.

The success of Steve Jobs was owed to his ‘imaginative leaps’ that were instinctive and unexpected. Also, not to forget his personal charisma that could peddle ice cream to Eskimos in the middle of winter. Similarly, Chris Gardner, the person who made it from the streets to Wall Street, owes his success to his resolute determination and the never dying spirit to learn. From Steve Jobs to Chris Gardner, all exceled in life because of one reason: They had the ‘world experience’, which trumped the ‘word experience’ every single time. They had the life skills, which trumped the abstract learning of the books.

Education makes you book smart and lays the basic foundation, but in order to become street smart, you need to go out there and learn how to handle situations by being in them in the first place. Be aware and learn from what happens around you. Study about people’s temperaments and personas in order to develop a strong social intelligence. Synthesize your experiences and sharpen your gut by exposing yourself to various situations. 

Basically, no one is born with either, but as they grow, a person could certainly become both book smart and street smart. We often like to vouch for one or the other, but being street smart and book smart is the basis of life. It must coalesce if we are to have any chance of making something out of ourselves. The ideal situation is street smart thinking accompanied by a book smart approach.


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