A recent debate at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York between prison inmates and the Harvard debate team had me questioning whether it’s better to have street smarts or book smarts. In the end the “book smart” Harvard debate team was defeated by the “street smart” prisoners.
But the street smart prisoners didn’t win simply by their street smarts alone. They had a lot of help…from books. Through the Bard Prison Initiative, which gives incarcerated men and women the opportunity to pursue a college degree while serving their time, the prison debate team put themselves through a grueling educational boot camp to prepare. They had no access to the Internet and had to wait for weeks sometimes for a book to be cleared by security.
And this wasn’t a one time fluke. They’ve beaten multiple college debate teams in the past.
Simply having a formal college degree isn’t the answer to everything. Yes, you need it if you want to practice law or medicine, but to succeed in life you need something else that the prison debate team had a lot of… intellectual curiosity AND street smarts.
I put out a request to hear from others about which skill was better. Here’s what I heard:
“I have a sixth grade education and I’ve owned/co-owned three successful businesses over the last 20+ years. I have college graduates wanting to come work for me at $10.00 an hour and they are struggling to pay of $60,000.00+ in student loans. I got my education at the local library for free. I’ve never had to worry about paying back a student loan. I did have a couple of late fees at the library over the course of the years but the amount of money I paid in late fees has never been more than $5.00 all of these years later.”
“I’m a counselor and author. In my professional and personal life I have seen how street smarts are more valuable than book smarts in most situations. I am considered to have a deep practical knowledge in my field; I believe this comes from the experiences with job and life challenges that need to be overcome. Textbook theory and learning without doing are wonderful and useful background information for a basic education.
In terms of the job world, one might need a certain degree to meet minimum requirements for an occupation. For a different kind of career, practical knowledge may be required or desired over strictly book smarts. I don’t need my plumber to have a doctoral degree, but I do need them to know what will fix my pipes. I don’t need my doctor to be a published researcher, but I would like to know that she or he has seen my symptoms before and knows a reliable cure. In daily life, problem solving usually comes from trial and error. This may be most evident in parenting, where a book gives suggestions, but parents must fine tune interventions to fit the personality and specifics of their baby.
Other than the people with social privilege, we all must learn some amount of street smarts to navigate our world. Book smarts can help us understand the things we can not see or do not have access to, but once it is time to apply the knowledge, an experienced person will outshine the book smart person faster and brighter. I currently work in university guidance, and I am seeing that companies are looking to hire graduates with those 21st century soft skills like communication and teamwork abilities. For jobs that require skill, someone can refine their skills online through practical courses and free education that rivals that of university programs. What can you do is becoming equally or more important than what you know to employers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.”
Dr. Ethan Gregory
“Generally, I’d say it’s a mix of both. But I’ll state my experience. I don’t read too many books, and in my area of business it’s not that necessary. I do focus on obtaining knowledge and applying it to real world situations.
Books provide information on different matters, but if you don’t understand the information in a sense that you can use it and apply it, reading a book doesn’t completely help.
And a book can provide you an overview, but in order to learn how to apply the knowledge, a person has to do practical learning, viewing a situation and acting upon it. That’s where street smarts really helps – you learn to assess the situation and act in the best way possible, and learn from the situation as much as possible.
A potential downside of street smarts is not seeing the bigger picture. If you’re focused to get an overview, that does help a lot. Books do help here as you learn info grabbed from situations without actually being in those situations.
Ratko Ivanović, manager at EnCoCreative
“I’m a co-founder of a sustainable coatings company and have helped launch
100+ products. Both skills are valuable, but if you had to choose only one, then it would
be street smarts every time. Street smarts will allow you to thrive in a
world that doesn’t always go as planned.
“I think street smarts are more valuable to get you through life. I’ve been
able to do so much more because of street smarts rather than book smarts
(even though I have that too – I hold and Ivy League engineering degree
which I don’t use).
With street smarts, I was able to run different businesses and bounce back
from the ones that didn’t work. I’ve done everything from importing Anime
to the US in the 90s to exporting video games and memorabilia to Brazil to
traveling around the world collecting and selling free collectible postcards to reinventing the chicken saddle and being an indie author and publisher.”
“I think it helps to have an equal amount of both street smarts and book
smarts. I have an associate’s degree in computer networking, but it hasn’t
really helped me land a job, but I’ve been around the block a few times
when it comes to freelance writing. Any time you shop for wedding rings
online or read an article about how to clean out a fireplace, you could be
looking at my work and clients tend to look for the real world experience
when hiring a freelancer. That means you have to learn skills that you
might not learn in college and build up a portfolio that can impress the
employers that don’t care as much about whether you have a college degree.”
It seems the trick is to never stop learning, whether you get your knowledge from a book or from real life experience. If you have both you can shorten your learning curve, become skilled in pattern recognition, and learn first hand from your own and other people’s mistakes.
What do you think? Which one is better to help you get through life, book smarts or street smarts?