Book smart vs. Street Smart: Using Your Intelligence Effectively in College


book smart street smart

It’s the question we’ve all had in our minds as soon as our brains were capable of thought. Which type of intelligence do we prefer, book smart or street smart? Learning through traditional, organized education or learning important life lessons through trial and error and tough love?

When hearing these terms, what do you think of? For many, the stereotypical book smart person is usually some type of nerd or geek, adjusting his or her glasses while burying his or her head in some type of book.

Preparation is more than half the battle.

Likewise, those versed in the arts of street smarts are usually thugs or those who grew up on the “street”.

Some people got it… Some don’t…

The truth is, being book smart and street smart has a lot more to do than just your upbringing and personality. It has a lot to do with your preferred learning style, and which way you perceive the world.

Some people are analytically intelligent (or book smart). This type of intelligence is used to recall or recognize, analyze, evaluate, and judge information. In other words, your traditional school-type of learning. Someone, usually a teacher or instructor of some kind, will disseminate information through oral or written methods, and you will learn. Simple, right?

Well, that’s because at its core, it is. Analytically intelligent people love to learn and are good at learning. They are organized, prepared, and will always have back-up plans for everything they do in case something goes wrong. Let me illustrate an analytically intelligent person using one of my favorite shows of all time, Leverage:

As the video shows, Nate has a plan for just about every single thing that can go wrong in an operation. Is this you?

According to this article, people with more analytical intelligence tend to have the following traits:

•Tend to be higher educated and work more hours
•Tend to have less leisure time on average
•Have at least a bachelor’s degree, with an unemployment rate of 3.9% (2012)
•Have more access to better-paying jobs and hold higher white collar positions
•Tend to think things through, and will likely have a back-up plan when things go wrong

The more you learn analytically, the better your tacit knowledge becomes, or your method of learning. For example, say you are taught that 2 + 2 = 4. Through analytical learning, you are taught that by a teacher, as well as the logic involved with coming up with that conclusion. That’s how you build analytical intelligence. It’s pretty easy to remember that 2 + 2 = 4. But what about 3 + 3? Or 4 +5? You can’t realistically memorize every math problem. That’s where tacit knowledge comes in. Using tacit knowledge means learning why 2 + 2 = 4, then being able to apply the same concept to other math problems.

Sure, your teacher can tell you the answers to all of these, and even how to solve the answers for all of these, but unless you practice it yourself, figure out the nuances, you will never be able to do the problems without your teacher. This is why basic arithmetics is repeated over and over in elementary school, having students doing problem after problem after problem. In addition to learning through repetition, students learn the patterns, the trends, and the applications of these problems into other problems. Tacit knowledge involves finding a learning method that works best for you.

Let me illustrate the concept of tacit knowledge through another Leverage clip:

Even though Parker was being taught the art of persuasion one way, she managed to reach the same solution using an alternative method that worked for her.

Now, practical intelligence (or street smart), is learning through experience. You can’t be taught the kinds of lessons you learn through practical intelligence. Let me illustrate with an example. Your neighbor bought an expensive car. How much did it cost?

What was your answer? Now go and ask that same question to your best friend. Now call up your parent and ask them the question. Now go ask a stranger on the street (be cautious of pepper spray!). Do you think you’ll all have the same answer? Why not?

We all know what a car is. We were all taught what a car is through analytical learning. We also know what “expensive” means. It means “a lot of money”. But how much is a lot? Can a teacher “teach” you how much “a lot of money” is? Well, he or she certainly can, but that is completely subjective. Their idea of “a lot” is based on their experience of money. Something that they learned through experience.

People with high practical intelligence are adaptable. They learn from their mistakes, like the child who put his hand on a hot stove. They learn what works and what doesn’t. Once again, let me use a Leverage clip (seriously, they should be paying me for this), to showcase a person adapting to their environment when faced with a sudden crisis.

Sometimes there’s just no time to plan. You have to think quickly and use the tools around you to solve a crisis.

According to the same article mentioned earlier, people with high practical intelligence:

•Include Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, neither of which had a college degree or much formal education.
•Tend to have less formal education, and face an unemployment rate of 13% (people with only High School Diploma)
•Are more likely to take risks, resulting in more extreme life situations (either really rich or really poor)
•Tend to be less stressed overall and have more leisure time
•Are more likely to adapt to new situations, or solve problems on the spot in a crisis

Here is a chart that illustrates the levels and types of intelligence:
Intelligence Chart

As you can see, intelligence is divided up into two areas: analytical and practical.

Lower levels of analytical intelligence simply allows you to learn through teaching, which most people can do once they start school. The higher levels of analytical intelligence involves improving your tacit knowledge, or your ability to learn more complex concepts using learning techniques you’ve acquired through life (such as using a more effective way of studying for a test after understanding how you learn best).

Lower levels of practical intelligence allows you to learn on your own. You do this automatically as a child when you learn to walk, as well as when you learn that crying and throwing tantrums as a young child gets you what you want, but then gets you a spanking when you reach a certain age. Higher levels of practical intelligence involves using these learned experiences from your past to adapt to situations in the future, such as knowing which way to take an organization as their new CEO based on strategies you’ve used in the past that worked and those that didn’t.

So which one are you? Are you more book smart or street smart? This little quiz is fun and gives you an idea of which way you skew.

So how do you use this information to do well in college? Here are some tips:

Improving Analytical Intelligence:
- Go to class!
- Not only study, but find a great studying technique that works for you
- Do the readings for assignments. This isn’t high school; the readings will help you in the test
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, use tutors, and visit your professors in their office
- Read! Not just your textbooks, but read for pleasure. Fiction or nonfiction, doesn’t matter! It keeps your mind working and alert, allowing you to become a more efficient learner.

Improving Practical Intelligence:
- Join on-campus clubs and organizations
- Lead on-campus clubs and organizations; you won’t believe the amount of skills you’ll learn as a leader
- Apply for internships
- Use your college resources such as mock interviews, resume critique workshops, and life skills classes (if offered)
- Network! If you go outside your circle of friends, you will learn so much about the world. College is a salad bowl of cultures and customs. There is much to experience by leaving your comfort zone and making new friends and connections.

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2 responses

  1. Good stuff.

    I think many students and parents undervalue practical intelligence development. “Just get good grades and to go a good school”

    Thats why I’m a big advocate in getting work experience even before going to college and keep adding to it. Your practical intelligence needs to be very well developed by the time you go graduate college.

    1. Very true! I never realized the importance of the skills learned from extra-curricular activities in high school, which put me way behind when applying to/attending college.
      Many of my opportunities after college came from the skills I gained in several organizations outside of class.
      Glad you agree!

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