The difference between book smarts and street smarts is that you don’t learn street smarts from a book. Given the name, this might sound obvious, but this sets the stage for a deeper understanding of everything in this article.
Let’s address this difference between the two first.
Book smart vs. street smart
Books are organized, edited, and many of them are fiction. Books serve your desire for knowledge and entertainment. You can even choose which books you want to read based on your ideology, affiliation, or preferences.
Book knowledge is safe, selected, and second-hand. There are no real consequences for getting the wrong knowledge from books and you have zero skin in the game for its acquisition.
Though the phrase is “book smart”, the word “book” is synonymous with any type of second-hand collection of knowledge. You study the life experiences of other people via magazines, podcasts, YouTube channels, etc.
The street is rough, raw, unsympathetic, and real. The street doesn’t cater to your emotions and it doesn’t care about what’s politically correct. There are no safe places on the street and no one cares what you’re going through, what you identify as, or even if you’re a good person or not.
The only thing that matters on the street is what you have, what you want, and how well you can defend it once you have it. Street smarts often conjure up this idea of a gritty hustler in an urban environment, navigating through dangerous situations and dealing with shady characters in shadier situations.
While you need certainly them to survive that environment, there are places just like this that look civilized on the surface but are full of jackals waiting to take what you’ve earned.
[Read about the environment where I developed and honed my street smarts here.]
There are several places in the real world where you need to be aware of how people think, behave, and scheme to pass you up, put your down, or take what you’ve learned.
You can’t learn how to be street smart from a book. You can’t learn it in a classroom, from a podcast, or even from this blog post. I can only show you how to prime your mind to be more street smart so you can better navigate real life and better navigate the people and obstacles in it.
7 ways to be more street smart
It's easy to get book smart if you're street smart to start;— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) July 19, 2020
But those going from book smart to street smart usually don't have the heart.
1) Embrace experiential learning and making mistakes
Train yourself to learn from real experience because there are many things that you can only learn this way. Common sense and human nature can’t be learned from a book because we tend to want to believe the best or the worst in people.
We go to extremes in this regard until we get corrected by the harsh forces in society. Someone takes advantage of us, removing our naivete, or we miss an opportunity because we don’t trust anyone, erasing our cynicism. Reality will punish you because you’re not learning from your experiences, likely because you aren’t having many in the first place.
Intelligence is simply pattern recognition coupled with the skillful manipulation or exploitation of that pattern. Street smarts are no different.
The difference is that you can only become more street intelligent by gaining more experience rather than studying. You learn how to read body language by needing to do it to survive. You learn the difference between seductive and aggressive eye contact by trying to accomplish one of those goals, whether you succeed or fail.
2) Be comfortable with uncertainty
You’ll have to be a little confrontational with reality because you’ll need to verify what your suspicions are.
This could mean something as harmless as reading body language and asking if your guess about their conversation topic is correct. You may have to go on the offensive if you think a mugger is about to get the best of you. You may have to get into a fight to know that a fight is coming in the future.
This is something that book-smart people are uncomfortable with. They would like to be able to prove and predict everything before they move into a situation. Unfortunately for them, 100% certainty and guarantees are not representative of real life.
You have to not only be comfortable with uncertainty, but you must also accept that an uncertain situation may lead to a confrontation.
3) Entertain different points of view
It’s important to expose yourself to different ideas.
If you get stuck thinking from one perspective, it’s going to be difficult to understand how other people think. If you can’t think like other people, you can’t predict, mitigate, or take advantage of their behavior. This means that other people will always surprise you and with their initiative, you won’t stand a chance.
You’ll never become street smart if you can’t think like other people. You can’t be attached to one viewpoint and you must be able to see the world through the motivations of another person. In fact, your perspective is effectively irrelevant.
You’re not trying to understand yourself. You’re trying to understand other people so you can reduce the penalty of their worst traits and maximize the benefits of their best ones. This means that you need to suspend your perspective on the world.
If you can do that, you’ll be able to predict what they’re most likely to do, which is the core of street smarts: understanding the behavior of other humans.
[The Notorious B.I.G. gives you a different perspective, straight from the street, in his classic “The Ten Crack Commandments.” I break down those lessons and how to use them in this post.]
4) Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re wrong
It’s only by admitting that you’re wrong that you can ever figure out what the error is and get right. Most people would rather double down on incorrect information than swallow their ego and simply admit that they were wrong and try to correct themselves.
Street smarts and ego don’t mix because the ego prevents you from interacting with humans in a manner that will make you feel inferior. For example, you’ll have to deal with many unknowns and many uncomfortable situations as you hone your street smarts and your social intelligence.
But if you are unwilling to do that because we don’t have a set formula, or rule to follow, then you’ll never develop this type of intelligence. People will always be able to take advantage of you because you don’t know better.
5) Don’t cherry-pick or force-fit information to align with your expectation
You can convince yourself of anything if you ignore contradictory evidence & focus only on what supports your perspective.— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) November 5, 2021
Don’t try to force-fit explanation of actions to your expectations. Take a detached view of what people are doing and then consider the most likely motivation for that action and most likely outcome. Don’t be afraid to face an ugly truth if you arrive at it.
An unfortunate condition of many people is that they would rather turn a blind eye to the truth if the truth makes them uncomfortable or defies a dearly held view of the world.
If someone’s actions are confusing but antagonistic towards you, accept that they mean you harm and deal with it. When it comes to threats to your safety or reputation, better to assume and be wrong than to be right and do nothing out of fear of appearing presumptuous.
It may be hard to accept that a person means your harm (physical, mental, social, etc.), but street-smart people don’t ignore the writing on the wall. They act on their reads of a situation, even if they don’t like what it means.
You don’t want to be fooled. You don’t want to be naive. So you need to look at people with fresh eyes. And if you don’t like what you see, you can’t be afraid to confront it and do what’s necessary to protect yourself.
6) Read between the lines of what’s being said
Pay attention to what’s not being said. Pay attention to anything said that’s not important.
You know you’re being deceived when information that isn’t important is emphasized and when information that is important is downplayed.
When you learn to spot what isn’t relevant, you give yourself a much greater chance of spotting this everywhere. This is a general training technique for picking up relevant information from the noise of daily life.
Some of that noise is put there to intentionally distract you. Some of that noise is simply a byproduct of modern life. Regardless of the source, these things are there to keep you from focusing on what matters in handling a situation.
The two biggest giveaways that you're being deceived:— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) November 2, 2018
Information that should be there isn't.
Information that isn't relevant is emphasized.
7) Study selling and marketing
Everyone should study marketing so they understand how ideas are spread in such a way that makes them take hold.— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) November 16, 2020
Once you get this, you'll realize something that is both terrifying and liberating:
The truth doesn't matter. What matters is how many people believe it to be true.
Everyone needs to study marketing to understand how powerful words can be.
Good marketing can make people buy things they don’t want and do things that aren’t in their best interest.
Everyone needs to learn how to sell to understand humor behavior as it relates to exchanging value. Selling is the act of trying to get someone to part with something of value, whether it be money, sex, attention, or power.
If you learn the mechanics of selling and marketing, you’ll recognize two things:
When those things are being done to you, it’s only when you can recognize when people are doing something to you that you can form a more effective defense against it. Guarding yourself against manipulation is part of becoming street smart.
You realize that all people are engaged in selling and marketing, whether they want to admit it or not, regardless of how good they are at it.
When you develop your skills to do so, you’ll be in a much better place to spot
Summing up how to be street smart
Being street smart is about taking what happened to you, good or bad, and learning from it. Then, once you learn from it, apply it to reduce the likelihood of experiencing something negative again.
Street smarts come from a lot of experience. Getting a lot of experience is often the result of bad judgment that you learn from.
As long as you aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty and are committed to learning from people and your environment, your street iq will improve.
The rest is up to you.