Friday, 22 March 2013




It's ironic that I grew disenchanted with the book smarts route only once I completed my studies and actually started working.  In my first year of work, after twelve years of school and five years of university, my senior manager told me I needed to study even further to "stand out from other graduates."  An honours degree in commerce wasn't enough.  I wondered: when can you finally start living and unconditionally enjoy the fruits of your studying?  When does the academic carrot dangling end?

Yet I'm not about to dismiss formal education as a waste of time.  First, the key differences between book smarts and street smarts:

Book Smarts

It's commonly cited the world over that college graduates earn substantially more than non-graduates on average.  In the U.K. for instance the difference is £12,000 per year.  The operative words though are on average.

On this road you attain a tertiary qualification with a view to becoming as employable and marketable as possible in the workforce. You follow an established career trajectory through the corporate or professional services world - it's structured.

You generally know what to expect when you start working too.  For instance if you qualify as a chartered accountant you know the salary band and positions you will be eligible for, usually several years before you even qualify.  Ditto medicine, engineering, programming and investment banking.

What you won't be able to anticipate are the deadlines and targets that will be imposed on you when you actually start working.  You learn that for all the talk about teamwork and egalitarianism that there's a hierarchy you must bow to.  While the salary can be enticing, you're climbing someone else's ladder.  And don't believe any talk about employees being a company's greatest asset: everybody is expendable.  You are a unit of output, a cog in a much larger machine.

So the defining points of the book smarts route are:
1) Structure, predictability and relative security
2) Hierarchy, orders and deadlines
3) You're unlikely to attain deep fulfilment, but you will never go hungry either

Street Smarts

Here you shun the hierarchy and dive straight into making (or at least trying to make) money: there are fewer theoretical lessons from university and experience is your primary teacher.  You probably have to employ yourself, because without a tertiary qualification you will only qualify for menial jobs.  There's no senior to micromanage you and there are no interim deadlines, reviews and status reports: you just need to ensure that whatever you promise is fully delivered on time to your client or customer.  This means that while nobody is constantly on your back, you don't get paid if the job isn't done.

All that said, you can make much more money than a book smart career allows because when you're self employed there's no ceiling to the profits you can make.  A salary is fixed and slowly increases each year at best.

The defining points of the street smarts path are:
1) More uncertainty
2) Greater potential reward
3) More autonomy

Don't see it in black and white

Book smarts are often derided in our modern society that shows partiality towards instant gratification and shortcuts.  Rags to riches stories and college dropouts who reach the Forbes Rich list don't help the case for book smarts either.  But that doesn't mean tertiary education is pointless.  Lakshmi Mittal has a bachelor's degree in commerce and features in the Forbes Top Ten Rich list.  We focus on the dropouts and academic failures on these lists because well, they make more of a story.

The idea of being able to blaze your own trail instead of walking down a well worn path that everyone else treads is appealing.  Being able to bypass studying sounds like a real perk too.  But education should never be scoffed at.  Education is a simulation of reality where theoretical concepts are mixed with actual case studies to equip you with insight and skill.  It's something you can use.

Here's what education affords you: a lesson whose consequences you don't have to experience.  "Only a fool learns from his mistakes.  A wise man learns from the mistakes of others," said Bismarck.  While experience is a good teacher, it provides painful, consequential lessons.  Education is the distilled findings of all others who went before you, and by this virtue alone it is a privilege.

With education you can avert mistakes without having to live through them and it equips you to make optimal decisions (like financing a business or laying out an assembly line).  Here's a thought: you can attain a tertiary qualification, work a bit for other people in the beginning, then proceed to start your own business or practice.  You're not obligated to continue working in a corporate or professional environment just because that's what you studied for.

And while education is key in life, just remember that you can't keep learning without engaging reality either.  Both learning and action have to be carried out in tandem.  Once you have a tertiary qualification, any further formal studying should be at your discretion rather than mandatory.  Just remember that you don't have to pick between book smarts and street smarts: you can indulge both of them.

The Happy Uprising: A Passionate yet Pragmatic Approach to Fulfilment, is available on Amazon for 99c
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