The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: Career wise, is it better to be book smart or street smart? is written by Lars Albright, co-founder and CEO of SessionM.
Choosing between book smarts or street smarts seems like a false dilemma to me. The question assumes you can’t be both, and in my experience I’ve found that to be untrue. For the sake of argument, though, if the question truly is binary and you can only pick A or B, and not both, then the answer is unquestionably street smarts. When given the option, however, the holy grail is that somewhat rare individual who is both. Cultured and cagey. Refined and resilient. School of Economics undergrad. School of Hard Work advanced degree.
At SessionM, that’s the model. Like any company, we do have some team members who are one or the other, but we work to keep that to a minimum and make sure one style doesn’t overshadow the other. We have some certifiable geniuses whose intellects are so powerful that they clearly fall into the book smarts category. Similarly, we have people who are so ingenious at coming up with ideas and solutions on the fly and under duress that we couldn’t function at the level we do without their moxie. They don’t follow the textbook. I sometimes liken this to being able to play music by ear without knowing how to read it. It’s instinctive.
To design incredibly complex software takes a powerful intellect. (The same is undoubtedly true of other businesses as well). But to actually make and sell a product requires an ability to adapt, to learn by trial and error, and to persevere under pressure seldom experienced in a classroom or lab. To sustain that product and evolve your operation over time is a testimony to determination above all other characteristics. Think Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions. Doing more with less. Calling in favors. Grinding through long days and longer nights. Nothing in your academic background adequately prepares you for the real world duress you’re sure to experience — especially starting out.
Most clients want products, not models. And I’ve seen a lot of products fail due to the lack of proper architecture and just being inadequately thought-through. Too many people mistake heat for light in their rush to bring products to market. They confuse activity with progress. Thinking requires as much effort, if not more, than running around. Progress requires deep thought as well as furious action. You need both if you’re going to build something to last. But if you could only be one, be more clever in practice than theory. That’s the only way to get tenured in the real world.