Why Being Book Smart Is Overrated

January 5, 2016, 6:15 PM UTC

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 Steve Sims, chief design officer of Badgeville.

The terms ‘book smarts’ and ‘street smarts’ comes from another time, a time when artless academics spent their days in libraries and dynamic skills were learned in the melting pot of the streets. A lot has changed since then. So in an era of online learning, rapidly changing technologies and increasingly expensive universities, where do these two concepts stand today? Let’s take a look at a few trends affecting the modern workforce.

Information is becoming obsolete faster than ever
There was once a time when you could learn a trade and be set for life. These days, if you’re not constantly learning, you’ll find yourself obsolete within a few years. Today more than ever, learning to learn is critical, and this means book smarts. The biggest change today is research has moved from the library to more dynamic and connected locations. Modern ‘book’ learners now study disruptive advances in business on blogs, through interest groups, and industry meet-ups.

People are changing jobs more often
Workers in the U.S. are changing jobs at an ever-increasing rate. The average job tenure for workers aged 25 to 34 is only three years, less than a third of the tenure among people aged 55 to 64 years old. This means the skills you learn for one job may or may not be relevant at the next. An ability to learn quickly is important, but is that all? Perhaps focusing on universal skills may be an even more productive use of time.

The modern workplace is facing both rising unemployment and a severe shortage of skilled knowledge workers. And as technology continues to make more jobs obsolete and our overall population ages, it’s only getting worse. The most useful skills in your career are the universal truths that transfer. Learning comes with a cost and the more time you spend learning, the less time you spend enhancing your skills. There gets to be a point where the distraction of learning begins to eat away at your ability to capitalize on it. This is where street smarts comes into play.

While the old definition is focused on learning all the ‘tricks’ of unscrupulous business practices, the modern definition should place focus on an ability to internalize lessons and methods, and to infer deeper universal truths. There will always be another trick you’ve never seen around the next corner, another situation you’ve never been in, so to be truly successful you need to be adaptable. True street smarts means translating an unknown into known quantities.

Ultimately, the importance between book smarts and street smarts depends on your career priorities. When it comes to building foundational knowledge, landing a job and proving value, nothing beats book smarts. But when it comes to distinguishing your career and forging new ground, street smarts rule the day. Luckily, none of us have to choose one over the other. We can manage our efforts intelligently, balancing time spent learning with time spent questioning. The more we learn, the better questions we ask and, the more we ask questions, the better we’re able to identify the best direction for future learning. The next millennium calls for informed employees who are able to adapt, so let’s strive to hit the books and streets equally.

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