The Important Career Lesson You Won’t Learn in School
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 Maria Amundson, global chair of the technology sector at Edelman.
I vote for street smart. With all due respect for my alma mater, I didn’t learn what I needed to know to be successful in my career while an undergraduate studying economics. While I did learn a lot about the economics of business and the media, the real learning began once I left.
After graduation, I worked for a year helping to build a boutique PR firm in Menlo Park, Calif. I was getting ready to return to academia for business school — prepping for the GMAT and filling out applications — when I had a surprising conversation with my friend Mike. He graduated from a top business school a few years earlier and was off to start a career in investment management.
Mike took me for coffee and not-so-gently advised, “Are you crazy? Walk away from this incredible experience you’re getting in business every day, a tech industry in high gear and young agency poised to take off? Business school pales to the education you’re getting right here.” I thought it over all that night, and the next morning I dropped the application process, for what I thought would be a few years but has turned into decades. Mike’s advice sang to me again more than 15 years later, when Edelman came along and acquired my firm. I became part of the Edelman Silicon Valley team and leader of a global technology sector team ranging 52 countries and including 600 people.
I have no regrets choosing the street smarts of hard-won experience over book smarts. I may yet return to academia some day for my graduate degree, but it will likely be for personal fulfilment and enjoyment, not my career. The truth is, there are so many moments when the right answer is not waiting in a book. The door to a deal closes and you need to invent an alternative way in. You’re on stage being televised for your product demo when the dreaded “technical glitch” hits — now what? Whether the presidential motorcade has just blocked your taxi on the way to an interview, or you need to choose whether to acquire or hire to grow your company, most winning answers don’t live in a book. Even if they did, we still wouldn’t absorb these lessons as deeply as when we live them. We need to rely on our experience and our emotional intelligence more often.
The emotional intelligence part of street smarts may be the most important of all. While our IQ relates to book knowledge — how quickly do we learn and assimilate academic information — our EQ governs our ability to empathize, understand, and interact successfully with others. For many people, EQ outweighs IQ in career — and life — success. We need to know how to read situations and people, quickly assess what is really going on, consider the motivations and priorities in play, and respond appropriately. It is an increasingly important ability in all kinds of careers as our global job market is transformed by technology and the future of work becomes more social and collaborative. So go ahead, get out and read those books and collect those degrees, but also get out there and follow your dreams, and learn as you go. That may be the best career training you get.