An Unfinished Definition

A while ago – a fair while ago, I wrote a series of blog posts detailing the major difference between types of mental competence. I talk about intelligence, cleverness, cunning and wisdom.

That post is all about what the words mean, where they come from, and how those types of intelligence are applied, as a means of making sense for a reader when describing your characters actions and behaviors.

Earlier this week I saw a Quora question (for which I had no adequate answer), and it set me thinking about my original posts, in particular, about what was missing from them.

I eventually concluded that there are, culturally speaking, 3 kinds of “smarts,” and the differences between how and when they are applied arise largely from the differences in how, when and where they are learned.

So I came up with a new set of definitions for this trichotomy, but before I tell you all about them, a quick warning: certain cultures, including, until recently, Western culture, see education or personal development as a combination of all three. I’ll tell you all about that at the end.

  • street smarts
  • book smarts
  • age smarts

Street Smarts

Generally most associated with words like “clever” and “cunning,” street smarts are the ones you have to learn fast in order to survive. So the nature of street smarts varies very widely. The Street Smarts of an African Bushman and a member of a Nairobi street gang probably both include information about finding food and avoiding danger, but in strikingly different ways. The similarity is that they both had to learn these things as fast as they could, in order to protect themselves and their friends and family, and in order to subsist in the short term. Street Smarts are essential in every lifestyle, everywhere on the planet. A university professor who wants, one day, to get tenure, will have to use his street smarts to learn and negotiate faculty politics. A steel mill or oil rig worker will get all sorts of safety training, but won’t be completely safe until she’s used her street smarts to learn to negotiate and balance all the risks and dangers in those complex and difficult environments.

Street Smarts is excellent for solving urgent, simple and short term problems. Sometimes a street smart solution creates a new problem.

Everyone has street smarts.

It’s a common and frankly harmful stereotype that the hero, being noble in spirit, lacks street smarts, and has to acquire Artful Dodgers to help him through certain environments. This trope is common in every kind of story. But a better story has the hero dropped into an unfamiliar environment, and shows the process of his learning the necessary street smarts to make it out again.

There’s a pervasive Hollywood myth that computer hacking is a kind of highly creative street smarts. This is bollocks. The best hackers are passionate, dedicated, sometimes a little obsessive, and profoundly BOOK SMART.

Most people understand street smarts instinctively.

Book Smarts

Generally associated with words like “intelligent” and “educated,” book smarts are learned through formal education. Teachers who are trained to teach pass on their knowledge and skills in a structured process and an institutional environment; academics who are trained in study conduct research and write textbooks that you can learn from. Book smart people have information at their fingertips on their specific field, but they also become very good at spotting connexions and thereby making insights and paradigm shifts. Book smarts is excellent at finding solutions to complex problems.

Book smarts solutions are often restricted to the specific problem they were devised to solve.

Book smarts have to be deliberately acquired and are best acquired voluntarily.

How much book smarts you have will have an effect on your understanding of what book smarts is. If a character has very little education, they will tend to think that book learning is about remembering lots of facts (they may also think this if they are a politician, but that just means they didn’t understand what their own education was about). But true book learning is both information, understanding AND synthesis. Synthesis is the capacity to see the relationships between different information from different sources, to compare it, and to build new knowledge from it. It is the foundation of all the advancement in knowledge and culture, and the real reason why education is important.

Age Smarts

Age Smarts are most commonly associated with the word “wisdom.” Experience alone is not enough to create age smarts. If you’re young, you may become something called “street wise” but all this means is that you have a lot of experience of some specific street smarts, that makes you seem wise to the people around you of a similar age to you. Age smarts comes with age alone. But age alone is no guarantee of acquiring age smarts. The people who become wise seem to be those who either dedicate their lives to a specific cause, or spend their entire lives perfecting one skill, or just spend their entire lives in the same place, doing the same thing. This seems to be true in any context. It also seems to help if you cultivate and preserve an openness to new ideas.

This means that age smarts may make you very wise about some things, but ignorant or naive in others. A crucial element of wisdom, therefore, is recognising the limitations of your age smarts.

Age smarts provides long term, often very simple, solutions, to all kinds of problems. Age smarts solutions are often the most efficient solutions to problems. Partly this is because the best way to find a more efficient solution is trial and error, and trial and error requires time.

Most people recognize age smarts in others readily, but have difficulty seeing it in themselves. The young assume they have it long before they do; the old always assume they don’t have it yet. This is a horrible cliché, no matter how often it seems to be true. Feel free to subvert it.

The Path To Enlightnement

Medieval Apprenticeship was very similar to Wushu masters (in the Wuxia genre), in that it involved a combination of all three types of smarts, over a period of time. No one thought smarts of any kind was something you just have. But at the same time, no one thought you could only learn book smarts, or that the only learning of any value was book smarts (which seems to be the current obsession in Education). Medieval Craftsmen, much like kung fu masters, learned their mastery in three stages.

First the apprentice, who has to work hard and learn hard and learn fast. It’s a combination of street and book learning, both literally and figuratively. The kung fu novice has to perform all sorts of menial tasks as well as do his hours of training; only a combination of the agility of street smarts and the discipline of book smarts will enable him to get everything done.

The second stage is as a journeyman – a day worker, or casual laboror, but it’s anything but casual. The craftsman must find masters who will take him on to help them in their work, and he’s paid a day at a time, so he better be good at what he does. If he wants to be come a master craftsman, he must learn from as many masters as possible, so he must travel and work. Again, a combination of street and book smarts sees him through. In the wuxia story, the hero becomes a wanderer, seeking people in difficulty and offering help to them, as he tries to solve some personal problem. He must gain a rapid understanding of people and their problems, but will learn more from his failures than from his successes.

The final stage is to prove your mastery. It is accepted in both cultures that a key element in becoming a master is time. Only once you have been a practitioner for many years, can you aspire to mastery, because many years practice is what it takes to master a skill.

(Some stories – in fact, many modern stories, have characters who are ‘naturally gifted at a young age.’ You should be aware that those stories are fantasies, and fit into one of two categories; they are either parables for adolescent coming of age, or they are escapist, adolescent wish-fulfilment. Nothing wrong with either, but be aware that stories are rarely what they seem to be.)

The Medieval Craftsman must make his Masterpiece. It’s a typical peculiarity of language that we use the word ‘masterpiece’ to mean ‘the greatest work an artist has ever made,’ but to a master craftsman, it’s just proof of his skill, and in fact, everything he makes afterwards will be even better.

The wuxia hero must defeat his disgraced former master/defeat his murdered master’s killer/acquire the famous artefact/reach enlightenment to become a master himself. After he does, he can set up a school, and take students, and grow his beard long and white.

These two traditions both say that the path to mastery is to use all three forms of smarts; to learn in all three ways. To combine, Street, Book and Age to reach Mastery.