What Is Street Smart?

The term “street smart” was coined by author James T. Farrell who used it as part of his book The Young Manhood Of Studs Lonigan published in 1932. In the novel he described a character named Studs Lonigan whose father had taught him all the skills necessary to survive in Chicago during Prohibition era America. These included being able to find food, shelter, money and women without getting caught up in legal trouble. He also learned how to avoid arrest by avoiding police officers at all costs. This ability to think like a criminal would help him later in life when he became involved in organized crime.

Robert Redford as a street smart con man

In the 1930’s many people were trying to figure out ways to stay alive after prohibition ended. They needed new jobs at a time when legitimate jobs were hard to come and would often opt for employment that were, at best, marginally ethical or legal. Many of these men went into illegal gambling operations which led them to meet other gangsters who shared their interests. This is the image of street smart as portrayed in books and movies. In fact, I always thought the movie ‘The Sting’ reflected the stereotypical image of street smart.

Street smarts are what you learn when you’re out there on your own without a safety net. You have to make decisions for yourself based upon what works best in that situation. Surviving in a harsh world using wits, grit and determination.

Street smart in the modern world

Life has simplified in many ways and merely surviving (food, shelter) is less of a challenge. While street smart can still mean how to live on the streets and deal with survival under raw urban living conditions, it has a more colloquial application these days. Over nearly a century, street smart has evolved to more broadly refer to practical knowledge, skills and experience over theoretical knowledge of a subject.

A street smart Wall Street Broker knows how money is really made, and a physics wonk can’t put a man on the moon with paper alone, the real world gets messy (think ‘Houston, we have a problem’). You can read about gravity, acceleration, resistance and understand completely, but the first time I saw a feather fall as fast as a bowling ball in a vacuum, it blew me away. Holy cow, this stuff works. These days ‘street smart’ has come to refer to a practical grasp of how things really are.

What is street smart vs book smart?

Book smart refers to someone who learns facts about something but doesn’t necessarily know much about applying those facts to real world situations. A person can be very intelligent yet still lack ‘street smarts’ because they don’t understand how to apply their knowledge to solve problems. For example, A medical student spends years of advanced study learning every part of human anatomy, but until they start cutting on dead bodies, it is all theoretical. Eventually the med student starts on real people with lots of help and support. The medical training model is an interesting example for developing both book and street smarts. Learn the theory of how something works, then develop the skill to apply it. 

Create your own approach for developing the practical wisdom that applies in your life. What are the topic areas that you wish to excel at? The theoretical knowledge of how to do most anything you can imagine is free (or at least reasonable) with easy and typically instant access. Yes, the Internet.

First you can learn something about it, then start doing it. Far too many people try things and fail and quit in frustration. That is a pitiful tragedy. Did you really think you could try something for the first time and be good at it? There are some really impressive humans that somehow seem to be good at everything. Some of them are even likeable too (damn them), but for ordinary men, it’s going to take a bunch of trial and error, plenty of practice and with hard work and determination you’ll get the hang of it. That is of course, unless you quit after the first failed attempt.

I think most guys know how to take care of themselves, but don’t really do it very well. Street smart is about the actual doing of things. Unapplied theory is remarkably useless.

Be Mindful: That means pay attention.

If you want to get better at anything, learn what you can to get started, then start doing it. As you are doing, be thinking about what you are doing and noticing the details of what works and what does not. Far too many people avoid doing things they might not be good at. This is ridiculous as you are never good at something you are new at. Why do you think the medical students start out on dead bodies? Get a healthy attitude about learning and enjoy all that happens as part of a bigger process of learning new skills.

Fail your way to success

So many people fear failure and it’s best to get over that. Failure is not fatal, in fact, as far as I’m concerned it is a prerequisite for knowledge, skill and success. So learn to embrace failure as part of the learning process. Be proud of your failures as it is evidence that you are in the game taking action. There may be people watching and laughing at you, but probably not as many as you think. Any that are, screw ’em.

Keep the stakes small

To make an omelette, you will break some eggs

If you want to make an omelette, after cracking the eggs you are going to try things and make plenty of mistakes. They say ‘salt is flavor’ and I have found that to be true, and then suddenly there’s too much salt and an inedible omelette. Fortunately eggs are cheap, so try again. If you want to learn about investing, keep the stakes small. You can invest surprisingly small amounts of money so as you make your mistakes (and you will) you are not losing any serious money. I admire confidence, but arrogance can get pretty pricing when it comes to taking chances with money about things you have yet to learn.

Write stuff down

Yes, I am talking about notes in your Journal. I encourage everyone I know to start and keep a journal. It’s not just for the documented record of thoughts and experiences, but also for the discipline of identifying important concepts and formulating them into cohesive thoughts. What happened, why did it happen, how can I learn from this experience.

A journal should include important thoughts and learning on entire of your life. Things like…

  • Cook: Preparing healthy, affordable and delicious meals
  • Making money: Developing a career and/or business
  • Saving and investing: Knowing how to make money from money
  • Having a relationship: Understanding the complexities of interpersonal connection
  • Raising kids: Parenting healthy young people
  • Becoming a good man

Conclusion: What is Street Smart

Street smart is a concept you get to apply in your own life the way you wish too. It doesn’t mean you’re some scrappy kid from the other side of the tracks running numbers for the mob. It means you’re paying attention and learning from life as you go. Building a body of knowledge about the world and your life in it.

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