Experience vs Book Smarts

Mike Tyson was the youngest person to ever win the heavyweight championship at 20 years old. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at 19. Kailash Satyarthi survived an assassination attempt at 15 and won the Nobel Peace Prize by 20. There are lots of examples of “inexperienced” people doing extremely amazing things. They must have worked hard; they probably tried things and failed a lot behind closed doors. No one would call Tyson a ‘book-smart’ person, but he certainly understood the ‘book’ of boxing.

Experience Over Books

Experience always wins over book smarts; we all generally agree with this. If we want to learn how to do a backflip, chances are book knowledge won’t help us much. We can read about techniques, about where to move, how to position ourselves, we can even watch others do it. Yet, for some reason, until we actually do it, there are often things we just don’t understand or anticipate without experiencing it.

Many subject areas seem to rely heavily on experience. For example, try to explain what getting into a fight is like to someone who hasn’t fought before. Any explanation would not likely do it justice. Yet, there is the opposite as well; think math or really anything that relies primarily on some form of cognition and imagination. Any constructs that are heavily involved with cognition and less involved with the physical senses sounds a lot more ‘book-like,’ doesn’t it? Or does it?

What Is a Book?

A book is a bunch of words on pieces of paper. With Audible, a book is someone talking to us. With YouTube, a book is someone showing us. The point is that these are just different mediums through which we take in someone’s thoughts, experiences, or expression. When someone is ‘book smart,’ that means they are reflecting or taking in experiences through a different medium.

Yet, it’s not only passive intake. We have to think about the information critically, and we have to apply it for it to be truly learned. This is why anyone can easily read a difficult book or watch a complex video but have a very hard time understanding it. Reading a book without any thought is like watching an MMA match and thinking we can fight.

For some topics, we don’t need (or want) the experience, for example, a bad encounter from a bad breakup, to accidents, injuries, disabilities, starvation, and death. In these scenarios, we don’t need the experience to know it sucks. We can read, watch, listen, and empathize and strategically come up with actions based on those thoughts.

Compressed Experiences

The idea of empathy plus strategy; the ability to look at any situation; the ability to read any book and come up with scenarios as to why certain actions would or wouldn’t be advantageous is really what we are referring to with ‘book smarts’.

Imagine this. A baseball is heading toward our chest. It’s not going fast, but it won’t feel good to get hit in the chest. We decide to move out of the way and catch the ball instead of letting it hit us. The act of moving and catching is all an estimation. Before it happens, it’s all made up in our minds before we act. If we have experience catching a baseball or with sports at all, it probably will come naturally. If not, we may not even attempt to catch the ball and let it fly instead.

Everything we do is a matter of using the information in our minds to predict future actions and reactions; it’s all in our heads. Being ‘book-smart’ is when we have no direct experiences but can think about it, imagine it, and come up with strategies based on our imagination and thoughts. The main reason books don’t compare to experiences is because we can’t paint a picture with the same level of fidelity as the real thing. It’s like a compressed version of experience. If we had read about this baseball scenario just before the actual event occurred, what’s the likelihood we would’ve been slightly more prepared? We can’t operate optimally without both.

Arguing with Experience

It’s said that Mike Tyson religiously watched boxing film when he was training as a kid. He was ‘reading’ the book of boxing, all while training extensively. If Tyson didn’t study tapes extensively, how successful would he have been?

If someone had more experience fighting than him and wanted to teach him something, how would they do it? When he’s already a 20-year-old champion, why should he even listen to someone else’s experiences? Assuming just showing or telling him didn’t work, the key is that they’d have to find a common link or figure out what he has and hasn’t experienced directly and what he knows through other book-smart mediums.

Arguing that ‘they have experience’ would mean nothing to Tyson. They’d have to provide experiences he can relate to and weave them into their reasoning. This is no different whether talking to an open-minded thinker a teenager going through puberty or an annoying, know-it-all boss. If we happen to run into a brick wall, we’ve already talked about how to deal with that…

Street-Smart Caveat

As we’ve alluded to, book smarts is anything in our thoughts outside of actual experience. Some like Gary V. aren’t readers but are still massively successful and likely strong critical thinkers when it comes to assessing their problems. They likely have a strong ability to correlate their experiences and make predictions and conclusions from their experiences alone.

This idea of street smarts is experience plus ‘our own smarts.’ Normally ‘book smarts’ is based on someone else’s thoughts and experiences; why can’t it be our own? We can read our own book and analyze it over and over. So, I shamelessly include this type of ‘thinking’ process or introspection as book smart, but that isn’t totally fair. We have to underscore that experience is the equivalent of doing. Until we do something, until we try something, we get nowhere.

Vastness of the World

There are thousands of different careers, thousands of different sports, billions of people, and thousands of religions. We simply can’t experience it all. The idea that book smarts can’t cut it runs contrary to this vastness as well. If experience didn’t go hand in hand with book smarts, we’d be extinct by now.

If we think about most subjects despite the vastness, they all bleed into other subjects. That means when we have experience in one area, we automatically gain some level of experience in many other areas. If, for example, we have experience working as an IT support technician, there are likely a high number of jobs or careers that we can relate to. Having that small link allows us to use ‘book smarts’ to then move into other areas or understand other concepts.

Books Are Cheat Codes

Einstein is estimated to have taken almost 10 years to come up with the theory of relativity. Now, we can see not only the fruits of his labor, but it can be taught in a single class and summarized in a single YouTube video. We can learn in hours what it took someone else years to learn. This effect is seen time and time again over the years of human existence.

This may have something to do with why some of the most successful people in the world advocate reading a LOT– Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, etc.

So, next time you think of a book smart nerd, don’t forget to include Mike Tyson and many of the other ‘inexperienced’ but successful people.



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