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Book Smart vs Street Smart in Singapore: Enjoying Best of Both Worlds

book smart student

Recently, the movie I Not Stupid 3 was released in cinemas islandwide in Singapore. This reminds me of the prequel, I Not Stupid which has two protagonists, Terry Khoo and Ang Boon Hock who are mirror opposites of book smart and street smart. Through this movie, we can identify that there are merits to being book smart or street smart. While most working adults may agree that it is better to be street smart than book smart, the reality is much more nuanced.

Book smarts refer to academic prowess and a strong theoretical knowledge base a.k.a acing your PSLE, ‘O’ Levels, and ‘A’ Levels exams, safely enrolling in the Big 3 universities in Singapore (NUS, NTU, SMU) to make your parents, ah gong, ah ma and neighbours next door proud of you. It’s about excelling in tests, retaining information, and possessing strong analytical thinking skills. Book smarts can also describe someone who goes by the book (no pun intended). Recall Terry Khoo in I Not Stupid? He’s a perfect example of someone who goes by the book; full conformance towards his mother and the social norms in Singapore, never mind if the rules make sense in unforeseen circumstances. 

Street smarts, on the other hand, are about common sense, resourcefulness, and the ability to navigate real-world situations effectively. Ang Boon Hock comes into the picture, who supports his mother running a hawker stall outside his studies. Through this experience, he knows how to deal with people from all walks of life. In the kidnapping scene, he worked out a solution to escape from the kidnappers with Terry. 

Movies aside, the truth is that neither type of intelligence is inherently better than the other. Ideally, we strive to be well-rounded individuals with a healthy balance of both. Let’s delve deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Deep Dive into Book Smarts

What makes someone book smart? 

These individuals typically excel in academic settings. They possess strong memory and recall abilities, allowing them to retain vast amounts of information. Their analytical thinking skills help them solve problems logically and break down complex concepts. 

Benefits of Book Smarts: 

Given the paper chase culture in Singapore, being book smart gives you an edge. In fields requiring strong theoretical knowledge, like science, engineering, and law, success is within reach because academic qualifications are highly valued in climbing the career ladder in these fields. To become a lawyer in Singapore, you’ll need to complete a law degree at one of the autonomous universities (NUS, SMU, SUSS) or one of the universities in Australia, New Zealand, United States and United Kingdom listed under Singapore Institute of Legal Education, following which you’ll need to complete a one-year training at a local law firm to be admitted to the Singapore Bar. Problem-solving skills developed through book learning are also crucial in many professions. 

Limitations of Book Smarts: 

While book smarts are valuable, relying solely on them can have limitations. Textbooks can’t teach everything, especially in fields like digital marketing and software development where market trends shift rapidly. Bookish individuals might struggle with real-world situations that require quick thinking and adaptability. In fact, this is one of the reasons why some fresh graduates struggle with adapting to their first jobs. Book-smart individuals are used to having information spoon-fed to them to excel in their examinations, hence they may be expecting employers to help solve their challenges at work, instead of being resourceful to come up with solutions. Social interactions and navigating social cues can also pose challenges for some book-smart people. This can range from daily work habits like eating lunch alone, wearing earbuds while doing tasks to adapting to the communication styles and leadership styles of colleagues and managers.

Speaking from Experience of a Book Smart Individual

I believe I am the epitome of a book smart person, hence it’ll be an an eye-opener to hear my perspective on the wins and losses I face with this quality I have. Asian parents always want their children to win at the starting line, and I believe that’s the greatest advantage of being a book-smart person. Being in the best-performing academic class in school, the teachers for various subjects are endowed with the best teaching methods and latest tips and tricks on how to excel in PSLE, which paved the way for me to enrol in a good secondary school, and subsequently my desired courses in polytechnic and university. Listening to accounts of people who had to enroll in academic courses which they had absolutely no interest in due to their poor grades, or not being eligible for university admission, I felt fortunate and relieved that my strength in academics opened more doors for my tertiary education. My parents also benefitted, as I received scholarships to fund my university education, which relieved them from bearing the financial burden of forking out the hefty school fees. 

Coming close to graduation, I believe that was when the disadvantages of being book smart started becoming apparent. I prepared for interviews as if they were examinations, hence my answers sounded too rehearsed, and improvising answers to situational questions were a challenge. Since I poured most of my time towards my studies in schools, I did not have a strong portfolio of work experience and CCAs to showcase my soft skills. As such, job search was a struggle for me, and I dare say it was one of the lowest periods of my life. 

After I finally secured a job, more challenges awaited me. I had to learn how to adapt to the working environment and gel with my colleagues, such as being diplomatic with my words, showing interest in conversations, and understanding the dynamics of different departments. Only upon entering the working world, I realize the importance of being street smart to be quipped with these skills easily.

Deep Dive into Street Smarts

What makes someone street smart? 

Street-smart individuals possess a keen sense of awareness and a practical understanding of how the world works. They can navigate social situations, spot danger signals, and think on their feet. Resourcefulness and the ability to improvise are hallmarks of street smarts.

Benefits of Street Smarts: 

In the real world, street smarts can be invaluable. They can navigate tricky social situations, and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Street-smart individuals can often connect with people on a deeper level and exude confidence in their interactions.

Limitations of Street Smarts: 

While street smarts are essential, a lack of theoretical knowledge can be a drawback. Street-smart individuals might struggle with complex concepts or tasks requiring advanced technical knowledge.

Real-life Encounters of Street Smarts

The first individual who comes to my mind when speaking of a street smart person is my colleague at work. Being a social butterfly across different departments, he is always one of the first to be aware of news that are not yet officially announced. Although he has not been here for very long, he is well aware of the social dynamics and each person’s persona, which allows him to work smoothly with different individuals.

Having said that, he has room to catch up in other aspects, as he is unlike a book smart person who’s able to remember concepts quickly, analyze things in detail and follow up on tasks in a systematic manner.

Book Smart vs. Street Smart Examples

Let’s illustrate the difference with some real-life scenarios:

  • Example 1: Searching online for the most affordable food deal reveals book smarts, while forming a rapport with the hawker for them to offer discounts or bigger food portions reveals street smarts. 
  • Example 2: Doing work according to what’s requested by your boss reveals book smarts, while being resourceful to uncover the company’s business challenges and offering solutions for your boss reveals street smarts.
  • Example 3: A child would like his parents to buy the latest gadget for him. A book smart child will make a straightforward request upfront. A street smart child will find the right opportunity when his parents are in a good mood, help his parents out with some chores and pitch the benefits of getting the gadget when making the request.
  • Example 4: A book smart person finds his way around using Google maps, while a street smart person identifies landmarks to remember his way.
  • Example 5: A book smart student may win the Math Olympiad competition, while a street smart student may be crowned Prom King in the school’s prom night by getting the most votes.

Many situations require a blend of both. For instance, negotiating a business deal might require the analytical skills of a book-smart person combined with the social awareness and negotiation tactics of a street-smart individual. You’d see most high-flyers having both book smart and street smart traits, as they not only graduate with a first-class honours degree, but can land prestigious jobs (Management Associate Programmes, FAANG companies) through their emotional intelligence, persuasiveness and networking skills.

The Power of Balance

Now that we understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of intelligence, the key takeaway is this: the most successful individuals possess a balance of both book smarts and street smarts.

Imagine an entrepreneur who combines academic knowledge with business savvy. This person can leverage theoretical knowledge to develop innovative products while possessing the street smarts to navigate the complexities of the marketplace. Think of entrepreneurs like Anthony Tan (CEO of Grab) and Tan Min-Liang (CEO of Razer) who lead the market share of their brands in their respective industries.

Developing Both Types of Intelligence

So, how can you cultivate both book smarts and street smarts? Here are some tips:

Developing Book Smarts:

  • Read extensively: Immerse yourself in diverse topics beyond your academic field. In case you weren’t aware, National Library Board offers complimentary membership for all Singaporeans. With over 30 public libraries in Singapore, you’ll be able to find an accessible outlet near your residence!
  • Take online courses: Expand your knowledge by exploring online learning platforms such as LinkedIn, Coursera, Udemy. 
  • Engage in critical thinking exercises: Challenge yourself to analyze information and form your own conclusions.

Developing Street Smarts:

  • Travel and experience different cultures: This broadens your perspective and exposes you to new ways of thinking. If an opportunity arises at work, seize it and learn how to collaborate with co-workers of different nationalities. If you’re still in college, take part in overseas exchange programs, where you’ll get to immerse yourself in a new culture, learn how to live independently and respect different customs.
  • Volunteer in your community: Engage with people from different backgrounds and learn from their experiences. No matter your interest lies in youth, the elderly, animals, or nature, non-profit organizations always welcome your contributions as a volunteer!
  • Practice social interaction: Pay attention to social cues, hone your communication skills, and actively listen to others. If you’re new at work, especially in your first job, you may take the initiative to gather feedback from your manager about your work etiquette.


Book smarts and street smarts come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages, hence the most successful people marry the advantages of each to be where they are today. If you’re born with more book smarts or vice versa, all’s not lost, as there are still ways for you to improve in areas you’re lacking. 

Do you feel you’re more book smart or street smart? How has that helped or hindered you? I’d love to hear more in your comments!