Street Smarts

I often define intelligent people as bright or smart.

Bright people don’t have to work very hard to be intelligent. Their brains are wired in a way that allows difficult concepts to come to them easily. They can listen to something one time and have it figured out. They can read a book and totally embrace a subject.

Smart people have to figure things out. Yes, they are intelligent, but in a different way. A mechanic can work through a series of tests and quickly determine what part of an engine is having a problem. But its something they’ve had to work at. A salesman has learned how to bring a product to the mind’s eye and make you realize that you need to purchase that product. It’s all about nuance. Its the person (like me) who had to read 3 books on the same subject from 3 different perspectives. But the depth of knowledge sometimes goes beyond a central line of thought. It is perceptive and reactive to change.

I wouldn’t pigeonhole any of these categories of people. But to generalize a bright person, I’d suggest Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory. This person has a memory of books and can verbalize the most scintillating details of a concept, but they can’t change a tire on a car. Whereas, the smart person can do many practical things in the world, but its often an uphill climb when the technical detail becomes complex.

If we could only have both worlds. Assuming everyone starts from a smart perspective, we’d actually have to study harder to find a glimpse of brightness. And the bright person would actually have to get their hands dirty and figure some things out about the world around them.

An aspect that many bright people lack is perceptiveness. Sheldon Cooper struggles to know when sarcasm is used. The next door neighbor, Penny, would quiz him on pop culture. It’s almost like making a robot into a person.

Along with perceptiveness comes awareness. When I was a University professor, I’d see other professors walking on the sidewalk. If I can stereotype a few people, sometimes these bright people have tunnel vision. Their thoughts are deep into a class they are about to teach or a research problem that needs a solution. They barely see where they are stepping let alone the birds in the sky and the students flocking around them. They lack an awareness of common life. Yes, its an extreme example, but what if normal people did the same things?

When I would do Infantry leadership training, my mind was racing with books of knowledge spilled out into stressful situations. When I would lead a patrol, my mind was thinking of a hundred things at once. Its why a young PFC who has been in the Army one year is only given a narrow set of tasks. They are expected to do those things to the best of their ability. But the team leader, squad leader, and platoon leader have incrementally challenging tasks they need to consider. We went by the acronym METT-T for combat leadership.
M = Mission. What are the goals that we need to accomplish?
E = Enemy. Who are they? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How many?
T = Terrain and weather. How does the topography and atmospheric conditions affect the mission?
T = Troops available. I’m leading a platoon of men. What platoons are on my flank? Do I have artillery or mortar or air support? Who do we have in reserve behind us?
T = Time. How much time to prepare? How much time to get to the objective? How much time to extraction?

Even as a team member having simple tasks, I was always aware of so many things. Did litter on the ground indicate how long ago the enemy was there or how disciplined they are? Am I watching for booby traps and snipers? How do the leaves and branches underfoot give away my position? Am I being silhouetted against the sky or a background? Am I in a place that will stop small arms fire?

But more crucially in combat awareness is how I feel when I get back to the civilian world. Unlike that professor who has tunnel vision, my senses are extremely heightened. I’m predicting my movements many steps in advance. I’m anticipating what I’ll do if something goes wrong. I sense a South wind and know a storm is coming soon. I look to the horizon listening for the helicopter I hear far away. I can’t afford the deep thoughts that cloud my awareness.

I guess the latter example would be Street Smarts. What I do to survive on the street or in the bush? What Crocodile Dundee knowledge do I have if my plane crashes in a remote place? I know people who refuse to learn basic survival because they think they can always call someone or someone with them can do what they don’t know how to do. Or they live like bobble-heads never imagining a worst case scenario. When the time comes to live, they often die.

To be honest, in most cases, the book smarts don’t go very far. Yes, maybe they’ll help us solve a very high level problem that affects a global population. But it doesn’t help us love, empathize, celebrate, enjoy, appreciate, laugh, and cry.

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