Types of Smarts

A good friend of the family was lamenting his lack of book smarts at lunch the other day. He’s not a big reader, and I almost wonder if he’s one of the boys that got turned off of reading for fun as a kid. Or it could be that he’s just not book minded. He was sighing about not being as well-read as my folks are. Then he proceeded to describe his latest construction project, and how he realized that a part of it needed to be re-engineered, and something routed in a different way, and how it only took him an hour to worry out a solution and then start sketching.

He has the most amazing 3-D sense. He can look at something in his field, think about it for a few minutes, and then come up with the materials, the clearances, and sometimes, a better way to do it. And he can teach that to his crews. He’s one of the most highly sought-after specialists in the area. He makes more money than I ever will. He also knows how to make computers do with he needs, be they accounting programs or CAD-CAM stuff. And he says he’s not smart.

He’s street and skills smart. I’m book smart. As far as the survival of humanity is concerned, we need a lot more of him than we do of me. He’s one of the people who ensures that plumbing flows properly, that buildings don’t fall over, that the wiring doesn’t burn the world down, that roads don’t crumble ten minutes after the paving truck departs, that your car works after something under the hood goes sproing. He’s a maker, and he teachers other people to be better makers in that same field, and even in related fields. I can barely get my mind to sort out what he’s describing when he goes into how a run needs to work, and how to cut this thing that way, in order to solve an odd problem caused by an architect who forgot about gravity. And he makes it sound so easy and intuitive!

I love talking to people like him, and watching them work. I’ve learned so much just listening to them talk about plumbing systems, house wiring, what makes a good roof, how cement should work, and so on. Book stuff is neat, too, but watching people build joists or staircases from scratch and everything works and does its work . . . That’s art in progress. It’s different from an oil painting or a statue, but it is art.

Skill smarts are a field where innate talent plus experience leads to amazing results. “I’m actually really slow,” I recall one gent telling someone. “I just learned to cheat.” No, he’d been doing things so long, and had such an sense of how materials worked, that he could produce the maximum of result with the minimum of material and effort. It was beautiful.

Skill smarts, street smart, book smarts. They are all different. A few people have a little of one or two of them. I’ve got book smarts augmented by painful experience (“So that’s why you don’t do that.”) and insatiable curiosity. Toss in a large dollop of ignorance (“Um, what do you mean that most people don’t want to try doing this? Why not?”) and you get a bit of a polymath. Or a very, very expensive disaster involving power tools, a hole in a garage wall, and a lot of explaining.*

I admire people with street smarts and skill smarts. Anyone can learn history and many can teach it well. But to plumb a house well so that everything flows perfectly and there are no leaks, or to look at a mouse nest of wires and then undo the wreck to wire something neatly and efficiently? Art, and rare. It’s beautiful. It’s like looking at a Roman water system that’s still going strong. There’s beauty there, and a lot of awe for the engineers and builders who dig the channels and carved the stones so long ago.

*Not me. Someone I had a class with, who discovered how to launch wood using a table saw. There’s a reason I give table saws the same respect I give a hippo with a toothache.


8 thoughts on “Types of Smarts

  1. I’m a recovering engineer with a ravenous appetite for reading most anything. One of my jobs during my career was developing a training program for system engineers at a nuclear power plant. Note that a system engineer at a nuclear plant is NOT an IT guy. The systems engineer is a specialist who understands his assigned system(s) and is tasked to keep the systems operating within the license requirements. This means knowing the relevant license requirements, planning maintenance activities, and troubleshooting the system and coming up with a fix when things go wrong.

    Regarding the training development job, the Engineering department was almost at war with the Training department, because the engineers didn’t believe the training they were getting was relevant to the job they were expected to do. In a minor flash of brilliance the Training Manager, decided to hire an experienced system engineer (me) who could talk to the system engineers as an equal to identify what the engineers felt they needed to know. One of the things I found out on that job was that some people simply lacked the ability to troubleshoot a system. They could learn the basics but the subtleties of the many ways Murphy could ruin your day were a mystery to them. These people were not stupid, but their brains just weren’t wired that way. Often, when their system presented them with seemingly unsolvable problem their response was to ask “Joe,” the guy who always seemed to intuitively know how to find and fix the issue.

  2. One “smarts” correlation that I have never figured out, but has been confirmed more than once in the real world: the connection between talent as a musician and talent for certain kinds of mathematics.

    Myself, I am extremely book-smart and a voracious reader of science and nature books as well as SF/F. But practical smarts – well, no. I know several people who are much more practical-smart than I am, and respect them no end for it.

    • No. A hole in the wall in that case means that a lot of contractors, inspectors, and others are going to be having a LOOOOOOOONG talk with the NRC, among others.

  3. If we need a lot more of them than you, it means that each of you is much more valuable. A people without history have no identity, and can only drift aimlessly into the non-future.

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