Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts

Which is best?

By Ed Butts, PE

As my final contribution to this year, I wish to deviate one more time from the usual technical topics and discuss something on my mind and somewhat troubling me for many years now.

That is the debate on what is best: To have the so-called book smarts or the benefits of practical experience (street smarts)?

Before we begin, I wish to state the opinions expressed in the following column are mine and mine alone and do not represent the opinions of the National Ground Water Association or Water Well Journal.

What Are Book Smarts and Street Smarts?

Simply put, a person who has book smarts is someone who is intelligent and well educated academically. The stereotype of a book-smart individual is someone from an upper-class socioeconomic upbringing, well educated, but less knowledgeable and capable when it comes to handling important or immediate decisions in practical situations common to everyday life or “the streets”—but in our case, the field.

The stereotype of a book-smart person is someone who deals with ordinary but challenging situations (especially bad or difficult ones) only from an intellectual point of view by basing their decisions strictly on available facts, accumulated knowledge, or personal insights primarily obtained from an educational environment.

The stereotype of a street-smart person is someone who knows how to handle practical situations in everyday life necessary to “get things done” but is not as inherently educated or gifted academically.

Condensing these into their most extreme and negative stereotypes: Book-smart people are essentially naive, easily manipulated, unfeeling, and display bad judgment in ordinary situations. Street-smart people are unintelligent and incapable of achieving a higher education, but are more passionate and can usually find an answer to a problem through trial and error.

I believe true definitions lie somewhere between these two, with neither type guilty of the truly demeaning definitions.

Those known as book smart or educated should not be ostracized for the advantages they may have been given. After all, simply having a certain status does not automatically confer knowledge on these individuals. Conversely, street-smart people are often demeaned simply because they are classified as those who “didn’t have the right stuff” to attend an institute of higher learning. That isn’t right either.

As an individual who I feel possesses an equal measure of book smarts and street smarts, I believe I can speak on this topic.

When I began in the water well industry in 1974, individuals with practical knowledge were far more needed, recognized, and rewarded for their ability than many of the so-called intellectuals. In fact, the most studious people were often referred to as nerds or eggheads—but that began to change when computers and technology began to expand and come into use. Eventually, it not only became acceptable to be regarded as a nerd, but it was more favorable in many academic and business circles.

As time progressed, college enrollees began abandoning traditional fields of business and law for fields like computer science and electrical engineering. Through the 1980s, with the introduction of Windows software and the computer mouse, more and more people were experiencing ease with using personal computers. As a result, computers became the mainstay for engineering design and business documentation and records. When the 1990s faded into the new millennium, the technical explosion in computers, the Internet, cell phones, and iPads reached a fever pitch and now it’s regarded as “cool to be uncool.”

But during these past four decades, we have witnessed a slow demise in practicality and seen it replaced with more exacting “solutions.” Today if you want to find a solution to a problem, you find an answer online in seconds—even if it’s incorrect. The tried and true and what has worked for 100 years is no longer acceptable. Now solutions are preprogrammed and written down in a reference guide or rule book.

And nowhere is this more evident than in regulating the field of water well drilling and water systems.

The Regulatory Issue

I have been involved with well and water system design for more than 40 years. During this period I have seen regulatory decisions and judgments once made by seasoned and experienced water well drillers or engineers now being made by more youthful, untested, and essentially unqualified—but yet perceived book-smart—individuals.

These individuals may be knowledgeable about what is written in their book on rules and regulations, but totally and woefully inept when it comes to understanding why it was written. Ask them to explain their decision on a rule or code interpretation and the inevitable response is “That’s what the rule says.” or “That’s my interpretation of the rule.”

The people who should be making these interpretations and judgments—you know, the older and wiser folks—have all been kicked up to management, retired, or simply died off. We now have incredibly young people deciding if what we do is right or wrong because it’s all spelled out in the “book.”

I’m a firm believer in the adage you cannot completely understand the other person’s viewpoint of a situation until you step into their shoes, or in this case, work boots.

Unfortunately, a lot of the people making the decisions don’t have the appreciation of the true work ethic associated with the weariness and satisfaction of getting their hands dirty behind a drill rig or pump hoist, sweating in an open trench at 100 degrees to install an offset, or lifting 94-pound bags of cement all day long to seal a well.

In many ways, we are somewhat to blame for this turn of events. Our complacency has allowed the expediency and rigidness of rulemaking to replace practical answers. No longer are we able to sit down and converse with a regulator to work out possibly different solutions to arrive at common ground to a single problem. The book always has the only true answer.

I can speak with some authority on this issue. Two regulatory agencies in my own state, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the Oregon Health Authority, both prescribe to the method of addressing an issue by interpreting the book rule instead of what used to be a practical solution.

One classic example of this type of short-sided extremism is the Oregon Health Authority’s current definition of a “wellfield.” A wellfield is no longer simply defined as it is written in the rule:

“A wellfield means two or more drinking water wells, belonging to the same water system that are within 2500 feet, or as determined by the Authority, and produce from the same and no other aquifer.”

That’s the rule, plain and simple. However, it is now interpreted to be:

“Two or more wells from a common aquifer that must also pump to a common discharge or delivery point.”

It may not be written that way in the book, but it now is in a personal “sub-book.” Now, use some logic and consider this: If the water delivered from all wells is chemically identical, does it really matter if they also deliver the water to the exact same point in the water system?

You may not be experiencing things like this in your state. If so, I congratulate you and your state, but I also warn you to be vigilant and carefully watch all future legislative action and rulemaking to prevent this type of event.

The Technological Revolution

No question, the numerous strides made in the technical revolution over the past 50 years have made an important, far-reaching, long-lasting impact on our world and society.

We are now able to easily find answers to difficult questions by doing a rapid browser search. Businesses are now able to operate far more efficiently, securely, and accurately by using professional accounting and management software. In short, if you need to find a solution to any given problem or an answer to any difficult equation, a quick web search or software program will likely help or do it for you.

But, ultimately, the original question I asked remains unanswered: Is it best to possess the more desirable but rarer book smarts or the more common street smarts? Which is best?

I contend a person needs to have a blend of each to be totally functional and successful. You need enough of a well-rounded education to possess the prerequisite knowledge needed to fully comprehend a specific situation and develop alternative solutions. But you also need the adequate practicality to understand the best way to utilize and implement this knowledge.

In my opinion, individuals who are to be given regulatory authority or fill an advisory or rulemaking capacity should be initially required to experience and participate for at least one full year in a practical, real-world setting before being allowed to serve in these positions. I’m a firm believer in the adage you cannot completely understand the other person’s viewpoint of a situation until you step into their shoes, or in this case, work boots.

Much of our shift in societal attitudes has to do with our recent advances in book smarts. Many people seem to be consumed with newfound intellectual skills, so they feel they have surpassed the need for old-fashioned, practical solutions to problems.

But have they? There is still time to reverse course. But we must be less reactive and more proactive in fighting back against burdensome, overreaching, and unnecessary layers of bureaucratic interference, red tape, and ever-increasing regulatory impacts to our industry, businesses, and livelihoods.

This can be initiated in numerous ways: Sustain membership in proactive national and state industry associations like NGWA and your state association. Support like-minded individuals (or run yourself) for elected government positions. Insist on receiving due process and subsequent review of bad decisions when warranted. Seek appointment and become more intimately involved in policy, rulemaking, advisory, and oversight committees.

This issue will never change by itself, but it will get progressively worse and more impactful to each of us, unless we collectively do something about it.

Although I am approaching retirement, I grieve for future industry individuals who may never know the satisfaction of what it was like to work together with a peer to find common ground while arriving at a workable solution to a mutual problem.

I will climb down from my soapbox for now, but not before I wish everyone a safe, sane, and happy holiday season to you, your friends and family, coworkers, and associates.

Until then, as always, work safe and smart.


Ed Butts, PE, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at epbpe@juno.com.

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