How to Get What You Want by Being Street Smart Instead of Book Smart

You don’t need a high IQ to understand how the world works

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

There are two ways to be smart: One is to have a high IQ, the other is to be good at getting what you want.

The former contains an element you don’t control — genetics — and while you can read many books to make up for it, maximizing intelligence alone has little use in the real world. Being street smart, however…

In 1862, Mark Twain was stuck in a silver-mining town in Nevada. A notorious slacker, he was quickly fired from the only job available: shoveling sand. His buff roommate, however, hadn’t found work, and so Twain sent him to the mine, telling him to ask for work without pay. After a few days, word got out about the productive “intern,” and soon, he earned enough for both of them — and Twain went back to reading, writing, and eating stewed apples.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of smart I want to be. Since it doesn’t rely on intellect alone, being street smart is mostly a decision — a philosophy, if you will. I thought long and hard about what I could teach you that would actually make you smarter, and, rather than facts and figures, all I could see were three ideas underpinning this philosophy.

Here they are. May they help you get what you want and make the world a better place along the way.

1. Principles Beat Knowledge

Neil deGrasse Tyson once told a story about interviewing two job candidates. Both were asked: “How tall is the spire on the building we’re in?”

The first person said: “Oh! I know this! I studied architecture and memorized all the heights. The spire on this building is exactly 155 feet high.” As it turns out, that’s the right answer.

The second person said: “I don’t know, but I’ll be right back.” She goes outside, measures the length of her shadow on the ground against the shadow of the building, and, after comparing the two, says: “It’s about 150 feet.”

“Who are you gonna hire?” Tyson said. “I’m hiring the person who figured it out. Even though it took that person longer. Even though the person’s answer is not as precise. ‘Cause that person knows how to use the mind in a way not previously engaged.”

To Tyson, this is the difference between fuzzy thinking and thinking straight: “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

Principles beat knowledge. Knowledge can be memorized, accessed quickly, and it is useful to have a lot of it available at any given time. Everything you know, however, is nothing but an insight derived from a principle, and if you understand a lot of principles, you can generate any fact you need in real-time — no need to cram your brain with knowledge.

When you hold an apple in your hand, you know it will fall to the ground if you let go because you understand the principle of gravity. A principle doesn’t break. It’s universal. Knowledge, however, finds its limits all the time, because unlike principles, facts change.

If you jump off the spire in Tyson’s example, you will die. You know this. It’s a fact, and it seems so universal, it feels like a principle — but it’s not. It only happens in movies, but if you stood atop the spire as the building was collapsing, jumping off — towards a helicopter, with a parachute, into some safety construction — would be your only way to survive. The circumstances changed, and the principle overrode the knowledge.

Therefore, it is much better to have a few guidelines for how you think rather than many options of what to think.

Knowledge is good, but too much of it can limit our thinking instead of expanding it. The more drawers our file cabinet has, the more desperately we believe that one of them must hold the answer, and so we waste our time pulling out drawers when we could derive the solution — maybe a brand new solution — by combining our principles.

If you want to achieve your goals and make a difference in the world, you must never be intimidated by knowledge, and you must never rely on knowledge alone. Collect it when you can for it might one day be useful, but never let your knowledge trump your ability to think on your feet.

2. Psychology Runs Everything

One of the first and most important principles is that psychology governs everything — absolutely everything. The invisible forces of human behavior shape every decision we make, every action we take, and all of our interactions with others.

Right now, there are over 200 biases twisting your thoughts and perception. Every waking second, we are affected by our instincts, our environment, and the actions of those around us.

I think it cannot be overstated and might be the most important principle in accomplishing anything in this life: Psychology rules everything. You must never neglect psychology, never underestimate it, for its power is near-limitless.

Judges have sent innocent men to prison over bias. Billionaires have been tricked out of their fortunes. Retail empires have been built and collapsed on small differences in perception and a lack thereof.

Money, fame, charity, legacy — whatever you want in life, it translates to change, to transformation, and the most powerful, most sustainable way to enact change is to deeply understand and embrace psychology.

Read some books. Understand the basics of perception, bias, and persuasion. Learn how our emotions affect us and how our minds work. Master, not guess, which of the brain’s many kinks work for and against us.

Whatever you look at in life, consider the angle of psychology: Which behavioral forces are at play here? Why do we do what we do?

Whether you wish to be self-disciplined and run a marathon, create your own board game and sell a million copies, or found a company that will convert 25% of the world’s CO2 into something useful, heed the science of the mind, and you shall one day be successful.

3. To Get What You Want, You Must Make People Feel

Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In a world run by psychology, an ounce of common sense is worth a pound of theory — and no matter what the theory suggests, humans are, by and large, run by their feelings.

“What do you feel like eating?” “I don’t feel this idea.” “I feel like I can afford it.” Nutrition, business, money — three of the most important topics in our lives, all governed by principles, and what do we do? We listen to our feelings. For better or for worse, this is how it’s gonna be.

It is great to practice rational thought, to aspire to reason and intelligence, but neither will be the biggest hindrance in getting you what you want — especially if it involves convincing other people, and it always involves convincing other people.

Appeal to our natural desires. Make us feel loved. Make us feel strong. Whatever you want, you’ll have to make us feel something to get it.

A confidence coach may have to make people angry, help them use regret as fuel for change. A great writer can make us feel sad, but in that sadness, we may find closure. Others provide simpler pleasures, like laughter, excitement, or schadenfreude.

The first incarnation of Facebook, FaceMash, put two photos of people side by side and let others vote on who’s more attractive. It’s a product built on curiosity and our desire to judge.

Tesla succeeds because its cars look good and feel futuristic. It’s not about numbers or sustainability, it’s about being part of something bigger while still having fun. The benefits are side effects.

Apple is not about glass and microchips, it’s about “having good taste.” You can viscerally enjoy the design of their products — and to top it off, they also perform well. The design “just flows” and the tool “just works.” A trillion-dollar company, built on gut feelings.

If you want to change the world for the better, let self-absorbed humans do the right thing by accident. Make us act in our own interest, and align the incentives so everyone benefits. The same applies to getting what you want, and it all runs on the unstoppable force of feelings.

If Mark Twain’s mining story sounded familiar to you, it’s because it closely resembles Tom Sawyer’s genius stunt of getting the other kids to pay him to paint his aunt’s white-picket fence — a feat depicted in Twain’s most famous work, a hallmark of American literature. That’s what he used his spare time for, and today, we’re all better off for it. We can still learn from his stories.

Academics frequently dismiss street smarts as unethical or lazy. Sometimes, they do so out of a false sense of honor or because they’re jealous of others getting what they want while they don’t, seemingly without hassle. Most of the time, however, they simply fear their intelligence won’t amount to anything in the real world, thus running from the very thing they so desperately hope to achieve.

Smart people realize that being smart alone does not mean much at all. If you want to accomplish things in this world, you need other people to buy into your ideas, and if you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how brilliant those ideas are. Those people, like you, run on imperfect brains providing imperfect conclusions, many based not on facts but feelings.

Being street smart is the ultimate commitment to being pragmatic, to getting things done, and to understanding the world as it is so we can make it into the world we wish it to be.

Don’t just be smart. Be street smart. Look at life through the lens of principles, psychology, and feelings, and, like the great but laid-back humorist we call the father of American literature, you’ll move with its current rather than against it.

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best writing and book updates 1–2 times/month, you can be my email friend: https://niklasgoeke.com/

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