Skip to main content

Book smarts or street smarts better at work?


Editor's Note: has a business partnership with, which serves as the exclusive provider of job listings and services to



Enter Keyword(s):
Enter City
  More Options


Miami (Florida)
University of Texas
Mutual Funds
Technology (general)

When it comes to succeeding in business, which is more important: book smarts or street smarts?

In a televised social experiment, Donald Trump put this question to the test. During the third season of "The Apprentice," he divided contestants into two teams: those with just a high school diploma and those with college and graduate school degrees.

In the end, though the "street smart" folks made an impressive showing, it was a "book smart" contestant who walked away with the prize.

In real life, it's harder to say who comes out on top.

Take Sarah, a successful investment manager who was competing for a portfolio manager job against a Harvard MBA. Sarah had an excellent track record and had done very well in her interview; still, the other candidate was chosen for the position.

"I went to a community college then finished up at a city branch of a state university," Sarah lamented. "I just couldn't compete with the luster of a Harvard MBA."

But wait -- the story doesn't end there. Four months later, Sarah got a call from the company that had rejected her. The Harvard MBA hadn't worked out after all, and they wanted her to join the firm -- at a salary $10,000 higher than the maximum point of the range they'd initially discussed.

That was five years ago. Today Sarah has advanced up the ranks and earned her MBA at Wharton. A hedge fund director, Sarah now makes numerous hiring decisions herself.

"An MBA from a top-drawer university is great to have and, all things equal, may be a tiebreaker," she says.

"However I don't measure candidates as much by their education or years of experience as by their achievements and results."

To be sure, the world is full of college dropouts who achieved great things.

Dell Computer founder Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas; Oracle Computer founder Larry Ellison and Apple Computer founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs (who went on to create neXT and Pixar) also left school to follow their dreams. Even Bill Gates dropped out (well, Harvard, but still he dropped out) to form Microsoft.

And it's not just the techies who eschewed college and made good. Wayne Huizenga, former owner of Waste Management, CEO of Blockbuster Video and owner of the NFL Miami Dolphins, NHL Florida Panthers and Miami's Pro Player Stadium, left Calvin College after just three semesters.

Some moguls even left college involuntarily. David Geffen (founder of Geffen Records and Dreamworks SKG) flunked out of both the University of Texas and Brooklyn College, and media mogul Ted Turner was reportedly kicked out of school.

Others such as Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records and Atlantic Airways, never bothered to go at all.

Anecdotal evidence shows a solid foundation of street smarts (personal drive, people skills and the ability to communicate and sell) is essential for any successful business person. Add to that experience and education, and you have a recipe for success.

"Neither book smarts nor street smarts is as helpful as a rich relative," jokes Tim Knox who decided to forgo college and today is the founder and president of four successful technology companies.

"An advanced degree -- especially from a prestigious university will definitely open doors, but in the end, it really doesn't matter how much education, experience, talent, luck or money you have. It's what you do with it that matters."

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines