Would You Rather Be “Book Smart” or “Handy”?

As I was doing some chores outside with my dad over the Thanksgiving weekend, an interesting thought occurred to me.  My dad and I are polar opposites in terms of where our “intelligences” are focused.  While my dad is an extremely bright guy, he would be the first to tell you that books are not his thing.  He wasn’t big on conventional schooling when he was young, and while he often reads newspapers and periodicals, he will rarely sit down with a novel.  On the other hand, the guy can fix and problem-solve nearly any problem that requires spatial intelligence.  He built our house when he was a young man (saved until he was in his late twenties and then built our whole house mortgage-free!), and is not at all intimidated by specialist trades such as plumbing and/or electrical.  Running his own lumber-harvesting business means that he has worked on every motor from small two-cylinder chainsaws to large diesel semi-trucks.  The incredible amount of skills he has in areas that vary from welding to construction constantly astound and intimidate me.

This Apple Fell Far From The Tree!

I am definitely not my dad!  I love nothing better than a rainy afternoon spent reading a great book on any number of topics.  I excelled in post-secondary studies to a large extent, and am pretty confident of my academic skill set (fancy way of saying I know how to write a good essay).  While I tend to lean towards humanities education, math doesn’t scare me like it does a lot of arts degrees, especially when it is rooted in concrete transactions such as those in the financial world (abstract calculus is not a lot of fun for me).  My dad (like most of the population) would say I must be smart since I can achieve good grades at university.  I counter by saying that I am always self-conscious that my skill-set is much less useful than his is.  When I go to work with dad in a mechanical setting I can describe the theory behind the engine, I am great at comparing the differences in consumer reports on certain cars, but when it comes to diagnosing a problem and coming up with a solution, I am admittedly beyond useless.  Sadly, my spatial problems are not limited to what you find under the hood of a car.  I am getting better, but basic renovation tasks that seem so simple often take me much longer to complete than I believe they should.  Since I don’t mind working hard or doing the heavy lifting, I usually ask someone to help me in exchange for me doing grunt work such as piling firewood, or moving furniture.  This seems to be working so far.

Who Decided What Constitutes “Smart”?

When I talked with my dad briefly about this topic we both had a hard time wrapping our head around the other’s difficulties.  My dad can’t understand why concepts that are so easy for him to immediately grasp, are never apparent to me.  He grossly underestimates his own intelligence relative to people with university degrees because popular opinion has told him that his skills require less intelligence, so he assumes that since I can succeed in an academic setting I must be smart enough to do these “simple” tasks.  This got me thoughts drifting down an interesting path (probably when I should have been paying attention to why the axel wasn’t working properly or something): What is more valuable financially in the long-term – book smart or spatial skills (being handy)?

Smart versus Genius

First, we have to define exactly what constitutes someone who is book smart versus someone who is handy.  I’m not talking about extremes.  People who are geniuses in their respective fields are outliers and not really relevant to the overall group.  Let’s say that “book smart” refers to someone like myself who enjoys reading, critical thinking about concepts, and is able to incorporate fairly large amounts of information into arguments or conclusions.  Likely it would be someone with post-secondary education, but it doesn’t have to be.  Being handy does not mean you have to be an engineer that creates fighting robots from scratch (anyone else think that movie concept seems like a huge waste of Hugh Jackman’s time?).  I’m talking about someone like my dad who can fix almost anything himself, and has no problem tackling any home renovation.  These people also tend to know exactly who to go to in order to fix a certain problem if they don’t know how to do it themselves (ie. The car isn’t working, I know exactly what’s wrong with it, but I can’t fix it, so I’ll bring it to this specific mechanic who I know will do a great job for a low cost).

So Who Wins – Book Smart or Handy?

From a purely financial perspective, who will likely be better off in the long-run, my dad or myself?  Obviously a combination of our two intelligences is the best-case scenario (which is why I am constantly bugging him to apply his talents to my house), but ultimately who wins out?  I think there are two main factors to consider – careers and household expenses.

Career Applications

From a career perspective it might appear initially that a book smart person would have a large advantage over their tool-smart contemporary, but I am growing less and less sure about this commonly held belief.  While university graduates still make substantially more than everyone else, I am beginning to believe that a great goal for many people (at least in North America) is getting into the trades.  There are definitely areas where extreme book smarts is an incredible asset.  If you apply your gifts to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or financial professional, you will likely earn enough to offset any deficit in the handyman column.  But I’m not sure the majority of book smart people fit into those highly specialized columns.  Even in those best case scenarios, those professions require 5-10 years of post-secondary schooling where income will be very low and expenses very high.  This often cripples people during the stages of life where the miracle of compound interest can have the greatest effect.  It can also leave them paying off student loans until their increased incomes can begin to produce decent returns for them as they enter their 30s.  While book smart people are going to school to up their earning potential, handy individuals can start their own business or take a trade (which usually has a much shorter and higher-paying post-secondary journey).  The biggest single factor in the handy vs book smart debate might be how the handy person handles their initial earnings (during the time period when many people are still in post-secondary).  If a handy person who is good at what they do can save and invest 10-15% of their before-tax income (not normal, but certainly very achievable) it is very difficult to argue against the results.

What’s It Worth To Never Have To Hire a Handyman?

How much has my dad’s skill set been worth over a lifetime not accounting for the career/small business he made for himself?  Well, first it should be noted that a large amount of people (myself being the best example) have benefitted from his skills, and consequently it is difficult to quantify their true value, but consider just these limited applications to his personal financial situation:

-My dad never owed money or paid interest on a house.  He built his own (trading his services for the skills he hadn’t fully mastered).

-Our heating bill has always been super-low because of our wood-heating.  This is essentially a non-expense for my dad because of what he does for a living.

-He never had to hire anyone for any maintenance or repairs on the house (maybe trading a few hours of services that he didn’t mind doing anyway).

-He was always able to make a side-income any time he wanted doing his jack-of-all-trades thing.

-We always got way more value out of our vehicles and machines (lawn mowers, chainsaws, etc) because dad fixed them himself most of the time, was a maintenance expert, and he always had great connections within the industry due to the nature of his business.

When you actually stop to think about the compounding effect these expenses (and I’m probably forgetting a few) would have on your bottom line over 40 years, it is actually astounding how much wealth this probably generated.  Just consider the amount of interest most people pay on their house early in life!  I think you would have to put the financial figure at minimum around a million dollars, and if you were to apply compound interest principles into the equation it could be much higher than that.  Plus, the whole time he was doing his Mr. Fix-It routine he was able to have confidence in his ultra-masculine ways, and the freedom from being taken advantage of that his knowledge guaranteed him – something I will forever be envious of!

Handy beats Being Book Smart If They Read a Book?

Overall, the best solution (apart from obviously just possessing the full range of intelligences and skills yourself) is to realize where your weakness lies and then just hope your dad has a skill set that fits that gap perfectly!  Or, the more realistic resolution is probably to make good friends with someone who has opposite strengths as you do(In my case, being handy), so you can take advantage of each other’s specialities!  I think being book smart becomes financially valuable if they are applied to high-earning careers, or personal finance/investing concepts.  That being said, I honestly believe a handy person who reads a single personal finance book (for my money, I’ll still take The Wealthy Barber every time), and follows 80-90% of what they read, will come out ahead over the VAST majority of book smart individuals.

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12 years ago

These days, I’m betting on handy. I grew with a book-smart dad that couldn’t teach any manual skills. I’ve been hard at work building those on my own, but like you, it aint easy. I lack the inclination.

My oldest son on the other hand, seems to have a knack for all things mechanical. At 14, his hobby is building little junk robots and learning Java.

12 years ago

I’m not sure that one is really any better than the other. Each has it’s upside, to be sure. I try to make myself do a bit of both so that I land somewhere in the middle, but I lean more towards the book smarts side.

12 years ago

I rather be handy versus book smart. Common sense or street smart is more important in th elong run.

12 years ago

How does that saying go, “If you can’t be handy then you’d better be handsome”? I guess I lose out on both accounts ;)

Seriously I’m the least handy guy out there. If I went on Canada’s Worst Handyman, I’d win (or lose?) for sure.

12 years ago

I’ve long felt that one of the main goals of growing up is learning how to learn. Meaning, you could memorize a book for a test, but then forget it by the next week. However, if you cultivate the ability to learn, whether by reading a book or by practice, you will be much better off.

So, I would definitely say being handy and being able to learn is much better than book smarts.

12 years ago

Great view point. I consider myself more book smart than handy, but I’m a hard worker. I’m also a teacher, and though I stress getting an education to my students, I try to balance my view with “hey, we need people who can do stuff like build a house, fix a car, change a bike tire.” (I really wish I could change my own bike tire, but I’m a total klutz when it comes to things like that!) Thankfully, I married someone who is handier than me, but I know that we are still lacking skills that could save us… Read more »

12 years ago

I think you can go the other way too – Book smart beat street smart if they practice. I’m in the book smart category as well and I have no doubt that I can be handy if I practice more. I can fix a lot of stuff around the house and put together IKEA furniture. :) If I buy more tools and spend more time working with the plumbing and hard wood floor, I’m sure I can build up that skill set. Your dad built up all his skill over a lifetime and I think many people can do the… Read more »

12 years ago

I think I would rather be handy :)

I’ve always been “book smart” but sometimes applying that into real life is difficult for me, though i’m working on it :)

Great post!

12 years ago

I think in general it’s better knowing someone who is handy. My husband is one of the least handy person I know and it can be a real pain at times. He always overpays trades people because he neither has the knowledge nor interest in knowing more about the service rendered. The upside to this is he’s very smart and makes good money so he argues that he rather pays people than spending the time doing something he does not enjoy. I don’t object to hiring people to do work; however it’s one thing to pay reasonable rates, it’s another… Read more »

12 years ago

I think this is a great question! You presented a very interesting perspective by using your own personal story. From my perspective, it’s difficult to have a definite answer based on simple skill set. I personally believe it depends on a person’s outlook on life, self confidence, goals, and aspirations. A person with “handy” skills has to potential of building an immense amount of wealth if he/she is willing to take their skills and apply them properly. A “book smart” individual such as yourself who is great at critical thinking and problem solving is essential in any industry. Businesses survive… Read more »

11 years ago

Hi. I remember a few years back taking a mortgage application from an individual who had a PhD in Philosophy. Wow! I was impressed. Curious, I asked him, “What does that “do” for you?” The focus of the question was possible employment opportunities. His reply was, “Well, not much really. But it does make me really annoying at parties!”
Personally, I’ll take street smart any day of the week.

11 years ago
Reply to  Teacher Man

I know he had it in him. He was a very intense individual.

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