Charlie Munger (Warren Buffets partner and a Billionaire), in one of his talks, tells the story of Nobel science winner Max Planck.
Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving a standard lecture on quantum mechanics.
As his speech never changed, over time his chauffeur memorized the lecture and eventually said to him “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?”
Planck replied, “Why not?”
And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics.
During the Q&A session a physics professor stood up and asked a incredibly difficult question.
To which the speaker (chauffeur) replied, “Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.
The reason I tell that story is not to celebrate the quick wittedness of the chauffeur.
But to make a point.
There are two types of knowledge:
One is what i call Planck knowledge, the knowledge espoused by people who actually know.
They’ve paid the dues, and acquired this knowledge..
Then we get chauffeur knowledge.
These are the people who have learned the art of talking meaninglessly.
These are the people we see so often on TV shows and who seem to pop out of the woodwork on social media.
They often have fine timbre in their voices.
Their flair for speaking impresses us.
But ultimately what they have got is chauffeur knowledge, which they masquerade as real knowledge.
Which is why it is critical that you learn to distinguish when someone is “Max Planck” and when they are just the “Chauffeur.”
Acquiring and building a foundation of Plank like knowledge takes a lifetime of deep commitment and a large amount of effort.
Chauffeur knowledge on the other hand comes from people who have learned to put on a show.
When we listen to their talks, when we read their facebook posts, when we watch their live streams, they sound really impressive and entertaining.
They have a great voice, and many ooze charisma.
But their knowledge like Planck’s chauffeur’s is not their own.
Often the more eloquent and articulate someone sounds , the greater the chance that they have chauffeur knowledge.
Nobel Science winner Richard Feynman beautifully described the difference as knowing the name of something (chauffeur knowledge) or actually knowing something (Planck knowledge).
Reminds me of this joke that someone once told me –
Tom’s mother heard him doing his homework: “Two plus two, the son of a bitch is four; four plus four, the son of a bitch is eight; eight plus eight, the son of a bitch…”
“Tom!” shouted his mother. “Watch your language! You’re not allowed to use swear swear words.”
“But, Mom,” replied the boy, “that’s what our teacher taught us, and she said to recite it out loud till we remembered it without any mistakes.”
Next day Tom’s mother went to the school to complain. “Oh, heavens!” said the teacher. “That’s not what I taught them. They’re supposed to say, ‘Two plus two, the sum of which is four…”
That’s what rote learning does to kids.
Probably a large part of all of our school education wasn’t much different from Tom’s. We learnt definitions and formulas by heart and could regurgitate them flawlessly in the exam.
How much of it that we actually understood on the other hand is questionable.
I am not saying that concepts taught in school are not useful for real life.
They are, as long as we are taught them in a useful manner,
When we simply restate facts and anecdotes, we don’t add any value to a argument
Unless someone has actually struggled with an idea and spent considerable mental energy analysing its validity, then this is nothing more than chauffeur knowledge.
Most of the talking heads that i see on Social Media are full of shallow opinions, conjecture, superficial analyses and clumsy thinking.
At first glance they seem to be extremely well-informed but they very often just use flair and diction to mask their lack of familiarity with the subject matter.
There is nothing wrong with following “newbies” on social media, after all most of us started as newbies too.
The problem arises when we rely too heavily on information from these sources.
It leads us to acquiring chauffeur knowledge, which we then rely on to make critical decisions about our businesses and our lives.
In his immensely useful book, The Art Of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli writes …
“The same superficiality is present in business. The larger a company, the more the CEO is expected to possess ‘star quality’. Dedication, solemnity, and reliability are undervalued, at least at the top. Too often shareholders and business journalists seem to believe that showmanship will deliver better results, which is obviously not the case.”
My advice is that you immediately stop relying on people who are cliche generators for critical knowledge about your business and life.
While Chauffeur knowledge can often make for great social media and blog posts, it is not really all that great for making critical financial and business decisons.
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to separate true knowledge from the chauffeur knowledge.
When Charlie Munger was asked how to find out if someone has Planck Knowledge, he replied, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to say that the only way to tell is if you have it yourself.”
What does this means for us who don’t happen to be Warren Buffets business partner?
You need to develop a extremely strong Bull Shit filter.
And how do you develop one?
Start by becoming a learning machine.
Charlie Munger advises us to to build a “latticework of mental models”
Learn the big ideas in the big disciplines.
And then practice them routinely.
You’ve got to have mental models in your head.
And then you have got to array your experience – both vicarious and direct – on this latticework of models.
Another indicator of Planck like knowledge is that the real experts follow Plato’s guidance when he said “I am wise because i know that i don’t know.”
People with true knowledge never ever hesitate to say “i don’t know.”
They know the limits of their knowledge and they have a clear idea of what they don’t know.
Chauffeurs on the other hand rarely ever acknowledge their ignorance.
Fortunately, Planck’s chauffeur knew that his knowledge was superficial.
So at the time of crisis he was intelligent enough to let Planck take over.
But unfortunately not everybody is smart enough to realize their own ignorance.
While identifying chauffeur knowledge coming from others is crucial = what is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to identify the chauffeur inside us.
And how do you do that?
Start by testing whether you critically understand the idea or whether you only know the definition.
Without using the new words that you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have learned in your own language.
In other words, as kurt Vonnegut said “can you explain it in simple language so that even a four year old could understand it?”
If not, then you can conclude that your understanding is shallow.
It’s almost always the Chauffeurs who seek refuge in jargon and obfuscation.
To guard against the chauffeur effect, Warren Buffett has coined a wonderful phrase, ‘circle of competence’.
What lies inside this circle you understand intuitively; what lies outside, you may only partially comprehend.
One of Warren Buffets best pieces of advice is this: ‘You have to stick within what I call your circle of competence. You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. It’s not terribly important how big the circle is. But it is terribly important that you know where the perimeter is.’
If you cannot respond legitimately to a question, you lack true mastery and are likely outside of your circle of competence.
So while Chauffeur knowledge can be a good starting point towards attaining real knowledge. But the way to move from chauffeur’s knowledge to Planck knowledge is to keep asking “why, why, why, why?”
Having a chauffeur driven car is a convenience but when it comes to learning and especially when it comes to your business, please don’t delegate the task of steering your car(business) to a chauffeur.
To think independently is the most useful skill that one can develop for becoming smart and for becoming a peak performer.
And just like in The Matrix where Morpheus tells Neo, “I can only show you the door Neo! You’re the one who has to walk through it.”
Graduating from chauffeur to Planck is a personal responsibility and nobody can do that for you except yourself.