Tag: Knowledge

General James Mattis: Arm Yourself With Books

How many situations will you face that have not already been experienced by someone else? Billions of people, thousands of years … probably not too many. It’s been done.

Luckily, sometimes those experiences are captured by history, and thus they become valuable tools for us to learn and prepare for similar situations. This is part of the central ethos of Farnam Street.

In an email that went viral in 2013, U.S. Marine General James Mattis (now the U.S. Secretary of Defense) candidly wrote about the value of this approach near the beginning of the Iraq War. Advising a colleague, he wrote:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Speaking specifically about situations he faced in the context of his military role, he said “We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.”

Whatever country you are fighting a war in, someone has already fought there before. Someone has also explored it, mapped it, studied it, and done humanitarian work there. The hard work has already been done. All you have to do is read.

Maybe Napoleon shouldn’t have dismissed the Swedish accounts on the perils of invading Russia. He might have learned that the Russians didn’t follow the traditional norms of warfare. They weren’t going to surrender, or even admit to losing a battle, not with thousands of miles of country to withdraw into, scorching the earth along the way. And also that the Russian winter is really, really, harsh. 130 years later, with Napoleon’s experience to draw from, it’s staggering that Hitler went down the same path. He got the same results.

Books have a limitless amount to teach us if we're willing to pay attention.

You don’t need to be a military general to benefit from the fore-arming and forewarning that books can provide. Ask yourself, what body of knowledge would I benefit from having deep in my bones? Unless you're trying to make discoveries in fundamental physics or advanced technology, someone else has probably already gained the knowledge that you seek, and they likely have put it in a book to share with you.

Learning how to read for wisdom is simple, but not easy. The payoffs though, can be incredible.

The more you read, the more you will build your repertoire. Incrementally at first, the knowledge you add to your stockpile will grow over time as it combines with everything new you put in there. This is called compounding, and it works with knowledge much the same as it does with interest. Eventually, when faced with the new, challenging, and perplexing, you will be able to draw on this dynamic inner repository.

You will react, not as a neophyte, but as someone whose instincts have been honed by the experiences of others, rather than just your own. You will start to see that nothing is truly new, that awesome challenges can and have been overcome, and there are fundamental truths to how the world works.

So learn from others. Figure out where you are going and find out who has been there before. Knowledge comes from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Deep reading helps you to understand the world allowing you to conquer panic and maximize your chances of success.

If you're interested in military matters, you might even start with Mattis' reading list itself.

The Knowledge Project: Pedro Domingos on Artificial Intelligence


On this episode, I am so happy to have Pedro Domingos (@pmddomingos) who is a professor at the University of Washington.

He’s the leading researcher in machine learning and recently wrote an amazing book called The Master Algorithm. I was fortunate enough to have a long and fascinating conversation with him over dinner one night which I hoped would never end but that ended up leading to this episode which I think you will love.

In this conversation we explore the sources of knowledge, the five major schools of machine learning, why white collar jobs are easier to replace than blue collar jobs, machine wars, self-driving cars and so much more.




A complete transcript is available for members.

Francis Bacon and the Four Idols of the Mind

Francis Bacon the Four Idols of the Mind

Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures.
It informs us across four centuries that we
must understand nature
both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity
on the course of self-improvement. 

-E.O. Wilson on Francis Bacon


The English statesman and scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the earliest thinkers to truly understand the nature of the mind and how humanity truly progresses in collective knowledge.

Bacon's first great contribution was to lessen the focus on traditional scholarship: the constant mining of the old Greek and Roman philosophers and the old religious texts, the idea that most of our knowledge had already been “found” and needed to be rediscovered.

To Bacon, this was an unstable artifice on which to build our understanding of the world. Better that we start reasoning from first principles, building up our knowledge of the world through inductive reasoning. E.O. Wilson summarizes Bacon's contribution in a chapter on the Enlightenment in his excellent book Consilience.

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below–though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

In this way, Wilson crowns Bacon as the Father of Induction — the first to truly grasp the power of careful inductive reasoning to generate insights. Bacon broke down the old, rigid ways of classifying knowledge in favor of building a new understanding from the ground up, using experiments to prove or disprove a theory.

In this way, he realized much of what was being taught in his time, including metaphysics, alchemy, magic, astrology, and other disciplines, would eventually crumble under scrutiny. (A feeling we share about our current age.)

Insights of the Mind

Most importantly, hundreds of years before the advent of modern psychology, Bacon understood clearly that the human mind doesn't always reason correctly, and that any approach to scientific knowledge must start with that understanding. Over 400 years before there was a Charlie Munger or a Daniel Kahneman, Bacon clearly understood the first-conclusion bias and the confirmation bias.

In his Novum Organum, Bacon described these errors in the same manner we understand them today:

The mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected.


The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He called the wide variety of errors in mental processing the Idols of the Mind. There were four idols: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theater.

Idols of the Tribe

The Idols of the Tribe made the false assumption that our most natural and basic sense of thing was the correct one. He called our natural impressions a “false mirror” which distorted the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Idols of the Cave

The Idols of the Cave were the problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

Idols of the Marketplace

You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead. (Nearly a half a century later, Garrett Hardin would argue similarly that good thinkers need a literary filter to suss out sense from nonsense.)

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Idols of the Theater

The final idol, of the Theater, is how Bacon referred to long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. Without emptying one's mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made. This would be an important lasting value of the Baconian view of science. Truth must be reasoned from first principles.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.

The Lasting Importance of Narrative

Even with his rationalistic view of the world, a rigorous devotion to truth, Bacon realized that unless you used creative storytelling and engaged a learner's mind, it would be impossible to communicate real truths about the world. He knew the power narrative had to instruct. E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience:

Reality still had to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions. Nature and her secrets must be as stimulating to the imagination as are poetry and fables. To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies–anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture. The mind, he argued, is not like a wax tablet. On a tablet you cannot write the new till you rub out the old, on the mind you cannot rub out the old except by writing in the new.”


B.H. Liddell Hart and the Study of Truth and History

B.H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was many things, but above all, he was a military historian. He wrote tracts on Sherman, Scipio, Rommel, and on military strategy itself. His work influenced Neville Chamberlain and may have even (accidentally) influenced the German army's blitzkrieg tactic in WWII.

What's beautiful about Hart's writing is his insight into human nature as seen through the lens of war. Hart's experience both studying wars and participating in them — he was a British officer in World War I and present for both World War II and a large portion of the Cold War — gave him wide perspective on the ultimate human folly.

Hart summed up much of his wisdom in a short treatise called Why Don't we Learn from History?, which he unfortunately left unfinished at his death. In the preface to the book, Hart's son Adrian sums up his father's approach to life:

He believed in the importance of the truth that man could, by rational process discover the truth about himself—and about life; that this discovery was without value unless it was expressed and unless its expression resulted in action as well as education. To this end he valued accuracy and lucidity. He valued, perhaps even more, the moral courage to pursue and propagate truths which might be unpopular or detrimental to one's own or other people's immediate interests. He recognized that this discovery could best be fostered under certain political and social conditions—which therefore became to him of paramount importance.

Why study history at all? Hart asks us this rhetorically, early on in the book, and replies with a simple answer: Because it teaches us what not to do. How to avoid being stupid:

What is the object of history? I would answer, quite simply—“truth.” It is a word and an idea that has gone out of fashion. But the results of discounting the possibility of reaching the truth are worse than those of cherishing it. The object might be more cautiously expressed thus: to find out what happened while trying to find out why it happened. In other words, to seek the causal relations between events. History has limitations as guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions.

But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do—by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat. A second object lies in the practical value of history. “Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people's experience.”

The study of history offers that opportunity in the widest possible measure. It is universal experience—infinitely longer, wider, and more varied than any individual's experience. How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience. The Chinese especially regard age with veneration, and hold that a man of eighty years or more must be wiser than others. But eighty is nothing for a student of history. There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.


History is the record of man's steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

There is a too common tendency to regard history as a specialist subject— that is the primary mistake. For, on the contrary, history is the essential corrective to all specialization. Viewed aright, it is the broadest of studies, embracing every aspect of life. It lays the foundation of education by showing how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are.

Later, Hart expounds further on the value of truth, the value of finding out what's actually going on as opposed to what one wishes was the case. Hart agrees with the idea that one should recognize reality especially when it makes one uncomfortable, as Darwin was able to do so effectively. If we forget or mask our mistakes, we are doomed to continue making them.

We learn from history that men have constantly echoed the remark ascribed to Pontius Pilate—“What is truth?” And often in circumstances that make us wonder why. It is repeatedly used as a smoke screen to mask a maneuver, personal or political, and to cover an evasion of the issue. It may be a justifiable question in the deepest sense. Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution—at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.


We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man's life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard—which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?” Yet unless that is a man's natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely.

Indeed, in the 125 short pages of the book, Hart demonstrates the above to be true, with his particular historical focus on accuracy, truth, and freedom, explaining the intertwined nature of the three. A society that squashes freedom of thought and opinion is one that typically distorts truth, and for that reason, Hart was a supporter of free democracy, with all of its problems in full force:

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity—and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less. Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in the light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

Hart's clear-eyed view of the world as an examiner of human nature and the repetition of folly led him to conclude that even if authoritarianism and coercion were occasionally drivers of efficiency in the short-run, by the quick and determined decision-making of a dictator, that in the long-term this would always cause stagnation. Calling to mind Karl Popper, Hart recognizes that freedom of thought and the resulting spread of ideas is the real engine of human progress over time, and that should never be squashed:

Only second to the futility of pursuing ends reckless of the means is that of attempting progress by compulsion. History shows how often it leads to reaction. It also shows that the surer way is to generate and diffuse the idea of progress—providing a light to guide men, not a whip to drive them. Influence on thought has been the most influential factor in history, though, being less obvious than the effects of action, it has received less attention— even from the writers of history. There is a general recognition that man's capacity for thought has been responsible for all human progress, but not yet an adequate appreciation of the historical effect of contributions to thought in comparison with that of spectacular action. Seen with a sense of proportion, the smallest permanent enlargement of men's thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles, the conquest of a kingdom that collapses, or the leadership of a movement that ends in a rebound.

Once the collective importance of each individual in helping or hindering progress is appreciated, the experience contained in history is seen to have a personal, not merely a political, significance. What can the individual learn from history—as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly—not least of seeing himself clearly.

Hart's final statement there calls to mind Richard Feynman: “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Finally, Hart admits that the path of studying history and studying truth is not an easy one. Truth is frequently cloaked, and it takes work to peel away the layers. But if we are to see things clearly, and we must do so if we're to have a peaceful world, we must persevere in the hunt:

It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth. It is stranger still that this assumption is often manifest in the very man who talks of the difficulty of determining what is true. We should recognize that for this pursuit anyone requires at least as much care and training as a boxer for a fight or a runner for a marathon. He has to learn how to detach his thinking from every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy—like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection. And he must keep fit, to become fitter. In other words, he must be true to the light he has seen.

Still Interested? Check out the short book in its entirety.

Richard Feynman on Refusing an Honorary Degree, Being Driven, and Understanding his Circle of Competence

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track is a wonderful collection of letters written to and from the physicist and professor Richard Feynmanchampion of understanding, explainer, exemplar of curiosity, lover of beauty, knowledge seeker, asker of questions—during his life and career in science.

The book explores the timeless qualities that we cherish in Feynman. Let's dive a little deeper.


Feynman was precocious; it's clear that even early in his career, he knew he had the intelligence and drive to make an impact in science. At the age of 24 he had the foresight to mention, in a letter to his parents defying their wish that he not marry a dying woman (his fiancé Arlene had tuberculosis, a deadly diagnosis in those days), that:

I have other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute to physics as much as I can. This, in my mind, is of even more importance than my love for Arlene.

He worked hard at that goal, and he showed signs of enjoying the process. In letters he wrote during his time working in academia and on the atomic bomb, Feynman writes that:

I'm hitting some mathematical difficulties which I will either surmount, walk around, or go a different way—all of which consumes all of my time—but I like to do (it) very much and am very happy indeed. I have never thought so much so steadily about one problem—so if I get nowhere I really will be very disturbed—However, I have gotten somewhere, quite far—to Prof. Wheeler's satisfaction. However the problem is not at completion, although I'm just beginning to see how far it is to the end and how we might get there (although aforementioned mathematical difficulties loom ahead)—SOME FUN!

This week has been unusual. There is an especially important problem to be worked out on the project, and it's a lot of fun so I am working quite hard on it. I get up at about 10:30 AM after a good night's rest, and go to work until 12:30 or 1 AM the next morning when I go back to bed. Naturally I take off about 2 hrs for my two meals. I don't eat any breakfast, but I eat a midnight snack before I go to bed. It's been that way for 4 or 5 days.

We see this frequently in genius-level contributors doing intensive work. It is not so much that they find the work easy, but they do find pleasure in the struggle. (There is actually another book about Feynman called “The Pleasure in Finding Things Out.”) Warren Buffett has said many times that he taps dances to work every day, and those who have spent time with him have corroborated the story. It's not a lie. Charlie Munger has mentioned that one of the main reasons for Berkshire's success is the fact that they enjoy the work.

Feynman is an interesting character though; for a super-genius scientist, he comes off as unusually romantic with passages like the following one, in a letter to his then-wife, Arlene:

There is a third thing you will be interested in. I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you — but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your strength when your steam is low.

And long-time readers will remember the heart-breaking letter he wrote after she had passed away.

Honor and Honesty 

As the book rolls along and Feynman gets older and more famous, he is regularly asked to be honored. Generally, as most who have studied Feynman would know, he showed considerable discomfort with the process, which valued exclusivity and puffery over knowledge. One letter is typical of the middle-aged Feynman:

Dear George,

Yours is the first honorary degree that I have ben offered, and I thank you for considering me for such an honor.

However, I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work—and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished.” It is like giving an “honorary electrician's license.” I swore then that if by chance I was ever offered one, I would not accept it.

Now at last (twenty-five years later) you have given me a chance to carry out my vow.

So thank you, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degrees you offered.

Sincerely yours,

Richard P. Feynman

He also offers his usual wit upon resigning from the National Academy of Sciences:

Dear Prof. Handler:

My request for resignation from the National Academy of Sciences is based entirely on personal psychological quirks. It represents in no way any implied or explicit criticism of the Academy, other than those characteristics that flow from the fact that most of the membership consider their installation as a significant honor.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Feynman

In fact, Feynman was constantly displaying his tendency towards intellectual honesty, whenever possible. He understood his circle of competence. Several letters scattered throughout his life show him essentially throwing up his hands and saying “I don't know,” and he took pride in doing so. His general philosophy towards ignorance and learning was summed up in a statement he made in 1963 that “I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy…that doubt is not to be feared, but it is to be welcomed…”

The following letter was typical of his lack of intellectual arrogance, this one coming in response to something he'd written about teaching kids math in his younger years:

Dear Mrs. Cochran:

As I get more experience I realize that I know nothing whatsoever as to how to teach children arithmetic. I did write some things before I reached my present state of wisdom. Perhaps the references you heard came from the article which I enclose.

At present, however, I do not know whether I agree with my past self or not.

Richard P. Feynman

He does it again here, opening a reply to a highly critical letter about a TV appearance with the following:

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your letter about my KNXT interview. You are quite right that I am very ignorant about smog and many other things, including the use of Finest English.

I won the Nobel Prize for work I did in physics trying to uncover the laws of nature. The only thing I really know very much about are these laws….


In the end, Feynman's greatest strength, outside of his immense scientific talent, was his basic philosophy on life. In 1954, Feynman wrote with tenderness to his mother:

Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness.

Check out Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, and learn more about life and learning from the best.

The Two Types of Knowledge: The Max Planck/Chauffeur Test

Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, frequently tells the story below to illustrate how to distinguish real knowledge from pretend knowledge.

At the 2007 Commencement to the USC Law School, Munger explained it this way:

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.

Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “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 said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “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 point of the story is not the quick wittedness of the protagonist, but rather — to echo Richard Feynman — it's about making a distinction between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

Two Kinds of Knowledge

In this world we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They've learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression.

But in the end, all they have is chauffeur knowledge. I think I’ve just described practically every politician in the United States.

And you are going to have the problem in your life of getting the responsibility into the people with the Planck knowledge and away from the people with the chauffeur knowledge.

And there are huge forces working against you. My generation has failed you a bit… but you wouldn’t like it to be too easy now would you?

Real knowledge comes when people do the work. This is so important that Elon Musk tries to tease it out in interviews.

On the other hand, we have the people who don't do the work — they pretend. While they've learned to put on a good show, they lack understanding. They can't answer questions that don't rely on memorization. They can't explain things without using jargon or vague terms. They have no idea how things interact. They can't predict consequences.

The problem is that it's difficult to separate the two.

One way to tease out the difference between Planck and chauffeur knowledge is to ask them why.

In The Art of Thinking Clearly Rolf Dobelli offers some commentary on distinguishing fake from real knowledge:

With journalists, it is more difficult. Some have acquired true knowledge. Often they are veteran reporters who have specialized for years in a clearly defined area. They make a serious effort to understand the complexity of a subject and to communicate it. They tend to write long articles that highlight a variety of cases and exceptions. The majority of journalists, however, fall into the category of chauffeur. They conjure up articles off the tops of their heads or, rather, from Google searches. Their texts are one-sided, short, and— often as compensation for their patchy knowledge— snarky and self-satisfied in tone.

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.

One way to guard against this is to understand your circle of competence.

Dobelli concludes with some advice worth taking to heart.

Be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. Do not confuse the company spokesperson, the ringmaster, the newscaster, the schmoozer, the verbiage vendor, or the cliché generator with those who possess true knowledge. How do you recognize the difference? There is a clear indicator: True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, “I don’t know.” This they utter unapologetically, even with a certain pride. From chauffeurs, we hear every line except this.


If you liked this, you'll love these other Farnam Street articles:

Circle of Competence — Knowing your Circle of Competence helps intelligent people like Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett stay out of trouble.

Learn Anything Faster with the Feynman Technique — The Feynman Technique helps you learn anything faster by quickly identifying gaps in your understanding. It's also a versatile thinking tool.