In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli tells the following story about Max Planck.
After receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: “It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.” Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.”
Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett frequently tells this story in speeches. Why? He elaborates in a 2007 address to USC Law. 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 the two types 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 have 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 is when people do the work. This is so important that Elon Musk tries to tease it out in interviews. Then we have the people who don’t do the work. While they’ve learned to put on a good show they lack understanding. 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 Dobelli goes on:
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.
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.