Beware of “chauffeur knowledge”

chauffeur opening the door of a car
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.”

According to Charlie Munger, one of the world’s best investors (and from whom I have borrowed this story), There are two types of knowledge.

– First, we have real knowledge. We see it in people who have committed a large amount of time and effort to understanding a topic.

– The second type is chauffeur knowledge — knowledge from people who have learned to put on a show. Maybe they have a great voice or are eloquent speakers, but the knowledge they espouse is not their own. They reel off eloquent words as if reading from a script.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to separate true knowledge from chauffeur knowledge. With news anchors, however, it is easy. These are actors. Period. Everyone know it. And yet it continues to astound me how much respect these perfectly-coiffed script readers enjoy, not to mention how much they earn moderating panels about topics they barely fathom.

With journalists, it is more difficult. Some have acquired true knowledge. Often they are veteran reporters who have specialised 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 articles that highlight a variety of cases and exceptions. There are other journalist who however conjure up article 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.

The same also happen in motivational speakers, most have chauffeur knowledge. They read books, watch YouTube clips of other speakers and then formulate a talk and present it. Some are very eloquent speakers, some funny and some are look presentable and charming, they have not done hard core work, research, worked on a project, made mistakes, learned lessons from it and share their experiences.

Mostly, it is the experiences and stories of others who have walked the talk that speakers share. There are speakers who have done projects, worked in teams, asked questions, research answers, tested the answers and obtained hard-core experience in the process and then share their experiences.

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. Too often shareholders and business journalists seem to believe that showmanship will deliver better results, which is obviously not the case.

To guard against the chauffeur effect, Warren Buffet has coined a wonderful phrase, ‘circle of competence’. What lies inside this circle you understand initiatively, what lies outside, you may only partially understand.

Circle of competence: You have to stick within what you call your circle of competence.

You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. It doesn’t matter the size of the circle, but it is important to know you limit, to know what you know for certain and what you are not particularly qualified for.

In conclusion: be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. Do not confuse the company spokesperson, new anchor or ringmaster with those who possess true knowledge. How do you recognise the difference?

There is a clear indicator:

True experts recognise the limits of what they know and what they don’t know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, ‘I don’t know.’ This they say unapologetically, even with a certain pride. From chauffeurs, we hear every line except ‘I don’t know’.

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