Chauffeur Knowledge: Don’t Confuse The Spokesperson With Those Who Have True Knowledge

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” — Albert Einstein

Back when I was in school, I heard this story from a friend about how Einstein, after winning the Nobel Prize, went around places giving the same standard lecture about his work.

He always had his chauffeur to accompany him, who overtime memorised Einstein’s lecture by heart. This one time in Munich he requested if he could give the speech instead of Einstein, to which Einstein said, “Why not? You give my lecture and I’ll sit in the front row wearing your chauffeur’s cap. It would be a nice change for the both of us.” And so the chauffeur got up and gave this well memorised lecture. After which a professor from the audience got up and asked a question, a tricky one. To which the chauffeur quickly replied, “It’s such an elementary question that I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply in my stead.”

I admired the quick wit of the chauffeur, and that is the lesson I took from the story. Later I discovered that it was Max Planck, not Einstein, and the moral of the story isn’t about being quick witted either. It’s about making a distinction between knowing something and really knowing something. Knowing the name of something (for e.g. photoelectric effect, or quantum mechanics) doesn’t mean you understand it. People often, sometimes unconsciously, talk in fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities to cover up their lack of understanding. More than often, they have the illusion of knowledge.

According to Charlie Munger, there are two types of knowledge. The first is real knowledge. We see it in people who have done their homework, put their effort, and paid their dues. They did the hard work, and have put significant time to understand a topic. The second type is Chauffeur Knowledge. We see it in people who have learnt to put on a good show. They dress well, look well, and talk with fluency and confidence. They focus on dressing and appearances more than the meat. They depend more on synonyms from thesauruses than simple words.

We see a lot of people with chauffeur knowledge among news anchors, talk show hosts, and journalists. And it’s not so easy to separate one from the other. We believe what we see. Is John Oliver doing his own research? I don’t know. I’m a fan because I like his content.

Same is true in businesses and startups. More than often founders and executives put on a show — to impress peers, investors, and employees. A lot of them haven’t done the real work. Too often journalists, employees, and shareholders believe that showmanship, charisma, and confidence would deliver results when it’s clearly not the case.

This brings up an interesting question: Who can best tell the difference between the chauffeur and the real person? Only the person with real knowledge.

To detect chauffeur knowledge, you have to dial up your inner BS detector. The only way is to do the required hard work; there’s no shortcut. Only Max Planck could tell the difference between him and his chauffeur.

But you can’t be expected to know all about quantum physics. So figure out what your own aptitudes are. You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes, and you don’t, even the chauffeurs would beat you. This is what Charlie Munger calls, Circle of Competence. “What lies inside this circle you understand intuitively; what lies outside, you may only partially comprehend.” You’ve to figure out where you’ve got an edge, and you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.

As Charlie Munger further explains, the smart thing is to know where your circle of competence ends. Beyond that you can say, “I don’t know” with pride. Chauffeurs, unlike you, would say everything except this.

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