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Face Knowledge vs. Deep Understanding

A Nobel Prize winner, Max Planck, traveled through Germany giving lectures. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the speech.

The chauffeur wanted to spice things up. He asked if they could switch places for one lecture. Planck agreed. At the next stop Planck sat in the front row wearing the chauffeur’s cap.

The driver delivered the speech on quantum mechanics in perfect form. At the end, a professor stood up and asked an in-depth question. Taken aback, the driver replied: “I’m surprised to hear such a basic question from a professor in Munich. My chauffeur will answer.”

Charlie Munger, a billionaire and Warren Buffett’s business partner, often tells this story in speeches. It’s entertaining to learn the quick wit of the driver… but that’s not the message.

This story distinguishes between folks that truly understand and those that don’t. The driver in this story could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. Planck on the other hand, put in his time and understood the lecture behind its face value.

Too often in business there are advisors and managers with only chauffeur knowledge. They are lazy and only learn what sounds good. It gets them through the day.

I’ve run into many financial advisors with chauffeur knowledge. They spew facts that make their products sound great… but when I ask them about alternatives (which I know are better), their eyes glaze over and they turn into a broken record.

In this day and age it’s easy to fake knowledge. With the internet we can pull up a summary on any topic within minutes. It conserves energy but limits your understanding.

To improve performance in all aspects of your life, surround yourself with folks that have a deep understanding of their work and hobbies.

Weeding out chauffer knowledge can be done with a simple question… Why? Ask them why. This forces them to break down and back up their talking points. If they falter or go into repeat mode, it’s a strong sign that they lack a true understanding.

If they go in-depth, it’s a good sign. If it’s a topic you don’t know enough about on the spot, trust but later verify.

This strategy will help in surrounding yourself with smart people. Over time you will pick up their habits and mannerisms. This will push you to a higher level of understanding.


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