The True Story of Chauffeur Knowledge

Billionaire magazine tycoon Charlie Munger told a fascinating story about Max Planck, a scientist awarded with a Nobel Prize in physics for his work in the field of quantum mechanics.

In 1918, as part of Max’s tour in Germany, he would go to wherever he was invited to and we would give the same lecture over and over again. It came to a point where Max’s chauffeur told him that it must be boring giving the same lecture over and over again.

Instead, the chauffeur volunteered himself to give the lecture on Max’s behalf, since the chauffeur had already memorised the lecture by heart.

Max enjoyed the idea and actually agreed to it!

That night in Munich, the chauffeur got up and gave a long lecture about quantum mechanics with Max sitting down in the front row donning a chauffeur cap alongside a room full of distinguished academics.

After that, a physics professor got up and asked a question.

The chauffeur then replied saying: “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 coins this as two kinds of knowledge. Real knowledge and chauffeur knowledge.

We fall prey to such misdirection with news anchors. Somehow we assume new anchors to be experts in the fields that they are presenting in and we fail to identify that there’s a huge team of scriptwriters that rally behind them. The role of the news anchor is to deliver the news expertly. Obviously, this isn’t to say that news anchors aren’t intelligent or learned. It’s just a reminder for everyone to be aware of true reality.

We see this kind of chauffeur knowledge syndrome deeply ingrained in Singapore’s education system. Yes, that’s right, our world famous education system suffers dearly from this illness.

I remember in my Chemical Engineering undergraduate days not too long ago, I spent one whole semester cramping in what would take other universities two semesters to acquire organic chemistry “knowledge”.

The goal of that whole force feeding session?

Regurgitate it all back out during my exams. Did I understand what I was learning?

God, no.

If I truly understood what I was learning, I would competently demonstrate my knowledge and expertise in organic chemistry today.

I’m sure many out there have gone through similar experiences before. As such, many graduates carry this dogma of learning into the working world, only to realise that it does not work. They begin to realise how deep the rabbit hole of knowledge really goes and are disillusioned when they find out that the education system has not given them the tools to navigate the hole.

Many of us then end up like the Max Planck’s chauffeur, knowing how to be a mouthpiece without truly understanding why things work the way that they do.

This leads to strong emotions of overwhelm and feelings of inadequacy that you have so much you don’t know or understand.

Worse still, you could end up over-promising and under-delivering for a client. Speaking to an old friend from secondary school, Elle, she recounted on working with a boss who acted like Max’s chauffeur and painted delusions of grandeur for their client that simply was not bound by realism.

At the end of the campaign, the expected results weren’t met and Elle had to help clean up the mess made by her sweet talking manager.

Many people go through life thinking that acquiring chauffeur knowledge is enough. In some cases, I would agree.

But when you’re addressing a room filled with people whose job is to weed out the bullshitters from the competent?

It pays to err on the side of caution.

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