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Latticework Of Mental Models: Chauffeur knowledge

Charlie Munger, in one of his talks, tells the story of famous scientist Max Planck –

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving a same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.

Well, the reason I tell that story is not to celebrate the quick wittedness of the protagonist. In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge: One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression. But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge. I think I’ve just described practically every politician in the United States. You’re going to have the problem in your life of getting as much responsibility as you can into the people with the Planck knowledge and away from the people who have the chauffeur knowledge.

On a lighter note the chauffeur had some Planck knowledge of his own, being clever enough to turn that question around!

But in the real world, it is critical to distinguish when someone is “Max Planck,” and when he’s just the “Chauffeur.”

Building Planck knowledge takes deep commitment and large amount of time and effort. Chauffeur knowledge comes from people who have learned to put on a show. Their talks sound impressive and entertaining, they have good voice and may even ooze great charisma but their knowledge is not their own.

In fact, the more eloquent and articulate someone sounds the higher the odds of him having chauffeur knowledge.

Richard Feynman beautifully describes the difference between knowing the name of something (chauffeur knowledge) and knowing something (Planck knowledge).

Click here if you can’t see the video above.

Reminds me of this joke that I read somewhere –

Raju was heard by his mother reciting his homework: “Two plus two, the son of a bitch is four; four plus four, the son of a bitch is eight; eight plus eight, the son of a bitch…”

“Raju!” shouted his mother. “Watch your language! You’re not allowed to use the swear words.”

“But, Mom,” replied the boy, “that’s what the teacher taught us, and she said to recite it out loud till we learned it.”

Next day Raju’s mother went right into the classroom to complain. “Oh, heavens!” said the teacher. “That’s not what I taught them. They’re supposed to say, ‘Two plus two, the sum of which is four…”

That’s what rote learning does to kids. I would not hesitate to accept that a large part of my own school education wasn’t much different from Raju’s. I learnt the definitions and formulae by heart and could regurgitate them flawlessly in the exam. How much did I really understand was questionable.

It’s not that the concepts learnt in the school aren’t useful in real life, they are very much, provided we learn them in a useful form.

Simply restating facts and anecdotes doesn’t add any value to an argument. Unless somebody has struggled with an idea and spent some mental energy thinking about it, his or her knowledge is nothing more than chauffeur knowledge.

In Business and Investing

Most of the talking heads on financial news channels are full of shallow opinions, superficial analyses and clumsy thinking. They appear to be extremely well-informed but often use flair and diction to mask their lack of familiarity with the subject matter. I hope you realize that they usually read from a script (no wonder they’re called news readers) and filling the gaps with redundant balderdash.

If you rely on a steady diet coming from such sources, it can lead to a lot of chauffeur knowledge. In his immensely useful book, The Art Of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli writes …

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.

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.

When I started investing in stock market, I learnt that sensible investing requires one to do a thorough fundamental research about companies. So I took help of research reports from equity analysts. That was a good starting point but I got trapped by chauffeur knowledge. Instead of building Planck knowledge, I stopped at chauffeur knowledge and assumed that it was sufficient to take decisions.

Whenever somebody asked me about my stock picks, I would just recite the research report information verbatim. It sounded very impressive but I failed to realize that it was all second hand knowledge, borrowed wisdom. No wonder I lost money in all such stocks because I had only cursory understanding of the businesses.

Mohnish Pabrai, a very successful value investor, is a big proponent of the idea of cloning. He claims that he gets almost all his good ideas from other successful value investors. But he also adds that copying an idea doesn’t mean blind coat tailing. Cloning is just a filter which gives you the initial list of ideas to investigate further. Else it just becomes a typical case of chauffeur knowledge.

Chauffeur knowledge can be a nice party trick which can make for an entertaining conversation but it’s really not all that great for getting stuff done.

Detecting Chauffeur Knowledge

Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to separate true knowledge from the chauffeur knowledge.

When Charlie Munger was asked how to find out if someone has Planck Knowledge, he noted, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to say that the only way to tell is if you have it yourself.”

Which means you need to have a very strong bullshit filter, which can be developed by becoming a learning machine. Munger advises that one should build a ‘latticework of mental models’. He says …

You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines, and use them routinely…if the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience – both vicarious and direct – on this latticework of models.

Another indicator is that people who have true knowledge don’t hesitate to say “I don’t know.” They know their own limits of knowledge and have clear idea of what they don’t know. Whereas chauffeurs rarely acknowledge their ignorance.

Fortunately, Planck’s chauffeur knew that his knowledge was superficial. So at the time of crisis he was intelligent enough to let Planck take over. But not everybody is smart enough to realize their own ignorance. Identifying chauffeur knowledge coming from others is crucial but it becomes absolutely critical to identify the chauffeur inside us.

So how do you check that?

Using Feynman Technique, you can test whether you understand the idea or only know the definition. Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. In other words, can you explain it in simple language? If you can’t then you can conclude that your understanding is shallow. It’s the chauffeurs who seek refuge in jargon and obfuscation.

While we are on the topic of using simple language to understand things, I guess it’s worth mentioning the book recommendation from Bill Gates. He recommends a book called Things Explainer authored by Randall Munroe (creator of XKCD cartoon strip) who sets out to explain various subjects – from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says – without any complicated terms.

Cure for Chauffeur Knowledge

Here is a very interesting excerpt from the book The Invisible Gorilla –

Some student work hard at reading and rereading their textbooks and class notes and think that they understand it. The illusion of knowledge led them to confuse the familiarity they had gained from repeated exposure to the concepts in the course with an actual understanding of them…Best tests probe knowledge at a deeper level. Asking whether a lock has cylinders tests whether people can memorize the parts of a lock. Asking to pick the locks tests whether people understand why locks have cylinders and what functional role they play in the operation of the lock.

Reading text over and over again yields diminishing returns in actual knowledge, but it increases familiarity and fosters a false sense of understanding. Only by testing ourselves can we actually determine whether or not we really understand.”
So repetition alone (that’s how Planck’s chauffeur learnt) isn’t much useful. To be able to draw any benefit out of repetition, we need some kind of feedback loop (a test or a mentor) between the iterations.

That’s where latticework comes in. Because you try to hang the new learning on the existing latticework which not only helps you understand the new idea but expand your latticework also. When you come back (repetition) to that idea again, you would have enhanced your latticework and hence will discover more and retain more from the same text.

Dobelli adds-

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

One of Munger’s best pieces of advice is: ‘You have to stick within what I call your circle of competence. You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. It’s not terribly important how big the circle is. But it is terribly important that you know where the perimeter is.’ Munger underscores this: ‘So you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t. you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.

If you cannot respond legitimately to a question, you lack true mastery and are likely outside of your circle of competence.

Conclusion

Chauffeur knowledge can be a good starting point towards attaining real knowledge. But the way to move from chauffeur’s knowledge to Planck knowledge is to keep asking “why, why, why, why?”

Having a chauffeur driven car is a convenience but when it comes to learning, please don’t delegate the task of steering your car to a chauffeur. To think independently is the most useful skill that one can develop for becoming smart and acquiring worldly wisdom. Being curious is our moral duty.

I would like to end this post with a question.

How do you know what I have just told you about chauffeur knowledge isn’t chauffeur knowledge itself?

Well, I’ll shamelessly accept that it is more or less chauffeur knowledge. However, that’s the intention of this post – avoid giving you ready made answers  – to make you curious so that you get started on the path of self-education.

In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “I can only show you the door Neo! You’re the one who has to walk through it.” Graduating from chauffeur to Planck is a personal responsibility and nobody can do that for you except yourself.

From this point, I’ll let you take control of your steering wheel of learning.

Take care and keep learning.

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About the Author

Anshul Khare worked for 12+ years as a Software Architect. He is an avid learner and enjoys reading about human behaviour and multidisciplinary thinking. You can connect with Anshul on Twitter.

Comments

  1. This post reminds me of a quote by Peter Thiel, Anshul: “The most contrarian thing is not to oppose everyone, but to think for yourself.”

    I feel the voices of “chauffeur knowledge” people has grown louder recently due to social media. But many people still pursue lifelong learning and questioning what they learn – like using 5 Whys, as you mentioned. The deeper we go into forming our own opinions rather than taking what is said at face value, the more we learn.

    Superb post, as always 🙂

  2. Praveen Balla says:

    Vishal,

    This is such a great post! I am a “self-proclaimed” chauffeur-knowledge person and I have no qualms accepting that. This post made me probe myself and my path/next steps toward my circle of competence.

    Again, amazing write-up.

    Thanks,
    Praveen.

  3. Deepak Krishnan says:

    Thanks Anshul,

    beautiful way to start the day with this post 🙂

    thanks man
    Best
    Deepak

  4. What a wonderful article, away from the routine noise ! Thanks Anshul !

  5. Thank you for this writeup.Am an ardent reader of your blog from Nigeria.Keep the good work going.

  6. One of the best post I have read… Thanks

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