Don’t Take News Anchors Seriously
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 good hair, 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 still easy. These are actors. Period. Everyone knows 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 specialized 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 long articles that highlight a variety of cases and exceptions. The majority of journalists, however, fall into the category of chauffeur. They conjure up articles 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—snarky and self-satisfied in tone.
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.
To guard against the chauffeur effect, Warren Buffett, Munger’s business partner, has coined a wonderful phrase, the “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.”
In conclusion: Be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. 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. How do you recognize the difference? There is a clear indicator: True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, “I don’t know.” This they utter unapologetically, even with a certain pride. From chauffeurs, we hear every line except this.