A crisis presents an opportunity to learn new skills and develop new attitudes that will help you become a better leader. The coronavirus pandemic is one such crisis. For one thing, you can learn whom to trust for solid information.
Billionaire Charlie Munger--Warren Buffett's long-time investing partner at Berkshire Hathaway--has a simple test to differentiate between people who really know what they're talking about and those who don't. Learning the difference is crucial to success in any field, according to Munger.
Munger's advice is more relevant than ever in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis--the first "infodemic," according to the World Health Organization. Our need for control, certainty, and understanding--coupled with the "overabundance" of information at our fingertips on social media--has made it "hard to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance."
The Chauffeur and the Physicist
In 2007, Munger delivered a commencement address at USC. He told a story about the Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Planck. While Planck toured Germany to give lectures on quantum mechanics, his chauffeur memorized the lecture. The chauffeur suggested that he could deliver the lecture just as well.
Planck took him up on the offer.
With Planck looking on, the chauffeur delivered the lecture perfectly fine--until the first question. In a humorous ending to the story, the quick-thinking chauffeur told the questioner, "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."
Munger says the story acts a metaphor for the two kinds of knowledge that exist in the world. One is "chauffeur knowledge," or surface know-how. The other is "Planck knowledge," what's held by the people who really know about a given topic.
There are two primary ways to differentiate between people with real knowledge and those with chauffeur knowledge.
1. Knowledgeable people work in the trenches
According to Munger, Planck knowledge is held by those people who "have the aptitude" because they've paid their dues in the field.
In the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has become a voice of authority. The 79-year-old has worked as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He has worked under six presidents and has led federal efforts to fight diseases including HIV, SARS, MERS, and Ebola.
Fauci has Planck knowledge. Your friend's friend on Facebook does not.
In a recent podcast with former Apple marketing whiz Guy Kawasaki, Harvard researcher Steven Pinker was asked how he decides whom to trust in the coronavirus crisis.
"Of course, people who have expertise in the subject matter," Pinker answered.
"Epidemiologists ought to be given greater credence," he said. "If a person has the legitimate credentials of understanding a problem--spent their lives in it, have been trained in it, have been published in it, they're on top of the latest data--they are the ones who have earned the most credence."
The stock market is another area where there's a real difference between people who think they know a lot and those who really do know something the rest of us do not.
For example, on the very morning I was working on this story, an acquaintance of mine contacted me to explain why he was investing in a stock that had fallen 30 percent.
"I didn't know you followed the market so closely," I said.
"I just started two weeks ago," he responded.
Studying the market for two weeks is chauffeur knowledge. Charlie Munger has been investing for 58 years, and his skill has made him a billionaire. He qualifies as having Plank knowledge.
2. Knowledgeable people know what they don't know
According to Rolf Dobelli in the book The Art of Thinking Clearly, there is one indicator to separate true experts from the ones with surface knowledge. "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.'"
In an interview for the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal, Munger declined to offer a prediction for what the stock market would do next. "I don't have the faintest idea," Munger said.
People with real knowledge know what they don't know. And they're not afraid to say so.
We all have opinions because we're faced with uncertainty about the future. But that doesn't mean all of our opinions should carry equal weight. There are a lot of "chauffeurs" driving social media in the Covid-19 crisis. Learning to tell the difference between Planck knowledge and chauffeur knowledge is a valuable skill that will serve you well during the pandemic--and in your business career.