How to move beyond knowing to understanding

My friend Greg, a strategy director in Paris, has been compiling a series of words which have the power to make you see the world differently.

One of these in particular jumped out at me, so I thought I’d share it here: the word “chaunaissance”.

Roughly translated this means something like “driver’s knowledge”, and it comes from an apocryphal story told by Charlie Munger about the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck.

According to legend, Planck was doing a lecture tour of Germany, stopping night after night at various venues to deliver a talk on quantum physics.  Along with him travelled his driver, who over the course of the weeks had heard the talk dozens of times – to the point where he could pretty much recite it verbatim.

One evening in Munich, taken by a spirit of mischief, the driver proposed that perhaps on this occasion he masquerade as Planck and deliver the talk himself – with Planck wearing his driver’s uniform and sitting in the audience.  After all, nobody in Munich knew what he looked like, so what was the difference?

Amused by this, Planck accepted the subterfuge, and sure enough the driver went on to deliver the lecture perfectly.  At least, that is, until a member of the audience raised his hand – unhelpfully asking a complex theoretical question.

Completely unfazed, the driver hit back immediately with this:

“I am surprised that in a fine city like Munich I would be asked such an obvious question.  So obvious in fact that I will get my driver to answer it for you”.

Lovely stuff.

Aside from being a good story, you can now see where the concept of “chaunaissance” comes from.  It refers to our ability to learn rote knowledge without developing true understanding – just as the driver did.  He knew “the facts” as it were.  But he didn’t know what they meant; how they all connected together; what lay behind them.

As always Einstein (or the army of Einstein quote fabricators) put it pithily:

“Any fool can know, the point is to understand”.

I’ve often thought about this problem in relation to learning – especially from books.  No expert, when writing on their given topic, will hold knowledge back.  They’ll let it all pour out on paper – everything they know which they consider to be of importance.  And yet, no matter how generous they are,  they will never be able to confer the true practicality of their knowledge to the reader.  They will never be able to leave the reader with the mastery they have.

Indeed if they did then nobody would ever write a book again.  Any author would make themselves obsolete!

All this is because knowledge – no matter how much of it you accrue – can only ever be skin deep.  It is only ever the visible manifestation of processes that are taking place under the surface.  And it is only through grasping those processes – which are dynamic slippery things which defy explanation – that true understanding can be achieved.

Now, establishing whether someone you’re dealing with has understanding rather than mere knowledge is a fairly simple task.

For one thing, as with Planck’s driver, the merely knowledgable won’t be able to withstand abstract questioning.  They’ll flounder or repeat themselves.  For another, they will cling tightly to facts, jargon, and appeals to authority.  Those with understanding of a topic can explain it “three dimensionally”; from any angle and with a varied range of vocabulary.

So that’s all easy enough.

When it comes to developing understanding for yourself however… well, that’s more difficult.

The crux of the matter I feel comes down to “chewing the topic over”.  To be able to turn it around, pull it apart, put it back together, and generally tease out the dynamics behind the facts.  Only through this will you achieve the multi-dimensionality that understanding requires.

Speaking practically, this can be done in three ways:

  1. Write about the topic.  Writing is an extremely unforgiving medium, especially when done for an audience.  Logical holes quickly emerge, and will stop you in your tracks if you lack understanding.  The process of trying to deal with these holes is an excellent way to develop mastery of subject.  Why do you think I do this newsletter?  Not for you, dear readers, but for my own benefit.  It’s my practice field; my “dojo”.  It’s where I attempt to transform strategic knowledge into understanding.  And so by the same token, if you take this stuff and write about it, in your own words, you’ll do the same.


  1. Talk about the topic.  Conversation is an essential tool for developing understanding, since the beauty of the medium is its innate unpredictability.  Even if the person you’re talking to doesn’t challenge you directly, they will still send things spinning in a direction you wouldn’t have anticipated.  Again for my part, this is why I’m always happy to have informal chats to people about strategy outside of paid projects: it helps me as much as it helps them.


  1. Execute on the topic.  Finally, and most obviously, nothing’s going to develop understanding so much as leaving the books behind and getting your hands dirty.  This is easier said than done, because for many topics such as strategy you’re not going to get repeated chances to test your skills (unless you’re a consultant or some such).  So for this reason, although “doing the work” is the finest way to develop mastery, I would personally put writing and talking higher up your priorities simply because they are so much more accessible.  Do them right, and you’ll make the eventual execution count.

Unfortunately there is no shortage of chaunaissance in the world.  Indeed, one of the principal effects of the internet has been to make “chaunaisseurs” (??) of us all.  We all know everything, and we all understand basically nothing.

So if you like these mails, please give them a chew.  Write some thoughts in an email to a colleague.  Bring something up in your next meeting.  Drop me a line even.

Because that’s how you breathe life into knowledge.  And without life, it has no value.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.