Geek Power: How Peyton Manning is Like Warren Buffett

Last night, with four minutes left and his team trailing by 13 points, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning did something amazing: he led the Indianapolis Colts to an improbable win, 35-34.

Warren Buffett had a pretty good week too, purchasing Burlington Northern Railroad for $34 billion.

All in all, it’s a fine time to ask a simple question: what do these two have in common? The answer, I think, starts with two facts.

    • Football and investing are about constructing systems: specialized, high-speed, adaptive organizations that can respond to adversity and opportunity.
    • Manning and Buffett are geeks.

I think these two facts are related. I’d like to make the case that Peyton Manning is the Warren Buffett of quarterbacks (or is Warren Buffett the Peyton Manning of investors?)  Both are successful because they build their lives around eccentric-seeming routines, which seem hopelessly geeky from the outside. But the closer you get, the more the truth is revealed: what appears to be geeky from the outside is in fact good strategy for building a reliable high-speed neural circuit.

Let’s be clear: there are many different species of geek. Among them:

First, there are Data-Set Geeks: memorizers of vast quantities of obscure information (Star Wars characters, Yo La Tengo lyrics) who use their knowledge to define and enhance their social status.

Second, there are Process Geeks: people who are utterly enraptured by a particular, usually repetitive task (Rubic’s Cube, novel writing) and who cannot stop thinking about it. Their geekdom isn’t outwardly expressed; it’s directed internally,  and tends to show itself in telltale eccentricities.

Then there are Geeks Who Aren’t Really Geeks: people who, in this age of Steve Jobs, pretend to be obsessed with some data set or process, but who in fact lack the true signifier of geekdom: the willingness to be uncool.

Manning and Buffett are both the second kind of geek. They are hopelessly in love with process. They are willing to be uncool. What’s more, over the years they’ve both developed a template to produce high performance.

Manning is beyond meticulous when it comes to the basics of his job, carrying a notebook where he records mistakes and fixes, not just for himself but for the team. He is so addicted to his practice routine that he’ll explain it in jaw-dropping detail to ten-year-olds without noticing they can barely grip the football. He is unique among quarterbacks for the amount of time he spends working with receivers, starting the moment they are drafted (Last year, Manning sent rookies a text message the day after the draft: “Meet me at the facility at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Warmed up. Ready to go.”)

It’s the same ferocious attention Buffett brings to his investment playbook; to his dictum of “turning pages;” i.e. doing the homework, eschewing the get-rich-quick idea, to patiently unearth value that will grow over time. As Buffett put it, “When I got out of school, I turned every page in Moody’s 10,000-some pages twice, looking for companies.”

Of course, there are many other sound reasons behind their success. Both Buffett and Manning had enviably early starts toward their 10,000 hours (Buffett bought his first stock at 11 years old; Manning was born into NFL quarterbacking royalty–though as this clip shows, was hardly an all-star from the start). Both had good models and mentors, and no shortage of opportunities. More important, both of their identities are so wrapped up in their jobs that they radiate the feeling that if the money and fame suddenly were to evaporate, they would continue doing it for free.

The point I’d like to make is that in our culture we tend to underrate Process Geeks. We tend to see Buffett and Manning’s eccentricities as “colorful” or “entertaining,” when in fact those traits reside at the very core of their abilities, because they help them build and maintain the neural circuitry to make high-speed, accurate decisions.

When one questioner recently asked Buffett how he was able to decide on investments so quickly, he said, “Well, that’s 50 years of preparation and five (minutes) of decision making.”

Peyton Manning couldn’t have said it better himself.