What separates a GOAT from the rest of us?

On a December afternoon in 2012, Joe Harrington received a phone call. It was from Peyton Manning.

Joe had known Peyton since 1994 when Manning was a freshman quarterback with University of Tennessee.

There was no greeting.

Peyton quickly said,

In 1996, Tennessee played Ole Miss in Memphis. In the third quarter, we ran a play called flip right duo X motion fake roll 98 block pass special. I need you to find that play, I need you to digitize it, and I need you to send it to me in Denver.” Joe Harrington went through the archives and right there, he saw the play was “exactly where he [Peyton] said it would be.”

Joe wasn’t surprised, however. He told the NY Post “it was typical Peyton.”

That season, 2012-2013, Peyton would lead the Denver Broncos to the playoffs. Then over the next 3 years he would rack up two more MVP titles (he already had three), a Super Bowl Championship, and complete 71,940 passing yards, the most in NFL history.

Peyton Manning wasn’t the strongest or quickest quarterback. He mixed a legendary amount of preparation with a one-in-a-million memory able to accurately recall one play 16 years prior.

He’s not the only example.

LeBron James

LeBron James, considered one of the greatest basketball players, can recall just about every detail of every game he played.

James himself described:

I can usually remember plays in situations a couple of years back – quite a few years back sometimes. I’m able to calibrate them throughout a game to the situation I’m in, to know who has it going on our team, what position to put him in.”

Just listen to LeBron recount exactly what happened during the 4th quarter of this game.

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors and former teammate of Michael Jordan, was asked if LeBron’s display of near perfect recall was unusual.

Kerr said,

No. Not for a great player. Great players remember everything. It’s like a quarterback… The best players generally remember the most and have the sharpest memories.”

Tom Brady

Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, nicknamed Tom Brady “the IBM” because of his ability to remember everything. O’Brien elaborated:

I relate it to a pro golfer. Pro golfers, at the end of a tournament, they can remember every shot that they hit, what the lie was, what club they used. With Tom, he remembers every play that he’s run in his whole career.”

Brian Hoyer, Patriots backup quarterback, recalled of Brady:

Say we’re playing the Dolphins, there will be times in the meeting room where Tom will be like ‘Pull up that game from ‘02, third quarter, I think we’re on the 35-yard line, it was light snow, we’re on the right hash, and we ran this play.’ A minute later, we’re watching the play and it’s exactly what happened.”

GOATs (Greatest of all time) possess an uncanny ability to process immense swaths of detail, store it in their head and pull it up whenever needed. Near total recall allows for adjustment, on the fly, allowing them to dance circles around the competition.

I mean would you like competing against Tom “The IBM” Brady and Bill Belichick?

Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick displayed his memory abilities with Leslie Visser and former Navy halfback Joe Bellino in 2016. Bellino played with Navy in 1959. Bill was 7 years old then.

They talked about the Army-Navy game in 1959.

Bill proceeded to: draw out the exact diagram of the play Bellino ran multiple times that game, Navy’s 27 F Trap, from memory; the score, 43-12; and the number of touchdowns Bellino ran, 3. Bellino was stunned.

Do GOATs in business and investing possess the same ability?

When Alice Schroder, author of The Snowball and close confidant with Warren Buffett, was asked whether Buffett’s memory was built or genetic, Alice said the following:

Warren seems to have been born with a near-photographic memory. He exercised it a lot (memorizing the population of all fifty states etc.) I consider it genetic for the most part." Warren Buffett

Buffett has shown, on many occasions, an ability to recall obscure numbers from reports and books he read years ago. His recall for details is stunning. For example, in the Warren Buffett CEO (thanks @ToddWenning) BRK acquisition of Star Furniture was described like this: https://twitter.com/ToddWenning/status/890731210628108288

In fact, Wolff had been extremely impressed with Warren Buffett even before they met. A fellow Texan, Bob Denham of Salomon Brothers, and Melvyn had developed a warm friendship. “Bob was involved in the preliminary discussions,” Wolff says, “and he called and said, ‘Warren would like to see three years of your financial statements. May I offer those?’ I told him he could, and, about three hours later, he called again and said, ‘Warren has some questions about your financial statements. May I ask you a few questions?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and then he said, ‘In the back of your 1994 statement, your auditor has a footnote that said you recognize income from finance charge on the rule of 78, deferred finance charge recognition, and in the 1996 statement, the auditor changed the wording of that paragraph. And Warren wants to know the significance of the different wording.’ And I almost fell off my chair,” Wolff says. “How many people do you know that would, first, read a footnote like that, and, second, read a two-years-later statement and remember that the paragraph was written with the wording slightly changed? There wasn’t actually any difference, except for the wording, but the fact that he picked that up was amazing. An incredible mind, and incredible retention.” Or during interviews and BRK shareholder meetings Buffett rattles off accurate details as well as a master jazz trumpeter improvises on stage. This is remarkable as Warren says meetings are “unrehearsed under any circumstances.”

Let me give a few more examples of Warren’s memory.

In 2006, Buffett recalled that Coca-Cola earnings were around $1.50 in 1997 or 1998. Average the actual earnings for both years and it is $1.52. That is 2 cents off.

Warren remembers historical dates and all sorts of important yet obscure numbers. Stories are often obscure yet correct.

Warren recalled that in 1933, when Roosevelt closed the banks, American Express travelers checks were allowed to continue to be used. So the checks were used as a substitute for banks for a week or two.

I doubt any American Express shareholder, or even the company’s then CEO Ken Chenault knew that.

Those who read Berkshire’s annual shareholder letters are familiar with the details, histories and stories Warren easily weaves throughout. I guarantee he never used a computer or rarely rechecks his figures. All of that information has been properly stored in his head. He has immediate access to those details and can then make more cogent decisions on the fly.

For the rare few GOATs this process is in-born & effortless. Nikola Tesla had a photographic memory. Tesla’s biography expanded on his memory:

Tesla’s powers of memorizing were prodigious. A quick reading of a page gave him a permanent record of it; he could always recall before his eyes a photographic record of it to be read, and could study at his convenience. Study, for Tesla, was a far different process than for the average person. He had no need for a reference library; he could consult in his mind any page of any textbook he had read, and formula, equation, or item in a table of logarithms would flash before his eyes. He could recite scores of books, complete from memory. The saving in time which this made possible in research work was tremendous.”

And for a larger number of GOATs they build immense note systems and exercise, exercise, exercise their memory. Tom Brady mentioned:

I have 12 years of every note that I’ve taken, every play. It’s a pretty cool library at this point. I can look at every call sheet, every installation package we put in. At some point, I’ll have to throw them out, but I don’t think I want to do that."

GOATs gravitate towards GOATs. Bill Bellichick gravitated and groomed Tom Brady. Warren Buffett is buddies with LeBron James.

Warren Buffett is also great friends with Bill Gates. The two met during a dinner hosted by Gates’ parents on July 5, 1991. Gates is known to those close to him to have a near-photographic memory.

For instance Robert Scoble, blogger, met Bill Gates on many occasions. He said,

Bill Gates has a photographic memory. One time he said something on stage word-for-word that I had told him six months prior. Many people I know have these experiences with Bill.”

Gates even said the following:

I do still remember every line of the first complex software program I ever wrote. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about science and business, I have a structure or a context that the facts can fit into. Like, ‘Oh, this company is like that one, but different in this way.’ That’s why just trying to force a bunch of random facts into your head is hard. But you’re extremely good at remembering faces or images, visual memory being a survival advantage in our evolutionary history. It’s amazing. You can flash thousands of images at people, and they can recall seeing them and can notice small changes in them even days later.”

So what separates the GOAT from the mortal?

You guessed it, near total recall.

Reading 500 pages a day, or week, is poor advice for us mere mortals. Doing so is the equivalent of listening to hundreds of songs a week and hoping to become a master musician. It’s ridiculous.

For the average memory bearing individual a majority of the words, stories and details we read or hear are here today and gone tomorrow.

We’ll never effortlessly absorb material like Peyton Manning, LeBron, Brady/Belichick, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and others by doing it their way.

We must work extra hard to gather mountains of details, connect them, store, retain and recall details, stories and lessons from others.

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