Stop Reading So Much

Sean IddingsGenius4 Comments

On a warm, sunny December afternoon in 2012, University of Tennessee sports technology coach 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.

Brains aren’t created equally. A few people can do things that most of us cannot. The sooner I have been able to accept this, the quicker I have made progress.

What I’d like to focus on is an often confusing question: how does one properly prepare in business and investing? Some people tend to believe that if Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day, or more, then it should work for everyone else wanting to become a learning machine.

If you believe that and aren’t born with an unusual memory, you are wrong. You’ll deceive yourself into believing that you are making progress. Don’t waste your time.

Where Did This Idea Of Reading 500 Pages A Day Come From?

In this 2014 interview, Todd Combs recalled how Warren Buffett advised his Columbia class, in late 2000 or early 2001, to read 500 pages a week. That was Buffett’s secret. Warren said, “That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

Like a game of telephone, however, other sources have inflated that number to 500 pages a day. CNBC misquoted Todd in this article and the Omaha Herald did the same. Blogs and many on Twitter have perpetuated the misinformation.

Regardless of what Warren actually said, or does, he is not ordinary. For most of us it takes much more than reading 500 pages a week or day to build knowledge. Buffett is more like Peyton Manning.

When Alice Schroder, author of The Snowball and close confidant with 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.”

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 @magis1851), Berkshire’s acquisition of Star Furniture was described like this:

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.

During Berkshire Hathaway’s 2006 annual shareholder meeting, Buffett recalled that Coca-Cola earnings were around $1.50 in 1997 or 1998. The actual earnings of both years averaged was $1.52. That is 2 cents off.

Warren remembers historical dates and all sorts of important 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 you he doesn’t use a computer and 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.

And Buffett knows college football. Patrick O’Shaughnessy had dinner with Warren Buffett and said:

We spent the first hour talking about college football. He could be a football color commentator. The amount of facts and dates and people he was throwing at me was staggering, and I know a lot about college football. I went to Notre Dame, and he had 5 Notre Dame specific stories that were some of the best I’d ever heard.

For the rare few this process is effortless. As I mentioned HERE, 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.”

Don’t be fooled. Despite his humbleness, Warren Buffett is more similar to Nikola Tesla and Peyton Manning than he is to us ordinary folks.

Elon Musk is another. I recall the following story from Ashley Vance’s biography on Elon:

Elon, in fact, churned through two sets of encyclopedias – a feat that did little to help him make friends. The boy had a photographic memory, and the encyclopedias turned him into a fact factory. He came off as a classic know-it-all. At the dinner table, Tosca would wonder aloud about the distance from Earth to the Moon. Elon would spit out the exact measurement at perigee and apogee. “If we had a question, Tosca would always say, ‘Just ask genius boy,’” Maye said. “We could ask him about anything. He just remembered it.”

And when learning rocket science while starting SpaceX Elon would:

…trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material.

“I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.” People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall.

John Malone, too, has been described by many to have a prodigious memory. The UK’s Independent wrote:

He reportedly has a near-photographic memory, an extraordinary aptitude for math, and intense business acumen.

Warren also has friendships with a few other born memory masters. As I’ve said, like attracts like. Buffett has known Lebron James since 2007. James, considered one of the greatest basketball players ever, can recall just about every detail of every game he played. Just listen to him recount exactly what happened during the 4th quarter of yesterday’s game.

And listen to James’ former teammate Chris Bosh describe how well Lebron recalls obscure details from college football game:

“We’ll be watching a football game and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that cornerback was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft from Central Florida,’ or something. And I’ll be like, ‘How do you know that?’ And he’ll be like, ‘I can’t help it.’”

James himself said:

“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.”

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. Scoble 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.”

What Does This Mean For Us?

Most of us aren’t born with near-photographic memory.

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, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and others by doing it their way.

We must work extra hard to understand, store, retain and recall details, stories and lessons from others. Then we need to apply what we learn immediately. Battles and business wars aren’t won in the library, there are won in the field. Knowledge and wisdom is useless if it is not used. Stop reading so much and start applying what you’ve already read.

You still might be asking: how do we plain mortals retain more of what we read? How do we actually become learning machines?

Members [Join Here] can watch our Online Course and find out how we and many other intelligent fanatics do it.


Here are a few other articles you would enjoy:

The Most Valuable Investment Skill

Properly Preparing Our Inner Creativity & Pattern Recognition

The Story of Masayoshi Son and the Founding of Softbank

Forgotten Miracle Merchant Who Set Record in Per Capita Trade

Is Henry Singleton Really The Pioneer of Massive Share Buybacks?

About the Author

Sean Iddings

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Sean is the founder of Unconventional Capital Wisdom, a registered investment advisor in New York State seeking to invest in high quality microcap companies led by intelligent fanatics. He is a member of MicroCapClub and writes about investments, entrepreneurship, and leadership on a number of blogs and publications. Sean is also a long distance runner having completed five marathons across the globe and a jazz/rock guitarist. He lives outside Ithaca, NY with his wife and daughter.

4 Comments on “Stop Reading So Much”

  1. And yet, I read somewhere, that when asked what color the walls were in his bedroom, Buffett couldn’t recall.

    1. Dr. Darold Treffert refers to it as islands of genius. I think that is a good way to describe to intense focus on one subject with disregard to practically everything else.

  2. Your data itself is subjected to surviourship bias. You just picked the ones who made it. What about the ones who has average memory and made it and what about ones who are gold medalist in universities and still are not subject of biography writers. And remember biographies are written after they have made it. So, biographies are also susceptible to data mining.

  3. Raunak, I agree, but it is still interesting. As far as Peyton Manning goes, it is fascinating, at least to me, to read about his memory because the best performing quarterbacks, long term, have only average athletic ability. There must be something mental going on and I’m interested in reading different takes on what that might be. And the story illustrates Manning’s drive to be the best, constantly improve, despite his success and the constant beating his chosen profession involves.

    As far as Buffett, he is no where near the best performing professional investor over the last twenty years. Not even close. He likes to write and he likes publicity so he gets a lot of press. Often he doesn’t follow his own dictums — avoid airlines, avoid technology, make very few investments and hold them for long periods of time, buy superior companies, etc. What he does have is a rare combination of skills. The story offered above about his memory is interesting in the context, at least to me, of the combination and the contradictions:

    – probably his best quality as an investor is his understanding of compound interest and how that applies to his portfolio size. He is betting on the long term prospects and growth of the US economy, which he has to do because of his portfolio size. That means he needs to invest in companies of at least average quality, be more active after significant market declines, and take large positions, all of which he does

    – he goes out of his way to increase the size of his unwieldy portfolio through insurance underwriting and even some borrowing. Both are debt (or liabilities), despite his admonition to avoid debt. By doing so, he is deliberately reducing his potential for return. That’s a contradiction. He is full of contradictions, and the contradictions, at least to me are fascinating.

    – he has great people skills, unusual in a highly-successful investor. Having said that, I once knew a highly-successful hedge fund manager who as a young institutional salesman dealt with Buffett. Buffett, he told me was often unreasonable and brutal to deal with, and prone to fits of irrational anger. I’ve also read that up until twenty years ago he never tipped servers in restaurants.

    – the article illustrates his ability at details which is unusual in combination with his ability to distill complex situations into their key drivers or elements. That ability, the ability to focus on the small percentage of facts that are crucial in a complex situation is key to all highly-successful people. In fact, that, with the possible exception of people skills, is the only common denominator among all successful people I’ve known. Some are honest, some dishonest, some hard workers, some lazy, some highly-polished great dressers, some sloppy and threadbare, and some great communicators and some borderline autistic. But they understand and focus on what’s crucial.

    – he has an innate understanding of risk. Risk tolerance is what makes great investors, risk avoidance is what makes long term investment survivors. Buffett has both, which very few investors have.

    I appreciate the insights Sean has offered in the article.

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