Have you ever met someone totally passionate about what they do?

Passionfruit smoothie. Source: Rawpixel. Public Doman.

They’re not always a lot of fun. Sometimes, they can be pretty boring – unfamiliar with the news of the day, can’t make small talk, exclusively focused on a pet project. If you don’t know anything about their area of expertise, it’s hard to have much of a conversation. They seem shy or awkward. But scratch them where they itch and they bleed their favorite subject. Ask them a technical question, one that stumps most experts, and you’ll get hours of discourse about competing theories, new developments, and where their field may be going next.

These people are nerds.

I thought about this when I heard a recent interview with Apolo Ohno, winner of 8 Olympic medals in short-track speed skating. He described his athletic career as initially spotty, one where he relied on his native athleticism and a love for high-risk strategies. When he failed to make the US Olympic Team in 1998 – he had been US National Champion the year before – he got truly serious. He watched skating videos while he did treadmill workouts. He did three intense workouts per day. He said he wanted “to leave nothing on the table.”

Apolo Ohno in the lead in 2004. Photo: Noelle Neu. Source: Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0

And it worked. “I went all-in, to where I cared about nothing,” Ohno explains. “I truly cared about nothing except I was doing at that moment, which is very powerful. It’s also not very balanced, but that’s the approach that I took.” As a result, he brought home more Winter Olympic medals than any other American. When asked whether such an obsessive focus was a requirement for top athletes, he responded yes, especially at the highest levels.

Passion matters – in sports, or education, or business, or any other serious pursuit. One of my favorite movies is “Stand and Deliver.” It tells the true story of Jaime Escalante, who taught Advanced Placement Calculus to underprivileged students in East Los Angeles. Escalante wasn’t initially very popular. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal: he came in too early, left too late, and failed to get permission to raise funds for his students’ AP tests. But he persisted and got results. In his first calculus class in 1978, he had five students and only two of them passed. Three years later, he taught 15 students and 14 of them passed. By 1991, his program to “turn the school around from the top,” had born fruit: 570 students from the school took AP exams, and hundreds passed.

Garfield High School. Photo: Joe Wolf. Source: Flikr. CC BY- ND 2.0.

What does this have to do with investing?

Investing results are tied to business results. If a business wants to succeed in our hyper-connected, continually-disrupting, ultra-competitive world, its managers need to be obsessed. They have to be passionate about what they do. In 1993 Jeff Hawkins carried a block of wood in his front shirt pocket for months. If someone proposed a meeting, he’d pull out this wooden block and tap on it, pretending to check his calendar. With the help of his wooden prototype, Hawkins realized he would mostly use it for four basic functions, the original “apps.” That’s how the Palm Pilot – a precursor to smartphones everywhere – was born. Hawkins founded Palm, marketed the Palm Pilot, and forever changed the way we manage our lives. But only because he was willing to look like a nerd, tapping away on a piece of wood with a chopstick.

Original wooden Palm Pilot with chopstick stylus. Photo: Atomic Taco. Source: Flikr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Not every passionate manager will change the world. And Hawkins didn’t have the vision or technical ability to combine his scheduler with a phone, camera, GPS, movie streaming, and pretty much everything else, maybe because most of those functions hadn’t been invented. It’s pretty clear, though, that if managers aren’t obsessed, they aren’t likely to change anything. Except maybe make themselves rich at shareholders’ expense. But that’s a different subject.

It’s hard to beat the market, in part because the market constantly seeks out and rewards companies that discover, develop, and deliver new ways to do everyday things, ways that make us more productive or more healthy or delight us in some other way. If a portfolio manager missed out on the rise Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft over the past decade — with their collective addition of $4.6 TRILLION in market value (more than the entire English, German, and French markets COMBINED) – it was almost impossible to keep up. These companies’ managers have been passionate, obsessed, and not that good at making small talk. And they brought home gold for their investors.

Everyone doesn’t have to be a nerd. But Harriet Tubman once said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” Passionately believing our dreams – and making them happen – may not always seem practical. But it’s a good way to start if we want to change the world.

Photo: Preservation Maryland. Source: Flikr.CC BY-SA 2.0.