Don’t Be Bigger, Faster, Stronger — Be Smarter


In the NFL, fans, coaches, and scouts put a lot of time into measuring various “skills” for players. Who can run the fastest? Who can throw the farthest? Who throws the tightest spiral, jumps the highest, can bench press the most weight; the list goes on and on.

But if you’re watching football this year, you’ll notice something very strange. Again, one of the best quarterbacks at the midway point of the season has been Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. You might think that’s not surprising: after all, he’s won 5 MVP Awards, set countless records, won a Super Bowl, and all that. But watch him closely the next time he’s on your television.

Now, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but he’s slow. His arm is not nearly as strong as it was. And his passes flutter in the air, not a tight spiral like you expect. In fact, if you were to have all the starting quarterbacks in the league run a 100 yard dash, Peyton would probably finish last. If you were to tell them all to throw the ball as far as they can throw it, he would probably finish last. And if you put out a judging panel to just watch their passes in the air, he wouldn’t impress anyone.

So how does he do it? How does he continue to be among the best players in the NFL—and at age 38, too? Quite simply, he outthinks everyone on the field—including the opposing coaches. He knows his skills, what he is able to do, and he knows what the other team is going to do. He anticipates what the defense will do, where their guys will be—and where they won’t be. He knows exactly when his guys are going to be open, and makes throws that he can make. He doesn’t make spectacular throws—he doesn’t want to, and doesn’t need to. He makes the easy throw because he’s figured out how to find it. Even as his arm has declined with age and injury, and he loses a step (and wasn’t fast to begin with), he can compensate by playing smarter.

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Now you might be thinking to yourself, what does this have to do with business? A lot. In business, it comes down to a lot more than just who has the best resources, who has money, name recognition, or any other built-in advantages. You can be successful starting from the dirt—but you have to be smart.

You have to make the right decisions, and you have to know how to move on quickly when you make a wrong decision. Fail—but fail fast. Don’t keep on going down the wrong road out of stubbornness. You have to identify the right partners, find the right opportunities, anticipate customers’ needs and wants, and so much more. It sounds exhausting—but every business, large or small, has to do the same thing, and the limited resources of a small business better prepare you to make all those tough decisions every day than when you have seemingly endless built-in advantages that cause you to ignore problems until it is too late.

That’s why it’s hard to stay at the top—and why new companies take on and defeat the giants. That’s why the Fortune 500 list from just a generation ago is almost completely different from today’s list—and the same turnover will happen a generation from now.

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Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of and Tarkenton Companies. With a passion for small business, he’s started more than 20 businesses during and after his NFL career. Fran is a small business coach for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing advice and guidance through sites such as,, and more. He has written about business issues in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. New and World Report, and USA Today, along with regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. You can follow Fran on Twitter @Fran_Tarkenton.