The Unlearning of Peyton Manning

This weekend, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will play in the Super Bowl and complete his 16th season in the NFL. He is 37 years old. He has had four surgeries on his neck, the last of which left him with a nerve-damaged arm. At least for a time, he could barely throw.

And yet now he’s just had arguably the best season ever by a quarterback, breaking league records for most passing touchdowns and most passing yards.

Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla writes that the secret to Manning’s durability and success has been an ability to change—one that people were slow to notice. People had thought that Manning was a perfectionist robot, a player whose rigidity got in his way. But Manning had more up his sleeve, and he adjusted with age.

Image credit: Craig Hawkins

“As long as he had to relearn how to throw a spiral again . . . Manning figured: Why let the reinvention end with his playing style?” Kiszla writes.

So Manning loosened up, unlearned and relearned things, and managed to stay on the field in prime form at an age when most players have hung up their cleats. “Long ago, he mastered the quarterback’s art,” Kiszla observes. “But the secret of being Manning is an insatiable desire to expand his knowledge.”

It’s all a very Peter Drucker-like view of the world (though Drucker was really a baseball guy). “Knowledge is a perishable commodity,” Drucker wrote in Managing for Results. “It has to be reaffirmed, relearned, repracticed all the time. One has to work constantly at regaining one’s specific excellence.”

What makes Manning an especially effective knowledge worker is that he has harnessed the experience that’s useful but chucked the habits that are not.

“We know today that learning capacity does not disappear with age,” Drucker noted in The Practice of Management. “But the more one has learned the more difficult is unlearning. Experience rather than age, in other words, is the bar to easy unlearning and with it to easy or fast learning of new things. The only way to get around this is by making ability to unlearn itself part of what a man learns.”

Perhaps neck surgery has more advantages than we thought.

What have you had to unlearn in your own life in order to gain or regain excellence?