The Unlearning of Peyton Manning

Posted on Jan 31, 2014 | 5 Comments

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?


  1. Mukesh Gupta
    January 31, 2014

    I totally agree with the views expressed here. I am on a transformational journey to reinvnet myself and try to create a 10x improvement in all spheres of my life – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and financial.

    One of the most difficult things that i am now having to do is to unlearn a lot of habits which are holding me back. Unless that happens, i am unable to move ahead in my goals.

    Are there any sugggestions or pointer that Peter Drucker has given that could help me in my journey?

  2. Lino DeGasperis
    January 31, 2014

    Learning to sing, these past twelve years, has been the most painstaking and exhilirating project I have ever undertaken. During that time, I have had to re-learn how to stand, move, breathe, talk, yell, and of course, sing. Un-learning old habits happens by re-programming muscle memory through repeated, deliberate acts, until it becomes automatic. It is still a work in progress, and will remain so, as advised by my vocal instructors.

  3. Daniel Pacheco
    January 31, 2014

    I would like to know how to unlearn “A,, B, C, D, ,,, etc which I learnt while I went to kinder garden. The concept of unlearning does not make sense to me as I retain my old learning and only add new learning to my existing learning . This new learning gives me added flexibility to behave appropriately according to what the new situation demands. There is no such thing as unlearning. Can anyone design and deliver a program for me on how to unlearn what i learnt in kinder garden like A,B,C.

  4. George W. Mantor
    February 1, 2014

    Yes, but it starts with a willingness to accept new information that contradicts earlier opinions. At times I have witnessed an almost angry resistance to the idea of benefiting from new facts. Many people seem to be defensive and double down on their erroneous prior beliefs or ways of doing things.

    People like Manning and Drucker understand that you never get there, you never fullfill your entire potential. As you learn more and improve your skills and thought processes, your potential expands.

    Throwing a tight spiral, a curveball, or returning a tennis shot that just clears the net requires muscle memory. It is about always seeking a certain feeling in the performance, in the groove, the white moment, a subtle perfection that they seek to repeat over and over again, all the while trying to see if there is even yet a higher level of perfomance to be achieved.

    Combine the drive required to achieve that perfect state with knowledge and experience and you get understanding and close to flawless performances over a long period of time.

    But it all starts with the admission that “I am not there yet.”

  5. Mike Grayson
    February 1, 2014

    Perhaps the secret to Manning’s success is not so much his physical prowess, but his leadership in holding his teammates to a higher standard. Consider this excerpt from the Wall Street Journal:

    “Walking by Manning in Denver’s locker room is a source of anxiety for all Broncos players, they say. Running back Ronnie Hillman said he tenses up when he brushes past him. This is because Manning is known to give passersby a pop quiz about Denver’s upcoming opponent. Backup quarterback Zac Dysert said the questions Manning asks him usually focus on where the ball should go against a particular coverage. It is “definitely easy to be scared” of Manning, he said.”

    Accountability does wonderful things for performance.


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