Phil Knight on the Purpose of “Business”
Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog is atypically raw, revealing and real. He focuses on the defining period of Nike and his life, the time between a crazy idea articulated in a Stanford paper through to taking Nike public.
The compromises, pressures and personal fears are conveyed with genuine humanity. It is part existential exploration and part official history. Then again those two really are one and to the same.
The ethos of Nike has compelled many into creative industries. It was the closest thing to being an athlete I could find, sure there was a scoreboard but also a real humanity required to not just be amongst the best but to creatively find a non-obvious edge to be your personal best any given day.
There are many great passages in the book. Written with unusual life and vibrancy for a “business book.” This passage stands out giving the essence of why the book is so unusual and why Nike had such an unusually big impact on so many:
“It seems wrong to call it “business.” It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher, and none of us wavered in the belief that “stakes” didn’t mean “money.” For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living — and at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is-you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.
“Maybe it will grow on me.