Shoe Dog — Phil Knight
“Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
I think the last company founding story I’ve read was Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk, but a biography and a memoir can present two very different reading experiences. For one thing, the first-person perspective of a memoir does a far better job at getting the reader to empathize with the protagonist’s struggles. The panic and stress Phil Knight endures throughout the Nike birth story feel like they emanate from the page. If you’ve ever watched Silicon Valley, you’ll know the story is literally just one “crisis-averted” scenario after another. The motley crew always seems to be right at the brink (sometimes beyond it) of failure the entire show, but somehow things manage to fall into place at the most crucial moments. Turning the pages of Shoe Dog felt just as precarious, as it seemed as soon as Knight found a patchwork solution to one of his problems, an even bigger one would sprout up in its place. There was trouble lurking around every corner, and even a moment’s inattention would mean certain failure.
The stakes really do feel that high throughout the entire book. While Knight initially hedges his bet during the formative years of the company (originally named Blue Ribbon Sports, founded with his coach Bill Bowerman) by working as an accountant, eventually his “crazy idea” necessitates a full-time effort. He goes all-in on the idea, at one point knowing that his failure would literally mean losing everything he had besides his home. For a man who had just started a family, the risks really couldn’t have been much higher.
Knight begins his journey by creating a relationship with a Japanese shoemaker, which supplies him with a rather unsteady stream of athletic sneakers that were fairly innovative for the time. As he encounters success selling these in Oregon and the west coast, he starts expanding his company to include a few quirky (to say the least) but extremely passionate people, namely Bob Woodell and Jeff Johnson. He relies heavily on these two men throughout the entire story, and the reader comes to see how much of the success really depended on multiple key figures. The cast of characters spanning over the years Knight recounts is so colorful and entertaining and intense it’s hard to forget.
Perhaps what’s so great about this book is how honest Knight is about himself. It’s the type of honesty that’s only possible after being able to look back on your life with the wisdom gained over decades. He repeatedly points out how much people did for him over the years (Woodell, Johnson, his wife, etc.) and hoe he frequently failed to express his gratitude. He recognizes his emotional immaturity at the time, and doesn’t really try to rationalize it away. He also admits how this crazy idea basically became the fuel of his life — an obsession that he would die trying to make work if he had to. He doesn’t stray from more difficult topics, like how he wished he had been a better father at times and his difficulty with dealing with his son Matthew. Knight is also extremely likable — he’s incredibly ambitious, willing to put on massive amounts of risk, intellectually curious, constantly striving to improve himself and his product, and endlessly passionate about the things and people he loves. Mix this likable character with raw honesty, great story-telling, and a drama that’s hard to even imagine — that’s what Shoe Dog has to offer.
The end of the book gave me a few chills. Knight recounts some of the amazing feats Nike has accomplished since the end of the story (right around the IPO), and the important relationships he’s built with athletes along the way. The company everyone knows today — that behemoth, that household name — is hard to reconcile with this origin story. But the fact that it’s all real is so insanely inspiring. It shows that the right amount of grit, luck, passion, collaboration, and imagination are capable of creating something massive and world-changing. And while there are probably 1000 failure stories for every Shoe Dog, it doesn’t diminish the glory of what can happen when someone decides to go after their crazy idea and things somehow manage to work themselves out by the end of the episode.
Shoe Dog surpassed almost all of my expectations, and contains way more than just business wisdom. Knight is a fantastic writer, and the story takes you on one hell of a ride. Highly recommended.
· The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not just that there’s no finish line; it’s that you define the finish line. Whatever pleasures or gains you derive from the act of running, you must find them within. It’s all in how you frame it, how you sell it to yourself.
· So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.
· Frugality carried over to every part of the coach’s makeup. He weighed and hoarded words of praise, like uncut diamonds.
· Was it my mother’s way of digging at my father? A show of loyalty to her only son? An affirmation of her love of track? I don’t know. But no matter. It never failed to move me, the sight of her standing at the stove or the kitchen sink, cooking dinner or washing dishes in a pair of Japanese running shoes, size 6.
· The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past. You must forget that internal voice screaming, begging, “Not one more step!” And when it’s not possible to forget it, you must negotiate with it.
· As ever, the accountant in me saw the risk, the entrepreneur saw the possibility. So I split the difference and kept moving forward.
· Looking down at his wooden platter, at the underside of an octopus’s leg, he thought a similar suction cup might work on the sole of a runner’s flat. Bowerman filed that away. Inspiration, he learned, can come from quotidian things.
· No one could get your blood going like Bowerman, though he never raised his voice. He knew how to speak in subliminal italics, to slyly insert exclamation marks, like hot keys against the flesh.
· Each of us found pleasure, whenever possible, in focusing on one small task. One task, we often said, clears the mind.
· I wished I had more. I wished I could borrow some. But confidence was cash. You had to have some to get some. And people were loath to give it to you.
· No matter the sport — no matter the human endeavor, really — total effort will win people’s hearts.
· Fear of failure, I thought, will never be our downfall as a company. Not that any of us thought we wouldn’t fail; in fact we had every expectation that we would. But when we did fail, we had faith that we’d do it fast, learn from it, and be better for it.
· Each of us had been misunderstood, misjudged, dismissed. Shunned by bosses, spurned by luck, rejected by society, short-changed by fate when looks and other natural graces were handed out. We’d each been forged by early failure. We’d each given ourselves some quest, some attempt at validation or meaning, and fallen short.
· 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 missions as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic process of living… We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud.
· Oneness — in some way, shape, or form, it’s whatever person I’ve ever met has been seeking.
· Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.