The Zen of Nike’s Phil Knight

I’m normally not a huge fan of biographies. Most are way too long and spend the first few chapters going over minor details that really add nothing to the story. I just find that biographies are long on details and short on wisdom in most cases.

That was not the case with Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight. Not only was this a fantastic backstory on the founding of one of the most iconic brands on the planet, but Knight himself is an exceptional storyteller.

There were so many aspects to the Nike story that I had never heard before. Like the fact that the company was originally called Blue Ribbon. Or that Nike was a side project for Knight that required him to get a full-time job as an accountant for many years while he slowly built up this shoe company. I had no idea that Nike nearly went bust on multiple occasions before it ever really got off the ground. I don’t want to spoil the book, but there’s so much more to this story than meets the eye.

Not only is Knight a great storyteller, but he also comes off as a great teacher. He imparts many of the lessons he’s learned along the way as something of a zen-master on how to think about business and the world at large. I’ve collected some of my favorites to share.

On running:

For that matter, few ideas are as crazy as my favorite thing, running. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed. When you run around an oval track, or down an empty road, you have no real destination. At least, none that can fully justify the effort. 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.

On thinking exponentially:

I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.

On his management style:

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

More running advice from his track coach at Oregon:

Bowerman’s strategy for running the mile was simple. Set a fast pace for the first two laps, run the third as hard as you can, then triple your speed on the fourth.

On how to approach sales:

I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.

On understanding thy self:

To study the self is to forget the self.

On happiness:

Happiness is a how, not a what.

On failure:

If Blue Ribbon went bust, I’d have no money, and I’d be crushed. But I’d also have some valuable wisdom, which I could apply to the next business.

On sports:

This, I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.

On meetings:

No brilliant idea was ever born in a conference room. But a lot of silly ideas have died there.

On the benefits of teaching:

I remembered that the best way to reinforce your knowledge of a subject is to share it.

On cheap drinks:

At prices like this? A man can’t afford not to drink!

On money:

When it came rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that’s the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it.

On following your calling:

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.

On faith:

Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your heart.

Shoe Dog