At the outset I wasn’t desperate to read this book and if it weren’t for the book club I doubt I’d have read it anytime soon. However, this book was a fantastic read and I am glad that I read it. I couldn’t put it down and read it at every opportunity. Possibly the best book I have read for quite some time.
My biggest takeaways
I identified strongly with many of the author’s traits, at least as he described them, which gave me hope and perspective about running a business. His lack of ego coupled with a strong drive to not lose spoke to me along with many of his failures.
For a memoir I highlighted quite a lot, I found much inspiration in his mix of personal anecdotes, philosophy and business insights.
The best teacher I ever had, one of the finest men I ever knew, spoke of that trail often. It’s our birthright, he’d growl. Our character, our fate—our DNA. “The cowards never started,” he’d tell me, “and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.”
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.
The idea of not stopping is present throughout the book, which is later refined into, “it’s ok to give up, but don’t stop”. This is an important concept to internalize: allowing yourself to fail, or learn, but keep going. Use the failure as a learning experience to keep going and change the direction of your journey.
I highlighted the next two paragraphs as something to think about and learn more about Zen philosophy. There seems to be parallels or oppositions to the Stoic thinking I’ve been studying recently.
But first I’d need to change my whole approach. 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.
In every religion, it seemed, self is the obstacle, the enemy. And yet Zen declares plainly that the self doesn’t exist. Self is a mirage, a fever dream, and our stubborn belief in its reality not only wastes life, but shortens it. Self is the bald-faced lie we tell ourselves daily, and happiness requires seeing through the lie, debunking it. To study the self, said the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen, is to forget the self. Inner voice, outer voices, it’s all the same. No dividing lines.
Throughout the book, Knight quotes many phrases from philosophers through the ages as well as quotes of his own. Here are some of my favourites that I took, which may make their way to a picture frame one day.
the analects of Confucius—The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones—
The sun hammered down on my head, the same sun that hammered down on the thousands of men who built these pyramids, and the millions of visitors who came after. Not one of them was remembered, I thought. All is vanity, says the Bible. All is now, says Zen. All is dust, says the desert.
“It’s like Hesse says,” she purred over dinner one night, “happiness is a how, not a what.”
Leaning back in my recliner each night, staring at the ceiling, I tried to settle myself. I told myself: Life is growth. You grow or you die.
“You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”
To study the self is to forget the self. Mi casa, su casa.
Several times throughout the book he mentions this concept of Oneness and I wonder how intentional it was or how it might permeate the culture at Nike. How do you bring a unifying concept to a company at even the smallest scale beyond a single person?
Oneness—in some way, shape, or form, it’s what every person I’ve ever met has been seeking.
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.
I think some of the inspirational Nike “spirit” adverts have shown this quite clearly. Almost ironic then, that through the early days he was quite disdainful of advertising.
Should I be surprised that there were many elements of Stoic philosophy that came through?
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.
Knight has quite a way with words and these passages essentially outline much of how I feel too:
If I tended to dwell on all the things I wasn’t, the reason was simple. Those were the things I knew best. I’d have found it difficult to say what or who exactly I was, or might become. Like all my friends I wanted to be successful. Unlike my friends I didn’t know what that meant. Money? Maybe. Wife? Kids? House? Sure, if I was lucky. These were the goals I was taught to aspire to, and part of me did aspire to them, instinctively. But deep down I was searching for something else, something more. I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all . . . different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world. I wanted to win. No, that’s not right. I simply didn’t want to lose.
There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.
What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much that it becomes essentially the same thing.
Every runner knows this. You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you’re running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.
Could I have risked as much, dared as much, walked the razor’s edge of entrepreneurship between safety and catastrophe, without the early foundation of that feeling, that bliss of safety and contentment? I don’t think so.
And humble. No corncob pipe for Giáp. I remember that he wore a dark business suit, like mine. I remember that he smiled as I did—shyly, uncertainly. But there was an intensity about him. I’d seen that kind of glittery confidence in great coaches, and great business leaders, the elite of the elite. I never saw it in a mirror.
These two passages resonated with me most and the ever present struggle of balance between work and family. It’s helpful to see that you’re not the first to struggle with it (and no doubt not the last). They also inspire me to try not to make the same mistakes and redraw the balance.
Our conflicts, such as they are, have centered mostly on work versus family. Finding a balance. Defining that word “balance.” At our most trying moments, we’ve managed to emulate those athletes I most admire. We’ve held on, pressed through. And now we’ve endured.
My fatherhood style, my management style. I was forever questioning, Is it good—or merely good enough? Time and again I’d vow to change. Time and again I’d tell myself: I will spend more time with the boys. Time and again I’d keep that promise—for a while. Then I’d fall back to my former routine, the only way I knew. Not hands-off. But not hands-on.
What must the neighbors have thought? What must I have thought? Probably this: Life is dangerous. And this: We must always be prepared. And this: My mother loves me.
We’re also finishing construction on a new athletic facility, which we plan to dedicate to our mothers, Dot and Lota. On a plaque next to the entrance will go an inscription: Because mothers are our first coaches.
The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
You have to have drive, to keep going and push harder even, or especially when times get tough.
Pre was most famous for saying, “Somebody may beat me—but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”
I tell them about the untapped resources, natural and human, that the world has at its disposal, the abundant ways and means to solve its many crises. All we have to do, I tell the students, is work and study, study and work, hard as we can.
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.
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.
So much to do. So much to learn. So much I don’t know about my own life.
Whilst the book is a memoir there are a surprising number of insights into how he approached business to take away from the book.
The title of the book fascinated me, and I wondered what it meant but it wasn’t explained for quite a while. I definitely have more of an appreciation for footwear now than I did.
shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of that journey. Shoes were their way of connecting with humanity. What better way of connecting, shoe dogs thought, than by refining the hinge that joins each person to the world’s surface?
Aside from the more obvious business elements:
Growing sales, plus profitability, plus unlimited upside, equals quality company.
To have cash balances sitting around doing nothing made no sense to me. Sure, it would have been the cautious, conservative, prudent thing. But the roadside was littered with cautious, conservative, prudent entrepreneurs. I wanted to keep my foot pressed hard on the gas pedal.
Again and again I learned that lack of equity was a leading cause of failure.
A company culture needs belief and passion to permeate, and in turn, that should “infect” the customers/clients and become a virtuous cycle.
So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realised, 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.
Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t care if he died crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first. No matter what Bowerman told him, no matter what his body told him, Pre refused to slow down, ease off. He pushed himself to the brink and beyond. This was often a counterproductive strategy, and sometimes it was plainly stupid, and occasionally it was suicidal. But it was always uplifting for the crowd. No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavour, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.
By accident or design, he pulled together a core group of people who worked well together in the same kind of way, with the same core values. It seems to me that those first few hires of a growing company are the most critical - they will define the ultimate success or failure of the company.
our friendship was based on a selfsame approach to work. Each of us found pleasure, whenever possible, in focusing on one small task. One task, we often said, clears the mind. And each of us recognized that this small task of finding a bigger office meant we were succeeding.
He had a certain management approach:
thinking all the while of Patton. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
schooling about heroes was that they didn’t say much. None was a blabbermouth. None micromanaged. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
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. Wisdom seemed an intangible asset, but an asset all the same, one that justified the risk. Starting my own business was the only thing that made life’s other risks—marriage, Vegas, alligator wrestling—seem like sure things. But my hope was that when I failed, if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years, to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.
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.
She hadn’t found herself involved in many negotiations, and she didn’t know that the basic rule of negotiation is to know what you want, what you need to walk away with in order to be whole.
A valuable set of questions to ask yourself daily:
- What do you know?
- What else do you know?
- What does the future hold?
- What’s Step One?
- What’s Step Two?
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.
“It’s just business.” It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.
And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.