Shoe Dog: Sports, Shoes and beyond

People generally read autobiographies of people they admire — be it for their ideologies, field of work or for what they represent. I read autobiographies for a different reason — A ghostwriter . J.R.Moehringer collaborated and ghostwrote some of the finest autobiographies like Andre Agassi’s Open or Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. The experiences surely are those of the autobiographer himself/herself but the way these stories are told make them true masterpieces. It’s the honest and raw account of the autobiographer, and the style of writing which brings him to life and makes us fall in love with all his flaws and idiosyncracies. Sometimes it makes me wonder if he deliberately insists on bringing out the flaws so as to make the autobiographers seem more human and vulnerable, and thus more genuine and relatable? Whatever might be the case, it works. And if not for him, I would have never read the autobiography of the creator of Nike Inc. And I’m so glad I did because Phil Knight and his memoir is something which if it does not change your life, it will atleast make you ponder (for long) and take a second look at your own life and how you spend your time.

My intro to Nike as a business, was through the famous Business Wars podcast of Nike vs Adidas (recommended by my brother, just like all other things interesting). But this book is not from that angle. I imagined Nike to be a corporate shark through that podcast, but all that Phil is is a shy awkward boy who had a crazy idea, who was running behind his passion, running all his life to keep his company afloat, barely realising that he ended up building a mega empire. Or as he puts it-

The man who moves the mountain begins by carrying away small stones.

Everyone at some point dreams of making it big, being their own bosses, having their own business, be our personal best, whatever that might be. But Phil Knight shows us what it takes to be successful in a business — its never-ending crisis situations,backstabbing, court battles, constant threat of going under, corporate politics, never being secure. But it also is- a constant adranaline rush, connections for life, a feeling that you have created something that has made someone’s life better in some way. Business is also being thrown into the far end and having to do things you have no idea about- contantly reinventing yourself- You grow or you die.

We all give ourselves reasons - no capital, wrong timing, lack of innovative ideas in a world which has almost everything. But his story makes you realise that the world has uneneding issues to be solved, abundant ways and means to solve them, and many untapped resources — both natural and human. Bad Timing? Nike has it’s beginnings in Japan right after its war with America, through the Vietnam war, into the Great Deppression.

Ofcourse there is always a luck factor which, like most wise men, Phil is humble to acknowledge. Given the number of problems Nike faced, it’s a miracle that it even exists. But I think the biggest factor which worked in their favour is that they had an incredible team who worked like their life depended on it. A team which was only more passionate than Phil himself and would do whatever it took to keep the company afloat. Individually they all had their shortcomings, but together they were a formidable force. Nike does not exist because of one man. Nike exists because of a team.

To be honest it is nothing short of a juicy movie story (no wonder it is being made into one) — hustling money, bending rules,double crossing, corporate spies , FBI — it has everything. And at the end of it all, you cannot help but be in awe of a life truly lived. You almost feel jealous and may be even want a part of it — but that is the funny thing about life- you cannot choose the best parts- you take it with all it’s pain and sufferings and heartbreaks, or you just pass into the oblivion, unnoticed.

Phil lived it big. But was it the ideal life? In the process of building a great company, he barely got to know his own sons. You cannot really have it all no matter how hard you try. Something will get missed. Living it to the fullest is so different for different people . Are you close to your ideal life or not?- that is the only question you need to answer. Are you on your path to reach Maslow’s self-actualization?

Afterthoughts

  • This book has also given me a lot of chew on — generally and philosophically. In general, the book has so many references of other books, historical figures, places, events and movies, that every two pages I go down the rabbithole which opens up a world I didn’t know about previously. A true reader’s delight
  • Haters will say that Phil was privileged. Stanford graduate who could afford to go on a world tour before deciding what to do with life. And a family which could afford to sponsor his world tour (air tickets in early 1960s), and also the initial capital. Yes, he was from a well to-do family. So was Bill Gates. But that does not take anything away from his success, which you realise as you read on. The only big advantage which he had was that he himself was an athelete and Sports ran through his veins. He knew the coaches of college teams, partenered with his own who went on to coach the Olympics team, friends with national-level record holders. He knew the pulse of atheletes and Nike was a pure reflection of his passion for sports. And when you do what you love, it’s not work anymore.

“”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 it becomes essentially the same thing.”

Favourite Quotes

(There are many, thanks to J.R.Moehringer, and Phil Knight’s passion for reading. But dumping them all would mean covering half the book, so I will be selective.)

  • “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
  • He was easy to talk to, and easy not to talk to-equally important qualities in a friend. Essential in a travel companion.
  • “You are remembered for the rules you break.” — General Douglas MacArthur
  • Reality is non-linear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.
  • Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, for taking part in other peoples victories, and feet. When Sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, and that transference, is the oneness that mystics talk about.
  • Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
  • (Of Bowerman) Those ice-blue eyes, which missed nothing, gave nothing.
  • He detested being called Coach. Given his background, his makeup, he naturally thought of track as a means to an end. He called himself a “Professor of Competitive Responses”, and his job, as he saw it, and often described it, was to get you ready for the struggles and competitions that lay ahead, far beyond Oregon.
  • 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. Sometimes.
  • I was happy, may be as happy as I’d ever been, and happiness can be dangerous. It dulls the senses. Thus, I wasn’t prepared for that dreadful letter.
  • There were many ways down Mount Fuji, according to my guidebook, but only one way up. Life lesson in that, I thought. Signs.
  • The basic rule of negotiation: know what you want, what you need to walk away with in order to be whole.
  • Coach yourself to put away hurt feelings and/or thoughts of injustice. The art of competing is the art of forgetting your limits, your doubts, your pain, and your past. You must forget the internal voice that screams and begs to take not one more step. When it is not possible to forget it, you must negotiate with it. (Yes, you raise some good points, but let’s keep going!).
  • Running — it is hard, it is painful, it’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed. No real destination seems to fully justify the effort. The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not that there is no finish line, you define the finish line. Whatever pleasure or gains you derive from the act of running, you must find them within. It is all in how you frame it, how you sell it to yourself.
  • “Sell us your company”. He said it so very softly. The thought crossed my mind that some of the hardest things ever said in our lifetimes are said softly.
  • Don’t go to sleep one night. What you most want will come to you then.
  • “No brilliant idea was ever born in a conference room,” he assured the Dane. “But a lot of silly ideas have died there,” said Stahr. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon
  • It was us against the world, and we felt damned sorry for the world. That is, when we weren’t righteously pissed off at 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 to some quest, some attempt at validation or meaning, and fallen short. Hayes couldn’t become a partner because he was too fat. Johnson couldn’t cope in the so-called normal world of nine-to-five. Strasser was an insurance lawyer who hated insurance — and lawyers. Woodell lost all his youthful dreams in one fluke accident. I got cut from the baseball team. And I got my heart broken.
  • “Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.”- Nike ad
  • When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly.
  • Dec 2, 1980- Our stock was worth twenty-two dollars a share. That was the number. We’d earned that number. We deserved to be on the high end of the price range. A company called Apple was also going public that same week, and selling for twenty-two dollars a share, and we were worth as much as them, I said to Hayes. If a bunch of Wall Street guys didn’t see it that way, I was ready to walk away from the deal.
  • After forty years I’ve stepped down as Nike CEO, leaving the company in good hands, I think, and good shape, I trust. Sales last year, 2006, were $ 16 billion. (Adidas was $ 10 billion, but who’s counting?)
  • I thought of that phrase, “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.
  • I struggle to remember. I close my eyes and think back, but so many precious moments from those nights are gone forever. Numberless conversations, breathless laughing fits. Declarations, revelations, confidences. They’ve all fallen into the sofa cushions of time. I remember only that we always sat up half the night, cataloging the past, mapping out the future. I remember that we took turns describing what our little company was, what it might be, and what it must never be. How I wish, on just one of those nights, I’d had a tape recorder. Or kept a journal, as I did on my trip around the world.

The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.

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