*Book notes from "Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE" by Phil Knight
I moved quicker down the road. My breath formed rounded, frosty puffs, swirling into the fog. I savored that first physical awakening, that brilliant moment before the mind is fully clear, when the limbs and joints first begin to loosen and the material body starts to melt away. Solid to liquid.
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. And then it happened. As my young heart began to thump, as my pink lungs expanded like the wings of a bird, as the trees turned to greenish blurs, I saw it all before me, exactly what I wanted my life to be. Play. Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s the word. The secret of happiness, I’d always suspected, the essence of beauty or truth, or all we ever need to know of either, lay somewhere in that moment when the ball is in midair, when both boxers sense the approach of the bell, when the runners near the finish line and the crowd rises as one. 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.
The world was so overrun with war and pain and misery, the daily grind was so exhausting and often unjust—maybe the only answer, I thought, was to find some prodigious, improbable dream that seemed worthy, that seemed fun, that seemed a good fit, and chase it with an athlete’s single-minded dedication and purpose. Like it or not, life is a game. Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that. More than anything, that was the thing I did not want.
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. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.
The most famous track coach in America, Bowerman never considered himself a track coach. 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. Despite this lofty mission, or perhaps because of it, the facilities at Oregon were Spartan. Dank wooden walls, lockers that hadn’t been painted in decades. The lockers had no door, just slats to separate your stuff from the next guy’s. We hung our clothes on nails. Rusty nails. We sometimes ran without socks. Complaining never crossed our minds. We saw our coach as a general, to be obeyed quickly and blindly.
People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that’s only true of people who can forget the competition. 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. I thought over all the races in which my mind wanted one thing, and my body wanted another, those laps in which I’d had to tell my body, “Yes, you raise some excellent points, but let’s keep going anyway . . .”
While auditing these companies, digging into their guts, taking them apart and putting them back together, I was also learning how they survived, or didn’t. How they sold things, or didn’t. How they got into trouble, how they got out. I took careful notes about what made companies tick, what made them fail.
Owen stared. It was a fierce, tough stare, honed during many intense negotiations. A lot of Dictaphones had moved out the door after that stare. He was waiting for me to bend, to up my offer, but for once in my life I had leverage, because I had nothing left to give. “Take it or leave it” is like four of a kind. Hard to beat.
I wanted what everyone wants. To be me, full-time.
Darn it, this was no time to be introducing flawed shoes. Worse, we had to push these flawed shoes on people who weren’t our kind of people. They were salesmen. They talked like salesmen, walked like salesmen, and they dressed like salesmen—tight polyester shirts, Sansabelt slacks. They were extroverts, we were introverts. They didn’t get us, we didn’t get them, and yet our future depended on them. And now we’d have to persuade them somehow that this Nike thing was worth their time and trust—and money.
“You’re one of us,” I said. One of us. He knew what those words meant. We were the kind of people who simply couldn’t put up with corporate nonsense. We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play. But meaningful play. We were trying to slay Goliath, and though Strasser was bigger than two Goliaths, at heart he was an utter David. We were trying to create a brand, I said, but also a culture. We were fighting against conformity, against boringness, against drudgery. More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea—a spirit. I don’t know if I ever fully understood who we were and what we were doing until I heard myself saying it all that day to Strasser.
Despite our hijinks, despite our eccentricities, despite our physical limitations, I concluded in 1976 that we were a formidable team. (Years later a famous Harvard business professor studying Nike came to the same conclusion. “Normally,” he said, “if one manager at a company can think tactically and strategically, that company has a good future. But boy are you lucky: More than half the Buttfaces think that way!”)
Clearly the Buttfaces liked the culture I’d created. I trusted them, wholly, and didn’t look over their shoulders, and that bred a powerful two-way loyalty. My management style wouldn’t have worked for people who wanted to be guided, every step, but this group found it liberating, empowering. I let them be, let them do, let them make their own mistakes, because that’s how I’d always liked people to treat me.
Most had also demonstrated basic competence. When you hired an accountant, you knew he or she could count. When you hired a lawyer, you knew he or she could talk. When you hired a marketing expert, or product developer, what did you know? Nothing. You couldn’t predict what he or she could do, or if he or she could do anything. And the typical business school graduate? He or she didn’t want to start out with a bag selling shoes. Plus, they all had zero experience, so you were simply rolling the dice based on how well they did in an interview. We didn’t have enough margin for error to roll the dice on anyone.
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.
Every Nike athlete wrote, emailed, phoned. Every single one. But the first was Tiger. His call came in at 7:30 a.m. I will never, ever forget. And I will not stand for a bad word spoken about Tiger in my presence. Another early caller was Alberto Salazar, the ferociously competitive distance runner who won three straight New York City Marathons in Nikes. I will always love him for many things, but above all for that show of concern.
We laughed, cheered, clinked glasses, and something passed between us, the same thing that passes between me and most of the athletes I work with. A transference, a camaraderie, a sort of connection. It’s brief, but it nearly always happens, and I know it’s part of what I was searching for when I went around the world in 1962. To study the self is to forget the self. Mi casa, su casa. Oneness—in some way, shape, or form, it’s what every person I’ve ever met has been seeking.
I’d like to warn the best of them, the iconoclasts, the innovators, the rebels, that they will always have a bull’s-eye on their backs. The better they get, the bigger the bull’s-eye. It’s not one man’s opinion; it’s a law of nature.