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Shoe Dog | Phil Knight

Shoe Dog | Phil Knight

I thought back on my running career at Oregon. I'd competed with, and against, men far better, faster, more physically gifted. Many were future Olympians. And yet I'd trained myself to forget this unhappy fact.

People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that's only u-ue ofpeople 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 negodate 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 . . ."

Despite all my negotiations with that voice, the skill had never come naturally, and now I feared that I was out of practice. As the plane swooped down toward Haneda Airport I told myself that I'd need to summon the old skill quickly, or lose. I could not bear the thought of losing. [...]

This last line was wholly truthful. It was worth shooting for. 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: Failfast. [...]

Our cozy apartment was now completely inappropriate. We'd have to buy a house, of course. But could we afford a house? I'djust started to pay myself a salary. And in which part of town should we buy? Where were the best schools? And how was I supposed to research real estate prices and schools, plus all the other things that go into buying a house, while running a start-up company? Was it even feasible to run a start-up company while starting a family? Should I go back to accounting, or teaching, or something more stable?

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. [...]

Bowerman told the writer from Sports Illustrated that Pre was the fastest middle-distance runner alive. I'd never heard such unbridled enthusiasm from my stolid coach. In the days ahead, in other articles I clipped, Bowerman was even more effusive, calling Pre "the best runner I've ever had." Bowerman's assistant, Bill Dellinger, said Pre's secret weapon was his confidence, which was as freakish as his lung capacity. "Usually," Dellinger said, "it takes our guys twelve years to build confidence in themselves, and here's a young man who has the right attitude naturally."

Yes, I thought. Confidence. More than equity, more than liquid_ ity, that's what a man needs. [...]

I sat down and put my head in my hands. I looked at our orange pyramids. My mind went to the pyramids of Giza. Only ten years before I'd been there, riding a camel like Lawrence of Arabia across the sands, free as a man could be. Now I was in Chicago, saddled with debt, head of a teetering shoe company, rolling out a new brand with shoddy workmanship and crooked swooshes. All is vanity.

I gazed around the convention center, at the thousands of sales reps swarming the booths, the other booths. I heard them oohing and aahing at all the other shoes being introduced for the first time. I was that boy at the science fair who didn't work hard enough on his project, who didn't start until the night before. The other kids had built erupting volcanoes, and lightning machines, and all I had was a mobile of the solar system made with mothballs stuck to my mother's coat hangers.

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 saleynen. 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 neust—and money.

I was on the verge of losing it, right on the verge. Then I saw thatJohnson and Woodell were already losing it, and I realized that I couldn't afford to. Like Penny, they beat me to the panic attack punch. "Look," I said, "fellas, this is the worst the shoes will ever be. They'll get better. So if we can just sell these... we'll be on our way." [...]

They gave us business. They actuallyplaced orders with us. By the end of the day we'd exceeded our grandest expectations. We were one of the smash hits of the show. At least, that's how I saw it.

Johnson, as usual, wasn't happy. Ever the perfectionist. "The irregularities of this whole situation," he said, left him dumbfounded. That was his phrase, the irregularities ofthis whole situation. I begged him to take his dumbfoundedness and irregularity elsewhere, leave well enough alone. But he just couldn't. He walked over and buttonholed one of his biggest accounts and demanded to know what was going on. "MJhaddya mean?" the man said. "I mean," Johnson said, "we show up with this new Nike, and it's totally untested, and frankly it's not even all that good—and you guys are buying it gives ?"

The man laughed. "We've been doing business with you Blue Ribbon guys for years," he said, "and we know that you guys tell the truth. Everyone else bullshits, you guys always shoot straight. So if you say this new shoe, this Nike, is worth a shot, we believe."

Johnson came back to the booth, scratching his head. "Telling the truth," he said. "Who knew?"

Woodell laughed. Johnson laughed. I laughed and tried not to think about my many half truths and untruths with Onitsuka. [...]

For eleven laps they ran a half stride apart. With the crowd now roaring, frothing, shrieking, the two men entered the final lap. It felt like a boxing match. It felt like a joust. It felt like a bullfight, and we were down to that moment of truth—death hanging in the air. Pre reached down, found another level—we saw him do it. He opened up a yard lead, then two, then five. We saw Young grimacing and we knew that he could not, would not, catch Pre. I told myself D forget this. Do not forget. I told myself there was much to be learned from such a display of passion, whether you were running a mile or a company. [...]

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. [...]

Pre was most famous for saying, "Somebody may beat me—but they're going to have to bleed to do it." Watching him run that final weekend of May 1975, I'd never felt more admiration for him, or identified with him more closely. Somebody may beat me, I told myself, some banker or creditor or competitor may stop me, but by God they're going to have to bleed to do it. [...]

Several times, in those first months of 1976, I huddled with Hayes and Woodell and Strasser, and over sandwiches and sodas we'd kick around this question of ultimate goals. This question of winning and losing. Money wasn't our aim, we agreed. Money wasn't our end game. But whatever our aim or end, money was the only means to get there. More money than we had on hand. [...]

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

Most had also demonsffated basic competence. When you hired an accountant, you knew he or she could count. When you hired a lawyer, you hew 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 had a good laugh, a healing laugh. Then he handed me a copy of Werschkul on American Selling Price, Volume I. Werschkul had even had it bound. In leather.
I looked at the title: WASP How perfect. How Werschkul.

"Are you going to read it?" Strasser said.
"I'll wait for the movie," I said, plopping it on my desk.

I knew right then that I'd have to start flying back to Washington, D.C., take on this fight myself. There was no other way.

And maybe it would cure my burnout. Maybe the cure for any burnout, I thought, is to just work harder. [...]

It seems wrong to call it "business." It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. VVhat we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher—and none ofus wavered in the belief that "stakes" didn't mean "money" For some, 1 realize, business is the all-out pursuit ofprofits, 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 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. SIVhen 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. [...]

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

I heard it from every economics professor I ever had, at both Oregon and Stanford, and everything I saw and read thereafter backed it up. International trade always, always benefits both trading nations.

Another thing I often heard from those same professors was the old maxim: "When goods don't pass international borders, soldiers will." Though I've been known to call business war without bullets, it's actually a wonderful bulwark against war. Trade is the path of coexistence, cooperation. Peace feeds on prosperity. That's why, haunted as I was by the Vietnam War, I always vowed that someday Nike would have a factory in or near Saigon. [...]

Okay, I said, okay, I'd like to meet eighty-six-year-old General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vlemamese MacArthur, the man who singlehandedly defeated the Japanese, the French, the Americans, and the Chinese.

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 coaches, and great business leaders, the elite of the elite. I never in a mirror.

He knew I had questions. He waited for me to ask them. 

I said simply: "How did you do it?" I thought I saw the corners of his mouth flicker. A smile? Maybe? He thought. And thought. "I was," he said, "a professor of the jungle." [...]

ALMOST THREE DECADES ago Harvard and Stanford began studying Nike, and sharing their research with other universities, which has created many opportunities for me to visit different colleges, to take part in stimulating academic discussions, to continue to learn. It's always a happy occasion to be walking a campus, but also bracing, because while I find students today much smarter and more competent than in my time, I also find them far more pessimistic. Occasionally they ask in dismay: "WThere is the U.S. going? WThere is the world going?" Or: "WThere are the new entrepreneurs?" Or: "Are we doomed as a society to a worse future for our children?"

I tell them about the devastated Japan I saw in 1962. I tell them about the rubble and ruins that somehow gave birth to wise men like Hayami and Ito and Sumeragi. 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. Put another way: We must all be professors of the jungle. [...]

I CAN'T SLEEP. I can't stop thinking about that blasted movie, The Bucket List. Lying in the dark, I ask myself again and again, What's on yours?

Pyramids? Check.
Himalayas? Check.
Ganges? Check.
So . . . nothing?

I think about the few things I want to do. Help a couple of universities change the world. Help find a cure for cancer. Besides that, not so much things I want to do as things I'd like to say. And maybe unsay.

It might be nice to tell the story of Nike. Everyone else has told the story, or tried to, but they always get half the facts, if that, and none of the spirit. Or vice versa. I might start the story, or end it, with regrets. The hundreds—maybe thousands—of bad decisions. I'm the guy who said Magic Johnson was "a player without a position, who'll never make it in the NBA." I'm the guy who tabbed Ryan Leaf as a better NFL quarterback than Peyton Manning.

It's easy to laugh those off. Other regrets go deeper. Not phoning Hiraku Iwano after he quit. Not getting Bo Jackson renewed in 1996. Joe Paterno.

Not being a good enough manager to avoid layoffs. Three times in ten years—a total of fifteen hundred people. It still haunts.

Of course, above all, I regret not spending more time with my sons. Maybe, if I had, I could've solved the encrypted code of Mat thew Knight.

And yet I know that this regret clashes with my secret regret— that I can't do it all over again. 

God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I'd like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals, might be inspired or comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on.

It's all the same drive.
The same dream.

It would be nice to help them avoid the typical discouragements. I'd tell them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I'd tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even ifyou don't know what that means, seek it. Ifyou'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'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.

I'd like to remind them that America isn't the entrepreneurial Shangri-La people think. Free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to block, to thwart, to say no, sorry, no. And it's always been this way. Entrepreneurs have always been outgunned, outnumbered. They've always fought uphill, and the hill has never been steeper. America is becoming less entrepreneurial, not more. A Harvard Business School study recently ranked all the countries of the world in terms of their entrepreneurial spirit. America ranked behind Peru.

And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to fry something else, is genius. Giving up doesn't mean stopping. Don't ever stop.

Luck plays a big role. Yes, I'd like to publicly aclmowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome. Some people might not call it luck. They might call it Tao, or Logos, or Jfiäna, or Dharma. Or Spirit. Or God.

Put it this way. The harder you work, the better your Tao. And since no one has ever adequately defined Tao, I now fry to go regularly to mass. I would tell them: 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.

In what format do I want to say all this? A memoir? No, not a memoir. I can't imagine how it could all fit into one unified narrative. Maybe a novel. Or a speech. Or a series of speeches. Maybe just a letter to my grandkids.

I peer into the dark. So maybe there is something on my bucket list after all?

Another Crazy Idea.

Suddenly my mind is racing. People I need to call, things I need to read. I'll have to get in touch with Woodell. I should see if we have any copies of those letters from Johnson. There were so many! Somewhere in my parents' house, where my sister Joanne still lives, there must be a box with my slides from my trip around the world.

So much to do. So much to learn. So much I don't know about my own life.
Now I really can't sleep. I get up, grab a yellow legal pad from my desk. I go to the living room and sit in my recliner.

A feeling of stillness, of immense peace, comes over me.

I squint at the moon shining outside my window. The same moon that inspired the ancient Zen masters to worry about nothing. In the timeless, clarifying light of that moon, I begin to make a list.

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