Excerpts from “Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike” by Phil Knight.

Excerpts from “Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike” by Phil Knight.


I have just finished reading the memoir of Phil Knight about his journey as an entrepreneur – the story of creating Nike. The book does a great job of giving a glimpse of an entrepreneurial journey – the genesis, the humble and lonely beginnings, the commitment and persistence, the ups and downs, the surprises etc. In particular, Knight gives the readers a peak into what happens inside the mind of an entrepreneur that I found very interesting and helpful. Essential reading for entrepreneurs and incubator managers!

For those who wish to reflect, I am compiling some excerpts from the book:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Knight’s teacher about venturing into the trails in Oregon– “The cowards never started, and the weak dies along the way – that leaves us.” Us. Some rare strain of pioneer spirit was discovered along that trail, my teacher believed, some outsized sense of possibility mixed with a diminished capacity for pessimism – and it was our job as Oregonians to keep that strain alive.

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.

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.

History is one long processional of crazy ideas. The things I loved most – books, sports, democracy, free enterprise – started as crazy ideas.

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. 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. 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.

“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


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.

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.”

In Zen and the Art of Archery, “Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is reached … when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one’s own sword and how to wield it … All is emptiness: your own self, the flashing sword, and the arms that wield it. Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path yourself”, said the Buddha.

“Expect nothing, seek nothing, grasp nothing” – Japanese poets

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” – Confucius.

MacArthur –“You are remembered for the rules you break.”

“All are proud of their craft. God speaks of his work; how much more should man.” – Eleazar ben Azariah, First century rabbi.

“Don’t go to sleep one night. What you most want will come to you then. Warmed by a sun inside you’ll see wonders.” – Rumi, thirteenth-century Persian poet.

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

“You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory …. Without victory, there is no survival.” — Winston Churchill

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.

I wanted what everyone wants. To be me, full-time.

Life is growth. You grow or you die.

Each of us found pleasure, whenever possible, in focusing on one small task. One task, we often said, clears the mind.

“Because,” Woodell’s mother said, “if you can’t trust the company your son is working for, then who can you trust?”

No news was bad news, no news was good news – but no news was always some sort of news.

Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. Lifers used the phrase cheerfully to describe other lifers, men and women who had toiled so long and hard in the shoe trade, they thought and talked about nothing else. It was an all-consuming mania, a recognizable psychological disorder, to care so much about insoles and outsoles, linings and welts, rivets and vamps. But I understood. The average person takes seventy-five hundred steps a day, 274 million steps over the course of a long life, the equivalent of six times around the globs – shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of the 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?

It was dark as I walked out of the office building, into the crowded Tokyo street. A feeling came over me, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I felt spent, but proud. I felt drained, but exhilarated. I felt everything I ever hoped to feel after a day’s work. I felt like an artist, a creator. I looked back over my shoulder, took one last look at Nissho’s offices. Under my breath I said, “We made this.”

Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t care if he dies crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first.

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.

Pre said as much himself. “A race is a work of art,” he told a reporter, “that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

“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.

Pre was most famous for saying, “Somebody may beat me – but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”

Like most companies, we had role models. Sony, for instance. Sony was the Apple of its day. Profitable, innovative, efficient – and it treated its workers well. When pressed, I often said I wanted to be like Sony. At root, however, I still aimed and hoped for something bigger, and vaguer. I would search my mind and heart and the only thing I could come up with was this word –“winning”. It wasn’t much, but it was far, far better than the alternative. Whatever happened, I just didn’t want to lose.

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.

If watching Shorter go off in shoes other than mine could affect me so deeply, it was now official: Nike was more than just a shoe. I no longer simply made Nikes; Nikes were making me. If I saw an athlete choose another shoe, if I saw anyone choose another shoe, it wasn’t just a rejection of the brand alone, but of me. I told myself to be reasonable, not everyone in the world was going to wear Nike. And I won’t say that I became upset every time I saw someone walking down the street in a running shoe that wasn’t mine.

“Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.” – Nike advertisement.

But instead of cherishing how far we’d come, I saw only how far we had to go. My window looked onto a beautiful stand of pines, and I definitely couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I didn’t understand what was happening, in the moment, but now I do. The years of stress were taking their toll. When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly. At just the moment I needed to be my sharpest, I was approaching burnout.

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.

In time we all agreed to pretend it was no big deal. We’d learned a valuable lesson. Don’t put twelve innovations into one shoe. It asks too much of the shoe, to say nothing of the design tea. We reminded each other that there was honor in saying, “ Back to the drawing board.” We reminded each other of the many waffle irons Bowerman had ruined.

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. What 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 of us wavered in the belief that “stakes” didn’t mean “money”. For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, 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 t, 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.

In one sense our campus is a topographical map of Nike’s history and growth; in another it’s a diorama of my life. In yet another sense it’s a living, breathing expression of that vital human emotion, maybe the most vital of all, after love. Gratitude.

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 keep thinking of one line in The Bucket List. “You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”

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.

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.

“I was a professor of the jungle.” —General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam.

Mr Hayami nodded. “See those bamboo trees up there? he asked.


“Next year … when you come … they will be one foot higher.”

I stared. I understood.

Phil Knight to students –“ 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 the professors of the jungle.”

On a plaque next to the entrance will go an inscription: Because mothers are our first coaches.

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 or 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 if you don’t know what that means, seek it. 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.

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.

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.

Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.

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.