Phil Knight bares the soul of Nike
To a certain extent, I think you have to be a runner to truly understand Knight. He is like so many that I have known and bonded with. Runners are a race of their own. To a runner, the world is staked on going for a run. Loyalties are tested, friendships cemented, ideas floated, stress managed, life courses altered, and deals are sealed through the sweat of a 6 mile run.
I had a copy of Phil Knight's new book Shoe Dog on my desk at school. A teacher passed by, saw the book, and said, "Everything about them is overpriced and overrated."
A Sophomore walked by, saw the book, and said, "You should see these new KDs they just put out--super sweet!! I love Nike stuff!"
Therein lies the great Nike dilemma. Kids see them as gods of invention, adults see them as gods of manipulation.
I guess for a while I have been one of those adults. As a runner for 35 years, I grew up with Nike. Waffle racers? Had em. Air Max, Pegasus? Swore by em. But I have to admit to growing skeptical of the Nike "meganess" that seemed to abandon the old mulleted runner in me.
When I saw Knight was publishing a memoir, I was eager to get the real story behind this iconic company I grew up with. It was almost like revisiting the question, "Why should I like them?" And while I knew bits and pieces of the rise of the Nike empire, I wanted to hear it from the beginning, and perhaps see things through a new lens.
Boy am I glad I did.
In a nutshell, this is a story of Phil Knight more than it is about Nike. It is a memoir, not a business model. Donald Katz did a book called just do it that examines the rise of Nike and Knight, but Shoe Dog looks more at Knight and Nike. To accomplish this, Knight goes all the way back to the sunset of his college days, which finds him much like every new college grad: In search of the meaning of life and the path to get there. Knight comes out of college armed with a "Crazy Idea" that essentially involves importing Japanese running shoes, but it is far more complicated and immense than that. The book, organized chronologically, traces the development of this Crazy Idea from a college thesis to what Nike is today. And it is quite the story!!
It is hard not to like Phil Knight after reading this book. There's a whole litany of personality traits on display that make this him successful. First, he has unbeatable tenacity. There are a million ways Nike could have failed. Money, lawsuits, personnel, timing, you name it. The challenges Knight faced were extreme, but for every punch he took, he remarkably bounced back up and figured out a way to regroup.
He also displays a humble ability to admit shortcomings, mistakes, and regrets. There are a number of times that he notes his own character flaws and how they may have hurt others, whether it be business partners or family. He is clearly a man who knows himself well--perhaps too well. There is a self deprecating tone present, and it is actually quite refreshing to hear someone so successful wear humility.
Knight insists on mixing business and fun. A central tenet of Knight's friendships and office environments is fun. Knight likes to laugh, and it was evident that while the business dealings were hot, Knight almost demanded that humor be part of the equation. He also stresses loyalty as part of his fabric. His unwavering commitment to quality and striving to be the best really drove him past the big dogs like Adidas and Puma. Knight is quite loyal to his personal connections, specifically people like Bill Bowerman, his father, his wife, investors, and others he respects and trusts. There is a clear sense of not wanting to let those down who influenced him. Many readers have found that these qualities make Shoe Dog inspirational, and I would fully agree.
I personally loved the ethos of the book. From the start, the reader gets a very worldly vibe from Knight. He makes it clear that there is a "search for oneself" phase in life that is not to be denied--one that was the catalyst for Nike. To a certain extent, I think you have to be a runner to truly understand Knight. He is like so many that I have known and bonded with. Runners are a race of their own. To a runner, the world is staked on going for a run. Loyalties are tested, friendships cemented, ideas floated, stress managed, life courses altered, and deals are sealed through the sweat of a 6 mile run. My sister still makes fun of me 20 years later for making a run part of my bachelor party! You'd have to be a runner to get it. I see Knight again in these "runner" terms after this book. He's a runner at heart: A loner, a friend, a competitor, a thinker, an internalizer, a complex simpleton, a sufferer, a loyalist. He's truly one of us. Nothing comes through clearer in Shoe Dog. I think it is something I needed to be reminded of.
This book needs to be on high school library shelves. Get it. The kids will be attracted to it primarily through the Nike swoosh, but they would be well served to read it. The writing is engaging, it is a fluid read, and there is enough drama to keep the pace fresh. As far as life lessons, there could be no stronger book for an age of kids just beginning to form their vision of the future. Knight provides a grand vision.