Pursuing Impossible Goals: Lessons From Nike

“The cowards never started,” he’d tell me, “and the weak died along the way - that leaves us.”

Shoe Dog is the autobiographical account of how Phil Knight founded and grew Nike from nothing to become the biggest sportswear and shoe brand in the world. Since it’s release in 2016 the book has been featured on numerous lists of best books - from Bill Gates, to Inc.com - and was one of my favourite books in 2017.

Although you could probably have guessed that Knight has an interesting story to tell, what really made me love the book is the lessons he draws and wisdom he shares throughout. As a result, what you’re getting is not a one dimensional guide to starting a shoe company in the 1960s. It’s a powerful story with a lesson to teach about the merits of taking risks in the pursuit of a mission that you believe in.

Below I’ve picked some of the best quotes and lessons shared by Knight, but I would very much recommend reading the whole thing for yourself.

1. Expand your perspective

Early on, Knight recounts how he took a trip around the world after graduating from university and before he had found what he wanted to do with his life. Of course, this was at a time when it was not so easy to travel to far flung corners of the world. Throughout, you get a real sense of how this experience broadened his horizons:

"I went to Vienna, that momentous, coffee-scented crossroads, where Stalin and Trotsky and Tito and Hitler and Jung and Freud all lived, at the same historical moment, and all loitered in the same steamy cafés, plotting how to save (or end) the world.”

The trip culminates in Athens where he was inspired by the Acropolis, as so many others have been before and since:

"On my left was the Parthenon, which Plato had watched the teams of architects and workmen build. On my right was the Temple of Athena Nike. Twenty-five centuries ago, per my guidebook, it had housed a beautiful frieze of the goddess Athena, thought to be the bringer of “nike,” or victory. It was one of many blessings Athena bestowed. She also rewarded the dealmakers. In the Oresteia she says: “I admire . . . the eyes of persuasion.” She was, in a sense, the patron saint of negotiators.

I don’t know how long I stood there, absorbing the energy and power of that epochal place. An hour? Three? I don’t know how long after that day I discovered the Aristophanes play, set in the Temple of Nike, in which the warrior gives the king a gift—a pair of new shoes. I don’t know when I figured out that the play was called Knights. I do know that as I turned to leave I noticed the temple’s marble façade. Greek artisans had decorated it with several haunting carvings, including the most famous, in which the goddess inexplicably leans down . . . to adjust the strap of her shoe.”

Later, he talks about how he was inspired by reading books about some of his personal heroes:

"At the time I was reading everything I could get my hands on about generals, samurai, shoguns, along with biographies of my three main heroes—Churchill, Kennedy, and Tolstoy. I had no love of violence, but I was fascinated by leadership, or lack thereof, under extreme conditions. War is the most extreme of conditions. But business has its warlike parallels. Someone somewhere once said that business is war without bullets, and I tended to agree."

2. Keep moving forward. Don’t ever stop.

"No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavour, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.”

From almost the very beginning you can tell that Knight has a determination that carried him through some of the toughest tests building the company. His perseverance was shared by the early members of the Nike team:

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

This culminates in his advice at the end of the book to young people who are considering life as an entrepreneur:

"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 try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.”

3. Don’t fear failure

Like all entrepreneurial ventures, Nike’s chances of failing were high from the very start. But Knight was willing to take those chances and lean in to taking big risks when needed. For instance, he recounts how he enthusiastically sought out ways to reinvest cash back into growing and developing the business, even if that meant having very little set aside for emergencies:

"To have cash balances sitting around doing nothing made no sense to me. Sure, it would have been the cautious, conservative, prudent thing. But the roadside was littered with cautious, conservative, prudent entrepreneurs. I wanted to keep my foot pressed hard on the gas pedal.”

And in addition, as Knight explains later on, risk is an unavoidable part of life. Even those who never do something as high risk as starting their own business will have their fair share of worries. But what if starting a business actually helped you feel better about the rest?

"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.”

Nike could have fallen apart a dozen different ways, but it absolutely would have done if Knight and his colleagues had spent their time too worried about failure to make any progress. This was something he understood clearly and so he made sure to move fast and learn lessons along the way.

"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."

4. Seek a calling

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

Finally, Knight’s story really hits on how building a business can be about so much more than making yourself rich. If you’re working hard on something that you believe in, building a business can allow you to experience some of the most important and meaningful human experiences. As Knight explains towards the end of the book:

"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, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared 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. Maybe it will grow on me."

And of course, this philosophy comes through very clearly when he offers advice to others:

"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."

Subscribe to The Game of Few

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.