Money lessons from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (creator of Nike).

"What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much it becomes essentially the same thing." - Phil Knight

Reading business memoir books can take a bit of work and I don’t mean the fun kind of work; with certain books, I have to give myself motivational speeches by page 15  and encourage myself to plod along. Do you know that feeling? Not this book. Not only a fun read, it also helped me connect with the author as a human being, flaws and all. A deep honesty shone through in the stories & anecdotes about Phil Knight’s own shortcomings, his mistakes, management style, accidental great decisions, business highs and a sometimes flawed relationship with his children - which was truly refreshing. It all started with a $50 loan from his father; today we all recognise the Nike swoosh- the whole story is such a gripping, fascinating & hilarious read.

Some of my favourite lines from the book, which speak to his relationship with money, work and business are below with my thoughts:

On business:

“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 1970’s, 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 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.”

It is striking how in touch Phil Knight is with his mission, vision and a ‘higher aim’ which included meaning, contribution and efficiency - needs that all humans share. Business can be life-alienating rather than life-enriching, with a focus merely on the bottom line, profits or ‘what’s in it for me?’. It can also be alive, full of meaning, play with a laser sharp focus on delivering value and improving the quality of life of the customers (or clients) you work with. Having empathy for what is important to a customer is so important in business & also doing business for more than just ‘money’.

On money:

“When it came rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that's the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it.

I bought a Porsche. I tried to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, and wound up in a lawsuit with Donald Sterling. I wore sunglasses everywhere, indoors and out. There’s a photo of mine in a ten-gallon gray cowboy hat - I don’t know where or when or why. I had to get it all out of my system. Even Penny wasn’t immune. Overcompensating for the insecurity of her childhood, she walked around with thousands of dollars in her purse. She bought hundreds of staples, like rolls of toilet paper, at a time. It wasn’t long before we were back to normal. Now, to the extent that she and I ever think about money, we focus our efforts on a few specific causes. We give away $100 million each year, and when we’re gone we’ll give away most of what’s left.”

From my other blogs, you may notice that I spend quite a lot of time wondering about the unconscious drivers around our relationship with money. Some of us need to act out behaviours several times before we get to the bottom of it - and our childhood’s have a lot to do with our relationship with money too. As Phil refers to it ‘get it all out of my system’. Glad to note that his wife Penny and he did explore what they truly wants to do with money and they are now philanthropists.

An inspirational read, highly recommend!

Oh, and like me if you wonder what ‘Shoedog’ means, it is an industry slang name given to a veteran of the footwear industry. Someone who has dedicated their life to selling shoes is sometimes referred to as “an old shoedog”.

Further reading:

Shoe Dog - Gates Notes