Life lessons from “Shoe dog” — What the creator of NIKE has for the next generation

Whenever you look at the stories of successful companies, it is exciting to see how the founders are highly passionate towards their dreams. While most of us are aware of the anecdotes like “college-dropout-making-computers” (Microsoft) or “connectivity-from-dorms” (Facebook), we might not have heard the stories of other companies. Phil Knight, made an attempt to share his journey in creating Nike with his memoir, “Shoe dog”. It’s heart touching, a fascinating journey and has philosophical aspects. His life (or maybe his narration) is somewhat cinematic where the protagonist explores the world, takes risks, has ups and downs and finally builds this huge empire that we see today.

Cover page of Shoe dog by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. P.S: Obviously the life story of a CEO (which is a roller-coaster ride) can’t be summarized in 400 words. So, I tried to provide a gist of it.


Phil, is a business graduate from Stanford university. During a seminar, he presents a paper exploring the possibilities of shoe market in America by importing from other nations (Around the same time, the camera industry in US was booming by Sony, a Japanese conglomerate). Phil observes that already there is Adidas from Germany making huge profits but believes there is scope to make profits. So, his plan is to import shoes from Japanese company, Onitsuka (Now Asics) and sell in America i.e he becomes a distributor for Onitsuka in America.

It may seem like a cliche idea, I mean you may think what’s there in bringing shoes from one country and sell in another. Remember it’s post WW-II (where the relations between US and Japan are not so congenial). Also added to that comes a series of twists like a roller-coaster ride where his lender bank rejects his loan, Onitsuka betraying Phil by partnering with others (or playing business politics) and the degrading quality of imported shoes. Phil shares his story of how he came across these (and many other) hurdles, started manufacturing own shoes under his own brand and finally made Nike what it is today.

Phil Knight, creator of Nike and author of “Shoe Dog”, his memoir

0. There is no clear path in life

“You need to know where you are going and why you are going. But how and when you will be reaching is not 100% in your control. That makes life interesting.”

You might know the destination but the road is only visible to the short range/curve. Only after you walk a few steps, you can get a view of next short range/curve, and by combining these short ranges one can reach his/her destination. (Photo by Ashley from Pexels)

1. Luck plays a role

Phil believes in the idea of “Luck α Hard work” instead of a plain constant luck factor. He says, “Have faith in yourself, but have faith in faith”

Harder you work, greater your luck (Source:

2. Take risks and experiment on what you believe

In 1970 s, Nike became the first shoemaker to introduce air soles in shoes. In fact Phil thought the “air-soles technology” is comic book stuff and dismissed it when presented for first time. But he changed his mind when Adidas also felt the same (so he wanted to take the risk, try uncommon).

It’s okay to try and fail rather than not try and say “What if”. (Source: Candyz)

Also Phil invests a lot in R&D to stay ahead in competition. He made business possible with China and Japan during 1970 s despite the relations between the nations due to World War II. He emphasized the importance of international trade and took a bold risk and stood ahead.

“When goods don’t pass the borders, soldiers will”

3. Have your own style

During the initial days of the company, there were only 2 employees in Nike, Phil and his friend Johnson.Whenever his friend asks for his advice, Phil ignores to reply. Because Phil believes in his friend and is against “spoon feeding managerial style” where each and every decision is to be informed.

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path yourself” — Buddha

4. Listen to your employees

Phil might not respond to his employees (at least at the start of his career, leaving them to make their own decisions) but always listens to them. In fact, the company’s name Nike (Greek goddess of victory) was suggested by his employee and he is hesitant to place it over his own suggested name. But ultimately, he listened to them and agreed on Nike as the brand name.

“Linear thinking is delusional while reality is nonlinear” — Zen

5. Your work should speak for itself, not advertising

Phil doesn’t believe in costly advertising, instead says “When you make a great product, the product speaks for itself”. But his board members insisted in endorsing Nike with athletes and thus the huge endorsing with star athletes became a trend.

While advertising is important now a days, try to “make your resume speak for yourself instead of you trying to advertise.”

6. Have trustworthy and experienced people in your circle

Phil recruited the best and experienced people during his initial days. His coach Bowerman, who experiments with shoes all the time made the R&D contribution to Nike at the initial days. His friends are highly passionate and they joined with Phil knowing that they are less paid, which shows their mutual trustworthiness.

7. Teamwork matters

“Two people of good talent working together will always beat two people of great talent who aren’t working together”

Though you can do it alone, always try to make a team. (Source: Newsignature)

8. Don’t be shy about asking for advice

Some people’s approach is “I’ll do it on my own”. While you should do it on your own, it doesn’t mean that you should do everything on your own. Phil believes:

“Try to gain wisdom from others because in this ocean of knowledge, there’s a lot to pick up and it’s not possible for one individual to do it on his/her own”

9. Don’t beg for others to get convinced

Phil doesn’t like to make too many negotiations. He believes in his content and values his self respect. So, either you improve your content or be satisfied with what you have instead of wasting time with negotiations.

10. Don’t put too many innovations in one product

When they had many new ideas, Phil suggested not to put all in one product because its “Too big to fail”. If something happens, then it’ll be very difficult to recover. (Which many tech companies follow)

11. Pursue your permanent goal though you are satisfying your daily needs

Though Phil’s ultimate dream is to be in shoe market, he tried to be financially independent by working in investment firm, in a college as a professor (where he met his future wife).

“Do work that means something to you. Not to others”

12. Never ever stop moving towards your goals

Though Phil almost went bankrupt, lost his kid at an early age, got betrayed (or business politics) with his shoe suppliers he never stopped moving towards his goals. He just laced up his shoes, took a long run and come with refreshing mind to see the possibilities instead of sitting and mourning for what he lost.

“To study the self is to forget the self” — Japanese quote

13. Opensource innovations for greater good

Like many companies, Phil describes in his memoir that Nike open sourced many of it’s innovations for greater good. At the end of the day,

“We is more important than me”

Note: Some lessons are from my own understanding and are not quoted in his memoir. Also, people who are into sports/interested in sports will like his memoir as he himself was once an athlete.

Thank you Vrindasanil for suggesting this book to me.

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