Five Lessons From Phil Knight (Shoe Dog Review)

@May 21, 2021

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight has to be one of the most fun reads I've engaged with in a long time. A combination of heroic journey, honest self-reflection and business insight, the book is one I highly recommend. In this piece, I wanted to lay out some of the things I learned and most appreciated about the book for future reference.

This post is probably best enjoyed by people who've read Shoe Dog, but it should be accessible even if you haven't.

Lesson 1: Think global.

From an early age, Phil Knight engaged with the globe and built Nike with an international perspective. He meaningfully interacted with the world, and many different people in many different countries. For example, the deep relationships that Knight built in Japan lasted a life time.

I've grown up at a time where it is easier to get around the world and believe I have some level of a global mindset. However, I realize that I fundamentally miss the deep global connection in my work and day-to-day life that Phil Knight felt. I don't engage abroad in any of my work, something I crave long-term.

Lesson 2: We all mature.

I don't think most biographies are honest about the maturation process of a leader. Maturity comes from making mistakes, most of which are emotional and irrational. Leaders rarely discuss their worst moments and motivations with honesty and vulnerability. Doing so compromises the gravitas and aura they so carefully construct. For example, Bob Iger's book (which I loved) doesn't really get into it.

In Shoe Dog, Phil was brutally vulnerable about his mistakes and what drove them. Phil behaved in rankly immature fashion in the early days of Nike (then Blue Ribbon). He ignored Johnson's letters completely. His response to Kitami's aggression was to steal documents and conceal facts from Nisho (however valiant the cause was). Later on, he struggled to be a good father to his kids, leading to lifelong regrets. Perhaps the most fascinating vulnerability Phil shares is his feelings of inadequacy as the CEO of a massive Nike, with more than $100M in revenue.

As I think about my own maturation process, it helps to understand how a titan like Phil struggled at times with his immaturity and had to work through it. People grow. It can be with their company, through the settings that they are put in a result of starting it, or through the natural course of life. No one is a finished product, regardless of how successful they may appear.

Lesson 3: Focus on values, not tactics.

Phil doesn't offer much traditional business advice in the book. It's devoid of "management tips". For example, it's not really clear if Phil ever explains his formula for working with the volatile, talented, iconoclastic bunch that formed Nike's early team (Strasser, Johnson, Hayes).

The book (and Phil's perspective) is more fundamental. It's about building something meaningful and what sacrifices need to be made along the way. It's about aligning what you do with your deepest held values.

I believe that we don't spend enough time thinking this alignment. Phil thought about it constantly at Nike. As much as he thought about more efficient manufacturing, he thought with equal depth and consideration about what Nike was and who it mattered to. He constantly evaluated whether what he was building reflected his core values: determination, innovation, and independence. Through this, Nike became a company for the athlete inside all of us, not a shoe business. This realization, more than any other, powered the company's success.

Lately, I've found that the simplistic pursuit of a "career" is not very meaningful to me. I'm not interested in "building a career". I seek to align what I do with who I am and what my values are. To do this, I need to spend more time reflecting and aligning with my values, and less time optimizing my tactics to be "successful" (e.g. networking, random coding projects, etc.) Shoe Dog helped me understand this.

I'd tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling.—Phil Knight

Lesson 4: Anyone can contribute.

Through some quirk of fate, Phil found a team of champions who came from all walks of life and contributed to Nike. Woodell was handicapped, at a time when accommodations were terrible, and became the operations guru for Nike. Hayes was an embarrassingly bizarre character, yet managed Nike's precarious finances through generational growth. Johnson was borderline insane, but was put in a position to be the keystone of product innovation. Anyone could and did contribute to the historic success that is Nike.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of startup culture to me is the emphasis on "only hiring the best". This pervasive attitude sets me off for a few reasons. First, it's lazy. Great leaders put people in a position to succeed, irrespective of their qualifications. Outsourcing your obligation to get the best out of people to a supposition that they can perform independently violates the essence of leadership. Second, it's hubris. When you commit yourself to "only working with the best" you're likely deluding yourself about your abilities and your ability to measure the talent inherent in others. In fact, you may be confusing pedigree with ability. Work with the great people regardless of their background. Third, it's erroneous. There is no objective metric defining who is the best at anything save individual athletics.

Phil didn't get caught up in hiring the "best". The rare times he did, he quickly came to regret it (e.g. the brilliant accountant hired to run Nike's first apparel release). Anyone can contribute if you're open to getting the most out of people.

Lesson 5: Reflect consistently.

Phil spent an incredible amount of time in deep self-reflection. Every night, he'd sit on his recliner, ponder the challenges he faced, and how he measured up to them. The time he spent reflecting was the keystone habit on top of which all of his deliberate action and success was based on.

Built-in reflection time has been a part of my life for about a year now. I try to journal daily, perform a weekly review, and also have other structured time to think through my priorities and actions (I follow Michael Hyatt's methods). I never regret time spent reflecting. Never. It leads me to be more intentional, proactive, and thoughtful. I act instead of reacting to life's ebbs and flows. Processing my emotions and understanding what was going on around me had not been one of my strengths prior to regularly reflecting. I find myself to be much better at these things and more stable as a result. Crucially, it allows me the mental space to act with an eye towards the long-term. One concrete example of how this reflection has helped me is my realization that I want to focus my career on computational biomedicine and avoid distractions from other interesting fields like consumer tech.

Phil's personal emphasis on reflection increased my conviction that it is one of most valuable activities to spend time on.

Fun Stories

This is a running list of some of my favorite stories and moments in the book. I'll add more as time goes by.

  1. Phil first deciding to go to Japan to import Onitsuka shoes based on his Stanford MBA thesis. Showed incredible guts.
  2. First failed relationship with Sarah. We are most human in relationships. It keeps us all humble. This failure kept Phil humble.
  3. Blue Ribbon taking the Nike name. The Nike brand is so iconic and the name is perfect. Imagining it coming out of Johnson's head in a dream is so perfectly odd.
  4. The legendary Bill Bowerman's influence on the culture and products of Nike. Bowerman is an icon, a legend, and it's cool to see how formative he was for Phil and Nike.
  5. Getting sued by the federal government. I loved Phil's detour into libertarian denunciation of the power of bureaucrats. Scary, but thrilling story.


I'll certainly be rereading the book for inspiration. I highly recommend it. I would particularly recommend it to:

  • Anyone who wants a fun read.
  • Anyone who feels a kinship to Nike's brand and wants to understand its ethos.
  • Anyone for whom those products have meant something more than a professional output.
  • Anyone looking to better understand how people grow up on the way to doing great things, especially to understand how uncertain, fear-inducing, and wild the ride can be.

I really enjoyed Shoe Dog.