“Seek a calling, not a job or a career,” Nike’s Phil Knight’s advice to young graduates
“Where there is no struggle, there can be no art.”
Phil Knight may be the Co-founder of Nike and one of the richest men in the world, but he is still a candidly nervous and perennially shy boy at heart, who gulps at the thought of holding public speeches. In a commencement speech to the graduating batch of Stanford in 2014, he confessed that the only reason he accepted the Dean’s frightening invitation to address the students was because “it was personal.” As he put it, a part of him was born here (Knight graduated from Stanford with an MBA in 1962), and he returned for the memories, but more importantly, to offer some priceless advice to the students set to conquer the professional world.
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In the summer before his final year at Stanford, Knight decided that he would take a year off to indulge in some soul-searching. Teaming up with friend and classmate Gary Carter, he managed to book cheap tickets to Japan and procure a job as a salesman selling encyclopaedias. Knight revealed that in hindsight, this was possibly the best decision he could have taken. It led him to a meeting with local athletic-shoe sellers, place orders for several dozen on a whim, and several months later, start a small company with his old coach, Bill Bowerman, the foundation of what would later become Nike.
In the speech, he recollects his story from being an awkward and out-of-place American salesman in a Japanese warehouse to building a multibillion dollar company. Here are a few excerpts from it that hold lessons for anyone looking to build a business.
“The goal should not be to seek a job or even a career, but to seek a calling. That search has just begun.”
At the brink of graduation, Knight knew that he could either secure himself a job where he would sweat and bleed for at least a decade, or he could give himself a year to travel and search for the unknown. He chose the latter, and it was this decision that led him down the road that would eventually lead to the creation of Nike. If he had never travelled to Japan, he would have lived out the business plan he had scribbled in his notebook during entrepreneurship class. He would never have gotten in touch with Onitsuka Co. Ltd, the Japanese manufacturing company that supplied him with Nike’s first samples. As Knight put it, his goal had never just been to seek a good job and do well. His quest for the unknown was what made him realise his true calling – from salesman, to entrepreneur, to billionaire. Hence, the real trick to becoming successful is to find your true calling before settling for the first multi-figured job that comes your way.
“It is hard enough out there. Get all the help you can. Getting help really is just a part of that lifelong search for wisdom.”
Be it his former coach and later business partner Bill Bowerman, who believed in his notebook idea, or Masaru Hayami, the President of Nissho Iwai who supplied them their greatest products, or Doug Houser, who helped them win the lawsuits, to Knight, a company’s success comes with collective support from those offering it. And so, his advice to all potential entrepreneurs is to never be too proud to accept help from those who offer it, because in the long run, it’s what will benefit your company.
“Two ‘nines’ working together will beat two ‘tens’ working for their own careers, every time. Ability and desire almost always trump money and power.”
Knight blatantly admitted to the fact that he had no idea what he was doing during the initial part of his entrepreneurial journey. He credits the company’s intimidating success to the brainstorming of all his then 45 employees, from coming up with the name ‘Nike’ to creating its carbon-copy ‘One Line’ to meet the $25 million fine (later settled at $9 million) by the Unites States Customs. To this end, he always believes that it is better working together as a team who can put their heads together and figure out a solution than battling constant ego-clashes and competition with overly-qualified individuals in the organisation.
“Dare to take chances, lest you leave your talent buried in the ground.”
Knight built a multibillion dollar company by chance. His stint at selling encyclopaedias helped him realise his then nascent interest in sales, particularly in athletic shoes, which eventually led to Nike. As he admits himself, the journey was difficult and the thorns were aplenty. But he decided to take a chance at a time when entrepreneurship was still a far-sighted dream and the markets were yet to reach maturity. And look where that got him today.
As a closing remark to the students, Knight quoted his favourite professor, Frank Shallenberger, who fuelled in him the fire of entrepreneurship:
“The only time you must not fail, is the last time you try.”