Business and Relationships: Lessons from Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and Peter Thiel’s Zero to One

So I finished Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog this weekend.

I loved it.

I had no idea where Nike came from and really enjoyed it. I’ve written about how the prologue got to me.  Some of Knight’s closing comments also got to me.

At the end of the book, he talks about watching the Bucket List with his wife, and reflects on the impact of his working relationships on his life.

He goes on to remember a gift he was given from LeBron James:

He hands me the watch. It’s engraved: “With thanks for taking a chance on me.”

As usual, I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t much of a chance. He was pretty close to a sure thing.

But taking a chance on people – he’s right. You could argue that’s what it’s all been about.” 

“I thought of that phrase, “It’s just business”. It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever becomes just business, that will mean that business is very bad…

You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you

Later, he recalls a meal he had in Tokyo with Michael Jordan:

We laughed, cheered, clinked glasses, and something passed between us, the same thing that passes between me and most of the athletes I work with. A transference, a camaraderie, a sort of connection. It’s brief, but it nearly always happens, and I know it’s a part of what I was searching for when I went around the world in 1962.

To study the self is to forget the self. Mi casa, su casa. 

Oneness – in some way, shape or form, it’s what every person I’ve ever met has been seeking“.

At the end he considers:

God how I wish I could relive the whole thing.

Short of that, I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals, might be inspired or comforted. It would be nice to help them avoid the typical discouragements.

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… not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what it 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”.

Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your heart“.

I’ve been reflecting on relationships a lot this year. Almost all the business books I’ve recently read emphasise the importance of high quality working relationships. Building the right team, working with friends, effectively creating a second family.

I also finished Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future this weekend. I wasn’t impressed by Peter Thiel’s support of Donald Trump (even if it’s now waning) and put off reading it for a long time. I’m glad I gave in as it’s a great book.

There’s a lot of good stuff on building new ventures and assembling the right people. The first team Peter built is known in Silicon Valley as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many of them went on to help each other start and invest in successful tech companies, all of which are now worth more than a $1 billion each.

The team has done extraordinarily well, both together and individually, the culture was strong enough to transcend the original company. 

We didn’t assemble a mafia by sorting through resumes and simply hiring the most talented people.

I had seen the mixed results of that approach first hand when I worked at a New York law firm. The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals on by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. [I’ve also experienced this…]

Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other. Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold, it’s not even rational. 

Since time is your most valuable asset. It’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well – even in purely financial terms. 

I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal mafia.”

I think I’ve been reading too much recently. Like Phil Knight says at the end of Shoe Dog, “Now I really can’t sleep…“.