Life Advice from Phil Knight

Credit: Courtesy Nike

The Nike co-founder on criticism, competition, and what the world's greatest athletes have in common.

How did growing up in Oregon shape you?

It had a huge impact on me, and it's had an impact on Nike itself. The culture of the company would be entirely different if the headquarters were in another state. I think everyone born in Oregon is an environmentalist by birth. I've said many times that I might as well have webs between my toes. We live in our own little corner of the world, and we all kind of obey the rules.

You ran track at the University of Oregon for legendary coach Bill Bowerman. How did he influence you?

If there was no Bill Bowerman, there would have been no me. He had about as much of an impact on my life as any one person could have. He taught me about competition and ingrained it in me. He taught me not to praise ordinary performances. Getting praise from him was better than getting it from another coach, because then you knew it had been an exceptional performance.

How competitive does one need to be in order to be successful in business?

Well, certain people don't have to be so competitive, but if you're going to be a CEO in the business world, you've got to be. At the end of the day, we often say, "Business is just war without bullets."

You've worked with some of the best athletes in the world. What have you learned about them?

First of all you realize that they — Tiger, Michael, LeBron, Roger Federer — are just regular human beings, but what they really have in common is an attitude toward competition and toward training. They work harder to get to where they are, both mentally and physically. They are focused in a way that other people aren't.

You've said that if everyone ran a few miles a day, the world would be a better place. Why?

Running is a basic ingredient for your health, just as much as eating and sleeping, but going out for a run by yourself and taking a moment to think also creates a certain peace. You make lots of decisions when you're CEO, but you're probably only getting some of them right. Running gives you this moment to step back and reflect before going ahead.

You lost your son 12 years ago to a diving accident in El Salvador. How did you get through that?

I got so many letters and emails that helped, though there was one, from Wall Street analyst Gordy Crawford, that was particularly helpful. He had lost his own son in a climbing accident in Taiwan. He said that when he found out, he left the office and didn't come back for six months. It was helpful for me to hear that I shouldn't hurry back, because I couldn't do anything. I was paralyzed for six months. But after that I was able to start to work again. Now I can laugh and function just fine, but you never get over it.

In the past you faced criticism on labor issues in factories. How should a person handle criticism?

You have to face it head-on, and I don't think I dealt with it well early on. The media is always looking for controversy, and all of a sudden we'd become the biggest target in the world. Looking back, I wish I had handled it better — just faced it right on and said, "Keep an eye on us because we are going to be a lot better going ahead," which is ultimately what we did. In any case like that, you're not going to be able to run from it. Another thing, which I didn't do, is give your critics credit and respect, even if you think they are wrong.