A few years ago, my long-time mentor and friend Mike Lipkin shared a saying, alternately attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni and the Theosophists, that goes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Throughout my adult life, that teacher has taken many forms: a friend, a colleague, a stranger, a book. I say adult life here because before that, I wasn’t really ready. Whatever form they have taken, these teachers have one thing in common, they show up at the exact time you need them – even though you may not know it at the time.
My most recent teacher showed up a couple of weeks ago, in the form of Phil Knight’s autobiography “Shoe Dog”, the fascinating story of the Nike empire. I had been meaning to read it since it was first published three years ago, but I guess I wasn’t ready.
Since I joined Tank in 2013 we have been fortunate to experience spectacular growth, and given plenty of opportunities to experience growth’s evil twin, spectacular growing pains! I’m certainly not complaining because I’ve learnt that growth and growing pains are two sides of the same coin.
One of Knight’s insights was the relationship between business and money. The analogy he uses is the following: Money is to business what blood is to the human body. The human body produces blood and it needs it to survive. If the body loses its ability to produce blood, it dies. But the purpose of the human body is not to produce blood. Its true purpose is to house a human being who will live, love, travel, learn, and contribute to others. In the same way, a business needs money to survive, grow and thrive.
According to Knight, and I wholeheartedly agree, being in business is not about money. It’s about the experiences. It’s about the people you meet. It’s about the employees that you take a chance on, even though they don’t have a textbook skill set. What they have is something that in French we call “je ne sais quoi”. It’s the X factor, a special something that is full of promise and potential. It shows up as a sparkle in their eyes or the right balance of confidence, humility and authenticity. The best people are always amateurs – they do it for the love of excellence and the money follows.
Sometimes, the teacher will show up literally in the middle of the night. Last weekend some very close friends of mine lost their 24-year-old son Patrick who died while running the Montreal marathon. There are no words to describe their pain. My own children were very close friends with him. I began to think about how I would react if this happened to my family. I woke up at midnight and couldn’t get back to sleep. My mind started to lead me into a bad place and I tried to shut it down. I turned on my iPad to shift my focus and continued reading Knight’s book. Amazingly, it was the chapter about the death of Matthew, his son who died in a diving accident at age 34, and how Knight dealt with his grief.
Knight wrote that, as a parent, “You never get over it. Ever.” But he said that what helped were the 2,500 letters, emails, cards of condolences that he received from all over the world. They had been sent by people with whom Knight had developed relationships. They were also sent by people whom he had never met, but who felt impacted by Nike and what Knight had built. For a man who was worth over $25 billion, once again, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the love.