biography

Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

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Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

paul

When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

tuesdays

The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Not quite Federer

Chris Bowers, John Blake Publications Ltd, 2013

federer

After having read through glowing reviews about this biography, here is my take on it:

What should a book about your greatest role model be like? It should be able to have you riveted to the anecdotes and to the words and ideas of the mind behind the force you are so dependent on. Chris Bowers fails to impress. With the book being divided into five parts, of which one of them is called “Nadal the nemesis”, I was put off. For someone who has followed Federer’s life with as much adoration as I did, having Nadal feature in a substantial part of the book was irritating, to say the least. While Federer won titles, and worked on excelling upon the perfection of his game, I would have loved to know how he dealt with life off court, at practice and with his role as being IC President and the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and not only on how his matches against Nadal panned out; no thanks, I watched them Live.

It is unfortunate that Chris Bowers could not access more information. Indeed, this is a biography that has been written independently, as Federer turned down requests to contribute towards an authorised biography.

The good thing about the book is that it feels like an interesting article in a sports magazine. With quirky quotes picked from press conferences and sports magazines, the quilt made by Bowers about Roger is endearing. But, I’m willing to bet my last penny that Roger’s own account  will eb superb; especially those of his childhood, those days he spent blasting through opponents in the junior and the ATP level, when he courted the love of his life, when he injured himself, his work with Roger Federer Foundation and the epic battles at the Majors!

Being an ardent Roger Federer fan and someone who followed his career, I could keep up with the names thrown about in the book. Also, the book made me relive those days when I would scout the newspaper for an article and picture of him. Unfortunately, that is mostly all it does. It is neither earth shaking, nor quotable. This is a book for his fans. His fans will read it, and enjoy it while it lasts. I don’t see myself reading this one again. But I’ll keep it, simply because it probably is the best account of the tennis life of the man I have looked up to. I might even read it again, who knows; for, the title itself will make me.

Chris Bowers, if you’d chosen any other subject for a biography, you would not have sold.

Ebook friendly? I read the paperback. But the language is simple, so it should be okay.

3- Give it a read.