I listen to a Harvard Business Review podcast (HBR IdeaCast) interviewing Bill Knight from Nike and was struck by the difference between the elevator version of his success story and what really happened. You always hear that the soles of the first Nikes were created in a waffle iron – as if it was the epiphany of a lone inventor.
Well, sort of.
The waffle iron, happened 10 years into the life of a company that was buying and reselling sneakers. Phil Knight did a paper on shoe importation in college because his high school track coach, Bill Bowerman, was always tinkering with sneakers. When he showed his idea to that track coach after graduation, Coach bought in to the company, and kept tinkering. The waffle iron moment happened. Nike began to create its own shoes. Time passed. (And ironically, today Nike owns Converse, who is usually called out as being the company in the pre-Nike sneaker world.)
Bill Bowerman passed away in 1999. And Phil Knight, chairman emeritus of Nike, is nearly 80. As he joked in the podcast, Nike is young and irreverent, and he is neither.
I think success, in hindsight, and at a distance, tends to look inevitable, rapid, and independent. But in reality, all of our ideas are incremental. We are always building on other people and on our life experiences.
Sometimes we can get disappointed when we don’t have epiphanies. Our ideas seem so pedestrian and obvious, because they’re built on everything else in our lives. But just because there are no new ideas doesn’t mean there are no good ideas. Particularly for those of us who tend to be hard on ourselves – we may need to take a step back in order to realize when we actually have a good one.