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Nike CEO John Donahoe went on a vision quest. Here’s what he learned

November 10, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC
Nike CEO John Donahoe on Leadership Next
Nike CEO John Donahoe on Leadership Next.
David Prutting—BFA.com/Reuters

A few years before becoming Nike’s CEO, John Donahoe took a long and welcome sabbatical from board meetings and conference calls. He had worked nonstop for three decades at consulting firm Bain and then at eBay, serving as CEO at both companies during some of that period, and wanted to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Donahoe’s path to personal enlightenment? A yearlong “wisdom tour” during which he met with 50 people—many of them on the north side of 65—who shared their ideas about how to stay vital despite the inevitability of Father Time (Donahoe was then 55).

“It was one of the most rejuvenating years of my life,” Donahoe said on Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast.

The lessons Donahoe learned were many. But they can be boiled down into a few nuggets that, while the frequent fodder of self-help books, are easy to forget.

“No. 1, attitude’s everything,” Donahoe said. “As we get older, we get gray hair or hair falls out, our knees hurt or our backs hurt—you sort of feel the signs of physical aging. I feel all of that. Yes, we all do. But our brains don’t necessarily get older.”

Therefore, Donahoe said, quoting one of his wisdom-tour mentors, business management author Jim Collins: “Your fifties and your sixties and, God willing, your seventies should be the most creative and productive years of your life. Because you had the wisdom of your experience. And you had the freedom to apply that wisdom where you want to do it, and you can do it out of service and not out of ego.”

Another of Donahoe’s key learnings was to spend at least some time with younger people to soak up their vitality. Many of the 50 people he talked to did so, either through coaching or volunteering, and felt far better off for it.

“Every time I hang out at the golf club with guys my own age, all we do is bitch about how bad our golf swings are and brag about what kind of red wine we drank the night before,” Donahoe said, quoting another mentor. “That makes me old. I like being around young people.”

And as a parting thought, here’s one more of Donahoe’s North Stars: “Find things in your life for which you have accountability and there’s consequence. It doesn’t have to be one big thing, but find meaningful things in your life.”