Cup 19

Person: Stefan Olander 

Drink: Medium Americano from the Nike cafeteria 

I got my first pair of Nike running shoes in eighth grade—back when it was a feat to finish five miles. By senior year of high school, I had a dozen pairs piled in the corner of my closet, worn from countless miles traveled along the familiar streets of my hometown.

My interest in running continued to grow and in 2008, I took a road trip out to Eugene, Oregon to watch my roommate compete in the Olympic Trials. While there, I bought a book called Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running—a book that chronicled how the company began with Bill Bowerman making shoes with a waffle iron in his garage to a sportswear giant that has significantly change the world of running.

As a runner and marketing major, I had a lot of respect for Nike, which I mentioned to William Ward (Cup 9) while carpooling to a marketing conference in Detroit. He had asked me the dreaded question I’ve been hearing a lot lately,

“So, what are your plans for after college?”

It is a well-intentioned question I feel I should have a good answer for, but I don’t, so the question creates a lot of stress. Anyways, I told Bill I liked Nike and he mentioned his friend, Stefan Olander, worked on team that developed the Nike+ running system and he’d be happy to introduce me. I was heading to the west coast for Thanksgiving so the timing was perfect. After a few emails between the three of us, I had a meeting set up with Stefan at the Nike World Headquarters in Portland.

The meeting was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was a frosty morning and despite the campus feeling deserted with many employees gone for the holiday—it was as impressive as I had expected. I met Stefan in the Jerry Rice building and we walked across the street to the cafeteria. Dr. Ward had told me Stefan was born in Sweden, so as we stood in line to order, I asked how long he had been in the United States. He said six years and started explaining the series of events that led to his current position. By the time we had our drinks and found a place to sit, I’d learned the Nike Headquarters hadn’t been Stefan’s anticipated destination.

He originally wanted to be a ski guide in the Alps—after earning a degree in engineering, he hit the slopes, leading tours while working at a skiing store on the side. His boss at the shop took a job working with Nike Nordics and convinced Stefan to follow suit.

After a few years working the Nordic division, and a few courses in marketing, Nike moved Stefan and his family to Holland to work with brand management for a five-country region. This was when the Internet was just starting to gain traction and Nike had one website it used for all its regions. This didn’t make any sense to Stefan. He understood how Europeans had different tastes than Americans so he and his team took on the task of rolling out customized websites for each region.

Stefan’s success with the new technology helped him build a reputation as a leader in digital marketing and land him his current job in Portland—Vice President of Digital Sports. That includes work with Nike+, Ballers Network, and Nike’s latest installment of digital awesomeness—Nike Grid in London. It wasn’t where he expected he’d be when he left college, but followed his passion and ended up with a job he loved.

Stefan had a laidback disposition, healthy perspective on life, interesting background, and clearly a creative mind. It seemed as if his rise through the ranks had been effortless and a process he’d enjoyed along the way. But every career is filled with a set of challenges so I asked him what advice he would give the 22-year-old version of himself.

It took him a minute to answer the question. I got the impression he appreciated both the good and bad in life as necessary steps of his journey—that he didn’t have many regrets. But he finally decided on an answer and I will never forget what he said:

“I am certain I could have achieved the same level of success without working so hard.”

He explained he never minded working hard—that’s a prerequisite—he was talking about pushing himself and people working with him TOO hard. He said he was ambitious when he left college and felt pressure to do a lot all at once. But that pressure led to working too much—like a radio dial turned a few notches past the prime spot. If he could have adjusted the dial to find the right balance of effort, he would have been more focused, more efficient, had more fun, and ended up just as successful.

 “I am certain I could have achieved the same level of success without working so hard.”

The thought echoed in my mind. It’s the opposite advice you typically hear. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Preparing for the Nike meeting had me reminiscing on my cross country days and as I sat there with Stefan, something clicked: I had the most success running during times where I was relaxed and having fun. I wasn’t having fun because I was succeeding, I was succeeding because I was having fun. The summer before my senior year, my passion for the sport engulfed me. I looked forward to daily runs—once willingly leaving an energetic wedding reception to run eight miles in the dark—I loved the pressure of challenging workouts, I counted down the days until big meets. And that passion and work led to success. 

But as that success escalated so did the pressure to continue succeeding. Somewhere along the line, the stress turned my passion into an obligation. Walking onto a Division I cross-country team definitely didn’t reduce the pressure.

The stakes at Michigan State were higher and so was the self-induced stress to prove myself. I told myself I had to work harder, had to hit a certain time at practice, had to run more miles. 

My ambition worked against me. Instead of getting better, I got worse.

I quit the team after one year. I said it was because there were other opportunities at Michigan State I wanted to explore—which was the truth—but the other factor, the one I couldn’t admit for a long time, was that I was burned out.

I had done just what Stefan had said he would tell his younger self not to do—turned the dial way past the optimal setting. I became so serious about running I started looking at fun as a distraction I didn’t have time for—something that got in the way of all the hard work I had to do.

Cup 19 was a much needed lesson that success isn’t about working as hard as possible, it’s about finding the right balance and having fun along the way.

I should have known that from my running experience that I would be more successful if I kept life fun, but it wasn’t until I heard it from someone with a career I admired that I really believed it. We live in a world where we are so often focused on the end goal we forget to have fun along the way. We constantly hear about the hard work it takes to get to the top. Stefan’s insight put that hard work into perspective.

And the timing was perfect. With graduation quickly approaching, it’s likely I would have gone out into the real world and made my cross country mistake in my first job. After Cup 19, I’ll still work hard to figure out the next best step—and work hard once I get there—but I’m going to remember my conversation with Stefan and make sure I have fun in the process.

It’s interesting, when I bought my first pair of Nikes in eighth grade, I never imagined the places they would take me.