Jim Collins — A Rare Interview with a Reclusive Polymath (#361)

Photo by George Lange

“I’m not really a business author; I just happen to have used companies as the method to study human systems because there’s great data.” — Jim Collins

My guest for this episode is the incredible (and somewhat reclusive) Jim Collins.

This was a rare treat, as Jim rarely does any media or interviews. I’ve wanted to speak with him for more than a decade, and it was worth the wait. This conversation overdelivered on every level. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

So, who is Jim Collins?

Jim Collins (jimcollins.com) is a student and teacher of what makes great companies tick, and a Socratic advisor to leaders in the business and social sectors. He has authored or coauthored eight books that have together sold 10+ million copies worldwide, including Good to Great, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, Great by Choice, and his newest work, Turning the Flywheel.

Driven by a relentless curiosity, Jim began his research and teaching career on the faculty at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. In 1995, he founded a management laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

In 2017, Forbes selected Jim as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds.

Jim is also an avid rock climber and has completed single-day ascents of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#361: Jim Collins — A Rare Interview with a Reclusive Polymath


Want to hear an episode with someone else who likes to ask big questions? — Listen to my conversation with Nick Kokonas, subversive entrepreneur, angel investor, and restaurateur extraordinaire (stream below or right-click here to download):

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life


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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


  • Connect with Jim Collins:

Website | Twitter | Facebook


  • We begin by Jim asking me a few questions. The first: What was the subject of my Princeton senior thesis? [08:24]
  • How do I go about acquiring a new language? [09:29]
  • Does language constrain or enhance the concepts we develop? Let’s ask Ludwig Wittgenstein. [11:54]
  • What it was like to take a writing class taught by nonfiction great John McPhee, and how it improved more than just my writing. [15:40]
  • What is a conceptual vessel, and how do you choose the right one for the occasion at hand? Jim tells us about the time his irreverent research team changed his mind and helped created what became a cornerstone conceptual vessel: the Level 5 Leadership hierarchy. [24:29]
  • What is the Level 5 Leadership hierarchy? [30:27]
  • Among leaders, how did Jim and his team use research data to identify genuine humility and separate it from false humility? [35:25]
  • How Jim’s students led him to pursue an entrepreneurial path, why he keeps a stopwatch with three timers in his pocket, and what insight this gives us about Jim’s own successful habits. [40:26]
  • How Jim summarizes the time he spends on any given day in a spreadsheet to maximize his creative hours and ensure he doesn’t get into a “funk.” [47:32]
  • The method Jim uses to correlate what his bad days (and his good days) have in common while pursuing his relentless “discipline in service of creativity.” [52:45]
  • What patterns has Jim discovered by using this method? [55:18]
  • Three components Jim believes are crucial for living the kind of life he wants to lead. [56:27]
  • When accounting for his time, how does Jim define what counts as “creative?” [59:27]
  • How does Jim think about, monitor, and account for the time he spends sleeping? [1:07:10]
  • As someone who benefits greatly from naps, when does Jim find time to catch them? [1:11:54]
  • Jim’s absolute favorite sleeping pattern. [1:13:45]
  • What is the bug book, and how does it tie in with the Hedgehog Concept? [1:15:01]
  • How observations Jim made in his bug book led him from working in a corporate landscape to where he is today. [1:20:47]
  • As an early version of his time accounting spreadsheets, how did the bug book compare? Was it as thorough? Was it something he brought with him everywhere and used every day? [1:22:25]
  • Jim talks about “who luck” — particularly the time he was fortunate enough to spend with business visionary Peter Drucker and why, at 61 years of age, he feels his life has really just begun. [1:24:26]
  • An important aside about making sure the time a mentor agrees to spend with you is ultimately worth it for both of you. [1:29:07]
  • What big question does Jim think Peter Drucker was trying to answer? [1:33:42]
  • Two important lessons Jim learned from Peter Drucker. [1:35:32]
  • What is a flywheel, and how does it conceptually tie in with the lessons of Jim’s latest work? [1:00:00]
  • How the team at Amazon elaborated on Good to Great’s flywheel principle, and what Jim came to understand from this expanded model. [1:44:59]
  • What can people expect from the Turning the Flywheel monograph, and why was this format chosen to convey this message? [1:50:25]
  • What is Jim’s own flywheel? Where does it start, and what fuels its perpetuation? [1:53:21]
  • Can a flywheel sometimes be more of a vicious circle of degeneration than a virtuous cycle that promotes growth? What might cause an otherwise virtuous cycle to become dysfunctional? [1:55:42]
  • The mechanisms and patterns demonstrated by a doom loop and how it compares and contrasts to a flywheel. [1:57:36]
  • Jim explains why two seemingly spontaneous events from his past weren’t actually as out of character as they might seem at first glance. [1:59:24]
  • How the best decision Jim ever made and one of his favorite paragraphs he’s ever written are related. [2:04:18]
  • How the relation between empirical validation and pure analysis is like firing bullets before firing cannonballs. [2:06:00]
  • According to one of Jim’s mentors, when does the option of a safety net have a negative value? [2:08:57]
  • Parting thoughts. [2:11:51]