Jim Collins – A Rare Interview with a Reclusive Polymath: The Tim Ferris Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein has famously said – “The limits of our language are the limits of our world”
  • The absolute best company leaders are able to dissolve their ego into the company, and develop a sense of humility far above the rest
  • At the end of every single day, Jim opens a spreadsheet with 3 columns and logs the following:
    • The first column contains a description of what he did that day
    • The second column lists the number of creative work hours for that particular day
      • For the past 30 years, he’s clocked more than 1,000 creative work hours for the whole year – Jim always tries to be on pace to hit this
    • The third column lists a number: either +2, +1, 0, -1, or -2
      • This is a way of tracking his overall emotional state for the day (+2 is the highest – aka a really good day)
  • A great quote – “The only way to paint a masterpiece is to start with a blank canvas”
  • Find what Jim terms your “Hedgehog”:
    • Doing what you love to do and are passionate about
    • Doing what you’re encoded for (what you were born to do)
    • Something that pays
  • Trying keeping what Jim calls a “bug book”:
    • It’s a notebook where you write about what you (the bug) like/dislikes about the situations you encounter in life, always keeping in mind the idea of finding your personal Hedgehog
  • If someone is willing to give you mentor time, you owe it to them, and to you, to go prepared and then to do a lot of writing after about what you learned
  • Here’s what Jim learned from a meeting with Peter Drucker:
    • Don’t make 100 decisions when 1 will do
    • Instead of trying so hard to be successful, instead seek to be useful
  • The Flywheel Principle is an analogy for a series of good decisions, supremely well executed, taken with discipline thought, that added up over time produce a great result
    • Another way to think of this – A drives B drives C drives D and so on until you get back to A
  • Look for situations in life where you can fire bullets (try things), aim and calibrate (make sure you’re getting good results), and then fire a cannonball (go all in)
  • An option to fall back on often has negative value in relation to creative pursuits
    • You have to go all in 100%, otherwise you’ll hold something in reserve, and when it gets really scary, you’ll pull back

Books Mentioned

Intro

Language Learning

  • Tim’s senior thesis was on the phonetic and semantic acquisition of Chinese characters by native English speakers
    • The Mandarin language is very difficult to learn, as it involves the use of mouth musculature that native English speakers don’t typically use
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein has famously said – “The limits of our language are the limits of our world”
    • “I really feel like language and thinking are inseparable” – Tim
      • This is why Tim is so fascinated with learning and studying other languages
      • “It gives you a different lens through which to process the world and to absorb stimuli”
    • Tim has noticed that many of the people who he thinks of as clear thinkers (like Reid Hoffman – co-founder of LinkedIn) have an affinity for Wittgenstein

John McPhee

  • Tim took a seminar class at Princeton called “The Literature of Fact” with John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4, The Control of Nature, A Sense of Where You Are, and Encounters with the Archdruid:
    • Both Tim and Jim agree he’s an excellent writer
    • “The class was paradigm shifting for me in many respects when it came to writing and thinking”
    • Tim still has his notes from the class (he took it in 1998)
    • “The correlation between starting that class, and all of my grades improving in all of my other classes, is really uncanny”
      • Why? – “It was tightened up my thinking, and forced me to justify the use of specific words”
      • “McPhee is one of the people who had the biggest impact on my writing, but more importantly on my thinking”

Conceptual Vessels and The Level 5 Leadership Hierarchy

  • “There are different kinds of concepts – there are dialectics, hierarchies, stages, equations, categories…and one of the first and most important things to do when you’re examining something is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the best kind of conceptual vessel?’ And then from there you develop the concept.”
  • Jim explains the concept using an example from the writing process of his book, Good to Great:
    • Here’s how you differentiate among great company leaders:
      • “There is this signature of their humility and their fierce will on behalf of something that’s not about them. They are able to succumb their ego into the company….that blend of humility and will is what stands out.”
      • But how do you conceptually explain this? – Let’s use the hierarchy conceptual vessel:
        • It’s like a hierarchy of levels:
          • Level 1 – Individual capabilities
          • Level 2 – Good team skills
          • Level 3 – Great management
          • Level 4 – Great leadership
          • Level 5 – Ambition for something greater than yourself with humility and will
  • Jim gives the example of Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, as a Level 5 leader
    • “She has that extra dimension….she has that genuine personal humility and an absolute ferocious resolve for the overall cause that is NOT about her”

How do you identify that genuine humility characteristic of a Level 5 leader?

  • In the research for his book, Good to Great, Jim and his team examined whatever company letters, memos, and interviews etc. (written/given by the CEOs) that they could get their hands on, and counted how many times the company leader/CEO tended to take credit themselves for something, and how many times they gave the credit to others
    • How did they do this? – They counted the use of the vertical pronoun “I”
  • You could also count how many times the CEO/leader allowed themselves to be on the cover of a magazine
  • Or, count the number times the leader “pointed out the window” (external blame) vs. “pointed in the mirror” (took the blame)
    • This would involve examining situations where the leader attributed company hardships to factors outside themselves (like the economy)
    • The reverse of this? The leader might say – “Yes the economy is bad, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m responsible”

The Stopwatch

  • Jim always keeps a stopwatch in his pocket
    • Why does he do this?
      • Jim used to teach entrepreneurship and small business at Stanford back in his 30s 
      • He then decided to take his own entrepreneurial advice and do something on his own 
      • This led to the book Built to Last – “We [Jim and his wife, Joanne Ernst] bet everything on that book. We didn’t know if it would work. We were down to less than $10,000. We were actually really scared.”
        • “For 6 years of working on that book, no one knew who I was. I could just go into the cave and work and work and work”
        • “That kind of deep work – THAT’S how you get the ideas and do good stuff”
        • As he was writing the book, Jim aimed for 50% of his time, every day, to be related to creative work related

Tracking Your Days

  • Now, at the end of EVERY single day, Jim opens a spreadsheet with 3 columns and logs the following:
    • The first column contains a description of the day. Here’s what it might look like:
      • “Got up early, 2 hours of great creative work, breakfast with Joanne, 5 hours of creative work, work out, nap, 3 hours of creative work, dinner with Joanne, bed”
      • Jim might also note his sleep quality, any good conversations he had
    • The second column is the number of creative work hours for that particular day
      • For the past 30 years, he’s hit >1,000 hours per year – he always tries to be on pace to hit this (this averages to ~2.75 hours/day)
        • Note – this is tracked every quarter. So every 3 months, Jim will calculate his pace, and make sure he’s averaging to hit 1,000 creative yearly hours for the upcoming 9 months
        • An important quote – “Even though I describe this counting, I’m not really a time management sort of person. I don’t have to organize my time a certain way. Those 1,000 creative hours – as long as I stay there, there are millions of ways I could get there. It’s like a constraint, within which I can have a ton of freedom.”
    • The third column lists a number:
      • Jim writes down either +2, +1, 0, -1, or -2
        • This is a way of tracking his overall emotional state for the day
        • +2 is the highest (a really good day), and -2 is a very bad day
  • What does Jim do with the data?
    • He might examine all the +2 days over the past 5 years, and see how many creative work hours he’s averaged on those days
    • Or he’ll periodically read through all his descriptions of what he did every day
      • He’ll then simply try to incorporate more of what accounts for the +2s days into his life

What patterns has Jim discovered through tracking his days?

  • The +2 days tend to have many creative work hours
    • “On some of my favorite days, I just get up and basically get to lose myself all day in the research or the writing”
  • The +2 days tend to be “days of high simplicity”
  • On many of the +2 days, Jim goes rock climbing
  • Jim, 61 now, always tries to increase:
    • Overall life simplicity
    • The amount of time he spends in the flow state
    • The amount of time he spends with people he loves
  • “When you have those days where you’re really present and engaged with people you really love, those are +2 days”
  • “My +2 days are either spent in complete solitude, or spent connected to people who I have long, enduring relationships with”

What counts towards Jim’s “creative hours”?

  • The overall objective for the 1,000 yearly creative hours is “quality work”
    • Anything that contributes to the creation of this quality work, counts
      • So if a conversation sparks a subconscious creative idea – the conversation counts
  • “I define ‘creative’ as any activity that has a reasonable direct link to the creation of something that is new, or reputable, or durable”

Sleep

  • Jim remembers thinking at one point – “If a third of our lives are spent sleeping, why don’t we put as much thought into the time management of sleep as we do into the rest of our days?”
  • Jim once got a bunch of sleep tests done at a hospital in Denver
    • A big takeaway from doing this – Try to focus more on the number of hours you get during a 10 day cycle as opposed to any one particular night
      • Jim aims for 70 hours of sleep every 10 days (including naps)
  • Jim has the following rule:
    • If he wakes up in the middle of the night, and can’t fall back asleep in 20 minutes, he gets up
  • Napping
    • “I can nap pretty much anywhere, under any conditions”
    • “Naps are my saving grace”
    • Jim’s favorite napping times:
      • When he’s on airplanes
      • Afternoons (usually sometime between 2-4 PM)
      • 7 AM – 10-11 AM (the whole time)
        • Jim explains – He’ll  sometimes fall into the pattern of going to sleep at 11 PM, waking up at 3 AM, doing creative work until 7 AM, and then going back to sleep
        • Jim calls these his “perfect sleep days”

The Hedgehog Concept and the Bug Book

  • Jim explains the Hedgehog Concept from his book, Good to Great:
    • For a great company, there’s an intersection of 3 circles:
      • Doing what you’re deeply passionate about
        • “If you’re not passionate about it, you can’t endure it long enough to do something exceptional”
      • What you can be the best in the world at
        • “If you can’t be the best in the world at it, leave it to others”
      • An economic engine (the company is making money) 
    • “I’m not a believer in thinking of traditional careers, I’m a believer in thinking of finding your Hedgehog.” So, there’s also the personal version of the Hedgehog Concept:
      • Doing what you love to do and are passionate about
      • Doing what you’re encoded for (not what you’re the best in the world at)
        • Encoded = what you were born to
      • You have an economic engine that you can use to fund your goals/objectives (so it pays)
  • “We struggle in our 20s to get clarity of how to deploy ourselves in the world”
    • Up until you graduate college, life is pretty structured – high school, college, grad school…. but now what?
      • Well….“The only way to paint a masterpiece is to start with a blank canvas”
        • This involves figuring out your personal 3 hedgehog circles 
  • So what’s the bug book…?
    • In a sense, you’re studying yourself like a bug
    • With dispassionate objectivity, you make notes in the Book Book, “observing the bug called [your name]”
      • In a third person way, you write about what you (the bug) like/dislikes about the situations you encounter in life, always keeping in mind the idea of finding your personal hedgehog circles
      • An example, you might write – “The bug Jim really hates spending time in meetings”

Peter Drucker and Who Luck

  • Peter is the author of The Effective Executive
    • Tim says he’s read it more times than he can count
    • Jim wrote the foreward for the 50th anniversary edition of the book
  • “Who Luck” – this is the term for the luck of having the right people intersect you in life at the right time
    • Sure enough, Peter Drucker eventually entered Jim’s life when a magazine interviewer (who was interviewing Jim for his book – Built to Last) introduced him after asking Jim who he most admired (his answer was Peter)
      • The two eventually arranged a meeting, but Jim notes – “If someone is willing to give you mentor time like that, you owe it to them, and to you, to go prepared and then to do a lot of writing after”
        • Jim says he put 3 full days into preparing for his meeting with Peter
          • For a meeting about a year ago with Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, Jim says he spent ~ 2 weeks preparing
        • After their chat, Jim says he “wrote and wrote and wrote” about everything he gleaned from the meeting”
        • What did Jim take away from the meeting?
          • One of his biggest insights – Peter had only written about 1/3rd of his books by the time he was 65 (Jim was only in his 30s at the time)
          • Jim concluded that Peter, through all his work, was chasing the answer to this question – “How do you simultaneously make our society more productive and more humane”
          • “Don’t make 100 decisions when 1 will do”
            • Tim and Seth Godin talked more about this concept in these Podcast Notes 
          • Instead of trying so hard to be successful, instead seek to be useful
          • For more, check out this piece

What is the Flywheel Principle?

  • Check out Jim’s latest work/monograph – Turning the Flywheel (it’s only 46 pages)
    • The idea sprung out of a chapter in Good to Great
  • Jim explains the principle:
    • “The way something really dramatic appears to those looking from the outside, is different than the way it feels to those doing it on the inside” 
      • Like a company’s successes – There is no single thing which accounts for it but it often appears like there is
    • So the Flywheel Principle is an analogy for – “A series of good decisions, supremely well executed, taken with discipline thought, that added up over time produce a great result”
      • Just like pushing a flywheel…
        • After a lot of work you get one turn, and you keep pushing, and you get two turns, and you push more etc. etc. 
        • There is no single one push that makes the wheel turn – it’s a cumulative effect
  • But the most important thing to understand:
    • “A flywheel is an underlying, compelling logic of momentum. It’s not a list of steps drawn as a circle, called a flywheel. Rather, there’s an inevitability built in. If you do ‘A’ you almost can’t help but do ‘B’. And if you do ‘B’ you almost can’t help but do ‘C’…”
      • “A drives B drives C drives D and so on around the loop”
  • Jim explains The Flywheel Principle more here

Jim’s Own Flywheel

  • His starting point – “Curiosity fed big questions”
    • “If I’m curious about something, I can’t help but want to learn about it and do research on it”
  • The research then leads him to ideas/insights/concepts 
  • Those ideas/insights/concepts then lead to writing about them, teaching them, and sharing them
  • If the writing is well done, that creates an impact on society
  • Impact then leads to funding which allows him to fund his next curiosity fed big question

Jim’s Wife – Joanne

  • Jim and his wife Joanne got engaged 4 days after their first date
    • Their first date was an 8 mile run (Jim, not really a runner like his wife, forced the two to walk the last 5)
    • “Hands down, it was the best decision I’ve ever made”
  • In the acknowledgement of his book, Good to Great, Jim wrote what he says was one of his best pieces of writing, ever
    • One line reads – “Success in the end, for me, is that my spouse likes and respect me even more as the years go by.”

Firing Bullets and Cannonballs

  • Tim circles back and asks about something Jim brought up earlier in the interview – how he took such a big leap to leave his job at Stanford and write Built to Last
    • The underlying idea behind the decision to do so was… – firing bullets, calibrating and making sure you’re aimed, and then firing a cannonball
      • Jim had been firing bullets for 6-7 years (doing the book research, teaching in the classroom, and receiving early responses that people resonated with the book principles)
      • All of this added to enough calibration that Jim thought it was time to fire a cannonball, and take the leap to write the book
  • On a related note…
    • Jim had asked another mentor at Stanford if “he should keep enough capital alive at Stanford, so that if the book didn’t work out, he could come back”
    • Here’s what that mentor said – “An option to come back has negative value on the creative path”
      • “If you have the option to come back, it will change your behavior. You have to go all in 100%, otherwise you’ll hold something in reserve, and when it gets really scary, you’ll pull back. The option to come back is not in your best interest”

Wrapping Up

  • Jim’s points to close:
    • “We get so wrapped up in all these things we’re doing and trying to get done, but life is really short.”
    • “Life is people. Life is at its best when doing meaningful things with people you love.”

Random

  • Jim loves to prepare for conversations
    • He’ll try to write down 3 topics he’d love to chat about, even if he’s getting together with a really good friend
  • Jim napped before recording this podcast (he actually woke up only 8 minutes before)
  • “The most dangerous addictions of all – heroin, alcohol, and a monthly salary. And then maybe social media.” – Tim
  • Tim says Naval Ravikant does a great job of providing short wisdom on Twitter

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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