The Best Thing I Heard This Month: Jim Collins — A Rare Interview with a Reclusive Polymath

Read Time: 15 Minutes

Hey friends. I’ve been reading and listening to business and leadership books, podcasts, lectures, and really whatever I can get my hands on for many years. The sad thing is that I’m terrible at sharing my thoughts about them, or that they exist at all. I’m going to change that. I’m going to begin providing monthly breakdowns of the content that makes the largest impact on me at that time. Just like Jerry Jones likes to say deadlines make deals, for me, I find that promises promote execution. So here we go!

The best thing I heard in December is Episode #361 of The Tim Ferris Show Podcast with Jim Collins. It’s titled ‘A Rare Interview With A Reclusive Polymath.’ That title is incredibly fitting for a conversation with Jim. He hardly ever does these, he’s very reclusive and private, and he’s a polymath on almost a Di Vinci level. I absolutely love this guy and his teaching. One of his most well-known works is the book Good to Great, and his latest work that I’m very excited to read is a monograph called Turning the Flywheel. Just a warning, this is a long conversation, so my breakdown is quite long. I assure you, it won’t always be this intensive!


At the top of the conversation, Jim, being the ultimate curioso, asks Tim, the interviewer, if it would be ok to begin by turning the tables and asking Tim a few questions. Tim plays along, and this turns into about a 10-minute back-and-forth covering language acquisition and its effect on mindset along with Tim’s time spent learning from John McPhee. A quote Jim brought up to describe McPhee’s remarkably disciplined writing methods is this:

“The difference between almost the right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning bolt”

Mark Twain

Now the real interview begins around the 24-minute mark when Tim asks Jim to give an example of what he means when he talks about the importance of choosing the right conceptual vessel. Jim explains how he and his research team worked through the process of defining what a Level 5 Leader is and how they make the difference necessary for a company to go from good to great. He ultimately breaks down this type of leader as having this particular characteristic that set them apart from others:

Level 5 Leaders have an ambition for something bigger than themselves, with humility and with will.

He goes on to explain the full hierarchy of levels of leadership from a Level 1 Leader up to a Level 5 Leader. This concept is gold, especially for new business leaders that are trying to hone in on how to incrementally grow into the leader they want to become. 

Around the 40-minute mark, Tim asks Jim, “How do you measure your time and days”? Being an efficiency junkie myself, I’m always curious to hear how successful people allocate their time. Jim breaks down how he holds himself accountable daily by journaling. He has also created principles to divvy up his efforts that will allow him to execute his mission at the maximum velocity:

  • Overall: 50% creative, 30% teaching, 20% other
  • Each year, the number of hours spent on creative efforts must be over 1,000 hours. He measures this pace on a monthly and quarterly basis.
  • He goes through this code he developed to measure the emotional health of each day:
    • +2 = Very Good
    • +1 = Good
    • 0 = Neutral
    • -1 = Not Good
    • -2 = Very Bad
    • Each day is measured, and Jim adds the numbers over longer periods to inform him how to properly expend his time and energy to create the most effectiveness and happiness.

“I define creative as any activity that has a reasonably direct link to the creation of something that is new and potentially replicable or durable.”

Also covered is how much intentionality he has begun to put into his sleep. It’s easy for Jim to take short naps, and I couldn’t be more jealous. He also has what he calls a “Bug Book” that allows him to examine himself continually and how he deploys himself, and to make tweaks as he goes on about his life – super quirky yet very wise.

At about the 76-minute mark, Jim brings up the Hedgehog Concept, using it as an example of a concept that helps an entity simplify how they should be focusing their energy and attention. The three pieces that make us this concept are these:

  • Do what you are deeply passionate about.
  • Do what you are coded for, and can do exceptionally well.
  • Have an economic engine, and know how it works.

Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time with me knows how much I love this concept and have used this as one of the filters of accountability for how we do business at Evangalist.

The conversation then shifts to the concept of Who Luck – a variable that Jim counts as an essential factor in successful people and entities, and is defined as the sheer luck regarding who you’ll organically meet during your life. He counts his relationship with Peter Drucker as an excellent example of Who Luck in his life. Considered a great management thinker, he said something to Jim that has stuck with me:

“The question is, how do you make society both more productive and more humane.”

Peter also gave Jim a lovely nugget of wisdom when he told him, “don’t make 100 decisions when one will do”. The idea is that most of the many small decisions in life can be summed up into one umbrella decision that can inform and answer so much for each of us. 

Something Jim said that I love is how intentional he is to come prepared for any conversation. Jim believes that any use of another’s time should be highly respected, so he wants to make sure he has some value to bring to the table and is fully prepared for the best possible engagement – gaining the most return on his Who Luck. This is so damn powerful, and such a rational thought that most struggle to adhere to or even recognize, myself included.

Right at the 100-minute mark, Tim asks Jim to explain the Flywheel Effect. This effect is what happens when an entity finds its Hedgehog Concept and, over time, creates a cyclical momentum that accelerates more and more rapidly as it goes, like a snowball…or a flywheel. A quick summation of the ingredients are as follows:

  • Good Decisions
  • Supremely Well Executed
  • Taken With Disciplined Thought
  • Added Up Over A Long Period of Time

When people are viewing any situation from the outside and see a huge breakthrough, it seems so sudden and dramatic, when in actuality, its been a long diligent process that has in time slowly built up and resulted in powerful results. I love this because I get so tired of hearing praise for one person, or one action, or one idea that seems to have caused significant growth or something excellent to be created. In reality, there is almost always a process and a pattern of consistent behaviors involving multiple people playing their respective roles. Each holds others accountable to the goal that eventually creates that aha moment, or builds that incredible product, or helps all those people. That indeed is how fantastic things typically happen. 

Jim uses a term called Savior CEOs that gave me a good hearty belly laugh. This term so well sums up how so many leaders have an inflated view of their contribution to communal efforts.

He breaks his own flywheel effect like this:

“My personal flywheel always starts with, ”What am I curious about?” If I’m curious about something, I can’t help but want to learn about it and do research on it. I can’t help but have ideas, insights, and concepts that come out of that research. And if I have those, I can’t help but to write them, teach them, and share them. That means I’m ok with going through the suffering it takes to go through that process. If this is done well, I can’t help but have an impact on others. If indeed, I have that impact, there will inevitably be funding that comes from that. The funding then, in turn, will allow me to fund and feed my next curiosity, which then starts the flywheel all over again.”


He concludes this part of the conversation by talking about the inverse of the Flywheel Effect, which he calls the Doom Loop. This is an excellent concept to dig into to guard against negative momentum and toxic environments.

At the 2-hour mark, Tim begins to lean into concluding the interview by touching on some more personal topics, including:

  • Jim’s insanely fast engagement and marriage to his wife, Joann, including going on an 8-mile run on their first date, almost killing Jim.
  • Taking the leap from teaching at Stanford to starting his own business, much like how his marriage began, being entirely out of character for such a data-driven person.

A couple of juicy nuggets from this portion of the conversation from Jim are:

  • Great things are built by disciplined people, disciplined thought, disciplined action, and building it to last. Then it is multiplied by return on luck. The evidence shows that the big winners are not just luckier; they allow themselves to achieve greater return on luck.
  • One of his favorite paragraphs he’s ever written is: ‘Success, in the end for me, is that my spouse likes and respects me evermore as the years go by. And I hope by that measure to be as successful as she is.”

What a lovely way to end this conversation. This analytical genius boils what he cares about most in this world down to one of the most simple of all human endeavors, to love another human the best he can. And that is beautiful.

If you’d like to listen to this conversation, you can find it right here.