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]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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60 Replies to “Jim Collins — A Rare Interview with a Reclusive Polymath (#361)”

  1. I really enjoyed the comments on the flywheel, specifically “if you do 5/6ths of the flywheel well, you don’t get 5/6ths of the momentum, you get none”. It doesn’t really apply to me in a professional capacity (University/college student), but personally it’s really got me thinking about my sticking points, and where my lack of motivation lies etc.

  2. Tim and Jim, thanks for this podcast! A few years ago I had the unique chance to attend a 3 days dialogue session with Jim Collins in Boulder and, since then, I’ve been trying to also apply some of the concepts in my personal life. Great work! Btw I still have the notes from this session in my desk and now I will be able to complete the gaps!

    Congratulations from Brazil!

    1. Thank you. All transcripts (excluding those for which the podcast is an excerpt from a book) are typically published within a week of the podcast going live and may be found by entering search terms in the search field at the top of the blog and also by clicking on “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts” link under “Topics.”


  3. Entertaining way to spend 2 hours to both motivate and learn some fantastic principles to apply to business – thank you!

  4. Tim / Jim – love the podcast and I thought ‘Good to Great’ was excellent. However, in the shared pursuit of determining what makes great performers tick I would have loved to ask Jim about Phil Rosenzweig’s comments in ‘The Halo Effect’ which were fascinating and challenged a few of the claims and conclusions I took away from Jim’s book. Any thoughts would be gratefully received (I haven’t posted like this before so hopefully you guys get it!) cheers, Tim

  5. Great Podcast. I really enjoyed it. Did you find the Foreward that Jim wrote for the 50th anniversary of Peter Drucker’s book? I did not see that in the links.

    1. It is in the show notes. Please see entry “Ten Lessons I Learned from Peter Drucker by Jim Collins (Foreword to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Effective Executive)”

  6. Thank you so much for this interview! I replayed the part about Jim’s stopwatch/journal/spreadsheet/rating system for my partner to prove that I’m not the only person on the planet “obsessively” recording my daily actions and thoughts and productivity. Now I don’t feel so crazy/weird. A +2 day! 😀

  7. An Instant Classic! Incredible! I never leave comments, but this episode is so rich, I couldn’t resist. Have any other guests ever prepared for a podcast as much as Jim Collins did?


  8. WOW.

    What an incredibly, absurdly rich interview.

    I’ve been too much a taker and silent appreciator, this is the first time I am leaving a comment. I am so inspired by Mr. Collins’ philosophy and the purity of principle behind his work. I have linked this to anybody I know who thinks deeply about business and tries to operate from first principles.

    If Tim has a Flywheel, surely it’s a FerrissWheel? I’m so sorry for that, I had to :p

  9. Great espisode! I’m new to your podcast and have been impressed with the episodes I’ve listened to so far but this really tops the lot. I was really inspired by Jim’s daily spreadsheet – has anyone produced one that tallies up the 3 monthly averages etc that Jim talks about? I’m afraid my excel skills are not up to the job.

    1. I thought the same thing as well! If we could get a copy of how Jim laid his or our someone who mimicked it I would use it in a second.

  10. Absolutely phenomenal episode. I rarely leave comments, but I’m itching to get my hands on a version of the spreadsheet described to track activity, creative output and mood. As a person who thrives on systems, I think this particular tool would be a game-changer. If I can’t find a version of it shortly, I will definitely be creating my own, as you knew your listeners would. 😀

    Thank you for the information and inspiration you spread through your work!

  11. Fantastic interview. The discussion was of high value and of utility in that Collins’ approach to measuring and producing success identified principles that appear universal and timeless to me.

    One example. The systematic generation of momentum. Sun Tzu’s Art of War (~500 BC) recognized the impact and effectiveness of the systematic generation of momentum. Seen here.

    “When an army has the force of momentum, even the timid become brave; when it loses the force of momentum, even the brave become timid.”

    Other translations of the ancient text describe momentum as the speed of a hawk dropping from high onto its prey…in other translations of the Art of War momentum is recognized as the impact of a boulder rolling down a hill.

    Tim describes the concept and impacts of momentum as noted by the stoics of (~300 BC), and Collins (21st Century perspective) provides students of success the concept of the flywheel version of momentum.

    If there are laws of success, I believe the concept of momentum is one of them. The systemic application of concentrated energy over time to achieve a specific state…but can have resonating effects.

    Again, thank you for this interview.

    Cheers, Bob

  12. My favorite here is a spreadsheet concept and I appreciate how Tim was fully present to ask all the right questions on the nitty-gritty details. In my second year of freelancing, I can tell that nothing boosts efficiency like tracking my stats. Started my 1000-hour count this morning

  13. I loved this interview, any recommendations on ways to account for time, other than building a time accounting spreadsheet? I notice there are a few apps for the iphone, but wasn’t sure how good they are

    btw – Keep up the great work!

  14. Thank you TF and JC. What is “my flywheel’ is going up their in my journaling/thinking time alongside 80/20 and MIQ. Essential and invaluable, Thx!

  15. Absolutely one of the best interviews on this Podcasts. Thanks 🙏 for being a titan in deconstructing the world best high achievers. I learned a lot from this interview.

  16. Good To Great is an iconic book. I love when a guest starts out an interview asking Tim questions. Shows the anticipation and thoughtfulness Jim had heading into the interview and just how genuine he was in wanting to engage with Tim. Two heavyweights having an awesome discussion here.

    1. ditto! Michael P–I have NEVER heard an interview where the guest does the interviewing period, let alone in such a thoughtful and sincerely curious manner-quess I missed JC lesson on empirical data but it seemed to me he went on for a good 15 minutes re language etc always playing to Tim’s expertise

  17. This episode is one of my favorites. The way Jim talks about his marriage is marvelous. They are an example.

    On the other hand, I was a first-hand witness of how Amazon works on the flywheel now its time to work on the right flywheel for my own business.

    Thanks to Tim and Jim for sharing these insights!

  18. Tim, I’d enjoy hearing a podcast on family business and what makes them successful or not from generation to generation. Numbers I see claim 50% fail from 1st to 2nd generation and over 98% fail from 2nd to 3rd. I would love to hear you talk about that. Thanks for all you do. Myles Bergeron

  19. Thanks again! This has been one of my most favorite.

    I am a Peter Drucker fan and am re-inspired to re-read some of his books.

    This conversation also gives me hope for the world just in the way the two of you interacted and some of the words/comments you both made.

    Finally, Tim’s language skill and experience…I did not know about this and hope you continue to cultivate this as it seems like there is a hidden gem that is waiting to be discovered and shared.

  20. Are there any sources of information that detail Jim’s mental models and how his thinking is structured? The references to conceptual vessels without further elaboration about the set of vessels to consider and thinking processes associated with them left big open questions for me.

  21. I have been listening to the TF podcast for the past 3 years now. There have been a lot of good episodes (Joshua Waiskin, Matt Mullenweg). But nothing has moved something inside of me more than this episode.

    The thing that hit home the most was the 1000 hour creative flow in every 365 day period. Such a simple, yet powerful concept. Owing to that, I have dedicated the next few weeks/months of my nights-and-weekends time to build an app for this purpose. The app will be free. Maybe, I will put up a Patreon

  22. As someone struggling to work out what it is I want to do with my future career, the bug book and the hedgehog concept seem like great tools. Has anyone got any other tools/advice for an undergrad (desperately…) looking for a satisfying career that could have a positive impact?

  23. Top 5 Tim episodes. 100%.

    In an effort to be more intentional about keeping track of my own stats (directly inspired by this episode and by Mo Bunnell’s annual review [Moderator: link removed.]) I just created a survey I can take at the end of every day using Microsoft Forms. You can save it as an app on your phone and just answer the questions you set for yourself. It has great output in excel and visuals (bar graphs, etc.) that I’m interested to study over time.

    Can’t wait to see all of the correlations!

    Thanks Tim!

  24. I’d really like to see a sample of Jim Collin’s spreadsheet he mentioned.. where he marks eg -2, -1, 0, +1, +2.. thinking of doing the same, woud be very helpful to see how he does this – would it be possible to ask him for a screenshot sample and link to it? Think would help alot of people

  25. I paused to give this a full second listen before leaving comments and will likely give it a third listen with notebook in hand to pull more specifics from it. This is one of only two of your podcasts that I’ve immediately started over once I finished it. (The other was your interview with Paul Stamets, who has one of the richest and most information-packed ways of speaking of anyone I have ever heard.)

    Although Jim’s specific practices — time measurement, the flywheel, the bug book, sleep measurement. etc — were really interesting and I have already started a spreadsheet of my own, they were not the most valuable. The most valuable part of the interview, from my perspective, was his distillation of what he learned from Peter Drucker and how he prepared to get as much as possible out of the conversation. I’ll stop with the quote that stopped me in my tracks (taken from the 10 Things article referenced above):

    “‘It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying how you will survive,” said Peter.

    ‘You will probably survive.

    ‘And you seem to spend a lot of energy on the question of how to be successful. But that is the wrong question.

    ‘The question is: how to be useful!'”


  26. Hi Tim, I’ve been a big fan of Jim (and yours!) for a long time. Maybe for a second round, would be interesting to hear Jim’s view on how the Flywheel Effect applies to Exponential Organizations, specially when you consider that, based on Jim’s point of view (and I might have misunderstood him here or gotten lost in translation, so please bear with me!), the wheel takes some time to get into its momentum. I love the simplicity and depth of Jim’s concepts, but also am also intrigued by the disruption caused by some newly founded companies that seem to challenge the status quo in a big way. Would be great to see how they blend!

    Um abraço from Brazil!


  27. Can post or email a sample of Jim’s day tracking spread sheet? Would like to see how he tracks his data points.

  28. Oh, man, the daily spreadsheet! Golden explanation — thank you for probing into the details. Fantastic episode!

  29. This one is so juicy I’ve listened to the whole thing twice already and I still feel like I have to listen to it a couple more times. My brain is on fire. Thank you!

  30. Hi love getting your 5 bullet Friday emails.

    Just read about the wine you are drinking, PLEASE try one of our South African wines. They are WORLD CLASS! I’ll even post you one of you tell me what you like 😉

  31. As I was reading the foreword of Tribe of Mentors and got to the end, you sign of with two things that strike me: ‘Pura vida’ and the date and location, August 2017, Austin, Texas. Where was I in August 2017? Practicing Bikram every single day, I would start my day doing this and continue to work with a loose schedule, the day would unfold so natural it makes me rethink where I am now. I was convinced that this scheme worked, because it did. I worked maximum 5 hours a day. How do I bring schemes that work into new life frameworks?

    Austin, seems to be an epicenter for you. How different you grew into the Valley and then out of it. I have not been back to Austin for more than 15 years, I haven’t been able to make it back by any means. I left behind people I hold dear and fond memories of Lake Travis and the murcielago spectacles over the highway. It seems even foreign now, the emotional distance creates romance. I’ve planned in my head a bizarre road trip that would cover all the spots of the past and the places I have seen already that I haven’t been. The internet ruins so many first time experiences, and also creates fomo. I want to to go back.

  32. Hi Tim, I love your podcasts. May I suggest an interviewee for the podcast? Jacob Fisker who wrote ‘Extreme Early Retirement’. A very interesting chap – a former physics academic who worked five years then retired. His book analyses modern life and then reconstructs it with fascinating insights and strategies.

    Thanks for your great work.

    Best regards,


  33. Hot Damn. Just gave the Ferriss/Collins podcast a 2nd listen and am sitting here stunned, fulfilled and hungry to process and incorporate the content. Thanks Tim and Jim for an inspirational show.

  34. Thanks so much Tim and Jim. Found it so interesting and learned a ton! Have started my own spreadsheet – this was a plus 2! Thanks for all you do.

  35. I didn’t read through all the comments, but looking for a copy of the Ferriss thesis. I followed the link to the non-Princeton steps but still seems Princetonish. Is that only way to get a copy of the thesis? Also, any existing excel templates with field headers, data validation points, and formulas to correlate the data mentioned?

  36. Ha! Love of how Collins asked you about your senior thesis and hearing about your background on languages / linguistics.

  37. Thank you – Another great one! Loved the Bug Book, 1000hrs, hedgehog concepts. Some much to glean from this episode!

  38. Thanks for this. After hearing about McPhee I did some reading and read his article on Draft No 4 in the New Yorker from 2013. His discussion of finding words that do more than simply fulfill their mission was impactful. That concept feels like life advice. I took away from that that I’d like to live a life where I didn’t just fulfill my mission but also “presented and opportunity.”

  39. Fantastic interview- I am brainstorming my honors thesis at Hunter College and I want to focus on similarities in the development of Hebrew and Arabic. Having spent extended amounts of time in Israel and majoring in Arabic, I completely agree that a language is perhaps the greatest key to understanding the culture and history of a given group. Since Hebrew and Arabic are related on so many levels, I believe that there is great potential for increased understanding between Jews and Muslims when each group learns the other’s language. Can you (or anyone on this forum) direct me to literature relating to cultural significance of language? Or any other sources that could assist in this project? Thank you in advance and thank you for consistently creating quality content for us all to enjoy!