Best-selling author of “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” Jim Collins reflects upon his childhood and constant professional struggle.
Jim Collins: One of the things I always find very interesting is people who have great anxiety when they’re in their teens that they don’t yet know what they’re going to do with their life. But actually very few people know what they’re going to do with their life when they’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old.
In fact if you look a back at a lot of people who ended up with very interesting trajectory and someone like Harry Truman, one of our great presidents, he didn’t know he was going to end up in politics. He certainly didn’t know what he was going to be doing when he was in his teens and that’s true for a lot of people.
It was certainly true for me.
If you would have asked me when I was 17 years old whether I’d be doing what I’m doing today, there’s no way I would have come up with this, even on a list of 100 possibilities, with one caveat. The one thing I knew by the time I was 17, 16, 15, probably by the time I was eight, is I was infected with the incurable disease of curiosity. And everything in my life has been driven by a relentless nonstop curiosity. I just got to figure stuff out.
Jim Collins: My influences really began in my college years and in my 20s, because the role modeling I got as a kid was almost a negative role model. It was what to not be.
And what really captured my attention were people who had really high standards of values and really high levels of intellect and curiosity. And so it was generally great teachers and great professors. I had a wonderful professor when I was in college my freshman year, named John ****. And I’ll never forget this moment when I spouted off something about Hegel in a philosophy seminar and John *** had me come to his office. He was the ombudsman professor of philosophy, he was a ****. And he sat me down in his office and he said, “A word to the wise, Mr. Collins.” And I was this 18 year old kid, freshman in college. “One ought not to speak about what one does not know”, and then shuffled me out of his office.
And I guess probably I’ve been really blessed by mentors starting at about that age who always would smack me upside the head whenever I would get off track, whenever I needed a bit of correction. And I listened to those people.
In my early 20s I built a personal Board of Directors as a replacement. I didn’t have a particularly great father role model, so I decided to build one, to invent one, to create one from scratch. And so the way I did this was to assemble a Board of Directors of people who I would really want to look up to, whose values I wouldn’t want to let down. I put seven people on that personal Board. And then that personal Board of Directors was the mechanism that I used as a way to guide myself through life, combined with reading a lot of biographies.
So if you didn’t get those role models you can actually invent them. And if you happen to be in your mid 20, which is what I was when I came up with the personal Board, I really recommend it as one of the key mechanisms in life.
Jim Collins: I’m hoping it comes. I mean, as one of the really interesting things about feeling successful I -- my own sense is that people who are successful largely don’t feel successful. They’re really motivated by the work itself.
And to me the ultimate reward for my work is that I get to keep doing it.
I remember when I asked one of my mentors, somebody who I always look up to, the great Peter Drucker, he was 86 years young at the time. He had reset the whole field. He was the most significant figure in the field of management for 100 years. And I asked Peter Drucker at his age, 86 at that time, “Which of your 26 books are you most proud of?”
And he said, “The next one.” And he never felt that he got it right. Even at 86 years old and he wrote ten more books.
So I think even if you ask a somebody like Drucker at age 86, “Was there a point at which you felt the most successful?” The response is, “No, I’m more interested in what I haven’t done, what I haven’t created, what comes next. I’m always a work in progress, trying to create something that I will be ultimately really happy with.” And if you’re a creative curious person, that day will never come.
Jim Collins: It’s interesting to wrestle with the question of when you’ve struggled the most, because in a creative process, in a research process, and in an intellectual process, which is what we engage in, the whole kind point is to find the struggle. And it’s when you don’t know the answers, where you live in lots of data and you’re trying to make sense of things.
I remember when Jerry **** and I were really, really struggling to get the ideas in Built to Last to come clear. And there’s this point of great creative angst where you feel you’re never going to see what the data ultimately is going to lead to. And you struggle and you try to create.
And then I remember taking a whole bunch of slips of paper and putting all kinds of data notes on them and taking a gigantic table and laying out on the table all of these little slips of paper and trying to find ultimately the pattern that they represented.
And eventually they began to separate into two sides. These seemed to belong on this side of the table; those seemed to belong on that side of the table. And eventually they sorted to the two sides.
And out of that came the insight about great enterprises preserve something that is deeply core and at the same time are always stimulating progress and change and moving forward. And it’s the tension between those two that makes something great.
Well that struggle lasted for a year of just trying to make sense.
And the interesting thing about it is that if you’re engaged in that kind of work, you’re always in a struggle. And if it’s not a struggle, you’re really not pushing yourself.
So, the question of when I’ve struggled the most is, I hope it’s tomorrow.
Recorded on: August 12, 2009