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Collins says he finds the writing process a difficult one. "I can average no more than a page a day of high quality output – and those are long days!" he said in our interview. "If I produce a 30 page chapter, it will take me 30 days of work. I like what Michener said: 'I am not a master writer. I am a master rewriter."'
Collins has been married to wife Joanne for 22 years; the pair got engaged four days after their first date. When I finished Good to Great, Joanne said, “It’s nice to have you back” -- even though I’d been sitting just 20 feet away in the Morris chair for all those months of writing. That’s just the nature of writing a book; it requires a degree of obsession and productive neurosis.
A passionate rock climber, Collins likes to work early in the morning and then take a break to go climbing on the cliffs of Boulder or Eldorado Canyon. "No matter how wrapped up I am in a piece of work," he says, "it all melts away when I’m focused on the next ten feet of rock. I like to return in the afternoon for a good nap of 30 minutes to two hours, followed by a late afternoon creative work session before spending the evening with Joanne."
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In the fall of 2002, Jim Collins answered some questions from Barnes & Noble.com.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
If I had to pick one, it would be The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin. I read this book just as I was starting my academic research career, and I was deeply impressed by his central thesis: The primary barrier to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
This has affected every aspect of my own approach to questions, research and answers. In fact, my research laboratory is literally in my old first grade classroom, which reflects the whole idea of fresh inquiry without the burden of carrying too much knowledge.
What are your ten favorite books, and why?
This is a very hard question to answer, as I am a voracious reader. In fact, you can find my recommended reading list at my web site (www.jimcollins.com), which shows the wide ranging types of reading that have infected my brain over the years.
I did write an article a number of years ago on my view on non-business books that should be read by business readers. Here are my picks and reasons, from that article:
That article was written in 1995. Since then, I would add the following to the short list:
- Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal. Even more enlightening than Machiavelli's The Prince, this book describes power takeovers and social organization in a chimpanzee colony and argues that power politics is part of the evolutionary heritage that we share with our closest non-human relatives. I'll never look at academic or corporate politics the same, and I understand their machinations much better for having read this book. Chimps, unlike humans, do not cloak their political pretenses in rhetoric, so we can see more clearly the process at work and thereby learn much about ourselves.
- The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. This book may well have saved the world from nuclear holocaust. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy drew directly upon the lessons of Tuchman's book -- which chronicles how, in August 1914, European nations locked themselves into irreversible political and military positions and thereby needlessly brought about the slaughter of World War I. In the midst of the missile crisis, Kennedy said, "I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book [about the missile crisis]." Superbly written, this book teaches valuable lessons on how an organization can be led or driven into calamity through pride, arrogance, and misunderstandings.
- Influence by Robert B. Cialdini and The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence by Philip B. Zimbardo. I don't see how anyone can hope to be an effective manager without a basic understanding of social psychology -- the forces of human influence and dynamics of social behavior. These two classic works, both jam-packed with specific examples and fascinating research studies, teach invaluable managerial lessons. For example, revolutionary change can best be accomplished by "incremental revolutionaries," who lead people from A to Z by taking small steps from A to B then B to C then C to D, and so on, such that the step from Y to Z hardly looks like a revolution at all. Another tidbit: Explicitly assign people to play devil's advocate -- to "consider the opposite" -- and thereby dilute the influence of groupthink that so often plays a role in disastrous decisions. Cialdini's book reads better, but I learned more from Zimbardo.
- In Love and War by Jim and Sybil Stockdale. As the highest ranking P.O.W. in the Hanoi Hilton -- in captivity and under physical and psychological torture for seven years -- Jim Stockdale displayed iron-willed integrity under the most severe conditions. Stockdale teaches that freedom is a state of mind, and that the two greatest weapons of enslavement are guilt and fear, not bars and walls. Stockdale drew strength from Job in the Hebrew Bible, with its central lesson that if you persist in asking 'Why me?' -- if you fail to accept that life is not fair -- you cannot endure.
- Means of Ascent (Vol. 2 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson) by Robert A. Caro and Truman by David McCullough. I love biographies. They offer a chance to learn from the experiences of others and to develop role models and anti-models. Caro shows via the rise of LBJ how those consumed by ruthless, amoral ambition can become influential in democracy -- riveting, revealing, and depressing. McCullough, in contrast, inspires with the story of Harry Truman, a failed businessman with rock solid midwestern core values, who rose to become one of the most important and effective presidents in U.S. history. Taken together, LBJ and Truman demonstrate that while a leader need not be morally grounded to become powerful, the judgment of history depends directly upon one's moral character. Other outstanding biographies: Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, The World is My Home by James A. Michener, and The Last Lion by William Manchester (the preamble to Vol. 2, Alone, is the best 37 pages of biographical prose I've ever read).
- The Panda's Thumb by Stephen J. Gould. We simply cannot understand our complex world -- including successful organizations -- without grasping the basic elements of evolutionary theory. In fact, we dedicated an entire chapter of Built to Last to how visionary companies like 3M and HP often "evolved" in a way that only in retrospect looks planned. All of Gould's books are superb, but Panda's Thumb is my favorite, and a good place to start. Gould holds himself to a tough standard in his writing: Never dilute or oversimplify concepts for the general public (what academics sneeringly call "dumbing down for the masses") and simultaneously make the concepts accessible and interesting to a wide audience of lay people.
- The Second World War by Winston S. Churchill. This 5,000-page, six-volume autobiography and chronicle of the years 1919-1945 is the best book on crisis leadership I've read. Churchill's eloquence comes fully to life as he describes day-by-day the monumental task of holding Britain and, later, the allies together against the Axis powers -- a burden he shouldered at age 65 and carried until age 70. I learned from Churchill the inspirational power of reframing difficult times into a broader goal. When the whole world wondered in 1940 "Can Britain survive?" Churchill countered that the goal was not to survive, but to prevail. Brilliant!
- Personal History by Katharine Graham. If you were going to read one, and only one, CEO memoir, this would be it. Graham is simply one of the greatest corporate leaders of our age. Her book is profoundly honest and moving.
- The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro. Certainly one of the greatest biographies ever written. A portrait of a man who was the Michael Jordan of the ability to use power. Caro portrays how Robert Moses at first used power to get things done, but as he ages, Moses uses power simply because he can. Scary. Riveting.
- The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy. Most people know Conroy for The Prince of Tides, but this is my favorite Conroy book because its subject matter speaks to all of us -- whether we came from dysfunctional families or not -- for it is about friendship. Sometimes you just love a book, and I love this book.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The sign of a truly great book is that it is borne of the times, but speaks to us in a timeless way years or decades later. I was stunned by the near-perfection of Steinbeck’s craft. A timeless model of The Great American Novel.
- The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Tom Wolfe at his very best. He just nailed the psychology of the test pilot. One of the few books I’ve read more than once.
- Apocalypse Now
- Star Wars – Empire Strikes Back
- Lawrence of Arabia
I love great music. I often sit in my Morris chair in the living room, with Mr. Yang (one of our cats) curled up on the warmth of the CD player, while I write on my laptop and listen to music. (In fact, I am doing exactly that as I write these words, with Beethoven Symphony No. 9 playing away, while Mr. Yang sits like a Sphinx on the stereo.) A few of my favorites, during writing time:
When working out in my rock climbing gym, though, I tend to go for Hendrix, Zeppelin, Stones, Talking Heads, Santana, etc.
- Bach: Goldberg Variations
- Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in C Minor
- Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 1, String Quartets
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, Violin Concerto
- Brahms: Symphony No. 3, Tragic Overture
- Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings
- Dvorak: New World Symphony, Cello Concerto
- Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, Firebird Suite
- Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 5
Who are your favorite writers, and why?
I tend to go in streaks. If I find an author I really like, I tend to work through most or all of his or her writings. Here are a few of the writers whose work I’ve devoured, along with my favorite work by each:
What else do you want your readers to know?
- Pat Conroy – Lords of Discipline
- Stephen J. Gould – The Panda’s Thumb
- Tracy Kidder – Soul of a New Machine
- William Manchester – The Last Lion
- David McCullough -- Truman
- John McPhee – The Control of Nature
- J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- William Shakespeare – Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Irving Stone – Men to Match My Mountains
- Barbara Tuchman – Guns of August
- Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff
I would like them to know how much I appreciate their time. The purchase price of a book is not $27.50, or whatever the store price. The real purchase price of a book is the opportunity cost of how else a person could spend the time. That so many people would freely choose to spend ten hours or so digesting our work is just a wonderful feeling.
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In 2001, Jim Collins contributed this exclusive essay to Barnes & Noble.com about his book Good to Great.
In 1994, my life changed dramatically when Built to Last, the book I coauthored with Jerry Porras about what it takes to build enduring great companies, became a wholly unexpected bestseller. Oddly, I responded by going into a deep existential funk. After six years of immersion, I no longer had a big project to work on. It was like I'd returned from the Lewis and Clark expedition with no new outlet in which to channel my somewhat obsessive energies. I woke up every morning and wondered, What on earth am I going to do next? My anxiety only worsened as I felt pressure from all sides -- agents, publishers, pundits -- to "get on with the next one to capitalize on the first one."
Fortunately, my wife, Joanne, pulled me out of the muck. "Don't pick another question just to do another book," she admonished. "Wait until a question picks you."
It was great advice. And I began to wait...and wait...and wait. A month went by. Then six months. Then a year. Then nearly two years. I began to have a sinking feeling that I would never again have a worthy question that would capture my passion and imagination.
But then at a dinner with people gathered to discuss organizational change and performance, a McKinsey partner leaned over his salad and said, "You know Jim, we love Built to Last around here. But unfortunately, it's useless."
Useless? Six years of my life, useless?
"The companies you wrote about were, for the most part, always great," he said. "They never had to turn themselves from good companies into great companies. They had parents like David Packard and George Merck, who shaped the character of greatness from early on. But what about the vast majority of companies that wake up partway through life and realize that they're good, but not great?"
His observation proved to be an invaluable gift. It planted the seed of a question that became the basis of the next five years of my life, namely, Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how?
The question of good to great captured me on a deep level as not just a business question but a human question. For the truth is, good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life. And the vast majority of companies never become great, precisely because the vast majority become quite good -- and that is their main problem.
Five years after that fateful dinner (and 20,000 hours of research time with my team), I can now say, without question, that good to great does happen, and we've learned much about the underlying variables that make it happen. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't is the culmination. And while I fully expect another bout with existential despair in the wake of publication, I wouldn't trade the journey for anything.
If we have cracked the code on good to great, then we might see good schools become great schools, good government become great government, good companies become great companies and perhaps even a number of good lives become great lives. And that has made the effort worth every minute.
In the Works
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In response to the perennial "What next?" question, Collins says, "I’m waiting for the next big question to find me."
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