Picture the great composer Beethoven struggling to write a perfect
Fifth Symphony that will stand the test of time. He starts with
a simple theme. Discards it. Starts again. Revises it. Finally
settles upon the famous "fate motive" (Da Da Da Dommmmm!). Inverts
it. Extends it. Rends, amends, and dissects it. All in the context
of a primal thematic struggle: that of light versus dark, hope
versus despair, major versus minor. With great discipline he holds
back the trombones, the piccolo, and the contrabassoon until their
triumphal entry on the downbeat of movement four, when the forces
of life and hope blast forth to obliterate the forces of angst
and despair once and for all. As Robert Greenberg says in his
fabulous audiotaped lecture series The Symphonies of Beethoven
(The Teaching Co., Springfield, Va., 1996), "If you can remain
composed [at] the beginning of the fourth movement . . . then
I would check my respiration to make sure I am still alive. The
speaks to us as powerfully today, near the
end of the 20th century, as it did to Beethoven at the turn of
Now imagine asking Beethoven during his toil to perfect the Fifth
Symphony, "Ludwig, why are you working so hard? Your First Symphony
has established you as one of the most popular and successful
composers of the day. Your Third Symphony, Eroica, will
stand as one of the great cutting-edge creations of all time,
having shattered the constraints of the classical style. You've
already earned your place in the history books. Why do you continue
to push yourself?"
Can you picture Beethoven responding, "Why push myself? Because
if I don't write a better symphony, then someone else will. The
competition is fierce, and if I don't improve, I'll be pummeled
by those feisty foreign upstarts. Change or die. Innovate or self-destruct.
Eat lunch or be lunch. It's not that I really want to reinvent
and perfect my work; it's just that in this world, only the paranoid
I frequently use that analogy to poke serious fun at the fear
mongering that pervades modern management thinking and writing.
You can hardly pick up a business magazine, visit a bookstore,
or listen to a management guru without being assaulted by admonitions
designed to frighten you into action: "You'd better hop to it
and [insert favorite word: change, innovate, improve, reinvent,
renew, revitalize, revolutionize, whatever], or else!"
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you stick with the
status quo. Nor do I deny the importance of continual reinvention
and self-renewal in a changing world. Yes, the competition will
blow you away if you refuse to improve. And, yes, you will
pay a heftyperhaps even fatalprice if you operate
in denial of external realities.
But that is not the primary reason you should change, improve,
create, and renew. I've never seen anything great and lasting
created solely because "otherwise something bad will happen."
As I reflect back on the research I did for Built to Last,
I'm struck by how those who built enduring, great companies were
driven first and foremost by an inner creative urge. They would
have continued to challenge themselves and push forward even if
they didn't have to. That is not only why they reached the top
but also why they stayed there for so long.
The epidemic of fear mongering is ultimately debilitating (not
to mention insulting), for it presumes that we are all basically
lazy and have little intrinsic drive to create and improve. Given
the choice, would you sit there and vegetate, feeling no
urge to achieve goals, create, or make things better? I doubt
it. Yet this absurdly patronizing belief that fear is our primary
motivator has nonetheless infected too many of us.
I recently met with a CEO to discuss his upcoming speech about
the need for corporate change. His draft for the speech sounded
the "We've got to change, or else!" theme. After listening for
awhile, I interrupted him: "Why do you personally work so hard
on changing this company?"
He responded similarly to the way I imagine Beethoven would have
responded: "Because we can be so much better. Because I really
want us to be a great company, and I believe we can beif
we're willing to do what it takes to transform ourselves."
"Do you find your original speech inspiring?" I asked. "Would
it inspire you?"
"Wellno. But it would probably scare me into action. I need
to give people a reason to change."
"So, then, let me ask you this: How do you plan to measure progress
against the goal of survival, and how will you know when you've
achieved the goal? Do you plan to pause each day and say, 'Well,
we've survived another dayhurrah!'?"
To his great credit, the CEO altered his tune to be more in line
with his own personal motivations. Instead of focusing entirely
on a "change or else" theme, he shifted to a "progress toward
something greater" theme. His people found it inspiring. But even
more important, I believe they will continue to feel motivated
even after the company reaches a comfortable level of successand
that is the critical point. Because what's needed is motivation
I had a personal experience that helped me understand that dynamic.
Shortly after receiving a teaching award at Stanford, I began
to dread my course. I worried that I could not repeat the performance
and that the quality of other courses would exceed mine. I felt
motivated, to be sure, but it was a kind of motivation that sapped
away the sheer joy I normally felt in teaching. Around the same
time, I was reading about John Wooden, the UCLA men's basketball
coach who led his team to 10 NCAA championships in 12 years during
the 1960s and 1970s. It dawned on me that Wooden had never made
it a goal to repeat the previous year's performancenot even
if it had been an undefeated season. He focused his attention
entirely on how to improve on the previous year. Wooden
highlighted for me a supreme truth: that excellence is the residual
result of continual creation and improvement for its own sake.
Whereas the fear mongers concentrate on the demoralizing effect
of failure, Wooden capitalized on the inspiring payoff of achievementthe
pure, reenergizing glee that comes from simply creating something
new and doing something better.
It was an epiphany that changed my approach. Instead of obsessing
about not losing what I had, I shifted to focusing on making the
course better, even if just by a little bit. It was a liberating
shift that restored the joy of preparation that had formerly guided
me. I had fun again! And, most important, the course did in fact
I certainly acknowledge fear as a powerful motivator for all of
us. I'm as subject to it as anyone. But the dark side of motivation
by fear is that it is like a powerful stimulant: it can jolt you
for a while, but it also inevitably leaves you more drained than
before. Wanting to surviveto merely avoid losing what we
haveis not a goal that can motivate over the long haul.
It offers no promise of forward motion, of accomplishment. (You
can't ever finish "not losing" somethinguntil, that is,
you're not alive to "not lose" it anymore.) Indeed, had Beethoven
focused primarily on not losing his stature after the Third Symphony,
rather than pushing further, I suspect we would not have the Fifth
or the Ninth symphonies. And Beethoven would not have become Beethoven.
So the next time you encounter a "Change or die!" lecture, in
print or in person, remember the words of Royal Robbins, the great
rock climber who pioneered ascents of Yosemite's big walls: The
point is not to avoid death - if you want to do that, simply stay
on the ground. The point is to reach the top, and then keep on
Copyright © 1998 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.