06 October 2014

Two of three.

I believe in borrowing professional inspiration from any available source. My partner, Matt, and I were talking about working effectively with others awhile back and something he said stuck with me.

To be successful, you need to do two of three things:

  1. Have brilliant ideas
  2. Meet deadlines
  3. Be pleasant in working relationships
I think the simplicity of it is what appealed to me. Academics are expected to be outstanding researchers, effective teachers, and committed to service. Doing even one of those tasks well can be a full-time job, so performing all three brilliantly seems nearly insurmountable. Conceptually, meeting two of the three listed criteria above is very much in line with my personal philosophy: it implies plurality (multiple paths to success) and allows for imperfection (you don't have to do everything well all of the time).

Most importantly, it seems attainable. Indulge me a moment while I break these criteria down for myself. Can I have brilliant ideas? Well, I must have something ok to say every once in awhile to have finished my dissertation, published some papers, and gotten a job. I think I can keep doing the brain-thinking-stuff the way I have up until this point. Can I meet deadlines? I think so! See above comment related to past precedent. Can I be a nice person to work with? Hmm. I'm loathe to admit that this last option is the hardest for me at times. I've worked really hard to moderate my attacks of grumpiness, especially when dealing with students. Presenting myself as friendly, open, and approachable is still a struggle at times (especially if I'm distracted by some program debugging or it's allergy season), but I can do a decent job at ameliorating my intensity.

Like all recipes for success, this one is by no means fool-proof. I won't be including a personal assessment of each of these things in my tenure packet. But as a way of thinking about my day-to-day interactions, I find it a fairly workable solution. After cogitating on this advice for a year or so, I finally asked Matt where he found it. I was immensely pleased to learn it came from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. You can read his full speech and see a recording here (the excerpt listed below starts at 14:10).

From Neil Gaiman's keynote address at the University of the Arts, 2012:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
Of course, he's talking about succeeding in the arts, but I'd like to think the general framework is transferable to other types of professions. As a science educator and researcher, there's perhaps less flexibility in adherence to these criteria than if I were a freelance artist. For example, when a grant application is due or a classroom of students is depending on me, deadlines are not negotiable. But when I think about the variety of successful scientists I know, they actually do fit into this "two-of-three" framework. There are actually even cliches about scientists that follow this rule. Think about the friendly, absent-minded professor (pleasant, brilliant, but misses deadlines), or the acerbic and curmudgeonly professor (brilliant, insists on deadlines, but won't show up at happy hour).

Personally, I'm going to aim for doing a pretty good job at all three things, at least most of the time. "Two of three" will be my mantra to cut through anxiety fueled by perfectionism. Next time I'm a day late returning a manuscript review, I'll be able to forgive myself bit more easily, because I know the review will be thorough and polite. Two of three...not too bad.