Exceptional, enjoyable, reliable…pick (at least) two

Neil Gaiman, photo by Kyle Cassidy

SOURCE: Kyle Cassidy, via Wikipedia

Author/graphic novelist Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech last year to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has many great moments about life as an artist and the art of life, which made it a much-referred and much-watched video online. But his insight that keeps coming back to me is not about how artists make or get work, but about they keep getting work over time. Says he:

People keep working, in a freelance world…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.

The same is true if you’re a staff member, a manager, a chief executive, an academic, or a board member.

Exceptional, enjoyable, reliable…pick two. Sometimes that means cutting yourself some slack when you can’t hit all three, knowing that two might get you by. Sometimes that means continuing to stretch for the trifecta when you’ve accomplished two. Because, honestly, good work is hard to come by. And once you’ve got it, don’t you want to have it again, and again, and again?


Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.


  1. Roland Kushner says

    I first heard of this about electricians: There’s good, cheap and fast – you can only get two out of the three.

    But wouldn’t freelance artists who are (even if they don’t like to admit it) competing with each other do better if they didn’t take Gaiman’s escape route, and instead, were great on every dimension of their activity. So maybe they get a pass on some people for some things, but the ones who are really rockin’ on every cylinder (bad mixed metaphor there, but carrying on …) will be more likely to have their work picked, featured, performed, etc. If I’m a gallery owner or a presenter or some other arts gatekeeper, I’ll want to optimize, to pick the best across all dimensions of performance. I won’t willingly – and certainly not automatically – concede any of them just because there’s a satisficing process that they’re going through.

    So I’m not so sure he’s giving good advice there.


    • says

      Thanks Roland! And I agree, the goal should be all three. But we both know plenty of professionals (performers among them) who are absolute terrors to work with, but still get gigs…because they reliably draw a crowd and perform to exceptional standards of excellence. Should they be nice too? Yes. Do they have to be? Apparently not.