The 3 Things Needed For Successful Work

Frederick Johnston
Oct 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

In 2012, author Neil Gaiman gave a famous commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Gaiman talked to the new graduates about the importance of art, the place of art in the world, and some words of experienced advice as to how they might approach their artistic pursuits. But he also touched on something more foundational. At one point in his remarks, he detailed out the essential aspects of work (or habits) that the graduates should look for in their future careers and endeavors. At the time, Gaiman’s remarks were explicitly addressing freelance work, but his observations apply to all work and teams.

In summary, here’s what he said: if you want to be successful in your work or art, you need to develop and execute the following three traits.

  1. Be good at what you do.
  2. Be always on time with your work.
  3. Be a pleasure to work with.

Sounds like foundational aspects of a good employee or coworker, right? On the surface, these three traits should be the minimum. As we’ll examine further, each of these three is substantially harder to accomplish than we initially realize and are far from being ordinary habits.

But according to Gaiman, there’s a beautiful wrinkle: to be successful in your work, the world only requires you to exhibit two of those three habits. Three is truly a crowd! If you can consistently accomplish two of these three, then your work, expertise, and involvement will always be in demand. Let’s examine each in turn.

Good at what you do

Few people set out to be intentionally and overtly poor at the work they do. Most folks start with good motives and aspirations; they want to put forth an effort and complete a decent job. They want to help their team or employer. They want to see their business or side hustle flourish. But there is a difference in wanting something to happen and then actually seeing it through to completion. It takes more than wishing it so; diligence, practice, and years of hard work is required to make your work sought after by others. And that’s what it will take to get really good at what you do. Overnight successes do not exist.

Always on time

In our hectic and busy world, punctuality is a stand out habit. Whether that’s your appearance in person or the delivery of your work when you said it would be ready, the pattern of following through with delivering on time is remarkable. We procrastinate, and our constant connectivity exacerbates our penchant for tardiness. There’s always the option to call, text, or email ahead and tell someone you’re running late, or that the work will be delayed. This release valve gives us an out, an easy excuse to be less than on time with our efforts. Most of us are awful at estimating the time needed for tasks, and we are often over-promising, and then under-delivering.

Be a pleasure to work with

At first glance, it may seem as if this trait is the easiest of the three. It doesn’t require unique technical talent or skill (#1), and it doesn’t require careful scheduling and time management (#2). But there is more involved in “being a pleasure to work with” than merely being polite or friendly. Many interactions are transactional, particularly in the world of work, i.e. I give you something in return for something else. There’s nothing wrong with this approach; it’s a feature of our overall economic structure. But being a pleasure to work with requires us to develop softer relational skills, to empathize and build trust, move beyond transactional, and build rapport as individuals. This trait is hard to do in a society that prides itself on productivity and “getting things done.”

Working on work

Too often, we neglect the fact that our manner and approach to work itself needs attention. Work is not only comprised of tasks and goals; it also includes methods, attitudes, and principles. Each of Gaiman’s three traits addresses, not the work itself, but how we accomplish that work. We can produce inadequate, late work and deliver it with crappy customer service, but that would only get us so far. And that combination of traits ends in disappointment, for ourselves and our employers. How we accomplish our work (or art) matters, and it’s reflected in our work.

2 out of 3

If Gaiman’s observations are accurate and the world will amply reward hitting the mark in two categories out of three, should you move beyond that? Is there a higher value in going beyond that minimum threshold? Should you limit yourself to only two of the three traits? Are there benefits to striving after excellence in all three simultaneously?

If you can hit two of them and be deemed successful, imagine your reputation and success if you can nail all three! The problem is that in the world of time, money, and resources, good work, schedules, and excellent customer service are often at odds with each other. The importance of each of them jostles up and down as the work progresses. Assuming that you’re going to (for the near future) focus on only two of the three, how can you choose which ones?

This choice could be assisted by a period of reflection and introspection to examine what you are already valuing in your work. It’s about playing to your strengths and inclinations.

If a fantastic product is highly important, then always doing great work (even if it’s late) could be where you put your attention.

If not delivering your work or results on time (even a grade B result) stresses you out, then focusing on delivery and time could be your preference.

If you would prefer a great working relationship with your team over a perfect product, then number three could be an area of focus.

Are you comfortable when other people ship you their work late? Or if there are mistakes (to an allowable degree)? Do you care if you get a phone call from the other person, and they chat up the baseball game for three minutes before getting down to business? Or is an email with “Here’s your price quote” in the subject line sufficient for your methods?

Key point: Don’t prioritize any of the three habits for others, if you’re not going to prioritize it for yourself. To do otherwise is hypocritical, and it will quickly show. There needs to be consistency, and if you’re prioritizing something for yourself, you will attract those same traits from others. No one wants to be late for the guy who is always on time. No one wants to present B- work to the consistent A+ performer. And no one wants to renew a relationship or treat poorly the guy who is always so pleasant to have on the team.

So take your pick: two out of three to start and happy hunting!

Moving Forward

Are you able to consistently do two of the three traits Gaiman describes?

Is there one of these three that is especially challenging for you?

Originally published at on October 22, 2019.

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Frederick Johnston

Written by

Lifelong writer and researcher, often can be found at, pursuing a life well lived

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Frederick Johnston

Written by

Lifelong writer and researcher, often can be found at, pursuing a life well lived

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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