Friday, May 18, 2012

Advice from Neil Gaiman

Being a fan of Neil Gaiman's, like apparently everyone else on the planet, I watched his Commencement Address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and I was once again struck by how similar worlds of art and science are. (I'm sorry, that should be Dr. Neil Gaiman.)

Anyway, the good doctor provides some good advice. First he notes that (or not first, but first of what I found particularly interesting) - that more and more art is produced on a freelance basis. That is you produce, and then you try to find buyers, or you put out an idea and find supporters so that you can produce. I think that is a very fitting description of an early science career, and in many ways even of the day-to-day work of established scientists. There are collaborations between scientists, there are grant-funded projects, and there are temporary academic positions, they all have in-common that you have to have a good idea (with some preliminary data), and you only get to continue if you do produce what you say you would. Or something equally awesome.

This above all other points has to be realised by anyone starting out in science, and by anyone in science who hasn't understood it yet: You are only what you bring to the table. The question is what to bring to the table. Neil's advice is simple: Produce good work, be easy to work with, and deliver on time. Pick any two. As he exemplifies if:
"People will put up with how unpleasant you are if your work is good, and you deliver it on time.
People will forgive the latness of your work if it is good, and they like you.
And, you don't have to be as good as everyone else if you are on time, and it's always a pleasure to hear from you."
 -Neil Gaiman
Sadly, this only goes for collaborators, and positions. Our backers in science have largely been dissociated from social interaction, which means that we only have two things to show them: How good our work is, and that it is delivered on time. Pick any two.

Now, if you aren't delivering at least two, you have a problem. It may be ok for a while if your work is really new and really good. However, if you're a chore to work with, your work is middling, and it isn't delivered on time, then you will notice that people aren't working with you any more. This is not because what you are working on isn't interesting. It's because we all hope to be doing this for the rest of our lives, and working with people who can't deliver, or are unpleasant to work with, just isn't worth it. An insight that fits well with the best advice Neil Gaiman ever got:
"You should enjoy it." 
-Stephen King

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