I asked myself how many times I’d been there before. Up against or even beyond the deadline. The phone ringing with calls from either the studio or the producer or my agent serving messages from the two former. I’ve both begged and demanded for more time. Just another week, day, or hour. Please, five more minutes.

Why does this always happen? Why doesn’t the script come together quickly, ready, and delivered on time or, for that matter, a week or so early?

Yes. I know I’ve blogged about this before – posts that concerned the turning in of work later than either expected or contracted. See LATE TO THE PARTY and LIVE FREE OR DIE OF PNEUMONIA.

What I haven’t written about is delivering early. You know what I’m talking about. Turning in that assignment before the alarms begin to clang.

Why you ask? Simple. Because it’s never, ever happened. At least not to me.

Sure, I’ve snuck unfinished drafts to producers and even trusted execs during the writing process. But that was on my own accord, outside my deal, and entirely in the search for quality feedback. But never before it was expected.

“You know what I do?” began a writer friend who was known for doing high-dollar polishes. And I’m talking sometimes two or three assignments at a time. “I get the draft done and stick it in drawer until they call and beg for it.”

“Because you don’t want ‘em thinking they didn’t get their money’s worth,” I finished, having heard the line before from other script jockeys.

“Hell yeah,” he answered. “At these prices, they gotta think I’m practically sleeping with the script for a month.”

He then asked me if I could relate.

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t juggle so well. I’m a one script at a time guy who’s not keen to let it go until I have to.”

“So you’re slow?”

“Not at all,” I defended.

“Indecisive?”

“More deliberate. I’m kinda like gas to a vacuum. I’ll instantly fill up all the space you give me.”

“Whatever works for you.”

“You ever get this?” I asked. “The exec calls and says ‘when?’”

“And you ask back, ‘Do you want it good or fast?’”

“I want it good and fast,” we both answered at the same time, laughing at the singular commonness of our screenwriting experience.

Then there was the agent who was inquiring about me being available for a quick rewrite.

“How long do you think it’ll take you?” he asked me.

“’Bout three weeks,” I guesstimated.

“I think these guys think it needs more work,” he said. “Can you write it in three weeks, but turn it in six?”

“I suppose,” I answered, knowing full well that if I am given six weeks instead of three, I’ll take all six to complete the gig. The thought led me to feel not just unprofessional, but undisciplined as hell.

Undisciplined? Really?

In fact, I’ve had these arguments with myself during my entire career. To look at me from the outside one might think I’m a picture of success. Fully produced, respected, agented, mortgaged, with a cornucopia of showbiz friends and kids in private school. Yet on the inside I’m still that insecure wannabe who whips himself for lack of effort and acumen.

Then came my recent visit to my wife’s other life. You see, the lovely and talented War Department mothers a high school robotics team called Golden Gears Robotics. The young crew, a wonderful mash-up of normal and learning-disabled propeller heads is steered by Dr. Aidyl Gonzalez of Cal Tech and her husband, JPL-NASA engineer Fred Serricchio. The team was in their final, five-hour crunch of bot-building before they’d have to bag and tag their robot for the upcoming regional competitions.

Fred and the team were crammed into their lab, laptops at attention or personally attending the yet-to-be-named robot, each making last-minute adjustments to everything from hardware to programming. I couldn’t help commenting with something like:

“Gotta love deadlines,” I deadpanned.

“Gotta use every last bit of time we have,” said Fred.

“I know what that means,” referring to my own time-limit issues. “I will use every last bit of rope I can get to make adjustments.”

“Way it is up at JPL,” he said. “No matter the deadline, we’ll use every last second to tweak and reevaluate. Always right up to the edge.”

“I have this thing I always ask to studio execs,” I told him. “Do you want it fast or good?”

Fred chuckled.

“Of course,” I continued. “They always come back with ‘we want it fast and good.’”

With that, Fred chuckled again with a knowing grin. That’s when he dropped this gem on me:

“What we like to say at NASA is ‘better is the enemy of good enough.’”

“Better is the enemy of good enough,” I repeated, unbuckling my own knowing guffaw before letting the words actually sink in.

With that, I kept quietly repeating the mantra as if I’d discovered a new universal truth.

Over the last three years I’ve had more than enough opportunities to chat with Fred and some of his colleagues about the inner-workings of JPL-NASA as applied to everything from the general work aesthetic to the complexities of building, rocketing, and landing the rover on Mars. Knowing NASA’s intolerant necessity to guard against failure, I love listening to these real-life castmates of The Big Bang Theory describe their processes for succeeding within such a high-test environment—all of which can be boiled down to that simple and perfect truth: better is the enemy of good enough.

That simple nugget of wisdom speaks such volumes to me. No longer should I pummel myself for stretching the constraints of my time limitations.

Because better is the enemy of good enough.

No longer should I feel undisciplined or lazy because the clock ran out on me.

Because better is the enemy of good enough.

No longer will I need to employ that tired rhetorical query, “do you want it good or fast?”

Because better is the enemy of good enough.

School’s out, mates. Time to get back to work. Oh, and thanks Fred. You proved it pays for an artist to befriend an actual rocket scientist.

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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • MGE3

    Heard a story about someone turning in their first adaptation 4 weeks early and how the studio was really taken aback. It was almost like a lawyer who bills by the hour, but gets the work done too quickly — it raises eyebrows. They want to be reassured you put forth your best effort, but I’ve long used a similar phrase to the one you cited:

    Perfect is the enemy of the good.

    • Doug Richardson

      And this one. Batman is the enemy of The Riddler.

  • Aaron C

    I know our politics don’t align, Doug, but often when folks ask me why not vote green party, I answer “because we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” I’ve heard that phrase a lot, but I think I like “better / good enough” even more, especially as it pertains to work…

    • Doug Richardson

      Thanks, Aaron. I’ll pass that along to Fred.

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    Trick question–what is your time worth? Between research, creative daydreaming and actual writing it’s hard to calculate how much time a writer spends working. ‘Early’ might allow non-writers to believe they’ve seen behind a curtain that doesn’t exist. Most of us are writing whether we’re on the clock or not.

    • Doug Richardson

      Tru dat.

  • paul

    What’s the average deadline?

    The thought of delivering on deadlines just gives me the shakes…. what about all these spec writers that nail a good spec, but might not be able to do an assignment fast and good in 3 months?

    • Doug Richardson

      Simple. Forget the deadline if the script can deliver a major star and director.

  • Mike S

    I deal with the same issues in my edit room. I’m always pushing the boundaries of the deadlines. The way I look at it is this: the more time I have the better the final product. When I’m asked, “How long will this take you?” I answer, “How much time do I have?”

    • Doug Richardson

      One my favorite scenes is in Bob Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ. The producer of the film he’s editing storms in, complaining about the studio and time and money. Then Roy Scheider sits the worried producer down at the Moviola and shows him the most recent cut, to which the producer laments “God, it IS better.” Thanks Mike.

  • clive

    The tightest ever deadline was oppenheimer’s ‘manhattan project’ , a ticking clock, and the highest possible stakes. Not as hard as writing scripts of course but up there.

    • Doug Richardson

      And the world would never be the same.

  • ChRiS

    Wise words!

    Because better is the enemy of good enough.
    Because better is the enemy of good enough.
    Because better is the enemy of good enough.
    Because better is the enemy of good enough.

    …trying to memorize that 😉

    • Doug Richardson

      How’s it go again?

      • ChRiS

        Thanks for reminding me to take a look 🙂

  • Waves of Gray

    Thank you. This is very inspirational. It’s also a good story to share with those in my life who occasionally accuse me of being lazy for taking a long time to write. What they don’t know is that it takes time to work past the bad and “good enough” ideas!

    • Doug Richardson

      Yes. But remember that better vs good enough is not an excuse for you to procrastinate.