Are You an Invisible in a World of Visibles?
A conversation with David Zweig, author of Invisibles
Posted Jun 09, 2014
Plouffe is one example of what writer David Zweig would call an invisible, someone who most people don’t notice but who does incredibly important work. In Zweig’s new book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion he tells the stories of many skilled people who “have chosen, or fallen into and then decided to stay in, careers that accord them no outward recognition from the end user.” Zweig himself was once an invisible fact checker but now has become a much more visible writer. He is a writer, lecturer, and musician who wrote an article for The Atlantic which grew into this book. He has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his book.
JON: You talk about the invisibles profiled in your book as a “quiet elite” who appear contented with the satisfaction derived from the work itself. However, in addition to satisfying work, many of these people are paid quite well. Perhaps outward credit is something that is simply not necessary for a large group of people who are happy to do stimulating work, have high status in their social circles, and live comfortably? It also seems there might be a personality difference between people who choose a visible vs. invisible career path. Your thoughts?
A core message of Invisibles is, indeed, that if you reap reward from doing stimulating work, that can supplant or at least diminish the need to be rewarded by attention and praise to feel fulfilled. I’d say some Invisibles have status in their immediate circles and some don’t. But, what is universal for them is that they are not motivated by status. (How many people have high status but are still desirous of more? That’s the American way – keeping up with the Joneses. There’s scant evidence that status sustains any sort of lasting fulfillment.) To both of these points there is a wealth of research that supports the notion that intrinsic motivations are far more lasting and powerful than extrinsic ones, like money or attention. This dovetails to your last point about “living comfortably.” What’s fascinating to me about Invisibles is that unlike, say, third world factory workers toiling away anonymously, or the person who cleans your hotel room that you never think of,—people who presumably have few vocational options, whether due to lack of education or citizenship status, etc—the Invisibles I profiled in the book all had options of pursuing a variety of different career paths. Most of them are highly educated, bright, and capable people. But, they’ve chosen to do work that is largely behind the scenes, and they are better off for that choice. Anesthesiologists are paid quite well, but, for example, one of the doctors I interviewed works at an elite hospital and went to an Ivy League medical school. He’s an extraordinary achiever. He could have easily chosen a different specialty within medicine, like surgery or something else where he’d get all the glory from his patients and still be paid as well if not more than he is now. Or he could have gone into a different career entirely, like finance, that pays much more. But, he chose to do work that’s stimulating, even though, as he told me, if you want patients to send you “fruit baskets,” don’t go into anesthesiology.
Some of the Invisibles were on a path to doing what they are doing now from an early age. Others seemed to fall into the careers but excelled and chose to stay there. Either way, there is something about these people being very fulfilled working behind the scenes to one degree or another, when by most signs it seems most of us, and perhaps in particular younger people, are choosing to pursue work that will gain them the most attention (or if they’re not in a high profile role, they’re wishing they were). There’s something profound about Invisibles’ ambivalence toward recognition as a countercurrent to the ethos today.
You write, “It’s a mark of elite stature to not need to partake in self-promotion.” To me, this statement has two sides. On the one hand, it makes sense that those who are truly great have no need to self-promote because their work speaks for itself. On the other hand, it would seem arrogant to assume you don’t have to self-promote, if only because in this assumption lies the idea that your work is somehow special. In that sense, many academics and writers are really not very different. But to me it seems somewhat insincere for anyone, even the most obscure academic or writer, to claim they would not like to have their colleagues and even the wider public recognize their work. Is the outward claim to not self-promote in contradiction with the inward desire for recognition as well as the necessity for self-promotion in some realms of our current culture?
Not needing to self-promote may either be a mark of greatness, as you suggest, or simply a sign that one has already achieved a certain degree of success and notoriety so the audience is already there. When a famous writer publishes something, there is a guaranteed X amount of people who will buy it, and X amount of media that will cover it. He doesn’t have to push the way a more unknown writer does to get his work seen. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t care about recognition, only that he doesn’t need to work as hard now to get it. Pretty much every artist wants their work to connect with people. But, there are some artists who are satisfied to have their work reach a certain audience and that’s enough and there are others, who I’d deem to be entertainers more than artists in many circumstances, whose goal is to continually reach more and more people. The fame itself being a driver.
I found fact-checking to be immensely rewarding. And, I was fascinated that I was so fulfilled after a long day even though the job had this bizarre inverse relationship between recognition and a job well done. The better I performed the more invisible I became. In fact, it was only if I made a mistake that I would be thought of at all—by the reader, and often by the editors as well. This was the catalyst for the book—to seek out other Invisibles. With all that said, as much as I got out of fact-checking, I’ve always found writing even more rewarding. My decision to pursue a career in writing wasn’t out of a desire for more attention, but out of a desire to do work that stimulates me. In the last chapter of the book I write about the thrill I got after getting a big book deal and telling friends and family about it. But in order to spend several years writing, and editing, and doing deep, complicated research, you have to really love the work itself. The remote possibility of gaining any sort of great attention would never be enough to sustain the dedication needed to write and publish a book. Getting attention is really fun and exciting at times, I’m not immune to that nor should one be, but it’s not a sustaining feeling or situation. In the end, you’re alone at your desk, doing the work.
© 2014 by Jonathan Wai