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Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion

By David Zweig

Portfolio Hardcover

256 pages, $27.95

By Emily Joy Sullivan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Obsession with fame has been par for the human course for quite some time. Yet in the modern era, we now also have the cult of pseudo-celebrity. Thanks to the public forum of the Internet, one can have millions of YouTube views overnight simply by being captured on film doing something, well, stupid. Even those of us who don’t reach such heights of notoriety have an unprecedented degree of exposure and access to one another. We inhabit a realm of tags, views, and “likes” bestowed willy-nilly on the most inconsequential details of daily life. All this, in addition to a culture that prizes competition and hierarchy, makes for a not-so-subtle imperative to rise to the top – if not of actual skill or contribution, then at least of popularity. In “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” David Zweig chooses to explore something different. He interviews and shadows members of an unexpected elite, a set of individuals whose values and actions are “near antithetical” to those of mainstream culture. These “Invisibles” are experts in their fields and have access to elite realms, yet are not renowned or even recognized in the public eye.

Zweig’s subjects are not front-men or spotlight-hoggers. They are piano tuners, not pianists; UN interpreters, not politicians; lead engineers, not lead architects. They walk the same stages as Radiohead and the same movie sets as big-name directors, yet they are not themselves famous.

Zweig makes no bones about his intention to uphold these individuals as an example for his readers. However, he is not moralistic; he is simply interested in Invisibles because they seem to hold some answers to the pursuit of happiness. He asks, “What exactly are they doing, and how are they living that brings them such attainment at the office and internal satisfaction?” Zweig identifies three fundamental traits that characterize Invisibles, and he begins his book by exploring each through the lens of one individual. The first and most unusual trait is “ambivalence to recognition”: Invisibles do not do their work in order to receive praise. Some even expressly dislike attention. Invisibles do their work out of intrinsic motivation, from a love of the work itself, and not for extrinsic reward.

Zweig also identifies Invisibles’ “devotion to meticulousness.” From a perfumer who keeps impeccable records of the dozens of notes in each formula among hundreds of attempts, to a cinematographer who reshoots a scene to perfect one seemingly inconspicuous spot on a set piece, Invisibles’ fastidiousness stands in stark contrast to our cultures’ predominant values of instant gratification.

Zweig’s third main focus is the “savoring of responsibility.” Invisibles relish responsibility itself, rather than the praise it bestows. Dennis Poon, lead structural engineer for one of the tallest buildings in the world, provides a strong example. In his case, many lives hang in the balance, dependent on the integrity of his work.

“Invisibles” sometimes moves slowly during these early chapters, as Zweig tends to get bogged down in the details. Though Zweig claims that “the brazen lure of Invisibles is their stories,” it is the intricacies of the individuals’ work itself that sidetracks him.

For example, in the chapter exploring “ambivalence to recognition,” Zweig spends several pages describing the facts of the field of wayfinding (spatial problem-solving and planning), as he tells the “story” of Harding, a principal wayfinder for the world’s busiest airport, Hartfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Zweig veers into different elements and nuances of wayfinding, and this reader felt off-track and unfocused.

To be sure, these extensive details speak to the characteristic of fastidiousness. However, Zweig goes farther than necessary – especially in a chapter ostensibly meant to focus on a different trait.

Zweig’s later sections are some of the most relevant and interesting, as they expand beyond the core traits to explore other commonalities and place the Invisibles in a broader context. Chapters such as “Fame, Success, and the Myth of Self-Promotion” show that the Invisibles’ values are increasingly unpopular and uncommon in mainstream culture, despite the fact that our predominant values aren’t actually making us happy.

Zweig also incorporates others’ research. Most notably, he references Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s famous theory of “flow,” or a mental state of complete engrossment in one’s activity, in which all else falls away.

Flow is a state that Csíkszentmihályi and Zweig have found to be a hallmark of people who are fulfilled in their work. This is one of Zweig’s strongest sections, as it places his arguments in a documented context and zeroes in on what makes the Invisibles’ traits so effective, and instructive for the reader. Indeed, Zweig himself gains insight on his own happiness through his research. In an apt keystone for the end of the book, he reflects on the process of getting a book deal: the initial thrill and validation of the offer; the opportunities for praise when he shares the news with acquaintances; the quick thrill and swift fade of the accolades.

But ultimately, Zweig only feels deep, lasting satisfaction once he becomes immersed in the process of writing itself. The ego-boost of telling everyone he has a book deal simply doesn’t cut it: it is ambivalence to recognition and devotion to meticulousness that bring him fulfillment.

Such a moment of self-reflection and coming-full-circle is rare, and lovely. Though Zweig’s experience and opinions appear throughout the book, making for welcomingly personal, accessible, and informal non-fiction, this the most enriching personal connection he makes.

Despite some shortcomings, “Invisibles” is an interesting and important book. It takes us a step closer to understanding how we can be happier and lead more meaningful lives. We can all benefit from the examples of Invisibles: people who have devoted themselves to meaningful work they love for its own sake, and not because it will let them see their name in lights—or bring in more “likes.”

Emily Joy Sullivan is a composer, choir conductor and educator.