Invisibles: A book review by Bob Morris

InvisiblesInvisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
David Zweig
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (2014)

“There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In an article that appeared in The Atlantic (March 12, 2012), “What Do Fact-Checkers and Anesthesiologists Have in Common?”, David Zweig explained why some people choose professions where accomplishments go unheralded. They are what he characterizes as “Invisibles” insofar as recognition and (especially) praise are concerned, preferring to work on the given work at hand.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Zweig’s coverage. I could have selected hundreds of brief excerpts. Here are five:

o Three Defining Traits of Invisibles: Ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness, and savoring responsibility

Zweig: “The Invisibles are not an exclusive group; they are simply at the far end of a spectrum we all live within. We are all Invisible to varying degrees, in different ways, and in different contexts. The elite professionals I will spotlight in this book, however, show that living at the apex of this continuum, that truly embodying these traits, directly links with success and fulfillment.” (Page 13)

o Giulia Wilkins Ary and other members of the elite Interpretation Service at the United Nations

“Without her and her colleagues, diplomats from around the world would not be able to communicate with each other…Wilkins Ary hears one language, interprets it into another language in her head, then speak the new language while at the same time continuing to listen to and interpret the next lines of the original language, a practice known as simultaneous interpretation… (84)

o The myth of self-promotion and the Culture of Profile

“In the online environment, especially on social media platforms, as we present ourselves as a series of ‘likes,’ links, and lists of favorite stuff, our essence has been reduced yet again — from a personality to a profile…Operating in this environment, where you others and know they are observing you, on a mass scale, deeply alters our sense of public and private, normalizing the expectation of recognition for everything we do…And that’s the irony of all this noise about the need for self-promotion, especially so online. In some ways it seems just a vast myth that the culture at large has bought into…This, at its core, the message of the Invisibles. To let go of the ego and worries of recognition, and instead focus on the work.” (109, 112, 121, and 126)

o Robert Elswit, a cinematographer, on the “art of collaboration” and the significance of Michael Clayton

“There are sometimes sixty or seventy people who are hired directly or indirectly by me who have to want to come to work every day” [on each film]…if they aren’t happy to see me, if they don’t want to come to work, if they don’t know [or care] what they’re doing, then my work suffers…The film Michael Clayton is about a guy who finds himself at the age of forty-eight completely bereft of any personal sense of dignity, who has lost every part of him that he used to think was important. He has no self-respect left. He is a shill; he is a prostitute; he is a living version of everything that when he was twenty-two years old probably disgusted him. And it happened so slowly he never figured it out. And he’s given the opportunity at some point to find himself again. That’s what Michael Clayton is about.” And self-respect is what Invisibles are all about. (135 and 141)

o Invisibles across cultures

“Drawing attention to one’s self “has been a critical part of America’s success. What I suggest, however, is that the tonal balance between this brashness and a more reserved temperament — what I call our American Swing — that served our country so well is, in recent years, increasingly tipping toward the former trait…We can learn from [other countries] by pulling the successful elements of their more collectivist and horizontal attitude while maintaining out unique noise. If we can do that we can get back on course, once again knifing straight through the water. Otherwise, we’re merely a bunch of oars splashing manically off the side of the boat, not going anywhere.” (219)

As I worked my way through this book, I was again reminded of Susan Cain’s brilliant discussion of “the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking in her book, Quiet. Historians’ accounts and media coverage must share at least some of the blame for widespread but remarkably durable misconceptions about eminent persons such as Warren Buffett, Dale Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Steven Spielberg, and Steve Wozniak. However great their impact on others may be, all are (or were) essentially introverted. What else do they share in common? They are renowned for being thoughtful, indeed reflective, tending to take more time than others do to make sound decisions and to reach correct conclusions.

Ironically, Carnegie is among the pioneers of self-help programs that emphasize “winning friends and influencing people,” the title of a book first published in 1936 and continues to be a bestseller. According to Cain, Carnagey (who later changed his name “likely to evoke Andrew Carnegie, the great industrialist”) was a good-natured but insecure high school student. He was skinny, unathletic, and fretful. His subsequent career from farmboy to salesman to public-speaking icon demonstrates a shift in America “from what influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality – and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover.”

With rare exception, the dozens of Invisibles whom David Zweig discusses are unknown to most who read this book and that’s fine with them. Many (if not most) of them were/are introverted but the key point is that their behavior is in seamless alignment with what they value. Zweig speaks for them as well as for himself when observing in the Conclusion, “Praise can be hard to come by and fleeting when you do get it but no one can take away pride from, and engagement in, hard work. Like my Invisible subjects, I realized that the value of my work, not the volume of my praise, brought me, and still does now, fulfillment. I want recognition, I want success — please, buy five more copies of my book! — but, in the end, what sustains me, what keeps that bogeyman of anxiety at bay, is the work itself.”

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