See What Sticks: Invisible and Invincible


One of my favorite episodes of Matt Groening's Futurama features the arrogant robot Bender as the "God" figure to a colony of settlers. In a twist near the end of the episode, he gets to meet the show's approximation of God, who gives Bender some sage advice:

When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.

David Zweig's Invisibles:The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion carries the banner of "God"'s proclamation, sharing the triumphs and benefits of those who work under the radar. 'Invisibles' is his term for people who fly under the radar, who quietly make things happen, and who typically are only noticed if something goes wrong. Zweig talks to structural engineers, cinematographers, music technicians, and UN interpreters; he distills their defining characteristics down to three:

  1. Invisibles are ambivalent to recognition. Their satisfaction is derived not from audible gratitude, but a deep intrinsic appreciation for their work.
  2. Meticulousness. Invisibles immerse themselves so deeply in their work, others' observations mean little or are scarcely noticed.
  3. Savoring of responsibility. The Invisibles featured in the book do very important work, the kind of work that makes significant impact on lives; they don't shy away from this burden. Their significance to the overall effort is reveled in and appreciated, but not for its own sake.

But the book does not strive to malign those for whom 'invisibility' is not a natural state. Rather, it discusses the benefits that such a mindset can afford those of us who work with Invisibles, while also providing advice for those who may aspire to incorporate some of these traits into our daily lives. Some of the best tips I gained from the book can also be vital for new professionals, those seeking employment, and anyone looking to strengthen their standing in a work environment.

Concentrate on the product, and let your work promote youZweig highlights the increase of personal pronouns (I, me), as well as the influx of professionals that exist solely to help people develop "personal brands" and social media imprints that reduce online interaction to constant image development and curation. While Zweig and other researchers see some elements of this as normal, they generally agree that we have reached an extreme as a society. Their alternative: concentrate on doing the work, and the work will promote you. The book cites the late David Foster Wallace as an example of an artist whose work essentially promoted itself; he became a critical success by doing little more than concentrating on the very thing that made him worth knowing- his writing.

Especially when we're young, or new to a field, we are quick to want to establish ourselves, and we can sometimes equate that with trumpeting our accomplishments. Zweig argues, we shouldn't have to shout our accomplishments so loudly. Truly significant accomplishments will announce themselves; further, invisibles will find fulfillment in their work whether that trumpet is sounded or not.

Identify your goal and who can help you achieve it. The cinematographer Robert Elswit is profiled in one chapter of the book, and we learn about his meticulous process of lighting scenes in award winning films. Elswit is unlike other invisibles profiled in the book in that he has received awards for his work, but that's far from his motivation for doing painstakingly detailed work. Although others may see his work as purely technical, he sees it as a way to make the story resonate with the viewer- the same motivation that drives actors and directors.

But despite his standing as an award-winning craftsman, he sees himself as part of a larger team. His commitment to working collaboratively to fulfill a vision is something that so many of us forget when we're overwhelmed, overworked, and frustrated that our hard work isn't being recognized. Seeing your work for what it is- a part of a multifaceted whole- can provide perspective and encourage you to look deeper than the accolades to appreciate what you truly love about the work itself.

Get comfortable executing someone else's vision first. This particularly tip is directed toward those starting out in a job or field. We are accustomed to seeing the inspirational quote "Start building your dreams, before someone else hires you to build theirs." However, we won't yet be truly ready to work meticulously, a key part of invisible work, unless we put the time, energy, and dedication in to getting good at a craft we could eventually pursue in a leadership role. In a later chapter, Zweig talks about the literal perils of cell tower climbers who were promoted to leadership positions without sufficient training or time in a hands-on role; one person he interviewed was gravely injured as a result of it.

Don't rush the magic of your career. There will be time in your work history to revel in the sunlight of recognition, or to truly be proud of the work you do. But that pride and reverence start with hard work and dedication to developing a high level of competence at a craft. The successful invisible has taken that time, and quietly but skillfully excels.

Make no mistake, Zweig does not advocate for working in thankless jobs. If you truly feel overworked and underappreciated, this is a problem that you can seek to rectify. His goal, instead, is to highlight a class of people who may not always seek out external praise or gratification. If you work with these people, your appreciation of their work is more than enough; and if you are this person, know that you can set a great example for coworkers old and new. Invisibles are an easy-to-overlook population in our offices, schools, and the like. Believe us, you'll notice if their work isn't perfect. But if it is done won't be sure they've done anything at all.