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The Three Most Important Traits of People Who Make the World Work

"Invisibles" perform key tasks without seeking credit. And they're in high demand.


“You never read a great magazine article and think to yourself, ‘Who fact-checked this?’” observed David Zweig, author of the forthcoming Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. “It’s only if a fact-checker makes a mistake that anyone thinks of them.” But Zweig—who spent five years working as a fact-checker at Conde Nast—isn’t resentful. In fact, he swears he actually enjoyed the time he spent slaving away on the minutiae of other people’s stories. In his new book, Zweig explores why some people find anonymous work satisfying. Zweig profiles behind-the-scenes professionals he calls “Invisibles,” including a UN interpreter, a perfumer who creates fragrances for celebrity brands, an elite piano tuner, an anesthesiologist with an Ivy League medical degree, and the guitar technician for Radiohead.

Alice Robb: What are “Invisibles?”

David Zweig: That’s the name I’ve given to highly skilled professionals whose work is critical to whatever enterprise they’re a part of, yet who go largely unnoticed by the public.

The interesting thing about being a fact-checker was that the better I did my job, the more I disappeared, yet I found myself feeling really rewarded at the end of the day. For most of us, the better we do our jobs, the more we get recognized. I started thinking about it—are there other jobs that share this sort of inverse relationship between work and recognition? In a culture that values attention above nearly everything else, who are these people who choose to go into lines of work in which, when they do their job perfectly, they’re completely invisible? What motivates them? What makes them feel fulfilled? In a culture where everyone strives for recognition both personally and professionally, what can we possibly learn from these people?

I spoke with a number of career recruiters, and they see more and more people who want careers in high-profile fields and fewer and fewer pursuing the careers of craftsmen or people who are behind-the-scenes. The larger culture has a very powerful ethos that attention equals success. In the fabric of social media, the metric for value is attention. The number of “likes” you get on a post, the number of followers you have. These are the metrics by which we’re guiding ourselves.

AR: How are “Invisibles” different from the rest of us?

DZ: Despite an incredible range of careers, there are three traits they all seem to share. The first is an ambivalence toward recognition. They don’t seek attention the way most of us do. The second trait is that they tend to be meticulous. The chapter on meticulousness focuses on a man named David Apel, who is a perfumer. This guy has created some of the top-selling fragrances in the world, for people like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. He’s really an artist: He creates something from nothing, and he has to translate very abstract concepts. If a client says, “I want this to smell like a cloud,” he has to figure out what they’re saying. He has this incredible knowledge of science and chemistry; these fragrances have hundreds of ingredients, and the amount of each ingredient can go down to fraction of a gram. He has these spreadsheets that go on and on and on. He’s extraordinarily meticulous. The third trait is that they tend to savor responsibility. I argue that many of us try to avoid responsibility if we can, but these people want to take it on, even if they don’t get any credit for it. There’s a fascinating story about the engineers on one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early buildings. They knew that his designs weren’t safe, but he was notoriously stubborn, and they knew he wouldn’t listen to them. They secretly went in and reinforced parts of the building while it was being built. They wanted to take on this responsibility, knowing that publicly they could never talk about it, because they just cared so deeply about their work. We tend to associate responsibility with the person at the top of the pyramid, or the most noticeable person, but responsibility doesn’t necessarily have to do with being seen.

AR: You’re talking about people who are at the top of their fields. Even if they’re ambivalent toward public recognition, they’re recognized within their own companies. They have status. If you meet someone and say, “I’m an interpreter at the UN,” that’s a very well-respected position.

DZ: They’re not invisible in every regard. All of these people are respected within their fields. This is the key thing: They had the ability to go into any number of careers. It’s not like they’re toiling away in a factory with no choice but to remain anonymous. These are people who are highly educated, very motivated, and ambitious but they’ve chosen careers where they’re not going to get that larger recognition.

Like choosing to be an anesthesiologist versus a surgeon. There was one guy I interviewed, a very successful anesthesiologist who went to an Ivy League medical school. He could have gone into any number of specialties within medicine, but he chose to do something where when he did his job perfectly, the patients aren’t really going to think of him that much. You’ll never forget who removed your gallbladder, but you probably won’t remember the anesthesiologist who kept you alive in that surgery.

AR: Were you able to get a sense of whether these people have the same ambivalence toward recognition in their personal lives? You could work as an anesthesiologist but still be posting on Facebook 20 times a day.

DZ: Most of these people are pretty self-effacing. Many of them, when they talk about growing up, say they didn’t even want attention as kids. One of the guys I interviewed, a graphic designer, said he won some award as a child and felt very uncomfortable having the spotlight on him. So a number of them have always shown this proclivity toward just getting the job done, doing the work that’s rewarding to them and not making a big deal of it—which to me seems like the opposite of the American way. The way a lot of our schools are designed, kids that are louder and more aggressive get attention, and that’s considered a positive thing, and being quiet in the corner is frowned upon.

AR: What about in other systems? Are “Invisibles” viewed differently in other cultures?

DZ: As Americans, we seem to think there’s something intrinsic about wanting attention for ourselves. We forget that what feels like human instinct may actually be very cultural, even provincial. You can look to other countries that have a much more collectivist attitude. This won’t surprise anyone, but America is considered the most individualistic country on earth. I’m not saying that collectivist cultures are superior, but I am saying we’re out of balance here.

AR: Was it hard to convince people who are ambivalent toward recognition to be profiled for a book?

DZ: It was a mixed bag. There were some people who were delighted to talk with me. There were, however, many others where it was a lot more work to get them to break down and finally talk to me. A number of them clearly were uneasy with having even me, just one person, spotlighting them.

AR: Is it hard to promote a book that’s essentially an argument against self-promotion?

DZ: There are times for all of us to promote ourselves and our work. I think, as a writer, this is a perfect example. I’m quite happy to have my name on the cover of my book or in a byline, and right now I’m out promoting this book. I want people to hear about it. But to sustain the type of work that you need to do to become successful, you have to find the reward in the work itself.

AR: What can the rest of us learn from “Invisibles"?

DZ: What I hope my book can be is permission to step off the wheel. I think a lot of us are being wrongly persuaded to spend too much time trying to build up our presence online when we should be spending more time on our work. As a writer, there’s a fair amount of pressure. You feel that you have to have a social media platform, to be constantly online promoting yourself. I think there’s some value in that, but the evidence seems to show that if you want to be a successful anything—say writer—do good work, and that will gain you followers. Gaining a lot of followers won’t get you good work. Doing good work is the best use of your time.

I hope Zweig is right, because he’s given me a reason to feel self-righteous about my pathetic presence on Twitter. Yet, just like Zweig wants you to buy his book, I still want you to follow me. So maybe I don’t have the makings of an “Invisible” after all.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image via Shutterstock