Let’s Hear it for the Invisibles – Insight from David Zweig (and Barbara Ehrenreich)

The InvisiblesWelcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it.
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

If you come to define success, in both business and in life, as philosophers and religions have for millennia, by the satisfaction derived from work itself and not the degree of attention you receive for it… Ask yourself: do I want to find lasting reward by challenging myself?
David Zweig, The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion


We’re certainly full-fledged into celebrity culture. The famous 15 minutes of fame prediction is now upon us. And so we look for our posts to go viral, and we sit waiting with full-fledged anticipation at the latest Kardashian development. And CEOs are now as big on the celebrity circuit as actors and musicians.

But the world works because of the anonymous work of the many – the “invisibles.”

After the Ebola scare in Dallas, and the wonderful news that the two health care workers who exposed themselves to Ebola by treating Mr. Duncan, and contracted the illness in the process, are now free of it, I thought about all the nurses, and health care professionals, from the doctors to the “lowest” assistants, who care for the human needs of people who suffer with illness. What would we do without these anonymous workers, serving real human need, day after day? No applause; no recognition…

200px-Nickel_and_Dimed_coverIt reminded me of the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbare Ehrenreich. She took on low-paying jobs, and wrote about her experiences. One of her observations was that these “unskilled workers” were in fact very skilled. And, many of them work very hard at their jobs. Here’s a key quote from that book:

The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Now I’ve been reading Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion by David Zweig. In it, he writes about three characteristics of the “invisibles,” which he first discovered in research for an article for The Atlantic. From the book:

I found they all consistently embody Three Traits:

  • Ambivalence toward recognition
  • Meticulousness
  • Savoring of responsibility

In other words, they work hard at their jobs (they are meticulous), they find meaning from within, and you can genuinely count on them.

These really are the people that make our workplaces and our lives work.

Let’s hear it for the invisibles!


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