An inspiring look at the hidden stars in every field who perform essential work without recognition
In a culture where so many strive for praise and glory, what kind of person finds the greatest reward in anonymous work? Expanding from his acclaimed Atlantic article, "What Do Fact-Checkers and Anesthesiologists Have in Common?" David Zweig explores what we can all learn from a modest group he calls "Invisibles." Their careers require expertise, skill, and dedication, yet they receive little or no public credit. And that's just fine with them.
Zweig met with a wide range of Invisibles to discover first hand what motivates them and how they define success and satisfaction. His fascinating subjects include:
* a virtuoso cinematographer for major films.
* the lead engineer on some of the world's tallest skyscrapers.
* a high-end perfume maker.
* an elite interpreter at the United Nations.
Despite the diversity of their careers, Zweig found that all Invisibles embody the same core traits. And he shows why the rest of us might be more fulfilled if we followed their example.
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David Zweig has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. His novel, Swimming Inside the Sun, was called a “terrific debut from a talented writer” by Kirkus. As a singer, guitar player, and producer, Zweig has released two albums, All Now With Wings and Keep Going, both of which charted on college radio. Zweig has presented his research about how media and technology affect self-perception at academic conferences and universities around the United States and in Europe. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. Eric Clapton. Van Halen.
Let’s start off with a little quiz. Which one of the above doesn’t belong?
Maybe you’re thinking Eric Clapton because he’s the only single artist, not a band, on the list. Or maybe Van Halen because their heyday was in the 1980s, and the others were a decade or two before. But you’d be wrong on both counts. The outlier in this list is actually the Beatles. All the rest of the artists are linked by one person: a man named Andy Johns.
Cavernous, thunderous, terrifying even, the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” constitute possibly the most beloved drum intro of all time. The track, and especially that intro, is seminal, a sonic benchmark thousands of bands, including some of the most successful acts in rock history, aimed for or were inspired by. As the music recording magazine Sound on Sound noted in a piece on drum recording, it’s “one of the most sought-after sounds in rock.” The drum loop has also been widely sampled all over the musical map, from the Beastie Boys to Björk, Eminem to Enigma. Even if you don’t know “When the Levee Breaks,” you’ve heard these drums or their imitations.
Ubiquitous now, we take for granted how radical the sonics of (Zeppelin drummer) John Bonham’s drums were in 1971, when the band’s fourth album was released. As studio technologies were advancing at the time, the trend was toward more mics and more gear in general. On many recordings of the era bands were using multiple mics on the drum kit, usually with one near the bass drum. Also, for some time a more “deadened” and close drum sound, popularized by the Beatles’ later recordings, had been gaining popularity. Yet Johns, as the album’s recording engineer, the person responsible for getting the band’s sounds on tape, tried something counterintuitive, and revolutionary in a way, to achieve such an exceptionally massive sound—he took just two microphones and hung them over a banister high above a staircase that was in the room where Bonham was pounding away. (The band recorded in an eighteenth-century country house rather than a traditional studio, enabling them to incorporate its varied acoustics, such as the stairwell, in the recordings.) He also compressed the signal and ran it through an echo unit, effects which, utilized together, made the overall performance sound simultaneously louder yet more distant, key to its mesmerizing quality.
When we think of our favorite songs, we think of the artists performing them. Perhaps if you’re a serious music fan, you’ll know who produced the tracks. But we never think of the engineer, which truly is an oversight. The unusual production on “When the Levee Breaks” is “arguably one of the most significant factors in its popularity and longevity,” wrote Aaron Liu-Rosenbaum, now a professor of Music Technology at Laval University in Quebec, in the Journal on the Art of Record Production.
Johns didn’t achieve this sound alone. Of course, Bonham’s performance is what this all rests on, and Jimmy Page, the band’s guitar player and producer, is widely credited, and rightfully so, as the mastermind behind much of Zeppelin’s oeuvre. But it takes nothing away from Page and Bonham to acknowledge Johns’s critical role. He was a highly skilled craftsman, who married a deep technical knowledge with an artistic gift for knowing how to get that sound on so many recordings. Beyond Led Zeppelin IV, Johns engineered nearly all of that band’s most successful records, plus the Rolling Stones classics Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, and numerous other acclaimed albums. This man’s stamp is on some of the most widely shared cultural touchstones of a generation. Yet, other than a blip of recognition following his death in April 2013, he, and his work, have remained invisible.
7:30 p.m. Peter Canby shuffles a stack of marked-up article proofs, flicks off his desk lamp, and finally shuts down his iMac for the day. He has pored over a journalist’s notes for a particularly sensitive piece, double-checked quotes from a “blind” source formerly in the CIA, held a meeting with a writer and his magazine’s attorney over concerns of libel, and instructed a new employee that she needed to be versed in the vocabulary of genetic coding before attending a screening of the sci-fi flick Prometheus, because its review, which she later had to check, had a line about a disintegrating humanoid’s “DNA-laden chromosomes” sinking into water. No minutia is too minute for the fact-checkers Canby oversees at The New Yorker. The requirements to work in his department, beyond possessing a savant level of meticulousness, are stiff. More than half of the sixteen fact-checkers are fluent in a second language, among them Mandarin, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, and Russian, along with the usual French and Spanish; the majority have advanced degrees, including the expected Journalism and Comp. Lit. masters, plus an LSE grad, and the errant Oxford PhD program dropout; and “many stay only a few years before leaving because the pace is brutal,” says Canby.
The fact-checking department’s work is an unseen anchor to the celebrated writing that makes this august magazine’s reputation. “We influence the way our journalists do their reporting and how editors edit their pieces,” says Canby, who has led the department since 1994. And yet Canby and the fact-checkers at The New Yorker know you will not see their names in the magazine. No bylines, no biographical sketches that the authors enjoy. They are invisible to the reader. That is, unless they make a mistake.
Canby and his charges are by any account extremely bright, hardworking people whose traits could likely bring them success in myriad jobs, in journalism or elsewhere, that would gain them some recognition from the reader or other end user. But Canby relishes the behind-the-scenes work. “Even though our names aren’t out there we take a great deal of pride in the final product, being part of a process that contributes to the way people think about issues of the day,” he says. “That’s our satisfaction.”
Understandably, we forget that there are people like Peter Canby and Andy Johns making things happen for the stars out front. By the nature of their work, they don’t make themselves known. And today, by many accounts, increasingly fewer people with the means to choose their career are pursuing paths like theirs, where they and the results of their labor are invisible. But Canby, Johns, and others like them know something that you will be surprised to learn: receiving outward credit for your work is overrated.
How do you define success? If your search for prosperity is based on an arms race of external rewards and tireless self-promotion, of one-upmanship, the kind where frantic parents hold their kindergarteners back a year to theoretically give them a leg up over their younger peers—a trend known as “redshirting”—then you are free to pursue this too-often futile course toward alpha dog status. But 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, people like Johns and Canby—the Invisibles—offer a model you would do well to follow. Ask yourself: Do I want to be on a treadmill of competition with others, or do I want to find lasting reward by challenging myself?
I started exploring a group I’ve named the Invisibles because I was fascinated by people who chose to do work that required extensive training and expertise, that was critical to whatever enterprise they were a part of, yet knowingly and contentedly, they rarely, if ever, were known by, let alone received credit from, the outside world for their labor. What makes Invisibles so captivating is that they are achieving enviable levels of fulfillment from their work, yet their approach is near antithetical to that of our culture at large. What exactly are they doing, how are they living that brings them such attainment at the office and internal satisfaction?
The traits of Invisibles are not only consistent with classic tenets of a rich life, but also, as copious research attests, characteristics of business and leadership success. (And workers who embody Invisible traits not only elevate themselves, but improve whatever enterprise they are a part of.) People need to have a commitment to expertise, to find joy in the work itself, and have the will to place responsibility on their shoulders if they’re going to excel in any endeavor. Indeed, even for the most visible among us—people like NFL quarterbacks, who spend countless private hours silently studying game film, or the overnight-sensation pop star who played dive bars for years honing her craft—invisible work is a critical element of their very noticeable success. The Invisibles are windows into a certain mentality. While this book offers a powerful example to learn from this quiet elite among us, ultimately, Invisibles offers an uplifting framework within which to view ourselves regardless of what we do or pursue.
As valuable as all of these takeaways and scholarly insights are, forget about them, if you will, on some level. The brazen lure of Invisibles is their stories. The major profiles that are the engine of this book are of people who are at the most elite levels in their fields. I was given highly unusual, sometimes the first-and-only access to their worlds. Join me as we: go backstage at a Radiohead concert with the band’s legendary guitar tech; slide through highly restrictive security to go on-site with the lead engineer on the tallest skyscraper under construction in China; shadow a virtuoso cinematographer on a major film set; attend a closed meeting of the UN Disarmament Council with one of the world’s top interpreters. Some Invisibles’ worlds aren’t restricted at all, though they are just as fascinating to learn about because we’ve never known of their existence before. Their work shapes our world—what we see, hear, smell, touch, experience—yet to all but the few on the inside, is largely unknown . . . until now. I hope for this book to not only offer inspiration, but to help open your eyes, as it has done for me, to the unseen expertise and passion that buttresses all that we do see.
PERFECTION = INVISIBILITY
The premise of the Invisibles dates back a number of years to my own stint as a magazine fact-checker. I worked meticulously for long hours, under hard deadlines, yet never received notice for my work . . . unless I made an error. (When’s the last time you read a great magazine article and thought, “Man, that must have been fact-checked beautifully!”) For most people, the better they do their job, the more recognition they are likely to receive. Yet my situation was the inverse. By design, the better I did my job, the more I disappeared. Yet despite my anonymity, I found the job immensely satisfying, and I began to wonder, as unique as the experience was, if perhaps there are other professionals who share the attributes and work conditions of a fact-checker.
As I researched an article for The Atlantic that served as a launch point for this book, speaking to many people, characteristics of Invisibles began to crystallize. Fascinatingly, I found they all consistently embody Three Traits:
1) Ambivalence toward recognition
3) Savoring of responsibility
Remarkably, the traits came to light organically as I spoke with prospective Invisibles. To that point, almost every single person I interviewed used that exact word—meticulous—to describe their behavior at work, and sometimes in their personal life as well. After I spoke with my first few subjects, the interviews took on an almost comical “wait for it . . .” quality in my mind, as I knew all Three Traits would at some point come out. Working on the book, vastly expanding the number and variety of Invisibles I spoke with and met, only served to reinforce this magic triumvirate. The more I spent time with them, and witnessed how this silent yet steadfast group thrusts against our prevailing cultural current, the more I came to recognize that there is much we can learn from them, both as individuals and as a society. (The Three Traits will be present and discussed throughout the book, as all Invisibles embody all Three Traits, but like a trio of dancers on a stage, each trait will take a turn in the spotlight as the focus of each of the first three chapters. The remaining chapters illuminate secondary commonalities among Invisibles or offer broader perspectives.)
You may ask, given that the vast majority of us work in obscurity, wouldn’t nearly all of us be considered Invisibles? But Invisibles is not about thankless, mundane jobs. Invisibles, as I define them (really, as they came to be defined through my research), are highly skilled, and people whose roles are critical to whatever enterprise they are a part of. And in contrast to America’s working poor or the laborers of developing-world factory floors toiling in anonymity, Invisibles are often highly successful and recognized by, indeed deeply respected among their co-workers for their expertise and performance. What’s remarkable is that, despite generally having had the means to pursue other careers, Invisibles have chosen, or fallen into and then decided to stay in, careers that accord them no outward recognition from the end user. This is defiantly in opposition to the accolades, or even just pats on the back, most of us so desire. And yet—Invisibles are an exceptionally satisfied lot.
Things seem to be getting louder. Whether it’s an eardrum-punishing soundtrack in a movie theater, the relentless punditocracy shout-fests, or uncouth cell phone yammerers, it’s noisy. (In fact, “there is plenty of evidence that the world, literally, is getting louder,” Jesse Barber, a professor of biological sciences at Boise State University, who examines the effects of noise on the environment, told me as we discussed several recent studies his team conducted.) And yet perhaps the most blaring note in our zeitgeist is one we hardly notice—the amplification of ourselves. We are now a culture that can catalog our every thought and action on Facebook and Twitter. Online comment threads on provocative articles routinely run longer than the articles themselves. We celebrate mobile phone apps like Foursquare that encourage you to show where you are to everyone, all the time. No personal drama or trauma is too embarrassing or mundane to be broadcast on TV. Our ever-more-fragmented news and entertainment fosters an increasingly personalized experience, which research suggests implicitly reinforces a solipsistic attitude. Most of all, as we continue to develop and live through our online versions of ourselves—forever crafting our various social media profiles and avatars—there is the growing notion that we, as individuals, are actually brands to promote. This cacophony of self-importance, of personalized electronic vuvuzelas, has made us like that annoying kid in the front of the class who keeps raising his hand, moaning with distress as he over-tries for the teacher’s attention. And it is tipping us dangerously out of balance.
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