Noticeably unnoticeable

Paul Nolan, Editor

In his new book “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” journalist David Zweig explores the work of some top-performing professionals in behind-the-scenes positions. These intrinsically motivated workers are critically important to the high-profile projects they are involved with, but the general public is none the wiser – and the Invisibles are just fine with that.

SMM: We wanted to talk with you for our reward and recognition issue because the salesperson stereotype is one of an extrovert who is extrinsically motivated and who thrives on achievement that gets recognized. One of the three characteristics of Invisibles is that they are ambivalent toward recognition. They thrive on the value of the work itself. Do Invisibles find the right kind of work to suit that personality or does the work shape the Invisible?

Zweig: In the end, the book isn’t even about how much you’re seen or not seen. The lesson of the book, if you will, is that anyone – even the most visible people among us – can embody these traits. These traits have a strong correlation with both success and personal fulfillment for anyone. You can think about even some of the most celebrated people among us. Think about a star quarterback who silently studied game film alone in a room for five nights a week leading up to Sunday, or the “overnight sensation” pop star who has been playing dive bars for a decade leading up to her big success… or salespeople. When you’re motivated by intrinsic rewards – where the challenge of your work is what rewards you more than gaining attention – when that’s your motivation, it has a really strong correlation with success as well as fulfillment.

SMM: Is it easier to adopt the Invisible mindset once you’ve reached a certain level of success? So much of career advancement seems to be the ability to toot your own horn.

Zweig: Hmm…It’s a bit of a chicken or egg question. I want to make clear that being an Invisible is not about being someone who is a doormat or not ambitious. The people I write about were all ambitious. The people in my book are well-regarded within their fields and recognized within a certain sphere. They are hardly immune to extrinsic rewards. Most of them are very well paid. But what really motivates them is the work itself – the challenges of the work and a collectivist attitude of working as part of a team and seeing themselves as part of something larger. The collective mindset really drives them and is a key to what made them successful.

We all need to promote ourselves at work at given times and in different circumstances. But what these people show is that you become a hell of a lot more fulfilled by going in the other direction, by focusing more on work that is rewarding and challenging. One reason they became successful is because that was part of their mindset all along.

The research shows that excellent work does get recognized in the end. These people show that by focusing on the work, that’s how you can move up the ladder. There will always be people within organizations who know how to play the politics right and fail upwards. [The Invisible approach] is not the only route, but it’s a pretty wonderful way to go through your life and a wonderful path. We think we have to brand ourselves and constantly push and promote. These people are encouraging in that there is another way.

SMM: Peter Stumpf, the piano technician for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who you profile in your book, is a perfect example of that. He was tuning pianos for academics and other individual clients and one of them recommended him when the PSO was looking for a technician.

Zweig: My favorite line in the whole book is when he talks about watching [classical pianist] Emanuel Ax on stage he feels like he is having a duet. That’s beautiful. It’s really inspiring. His name will never be in the program and when he does his job perfectly, no one will think of him. All they will know is that it sounds wonderful. What’s his reward when he does his job perfectly? For him it’s excellence itself.

(The Emanuel Ax quote: “When I see Manny Ax playing, it’s him and my piano. I get a tremendous satisfaction. I am not in the program ever, yet when I am in the audience and I hear Emmanuel Ax, I genuinely feel like we’re doing a duet – it’s my piano and the artist… and I don’t mind him getting the praise because they are thrilled with what he’s been able to do with my piano.”)

SMM: Most of the subjects in the book are over 40. We’ve all read about Millennials being a culture that needs recognition. Are the characteristics that make Invisibles who they are diminishing?

Zweig: I think they are diminishing to some extent, but I think it’s more cultural than generational. The younger generation, to an extent, is getting unfairly categorized. Let’s be honest, Baby Boomers are not the most selfless generation either. I trace in the book how we have experienced a long shift toward a more individualistic culture, where it’s much more about “look at me.” Part of that has to do with social media. It’s embedded in the system that you have to be seen to have value. I think that bleeds out into the culture at large beyond social media. The people in the book are the antithesis of this culture and also the antidote.

SMM: You state that “a culture of recognition dovetails with a culture of excessive supervision.” If you are starved for the accolades, are you really chasing the pat on the back more than the satisfaction of the job you’re doing?

Zweig: There is nothing wrong with feeling good when you get recognized for work that is done well. I’m not demonizing that. But if you’re constantly chasing that, it’s just a dangling carrot that you never really get. It’s a bit of a drug and you always want more. It’s OK to dabble, to push the metaphor, but if that’s what you’re constantly chasing, you’re never going to get there. Instead, if you base your core on what rewards you is the work, no one can take that away. You’re in business.

SMM: Would you agree that there are no jobs that cannot be a good fit for Invisibles? It’s more about how you approach the work and what you derive your satisfaction from, right?

Zweig: That’s a hundred percent right. In fact, many of the most successful people in very visible roles embody these Invisible traits. Jim Collins talks about Level 5 leadership – they care more about the larger project than aggrandizing themselves. He’s talking about Invisibles.