Invisibles, the power of anonymous work in an age of relentless self-promotion describes people’s dedication to jobs away from the spotlight; performing tasks that benefit the public but that the individual performs with the preference for no public recognition. This wonderfully titled book by David Zweig demonstrates how the work of invisibles contrasts to the contemporary emphasis on a ‘culture of profile’ or what historian Warren Sussman called the ‘culture of personality’ and the ‘performing self’.
In an age where products and services are often presented to us through superlative language and glossy imagery, it is a relief and inspiration to read about these individuals’ motivation. Zweig’s book Invisibles highlights the incredible skills and attitudes possessed by behind-the-scenes workers and also notes that often it is only in making an error that their work would become more public. Each person profiled pursues excellence in their field and enters a ‘flow’ state where maximum concentration and skill allow them to execute tasks. In the research for his book Zweig found these Invisibles possess three common traits – ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness and the savouring of responsibility.
Andy Johns was the recording engineer who made the drum introduction to Led Zeppelin’s track When the Levee Breaks possible and yet he is mostly unknown. Jim Harding’s role involves designing airport layout so passengers successfully navigate aspects including luggage drop-off, shops and bathrooms, departure lounges and terminals. Zweig notes that “if Harding performs his job perfectly you will never think of him or his work.” Likewise in the case of structural engineer Dennis Poon who is responsible for the construction safety of Shanghai skyscrapers. Another vital role Zweig observed was Wilkins Ary’s as a simultaneous translator at the United Nations General Assembly. Ary tells Zweig that “not being in the limelight suits me”. Pete Clements, also known as Plank, is the man behind all the enormous technology Radiohead require in the form of pedals and cords. Plank can hear when things aren’t quite right in a way most audiences won’t. In a similar way piano tuner Peter Stumpf takes care of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Steinway D piano. Stumpf tunes the piano strings for international concert pianists and feels very much a part of each performance without any public bows.
Of course, there are a range of intrinsically motivating jobs performed with excellence by ‘invisibles’ world-wide – including armies of nurses, aged-care workers, environmental protectionists, farmers and so on. Regardless of the industry, what Zweig observed about the invisibles in his book was the honing of high-level skills through hard work and repeat actions resulting in the ‘flow’ state first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. ‘Flow’ is a state in which ‘the ego falls away, time flies, and every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.’ ‘Flow’ sounds like a great job to have.