June 20, 2014 6:37 pm

‘Invisibles’, by David Zweig

The workers for whom expertise is its own reward

Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, by David Zweig, Portfolio Penguin, RRP£19.99/$27.95, 256 pages

Now might be a good moment for David Zweig to big himself up. Invisibles – in part a corrective to the quest for social media “micro-celebrity” – appears just as Twitter, the self-promoter’s tool of choice, seems to be struggling to recruit new users. Perhaps the world is starting to realise that the lasting rewards in life come not from a futile hunt for evanescent retweets and likes but from a determination, in Zweig’s words, to “let go of the ego and worries of recognition, and instead focus on the work”.

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IN Non-Fiction

In Invisibles, the exemplars of this idea are people such as the man who designs the signage in airports, the perfume-maker who puts together scents branded with celebrities’ names, or Radiohead’s “guitar tech”, who services and prepares the band’s gear so concerts go without a hitch. All share three common traits: they are ambivalent about recognition, they are meticulous and they savour responsibility.

As Zweig explains, the surgeon may get the fruit basket from the grateful patient, and the “starchitect” may win the design prizes, but the anaesthetist and the building engineer are doing the vital work that makes their success possible. If you learn the names of these anonymous experts, it is usually because they made a mistake.

The insight that doing good work can in itself be fulfilling is not new. As Invisibles acknowledges, Thorstein Veblen, the economist and sociologist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”, used to applaud the gratuitous curiosity of engineers and artisans. Matthew Crawford has extolled the value of careful workmanship in his fine Shopclass as Soulcraft (2010, published in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands). Zweig refers to eudaemonia – the Aristotelian concept of “flourishing” – but not to Charles Handy, the Irish-born management writer, who has long worried about how to encourage the concept in the workplace.

 

Zweig, a novelist, journalist and musician who was inspired by his experience as a magazine fact-checker to write the article that inspired Invisibles, weaves the philosophy and research that support his thesis through the book but concentrates on the reporting that is his strength. Unfortunately, he overdoes it. While it is occasionally fascinating to read microscopic insights into, say, piano-tuning at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a process that Zweig admits defeated even his meticulous urge to understand everything he describes, the detail is sometimes off-putting. In the densest passages of explanation, it sometimes seems as though Zweig is putting his own invisible fact-checkers through their paces.

Invisibles nevertheless contains a strong message about the importance of teamwork, conscientiousness and collaboration. The book celebrates its reluctant lead actors for their humility, their unselfishness and their ordinary pride in good work. These are all virtues worth cherishing. But it is a little too easy to say, as Zweig does, that “true leadership and responsibility perhaps come from viewing oneself as part of a team” if you view the team from the top of your profession. The invisibles featured here are doing some of the most sought-after, well-paid jobs in the world. Most people, however skilled, hard-working and self-effacing, will never become an Oscar-winning cinematographer or an elite multilingual interpreter at the UN.

I was left wondering how to motivate the truly anonymous people who stand even further off in the shadows, such as those Zweig disparagingly describes as local “grunt workers”, hired to help Radiohead’s team of experienced roadies prepare for a concert. Of course, it would be wonderful if they too were as careful, skilful and dedicated as the permanent crew. But if your job really is a thankless task, and likely to remain so, concentrating on the intrinsic value of what you do may not be much consolation.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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