13: Podcast: Upside of Being Invisible with David Zweig

“These days we are expected to live our lives at the same time we brand the shit out of it,” my friend Stacy said to me last year. That sentiment stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

Selfies, Snapshat, blog posts, Periscope, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—when do we get a break to simply live our lives and do the work?

It can be a tough tradeoff to make—particularly to those of us who have chosen more public-facing careers—toil behind the scenes and risk obscurity, or obligingly participate in Social Everything to build our platforms?

It was hard enough for me to deal with daily life during the roughest moments of my 2013 pivot, let alone think about what to blog about during that time.


Not everyone wants to seek the limelight by building a robust public platform, and author David Zweig says that is perfectly okay.

Today I bring you the 8th episode of my Pivot Podcast (this one was recorded before we shortened the book title to Pivot): David Zweig on what motivates Invisibles and what allows them to thrive despite ambivalence to public recognition. Take a listen here:

David used to be what he calls “an invisible,” when he worked for a number of years as a magazine fact-checker. “If you read a great article, you never think to yourself, ‘Wow that was fact-checked beautifully,’” David said. “I had this job where the better I did my job, the more I disappeared. It was only if I made a mistake that people noticed me at all. It was such an unusual experience.”

He sought to investigate what other professions and professionals share the same inverse relationship between work and recognition, and found something interesting: there were a lot of them, across every field and industry.

These were people who were highly skilled, had developed strong reputations in their field, but who were not motivated by public recognition, nor did the public ever really consider their work at all. Consider the structural engineer to the architect, the sound engineer to lead singer of a band, the production team on a movie set, hair and makeup people for TV shows.

In David’s book, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, he pushes back against the notion of the “branded self” as a requirement for becoming successful.

When I interviewed him about whether it was important for someone to have a strong platform when making a career pivot he said:

The people in the book make a very persuasive case that if that is not who you are, if you are a bit more introverted or the field you are in doesn’t mesh well with making more of a profile, if you don’t want to do this, or resent the pressure to have to always promote yourself, there is an alternate path to becoming successful.”

The Invisibles he interviewed demonstrated three common traits:

  • An ambivalence toward recognition

  • Meticulousness

  • A savoring of responsibility

“They are not pushovers and they know when they need to stand up for themselves and make themselves known,” David said. “But the way they ultimately became very successful and at the top of their fields was by doing excellent work. They tend to subjugate themselves to something larger, they have a real collectivist spirit, and dedicate themselves to being team-players.”

David suggests trying to find something that you are really good at, and that you really enjoy. If you operate like an Invisible, in the sense that he defines it, you are going to make a lot of allies. People will most likely come out of the woodwork to support you when you need references, and recommendations.

Invest Less in Marketing, More in R&D

David is not eschewing the need for marketing ourselves altogether, he just believes the ratios of where we put our attention have gotten out-of-whack:

“If we think of ourselves as corporations, we are spending way too much money on our marketing departments and not enough resources on the R&D department. I am not suggesting we eliminate the marketing department of you, but the allocation of resources is really distorted today.

If people are looking to move up or change careers, the danger for a lot of people is that they are going to spend a disproportionate and unhelpful amount of energy on their branding and self-promotion, the return on that investment will not be as beneficial as if you spent more time on your work.

At the end of the day, you have to do what feels good. Maybe you stay where you are. Sometimes staying with what you are doing is the best decision, but figure out how to incorporate other things that are fulfilling to you.”

So the next time you stress about social media, remember: working diligently behind-the-scenes—as you build iron-clad relationships, reputation, and killer work—makes you much more visible, and in more meaningful ways, than you might think.


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