Do Copy Editors Know the Meaning of Life? The Radical Power of David Zweig’s ‘Invisibles’

What gives your work meaning? For the people profiled in David Zweig’s absorbing, quietly radical new book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, meaning comes from within. Whether you’re a perfumer jumping through hoops to create the latest scent for P. Diddy, an interpreter at the UN, or Radiohead’s guitar tech, all the “invisibles” profiled in Zweig’s precise and insightful book share an enviable ethos — the joy that comes from a job well done, without the need to look for validation through attention.

Zweig is a journalist, novelist, and musician (who’s also worked as a fact checker, a job for “invisibles”). He’s a friendly and incisive tour guide, taking us around the world with people who are at the top of their fields — yet we only know their names if there’s a mistake. I had the chance to talk to him about profiling and finding some “invisibles,” how their values change the workplace, and what he’s taken away from delving into the minutiae of work and usefulness.

Flavorwire: One thing I wanted to know about was regarding the people that you talked to for the book — they all had such an interest in their work. It seemed to me like a very spiritual way to look at life, and the most simple road. I wanted to know, was there a kind of satisfaction or quality that these “invisibles” had?

David Zweig: A couple of things. 1. The basic element that these people all have in common in this country is they all have this rare ambivalence toward recognition. They just don’t seem to seek attention the way many of us do today. [I’m] not saying everyone is like that, but that certainly is the ethos today. And that notion – the value of your work – what’s going to fulfill you, this message has been lost among us in the culture today where praise and attention seems to be the prevailing idea about what is going to bring both success and happiness to us. You’re only as happy as that most recent post that got a lot of attention, you know? This metric of value is attention. Other than quality – and it’s never satisfying! You’re only as happy as that last post!

David Foster Wallace had some really interesting, insightful things to say about this, and his heyday was certainly well before the social media climate of today. But what he had to say was very prescient. He said when he’d get a great review or some coverage, he’d call it a “greasy thrill” that he would have. I love that he used the word “greasy” – that there was something dirty, like you like it and it’s a little yucky. Attention can be an addiction the way drugs and anything else can be an addiction. What happens with an addiction? You have to keep feeding it. It’s never enough.

Whereas when you really are engaged with the work that you do, that is sustaining. And here’s the interesting thing that you see from these people, from the “invisibles” in the book, is that not only is it fulfilling, but a really compelling case can be made that when you’re really engaged with what you do, that that ultimately leads to the most success. If your goal is to be at the top of the pyramid in your company or your field, about what you’re doing, what we see by looking at these people is that by and large the best way to get there is not by spending an inordinate amount of time promoting yourself, but by simply really working hard and doing good work. And we see that through these people. That’s how they got where they are.

Right. It feels to me like the culture of attention is just capitalism at its worst.

It’s all driven by attention, including me. I am not invisible. But I am trying to incorporate the values that these people have – who I’ve spent the past couple of years meeting with, thinking about, researching – trying to incorporate their values. And when I do I’ve found the benefit. It’s this ongoing struggle.

What kind of value and benefit, specifically?

Well, writing a book, and publishing. It takes years to do this, and it requires a really sustained effort. We’re talking about whatever it is – 180 pages – and that’s the end thing. You obviously do three or four times that in text and research and transcripts and interviews. Yes, it feels good when you tell people you have a book deal after it first happens, [and] yes, it feels good when you’re getting some attention, some press, but that stuff fades really quickly, and that’s not enough to sustain you at 11 o’clock at night, when you’re sitting at a desk trying to grind out through a transcript writing a chapter that’s due to your editor in the next week. The only way to sustain yourself in doing a worthwhile project is if you really are engaged with the work itself. It’s just not enough of a motivator to simply want attention. People say that.

You go behind the scenes of a lot of hidden professions – you’re on stage with Radiohead – but I was curious about what it was like to go behind the scenes with a wayfinder [a man who does work so travelers can orient themselves] who works at airports.

You’re in an airport, you think that, “OK, this is all about how they create these signs and have to figure out what the right type of font is.” There’s a whole system about how it fits together. But what’s really amazing is ultimately, wayfaring is not even about the signs. It’s about the architecture and these other subtle cues using light, using color on different walls. All of these things are happening that you’re unaware of when you’re in a complex environment like an airport or hospital or corporate or college campus. So there’s all these oftentimes subconscious techniques that they’re using to get you from point A to point B.

What were some of the dream professions that you wanted to get for the book?

I got most of them. One of the ones I was interested in were the people who run the subways in New York City. There’s this kind of command center that they oversee, because again, it’s like, if your train runs on time, you don’t think about it. You’re just taking a train from one stop to the next. It’s only when the trains are messed that everyone’s irate. This is somebody who, when they’re doing their job perfectly, no one’s appreciative. And they have to work toward perfection knowing that no one’s going to appreciate it. And that was just one place I couldn’t get in because of terrorism concerns and stuff. That office space is pretty much shut down to everyone outside.

What was it like following around Robert Elswit, the cinematographer? He’s done most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films…

When you see [Elswit’s name on the] scroll at the end of the film, [it means that] a good number of those people — that list that keeps on going — are under this guy’s charge. The grips and the gaffers and all these other people ultimately report to him. And this guy, here’s a guy who’s at the absolute top of his field. He’s won an Oscar, and he’s not only critically acclaimed, but he’s worked on really huge blockbuster films, like some of the Bourne Identity movies, the Mission: Impossible films, the one where Tom Cruise is climbing the tower in the sky. And he’s really managed to have his feet in both commercial and artistic worlds. And this guy is incredibly self-effacing.

But I call his chapter “The Art of Collaboration.” He is a master collaborator. He views himself as a member of a team, ultimately. His work is in service to the larger endeavor. You’d think that in order to get to the top, that being a quote “team player” and having that attitude, that’s not the profile for who gets to the top. But these guys prove otherwise.

I was wondering if gender played a part in working as an “invisible.” The majority of the profiles are men.

I do have a woman as one of my major profiles in the book, who’s an interpreter at the United Nations. She’s incredible, and I wish there were more women in the book as major profiles, but ultimately it’s really not about gender, because I have a number of women in secondary profiles, and a number of female academics and consultants and others who are throughout the book. So women are heavily represented in the book, and the reason I say this is, ultimately, and I think this is the important message here – it’s really not about gender. It’s really about an attitude, a personality type where you’re embodying these traits, this ambivalence to recognition. It’s a meticulousness and people who want to take on responsibility, and that I think is the real driver here. That’s the unifier. These people work in a huge range of fields, completely different worlds, but they all seem to share these same core traits. It’s pretty fascinating.

I was curious, since it did feel like more men were able to achieve this point of success in this specific world.

Yeah. It just kind of shook out this way, but there were a couple other women who I tried to get for the book who I wasn’t able to get in a couple different professions. For some of these people it requires a lot of tenacity. For some of these people – cause again, these are people who aren’t really interested in the spotlight, so to tell someone like that, who spent their whole career doing their thing avoiding the spotlight, it’s a tough nut to crack for a lot of them. To be like, “Hey would you like to be profiled in a book and have a chapter on you?” There were a few women I wanted to get who I just couldn’t get to.

I also wanted people who were incredibly successful — not that there aren’t invisibles at a whole range of levels of success, but for the purposes of a book, as examples, and for something that would be compelling and fun, I wanted people who had really achieved a lot. A lot of the people work in fields that are hard to get to — it is not easy getting into the United Nations doing what I was doing. It is not easy to get backstage with a guitar tech for a band of the stature of Radiohead. It’s not easy to get onto a skyscraper that’s under construction. That’s just pretty much the way it shook out when I was putting the book together.