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The 'Invisible' Workers Keeping Our World Running

The “Invisibles.” The people and jobs that hold the world together.

People pass an arrivals sign at the new Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 in London, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. The "wayfinders" who create these kinds of signs are some of the so-called invisible workers who help quietly keep the world running behind the scenes. (AP)

People pass an arrivals sign at the new Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 in London, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. The “wayfinders” who create these kinds of signs are some of the so-called invisible workers who help quietly keep the world running behind the scenes. (AP)

Everybody’s a personal “brand-builder” these days.  Working social media.  Tending the Facebook page.  Hitting Twitter.  Well, not everybody.  We can’t all be celebrities – and some don’t want to be self-promoters.  My guest this hour David Zweig is writing about what he calls the “invisibles.”  If that sounds like superheroes, maybe they are.  But they’re not looking for public recognition.  They’re the engineers and anesthesiologists, craftsmen and women, techs and tuners who make everything work.  For the love of the work, not fame.  This hour On Point:  unsung heroes – the “invisibles.”

– Tom Ashbrook


David Zweig, author of the new book “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in An Age of Relentless Self-Promotion.” (@davidzweig)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic: What Do Fact-Checkers and Anesthesiologists Have in Common? — “In a culture that favors sensation, the fact checker is an anomaly, perhaps even anathema. He is the brakes on editors and writers racing toward deadline intent on dazzling readers at the expense of edifying them. He is the schoolmarm tsk tsking. He is the public defender for the unrepresented, the downtrodden, the forgotten—the facts.”

WIRED: You’ve Been Obsessing Over Your Likes and Retweets Way Too Much — “The digital age version of the proverbial tree falling in the woods question is: Does something exist if it hasn’t been liked, favorited, linked to, or re-tweeted? According to many tech critics, the tragic answer is no. Like Lady Gaga, we live for the applause. But if constantly chasing other people’s approval is a shallow way to live that leads to time and energy being wasted over pleasing others and recurring feelings of insecurity and emptiness, how can we course correct?”

Fortune: In the age of selfies, some tips on the art of self-promotion — “So the question remains: How do you compete if your particular business requires you to be up until three in the morning making wine instead of selling the wine that someone else has made?”

Read An Excerpt Of “Invisibles” By David Zweig

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  • margbi

    I’d like to add to this list of invisibles, the “ladies who lunch.” They are often laughed at as ditzy but without them, there would be few who do the work of church boards, serve at food banks, read to children in school, volunteer for underserved communities and school projects and generally keep everything running. Without pay or recognition they do the work necessary to keep things functioning. Here’s to all who work quietly to see that the gears mesh smoothly.

    • dt03044

      Very nice.

    • geraldfnord

      Everybody laugh.

      • margbi

        Gerald, don’t be mean. I’ll bet your mother or grandmother did that sort of service.

  • geraldfnord

    Spies (well, operatives, not analysts) do and ninjas did these jobs whenever they can and could.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Does the include the people who volunteer at the animal rescue organizations? All without pay or recognition but for love of the game.

    • creaker

      They are kind of ignoring the feature of the paycheck. I’ve spent my career as an “invisible” (IT) – not because I care about publicity or anonymity, but because what I bring home every week.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Folks who bring class action suits to stop the big-time cheaters are invisible heroes, too.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Local heroes: the drivers who don’t run over the noodles in the crosswalks, ear buds and cell phones in use — totally unaware they’re walking against a RED light.

  • MarkVII88

    I recall a scene from “The West Wing” that has stuck with me through the years and it pertains to this discussion today about invisible workers. In this scene, President Bartlett speaks to Josh Lyman re: stepping-up to the plate and making hard choices. He says to Josh, “You don’t want to be “The Man”, you want to be the man that “The Man” depends on.”

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    The world is filled with invisibles… But they are not invisible to me. I worked with invisible as a youth and understood that my future and theirs would rapidly diverge but they were nonetheless no less human than me. For whatever reason they would not nor could not become astonoughts or neurosurgeons but they filled vital roles in the machinery of life. To elitist rightwing leaders like Mitt Romney, they are the 47%. They are takers. They are no more than an inconvinient burden that doesnt fit into their black and white view of the world. Reality is a bitch when you’re constantly struggling to explain away facts that are at odds with your political fairy tale.

  • Saskia

    1) A shout-out to Studs Terkel’s _Working_ seems in need here (esp. as ST was himself a hero of radio, of *listening* — listening being how we tune into these folks’ invisibility). 2) George Eliot writing in Middlemarch: “[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts [...], half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

  • dt03044

    How about the personal caregivers who have quit jobs and put dreams on hold to care for family members with disabilities? As the population ages, more and more of us will fall into this category. There’s very little recognition or reward for people who labor behind the scenes. They just quietly do what must be done.

  • Jennifer Kobayashi

    More invisible workers are the computer tech support and system administration employees. When they (if they could)
    do their jobs perfectly, they are invisible.

    • hennorama

      Jennifer Kobayashi — same thing with sports officials.

  • Jersee

    I worked at Harvard University for a number of years, in a very interesting program, for a group of famous professors. I made them look good. In the end, when the program lost funding, I lost my job. The guys felt badly and were helpful in trying to help me find a new job. But, it was as if I never existed. The work was about them. Can you talk about THIS type of anonymity.

    • Groundling

      Not just at Harvard, but probably more so. There is so much exploitation of groundlings in academia.
      So demoralizing and demotivating.( They DO tend to remember and “include” us when there is real work – that they consider beneath them – to be done.)

  • Mary

    Mothers are invisibles, that is if your NOT always self promoting! I have a theory, about “posters”, (people who are always posting on social media). “Posters” are the people who used to be a lot of fun before social media, now they are rudely living on their phones. At social gatherings they are the ones snapping pics and immediately posting them online, saying “look how much fun I’m having.” Making others at home feel insecure, wondering, why wasn’t I invited or I wish I had a fun social life?!?!

  • Saskia

    Follow-up on Susan’s question re: intro/extraverts: perhaps those at ease w/ “invisibility” have MORE self-confidence, a stronger sense of self, and are not in as much need of external legitimation?

  • levigirl

    add accountants to this list

  • Jeff_in_Connecticut

    Is it healthy to be invisible? Are you really sure “invisibles” in the book aren’t being modest? Doesn’t everyone need recognition?

  • Anne Biland

    The spouses of disabled military veterans –especially those
    from earlier generations – are neither acknowledged, nor (God forbid) compensated by the rest of the US population who continually vote for politicians who send other people’s husbands and children to fight their wars. For decades these caregivers must disrupt or jettison their careers to care for the physical and mental needs of the disabled vet.. They desparately try to protect themselves and their children from the whims, abuse, alcoholism and PTSD which is endemic. Dealing with the physical and mental health takes over a family’s entire life. These spouses are not even credited with $1 worth of social security credit for their lifetimes of work. Forget minimum wage! Forget even $1 an hour for the decades of 24/7 care given to vets of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. Many of their wives end up destitute and homeless in old age, after decades of labor and stress.

    The American people really don’t care, as long as someone else takes up the slack and keeps their mouths shut. Sorry to be so negative, but we are exhausted out here…

  • Gary Welch

    I’ve worked with engineers for years, producing a lot of infrastructure projects (roads, bridges, water treatment plants). It’s not about recognition or accolades – it’s about being part of a team, working on something that produces something good, something that one can be proud of.

  • Alicja Witkowski

    One of the best examples of this that I know is Sia Furler. She is the mastermind behind many superstar performers’ top hits including David Guetta’s “Titanium,” Eminem’s “Beautiful Pain,” Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and many many others (Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Ke$sha, Ne-Yo, etc.). She has had numerous opportunities to step into the spotlight and has done it a couple of times– “Breathe Me” which was popularized by the Six Feet Under finale is hers, she did a mini tour back in 2005, and she has a couple of solo albums– but she much prefers to write music behind the scenes.

  • Tyler Bolles

    How about the invisible bassist? Carol Kay, James Jamerson, Joe Zinkan, Roy “Junior” Huskey, and modern players like Barry Bales, Dennis Crouch and Kent Blanton who collectively have played on thousands and thousands of recording that everybody knows by heart over the decades.

    I’m no elite master, but my reward as a bassist who gets hired to back up artists live and in the studio is when the artist is happy with the whole package…I should only be noticed if I screw up!

  • malkneil

    Just like nobody likes to think of themselves as well off (even if they are), I suspect everyone likes to think of themselves as an “invisible” and that their work goes unnoticed. Everyone like to feel humble.

  • Saskia

    “There are a FEW jobs,” he says, that require “some self-promotion”?? Every time we apply for a job we love we’re forced to self-promote. How do you get to keep a university teaching job, for instance, if that’s what you love, unless you PUBLISH and work toward tenure? Thanks Tom for calling him out on jumping the shark.

  • carl_christian

    I would love this conversation to be steered in the direction of the Commons — the idea of resources of all kinds & varieties that we all share without really thinking about them or even being aware that there is a measurable economic phenomenon that is quite distinct from the market forces that result in ‘relentless self-promotion’ (try David Bollier for an introduction to the concept). I think that if we understood the dynamic of the Commons as an economic force, we would no longer be subject to the many false gods of celebrity. For a future OnPoint couple of hours!…

  • reelkids

    Most of us are invisible contributors! For the past six years I have been celebrating these invisible workers in an interdisciplinary art project called, “With their Hands.” I’ve looked at the birth of feminist thought through knitting circles, the artistry of farming and the unsung hero’s who construct skyscrapers. We are surrounded with unsung heroes! Great topic!

  • Rita Conad

    The uber-excitement in Mr. Zweig’s tone gives lie to his message. Most people are pretty invisible. They do their job and go home. If one’s self worth is measured only via recognition by others, it’s going to be a long, sad and unfulfilled life.

  • RangerDoug

    Dicsussion of Invisibles reminds me of Gen. von Moltke’s (German Army Chief of Staff for Bismark and during WWI) classification of military personnel into 4 broad groups:

    First: those who are intelligent, but lazy. These people are necessary as they provided the best leaders. They understand what needed to be done, and also how to delegate that work to others who will ensure that it is done.

    Second: those who are intelligent and industrious. These individuals are crucial to any organization and make the best staff personnel because they understand what must be done, how to do it, and can be relied upon to make it happen.

    Third: those who are unintelligent and lazy. Every organization needs many such individuals. They can be given direction, and under the leadership of either of the first two groups, they can be relied upon to do what they are ordered to do in the manner expected of them, and no more.

    Fourth: those who are unintelligent, but industrious. Von Moltke noted that these individuals must be avoided at all costs because they will, by nature, attempt to do more than is required, develop faulty plans, execute their individual plans poorly, and will invevitably upset the planning of even the most brilliant strategists and tacticians.

    The “Invisibles,” I think, probably fall within the second category of personnel

    • Pleiades

      Doug, a high school history instructor explained the von Moltke Value Matrix to our class as Sophomores. Over time I researched and studied everything I could about this model and its application to business models. Once I opened my own business I applied it to every potential employee through a test I developed specific to each responibility inside the organization. It has made my employees and me all wealthy.

      I have followed all the individuals who have worked for me and left as well as those who tested as category four (i never hired them!). They all typically fall into the same category even when finding a “better” job. I also found that category two and three individuals that left my organization soon languished in companies that did not understand how to use them.

  • Godzilla the Intellectual

    I find it self-deprecating and disrespectful to call these people “invisibles”, especially because the guest was also one himself when he worked as a magazine fact checker.

    Now he’s not invisible, writing the book.

    Visible / Invisible doesn’t matter, and it’s pointless.

    Sometimes it’s NOT by choice to be invisible, OR visible.

  • Felipe54

    Tom and David. The flutist Rhonda you spoke with this morning was Rhonda Larson. She is an amazing virtuoso with a line of credits longer than most people I’ve met in my career as a professional musician. She is a consummate artist, who continues to hone her craft daily. I had to laugh at the comment about practicing… Treat yourself to one of her amazing recordings. Someone once commented that she “wields her flute like a blowtorch”. Yep. She sure does. In addition to having this amazing gift, she’s a most beautiful person and spirit. Like I said… Treat yourselves.

  • Arlingtron

    I have deliberately chosen jobs that are behind the scenes. I don’t seek public recognition. Sadly, I get little recognition from within my industry. Less qualified peers that are diligent self-promoters get the attention, recognition … and the work.

  • Tai Shan VA

    This book/program/conversation was annoying. Most of us are “invisible,” doing jobs that are important but not noticed. I edit technical reports. The scientists and investigators are visible, but they can’t write to save their lives. So I do it. Perhaps it’s the people who seek fame who do jobs that are less important.

  • Nancy R. Ahnlighn

    To discuss “invisibility” without a context of class, race, gender, ethnicity, immigration status, age, etc., is sheer hipster nonsense of the most naive and offensive sort. It dawned on Mr. Zweig that finding meaning in one’s work is a key to happiness. Congratulations to him for this bit of insight. Would that all people, regardless of their background or demographics, might have equal access to fulfilling and adequately compensated educational and vocational opportunities as those afforded to the elite, visible or not.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      The elites power partially come from their ability to coerce ,either directly or indirectly, the non-elites into vocations that are fulfilling and adequately compensated .
      Education is more about proper socialization than anything. Higher education, in the U.S., is confusing because a lot of people are coming out of it thinking that they’ve entered the middle class and higher by obtaining a credential. The reality of the situation is more discriminatory than that…

  • homebuilding

    Katrina should have been a good reminder that the lower tier workers who maintain the dikes, operate the flood pumps, and the garbage collection folks are all very essential and very unsung.

    And, the bus drivers were not called to move the equipment that was destroyed at great cost–and those buses could have been used to evacuate thousands………

    Sometimes we need more people coordinating things behind the scenes–and sometimes it’s a front and center “George Patton” type

  • Jonnie

    What a moronic naval-gazing idiot of a guest! This had to be one of the all time time wasters of an hour Tom has ever farted out. And what’s with this nose-picking guest…there’s more to the world than stupid rock bands…what a drip!

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