Sunday, March 15, 2015

'Invisibles,' Led Zeppelin and Loving Your Job

Review by Bill Doughty

Led Zeppelin both opens and closes this remarkable book about "the power of anonymous work in an age of relentless self-promotion" (subtitle of "Invisibles," a 2014 book published by Portfolio/Penguin).
You'll want to crank up "When the Levee Breaks" when you read about the role of sound engineer Andy Johns, who is responsible for the sound of John Bonham's drums, Eric Clapton's and Van Halen's sounds, and the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers."
Johns is one of several invisibles profiled – people who work behind the scenes and find satisfaction in what they they do and create, not in fame, fortune or recognition. 

Invisibles are new master craftsmen who value artisanal workmanship over the limelight. Think of some of the best staff non-commissioned officers, executive officers and assistants, boatswain's mates, and special operators. Their focus is on team success and quiet competence.

David Zweig, author of "Invisibles" quotes a former Navy SEAL who said he prefers the anonymity of the early 90s – prior to the explosion of the Internet – over the "seemingly incessant fascination with the SEAL Teams."

Zweig evaluates three traits of Invisibles: ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness in their work, and a savoring of responsibility. He shows how "flow" – "the trance-like state mental that occurs when a person is completely immersed in an activity" – brings them joy, satisfaction and pride.

"If you have a pride and confidence in what you do, as Stumpf so clearly does, the rewards you reap come from within, which are, perhaps, the only true and lasting rewards. In this regard pride – and I'm not talking about the biblical connotation of pride as sin, but pride as respect for yourself, your work, your effort – is just an extension of the Invisible core treat of drawing fulfillment from the work itself, not outside acknowledgment of it."

Author David Zweig
Zweig's eclectic examples of Invisibles include a New Yorker magazine fact checker, airport wayfinder, U.N. interpreter, cinematographer, perfumer, architect, guitar technician and piano tuner. He makes references to Homer's "Iliad," Susan Cain's "Quiet," David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," Alice Marwick's "Status Update," Adam Grant's "Give and Take," and Jean Twenge's "The Narcissistic Epidemic," as well as other texts and literature. And he takes the reader to Atlanta, New York, Shanghai and places in between.
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Taking a global perspective, Zweig compares the United States, where the focus is on the "vertical individualist," with much of the rest of the world, where the emphasis is on the overall collective, the entire team.
In the "so-called Confucian Belt" (which includes Korea, China, Vietnam and Japan and other nations in the region), self-promotion and attention-seeking are frowned upon and seen as immature, Zweig reports. The Japanese phrase en no shita no chikara mochi means, loosely, what's beneath the stage has great strength or power. Those behind the scenes make those on stage successful.
Zweig's insights would be useful to any student of innovation, and "Invisibles" would fit nicely on the book shelf of supporters of Secretary of the Navy Mabus's new Task Force Innovation. Zweig shows how countries that shy away from flashy individualism value soft power and quiet influence over aggressive bullying. 
His insights generate questions:

John Paul Jones met by President Obama after Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.
Is narcissism at the root of moral decay in society? Does extreme individualism fuel the wealth gap and crush the middle class? Could growing self-promotion and the need for more election money be damaging the political system and preventing consensus-building? What happens when the levee breaks?

Zweig has his own epiphany while writing this book, finding joy in the work and not in the accolades.

He wraps up with an unintentionally ironic mention of John Paul Jones – not the flashy, flamboyant and forlorn hero of the early American Navy, but the creative British bass player who, along with John Bonham, backed up Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

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