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Vermont Quarterly

The Invisible Man

David Zweig
David Zweig, photograph by Lisa Jane Persky

DEPARTMENTS/
ALUMNI PROFILES

The Invisible Man

by Thomas Weaver

There’s a decent chance you’ve heard David Zweig on National Public Radio or read about his work in a newspaper across the past several months. His book exploring the mindset of professionals who find both personal fulfillment and great success through old-fashioned, humble, quiet dedication to their work has drawn wide attention. That’s for good reason — the book feels like a deep breath in this hyperventilating age of micro-celebrity.

Zweig is a man of diverse talents, a musician and novelist in addition to his recent non-fiction work. He is affable and easy-going, but passionate about the lessons in his book, during a phone interview from the home he shares with his wife and two young children in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. It’s a recent relocation from Brooklyn for the family as they looked for elbow room; a simpler, quicker commute to Midtown Manhattan for his wife; and, Zweig jokes, a somewhat less professionally in-bred environment for himself — “In Brooklyn, if you throw a stick you hit a writer, which is great but also kind of irritating.”

Tell me about the origin of Invisibles. What inspired the concept and how did you develop it into a book?

Zweig: One of my “day jobs” through the years was as a fact checker at Conde Nast for a bunch of magazines, predominantly Vogue. The better you do that job, the more you disappear. As a fact checker, if you do your job perfectly, no one is aware of the work you do. Only if you make a mistake are you aware of a fact checker at all. When is the last time you read a magazine article and thought to yourself, “Man, that was fact checked beautifully.’”

And yet, I found the job really rewarding in a way that a variety of day jobs I’d had over the years never were. I thought, “Wow, how strange to feel rewarded even though no one knows that I’m doing a good job.”

The idea was in the back of my head for years, wondering what other professions share the same inverse relationship between work and recognition. You won’t forget the name of your surgeon; but most likely if everything goes smoothly, you’ll never remember or even know the name of your anesthesiologist.

It is a really odd way for people to go about their work in a culture today where gaining recognition seems to be valued above everything else. I wanted to deconstruct these people in a wide range of fields. How did they do this? Are there any threads that tie these people together?

I just cold pitched The Atlantic on this idea and I was able to break through. The article got a lot of attention, particularly within the publishing industry. A number of agents contacted me, and I was able to secure a book deal with Penguin.

You met and profiled people in a wide variety of professions for Invisibles. What are some of the lessons from their lives that you’ve personally taken to heart.

I wrote about the guitar tech for Radiohead, who has been with them for two decades; a guy who is in a really buttoned-up field, structural engineer on skyscrapers; an interpreter at the United Nations; among others. All of these people share this ambivalence toward recognition. And a lot of interesting research shows that people who really find reward in the challenges of their work and in the work itself are far more fulfilled than people who derive most of their reward from gaining extrinsic rewards, such as money or attention.

As a writer, I’m not an invisible. My name is on the cover of my book, and I’m glad to have it there. I’m glad to be doing interviews. In the end, though, it is not only about how much you’re seen or not seen. In fact, some visible people among us share these invisible traits. You can think about a star quarterback who privately studies game film night after night.

I find what really brings me the most fulfillment is digging into my work. It feels great to have attention, but the reward of that is always very ephemeral, fleeting. If that’s your only motivator, then you’re in deep trouble.

Your book has gained attention in the business world, and it looks like you’re getting around to lecture at conferences and other events. Tell me about that.

The Harvard Business Review asked me to write a 5,000-word feature based on the book that drew a good deal of attention. People are really interested in the managerial and business application of the ideas.

Aside from the personal fulfillment that the people I write about experience in their lives, they are also tremendously successful leaders in their fields. And key to that is their invisible mindset; it is very counter-intuitive. But what I found after researching the book — and this really surprised me — is that there is actually quite a bit of academic research done at top-flight business schools that indicates people who have these traits are successful.

You tend to think to be all the way at the top, to be a CEO, you have to have this big, blustery personality, always tooting your own horn. But the people I wrote about got to where they are by having this collaborative mindset. In the book, I really dig into how that works.

It’s the opposite of what all these marketing experts are telling us you need to do — raise your profile or build your platform. I think my book offers the antithesis and the antidote to this mindset that I think so many of us feel like is being pounded into us.

Changing gears, when you look back on your UVM years what has stayed with you?

A big influence, as someone who grew up in the New York City metro area and lives there now, was just being in Vermont. I love the outdoors and being in that environment affects my creativity and makes me think differently. That’s part of the reason we’ve moved up to Hastings-on-Hudson. The Vermont lifestyle had a significant impact on me as a person.

My degree was in political science, which seems outside the parameters of what I’m doing. But I had a class with Anthony Gierzynski that focused on politics and media. He was a great professor, and I felt a real connection with him. His class was the first time that I began to really think deeply about how media affects how we view ourselves and the world. It kind of opened the door to a philosophy I would explore in my novel and that is the subject of my next non-fiction book.

You’ve worked as a musician, a novelist, and now this non-fiction work with your new book. Have these been simultaneous pursuits across the years since you graduated from UVM?

They really have been more consecutive (or whatever you’d say the opposite of simultaneous is). Immediately following UVM, I pretty much dove into music. When you’re young, music just feels so urgent. For me, it was just bursting. I had to do it. And as a young person I also had a higher tolerance for the lifestyle that goes with it — mainly being poor. As I got older, it just became less and less tolerable and practical.

I was active as a professional musician for a decade, give or take — touring, recording a few albums. I was fortunate to get some good press as a musician, good critical reaction, and recorded with some really great producers and engineers. But as far as making it as a living, it reached a point for me where I couldn’t grind it out any further.

I’d always loved writing, and I had ideas in my head for quite some time. From working as a musician, I segued to working on a novel. I tell people I like to torture my parents:

“Mom, dad, I’m no longer trying to make it as a musician.”

“Thank god!”

“Now I’m writing a novel.”

I’m slowly becoming slightly more practical with each step. So maybe a decade from now I’ll be an investment banker.

Read an essay adapted from the author’s new book, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion

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