Is There a Way to be Successful Without All That Crass Self-Promotion?

I just finished a book called The Invisibles: The Power Of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self Promotion.

While it wasn’t the blockbuster that Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking was, it was a worthy successor for people like us, who, we are told, live and die on the power of our personal brand.

Crass Self-Promotion

According to the author, David Zweig, Invisibles are people upon whose skills empires are built– and yet no one knows who they are. For the book he interviewed the chief engineer of ‘supertall’ skyscrapers, a piano tuner for the Philadelphia orchestra, the sound technician for Radiohead, a UN interpreter, and the perfumier behind some of the world’s most iconic scents (among others). Some people you know must exist, but you think nothing of them (the fact checkers at the New York Times) and others are elite specialists in fields completely outside the scope of consumer attention (like the person who designs the ‘wayfinding’ of major airports and malls.)

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Zweig says there are three commonalities among Invisibles. The most noteworthy is that they harbor a deep ambivalence toward recognition. This alone seems to set them almost outside of society, like a strange band of monks who have withdrawn from the world.

The second trait is a deep satisfaction in their own meticulousness and the mastery of their craft. And the third is that they relish the immense responsibility that usually devolves to them. A classic example is an anesthesiologist in surgery. When the patient starts crashing, it’s the anesthesiologist who is giving orders, not the surgeon. But the surgeon is the one getting fruit baskets from grateful patients. The anesthesiologist remains… invisible.

Are You An Invisible Too?

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I like the idea of Invisibles because that’s what I think of as being the perfect type of small business; you take satisfaction in your service, you are meticulous, but hardly anyone knows who you are, because why would they? Unless they work with you, and then you have the kind of recognition that is truly valuable.

My favorite Invisible is my friend Erin Kurup, who is the developmental editor for almost all my works. She isn’t even ambivalent towards recognition– she KNOWS she doesn’t want it, at least in a public manner. She is “best kept secret” material, because everyone I know who has developed a book with her plan to hire her for every future project, too. (Sadly for us, she’s taking a long maternity leave, as she just became a mother, another role which she will no doubt bring her meticulous attention to).

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But you don’t have to be Howard Hughes to be an Invisible. There’s a lot of room between ‘brilliant recluse’ and Gary Vaynerchuk.

Did you see the last trait? Relishing responsibility? Invisibles make great servant-leaders. They might not be out there making the rounds of the high-profile blogs and conferences, but they’re just quietly doing whatever it is that they do best. Because they take their responsibilities so seriously, people clump around them.

How Do Invisibles Find Each Other?

A while back, I asked people at Happy Hour to share with me the people whose work they followed. Of course there were the usual suspects: Tara Gentile, Ash Ambirge, Chris Brogan. But there were also smaller names. When I went looking for them, sometimes I couldn’t find them. Tami Smith. Tad Hargrave. Bari Tessler. Tiffany Lambert. Catherine Caine.

Some people, like Naomi Dunford and Charlie Gilkey, have been favorites of mine for years, but I honestly don’t know how well-known they are.

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Are these people ‘true’ Invisibles as David Zweig defined the term? Perhaps not. Every single person he profiled was an employee; perhaps an Invisible can only truly disappear inside an organization.

But I think more of us than not feel like:

  • If we have to hustle hard and promote like mad to get famous enough to succeed… we might be okay without “success”.
  • We live for the addictive thrill of doing what we do REALLY WELL.
  • We are fiercely supportive of our little ‘tribe’. There might only be five people in it, but they’re the best damn people around!

So, if it matches the kind of success we want, maybe we could be modelling ourselves more on the Invisibles and less on the Internet superstar gurus du jour.

I’m not positive about this yet, but it’s a theory I’m working on. What do you think? Please share.