2014 David Zweig
This book grew from a magazine article, and contains the in-depth stories of many quietly supercompetent people that a short article cannot do justice to. Zweig's people are refreshing to spend vicarious time with. All of us know such competent people, and some of us spend our whole lives working hard and learning how to do what they do. Some sad souls resent them. All of us know many people who spend their lives trying to be famous, living from disappointment to disappointment, distracted from the core of the work that could give their lives meaning.
The chapters about the disappointed people, and about "what it all means", were the least satisfying for me. I get no joy from watching others fail, and I am impatient with simple prescriptions, even the best ones. Chapter 5, "Fame, Success, and the Myth of Self-Promotion", was excruciating. Perhaps necessary for the clueless, but those who have already internalized the message of this book might do better to skip it. The chapters about the Invisibles themselves are thrilling, with many clues for living a fulfilling life.
The author offers Three Defining Traits for his "Invisibles":
- 1) Ambivalence towards recognition
- 2) Meticulousness
- 3) Savoring of Responsibility
Those are valuable criteria, they probably helped David Zweig describe the kind of person he was looking for to the third parties he enlisted in his search. He describes some wonderful people, so the list of traits worked.
But there are many other traits besides these that mix into these, and there are a wide variation in the specifics of how the traits manifest. Some of us savor responsibility for materials, but not for other people. Some are meticulous about software, but have dirty cars. Recognition - inside or outside the domain of fellow experts and co-workers? Without some recognition, the results of your labors can be rewritten or damaged by semi-clueless others who are not even aware of the boundaries they transgress. World fame, or the praise of people who do not understand what they are praising, is distracting and pointless. Distraction takes time away from producing the best product.
That said, whether or not these traits are as well defined as Zweig implies they are, they do make a useful armature for the word sculpture he builds, and a beautiful sculpture it is. Zweig has a true gift for describing the people he respects. In a cynical age, this is a priceless capability.
I read a library copy of this book, and although the author facetiously suggests buying 5 more copies, I will buy only three, a personal copy, a gift for one friend who will enjoy the personal stories as much as I did, and a gift for another who might relate chapters 7 (about a roadie genius) and chapter 8 (about a piano-preparing genius) to his own life as both. The positive stories in this book are about the kinds of people I value as friends. The author may be good-friend material also.
Even with its earnest imperfections (which might be instructive for other readers needing a clue-by-four), this book is wonderful for what it gave me. Thank you, Mr. Zweig, and thank you to the Invisibles you wrote about, for making my world a better place.