"We are living in a time when the most radical act is to refuse to talk about yourself."
So went a tweet I noticed last week (sent, incidentally, by someone not particularly known for talking about herself). It resonated with me and I retweeted it to my followers, several of whom retweeted it too.
I wasn't surprised that it caught on. Social media, despite its reputation as the ultimate agent of self-promotion, actually feeds on self-loathing. If there's anything more eminently clickable than photos of kittens that have "fallen in love" with baby goats, it's stories about what narcissistic jerks people are.
A few years ago (self-promotion alert!) I wrote a column about how Facebook had become a miserable goulash of bragging and strategic promotion of others in order to lay the groundwork for future self-promotion. I wrote that it was like a conversation where you're just waiting for your turn to speak. I said that anyone who disagreed with me could go post a photo of that "gorgeous salad" they had just made. The column was huge on Facebook.
A lot of people seemed to take it as an announcement that I'd quit Facebook. That was a gross overestimation of my character. Quitting Facebook would be like partially erasing myself. Quitting Twitter would constitute further erasure. Pretty soon, I'd be invisible. I was never on Instagram or Tumblr, which I guess means I never completely existed in the first place.
When you're in a line of work that requires building and maintaining an audience or client base, it's easy to assume that invisibility, or even partial erasure, is a form of career suicide. But in a new book "Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion," author David Zweig argues that those whose job performance is measured by just how little notice they can attract might have something important to teach the rest of us.
Granted, most of the world's workers are utterly invisible, toiling in factories or fields or catatonically shelving flat-screen TVs in big-box stores. But Zweig is talking about those are who are highly trained and expert in their fields and yet are ambivalent about, if not wholly resistant to, outside attention. His Invisibles are magazine fact checkers, anesthesiologists and structural engineers and simultaneous language translators at the U.N. They only attract notice when they mess up — when an error slips by and makes it into print, when a surgery patient experiences complications related to sedation, when a building collapses or one country invades another under false pretenses because a U.N. translator messed up the past perfect (hey, it could happen.)
"What makes Invisibles so captivating," Zweig writes, "is that they are achieving enviable levels of fulfillment from their work, yet their approach is near antithetical to that of our culture at large."
In other words, Invisibles are engaged in the most radical act of our era: not talking about themselves. They are not building elaborate websites or desperately trying to accrue Twitter followers in an effort to "brand" themselves. They are not trying to parlay their current jobs into something more exciting and higher profile. They are just doing their work proudly and meticulously and then shutting up about it.
I know what you're thinking. Hooray for them. Someone give them a medal so they can demurely refuse to accept it. But Zweig's point isn't that Invisibles are more highly evolved than their attention-seeking counterparts but that they have cracked the code for a satisfying life. And to borrow from Bill Clinton's famous campaign slogan, the lesson is this: It's the work, stupid.
Do your work for its own sake, and tweet about it later (or never). Choose what you actually want to do rather than what you think will impress people on Facebook. Ironically, when you do this, something amazing happens; what you produce stands a better chance of getting recognition. Not just on Facebook, but in the real world.
Because the truth is that most of your Facebook friends are too busy counting their own "likes" to pay attention to you for more than a few seconds anyway. Unless you happen to be a kitten who's in love with a baby goat, in which case you should hire a publicist immediately.