Commentary

Three Cheers for Quiet Work


Much of the world’s work is accomplished in passionate anonymity.

You missed it. In the spring 2011 issue of BYU Magazine, we gave Karl G. Maeser a new middle initial. You didn’t see it because one of our editors caught the error at the last minute, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

You also never read about the new type of scientist we invented: the argonomist (presumably a naturalist aboard Jason’s famed ship). You never heard about this new career option because, again, as we reviewed final proofs, one of our editors noted the error and corrected it to agronomist.

Nor did you see the time we resurrected Rudyard Kipling to speak at a BYU devotional a few months after his death. Fortunately, we also stopped ourselves on that occasion, changing the text to indicate that Kipling had been the subject (not the speaker) of a devotional after his passing. And someone on our team felt like a hero, at least for a minute. We don’t reveal in the magazine which editors caught what errors (or, for that matter, who missed the errors that did make it into print); the editors who prevented these problems know who they are, and it remains their own private satisfaction.

Some of life's most important work happens quietly, with little fanfare or applause.

Some of life’s most important work happens quietly, with little fanfare or applause.

“You’ve got to have a passion for anonymity in this work,” our former executive editor, Norman A. Darais (BA ’71, MA ’73), was fond of saying. Before he retired in summer 2013, Norm supervised the magazine team for more than 20 years and served the university for nearly 40. In all those years he prevented his share of errors (including one of those above), yet nary a credit line announced his editorial heroism (until now, anyway).

So it goes with the work of a publication: some of the work gets credited, but much of it does not. Hundreds—even thousands—of decisions go into producing one magazine or booklet or advertisement. Seldom do readers know who contributed which ideas or who added artistic or literary luster to a particular page. The daily feats of editors and designers go largely unnoticed, unsung, uncelebrated. As Norm likes to say, referencing the poet Matthew Arnold, such work is quiet work.

Quiet work infuses and sustains our lives. Like the humble mortar that binds together the polished stone of a temple, quiet work underpins society, enabling our lives to function smoothly and to resonate with beauty. Most of us do quiet work; our efforts are not applauded by large audiences or accompanied by grand awards or celebrated with banquets or press releases. Accountants, nurses, construction workers, parents; lives saved, problems solved, improvements made, tears dried—all with no fanfare and no credit line.

One night when I was about 5 years old, I rushed from the dinner table in tears after my siblings’ teasing became too much. My mother soon came to my room and sat with me. She told me that when I had shared my testimony in sacrament meeting it had touched her heart and brought her peace. She expressed confidence in me and said she believed me capable of great things. It was a simple moment, a quiet moment. No crowds rose in thundering ovation as she left my room. No author composed a magazine article to commend her effort—at least not then. But that little moment has influenced my life for nearly four decades, giving me a motivating vision of my potential, an enduring assurance of being loved.

Quiet work. It can change our lives. Anonymous, subtle, discreet, it affects the course of history—personal or international—with hardly a headline. In his poem “Quiet Work,” Arnold praises the constant, hushed effort of nature, the “lasting fruit” of which is “too great for haste, too high for rivalry.” Like the grandeur of creation, much of the quiet work around us transcends the bustle and clamor of other activities in life, taking its glory not from the attention granted it but from the effort itself. This anonymity is, in part, what endows quiet work with its nobility.

Yet those of us who benefit from the muted labor of others should not be content with their undercover status. Our debt of gratitude should move us, from time to time and more often than we think, to give quiet work its due, to make noise about the noiseless. We should herald the unheralded, giving apt acclaim to those who devote their efforts, in Arnold’s words, to “glorious tasks in silence perfecting.”