It is a quiet day in the office. I sit on a blue cushioned chair. Everyone seems to be on leave. I turn my computer on. I hope someone will show. I stare at the loading screen. Anonymous.
Sameer walks around Dublin Zoo. He is from Afghanistan. All his friends linger behind without him. He is an unaccompanied minor. The sea otters make him pause. He is silent. Alone.
Together, we are subtle, blurred, gloomy smudges on a violently bright tapestry.
Without those smudges that tapestry is nothing.
The word “obscured” immediately incites negative emotions. Lonely, Isolated, Worthless, Forgotten. That is superficial. There is power in obscurity. To work, to do, to be in a perpetual state of anonymity opens the door to infinite opportunity, obvious and formerly hidden.
In the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) at the Department of Justice and Equality, obscurity is the prelude to progress. Nameless at my desk, obscured to the world, my purpose is more clear than ever. I am there to work, there to build, and there to indirectly empower asylum seekers and refugees, always thinking of impact. At my fingertips lie the tools to achieve that purpose, unhindered by any grandiose thoughts of fame and recognition. I am satisfied in my obscurity.
At the Dublin Zoo, obscurity is the prelude to leadership. Alone ahead of the group, obscured to the world, Sameer’s role is more clear than ever. He is there to see, there to enjoy, and there to indirectly lead his wily friends through the entirety of Dublin Zoo, always seven steps ahead. At his feet lie the tools to achieve that purpose, unhindered by any pretentious thoughts of tomfoolery and celebrity. He is satisfied in his obscurity.
We, those small seemingly insignificant smudges on the tapestry of life, are the connection, the link between the multitude of furious colors. Without those small smudges, without the work of the subtle, there is nothing but disconnect, discoloration, a hideous blotchy piece of canvas.
It is foolish to dismiss subtlety so easily. People forget the warmth of the limelight can easily burn.
How, if not through subtlety, are we Duke students supposed to enable the change we wish to see? The point of my premise is not to advise a life of obscurity, it is simply to expose the ceaseless benefits of the subtle approach, especially in a situation where impact is the end goal, over the brute force limelight approach. Subtlety over strength. I identify five key benefits.
- Rewards of Respect
As a new employee anywhere, it is always good practice to learn before assuming. The RIA employees have been there for 2, 10, 20 years. They know what they are doing. And it is not too much of a stretch to assume they are comfortable in their practices, however old-fashioned they are. I could have come up with an idea that is game-changing, probably actually impactful, and largescale, as any Duke student could. But, if that idea goes against the core values of the institution of employment, it is next to useless. Working within my surroundings, working in obscurity and through subtlety, has allowed me to transform my initial project into something much more widespread, impacting thousands more than it would have initially. People expect the new employee to be boisterous, bright-eyed, radical, but coming in with the mindset of obscurity allowed me to bypass the weeks of mistrust and annoyance and earn the respect of my colleagues, who were then in turn more willing and more receptive to my incremental ideas.
- Navigating Bureaucracy
Coming from youth such as ourselves, any idea is immediately critically scrutinized and much more easily dismissed, simply because we lack in experience. This is problematic, but ultimately factual. To work around this barrier to impact is what separates the internally purposed and the externally purposed. The brute force approach is easily dismissed, frowned upon, and at a certain level, to see it is amusing to more veteran employees. There are never truly resources and institutions in place enough to satisfy the brute force method. The subtle approach however can quickly work its way through the layers of oversight to fulfillment, simply because the smaller the ask, the less resources and institutional history required.
- Possibility of Impact
The subtle approach, incremental and obscure, makes enacting the ultimate end goal much easier, with each ask becoming slightly more and more, without ever tipping the balance between reasonable addition to unachievable vision. The game-changing idea never goes away, it is simply the spontaneous approach versus the calculated and subtle approach that differentiates its ability to come to fruition. Adding small clauses to an already initial miniscule idea and working up to that game-changing idea is much more likely than proposing the game-changing idea in its entirety first in an impatient, attention-seeking manner.
- Speed of Plausible Impact
It may seem the brute force approach is the fastest way to impact. Honestly, it is. But there are a number of characteristics and factors that affect if the brute force approach method can actually work. The most important and the one that Duke students lack is authority. Working around this barrier to impact, the incremental approach is the fastest way to plausible impact, working subtly instead of magnanimously, to ensure that impact is actually achieved and implemented rather than considered and dismissed.
- Assessment of Impact
Even if, by some miracle, the brute force method worked, it is much more difficult to assess the impact of a radical change than an incremental one. Radical changes bring large numbers of variables to the table while incremental changes allow the workplace to monitor and control the variables to ensure that the change is actually impactful. If the change made is impossible to accurately assess, forever leaving the lingering chance that the change was actually detrimental to the target population, is it even worthwhile?
Sameer and I are friends now. Last week I found out he spoke Hindi, and we’ve been conversing in Hindi since then, our own secret relatively obscure language. Where does he fit into all of this? If I’ve learned obscurity is the most impactful approach from working in a government agency, Sameer has learned the same lesson traversing from Afghanistan to Turkey to Greece to France to Ireland. It is those who are quiet, unobtrusive, observing, that learn and survive. We may be obscure together, but we are obscure on completely different levels. My obscurity comes from a rational perspective on impact. His comes from a survivalist perspective on life. We are two completely different sides of the same coin. Anonymous. Alone.