A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Mike Rowe talks about the Meaning of Success

An episode about what Success really means aired last month on NPR’s TED Radio Hour.  It included a 2013 interview by Guy Raz who spoke with Mike Rowe, who had been the host of a television show for nine years on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs.  In Dirty Jobs, Rowe featured people who work in jobs generally considered to be undesirable by working for a day as an apprentice in those jobs and learning what it was like.  After filming hundreds of episodes about people who work in hard labor jobs, he now has a very different idea about what it means to be successful.

In 2008, while he was still hosting Dirty Jobs, Rowe spoke at a TED Talk (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design), delivering a message titled “Learning From Dirty Jobs.”  His TED Talk begins with a fairly graphic account of his Dirty Jobs apprenticeship as a sheep castrator.  During the filming of that episode, Rowe learned that he had been “ridiculously wrong” about what he thought he knew about lamb castration.  This led to his wondering what other misconceptions he could comment on.  In his TED Talk, Rowe says:

“People with dirty jobs are happier than you think.  As a group, they are the happiest people I know.  And I don’t want to start whistling ‘Look for the Union Label’ and all that happy worker [stuff], I’m just telling you that these are balanced people who do unthinkable work.  Road-kill picker-uppers whistle while they work. ... They have this amazing sort of symmetry to their life – I see it over and over again.  So I started to wonder what would happen if challenged some of these ‘sacred cows’?  Follow your passion – what could possibly be wrong with that?  It is probably the worst advice I ever got.”

Rowe said that growing up, he did not know what he wanted to do with his life, but he was always told to “follow his passion” and things would all work out.  This led him to try several different jobs, including singing opera.  However, his grandfather, a tradesman, never thought that anything that Mike did was considered “work.”  Filming the episodes of Dirty Jobs has given Rowe an appreciation of and admiration for those who work in manual-labor professions.

In the Guy Raz interview on National Public Radio, Raz askes Rowe how he thinks people with so-called “dirty jobs” define success.  Some of the interview is transcribed below:

Rowe: Well it is very personal to a lot of the guys I met.  I remember a guy up in Maine – his name was Rob – he sold bloodworms for a living.  So at low tide, he and I would walk out and we would start picking these things up out of the sand – and they were as long as your forearm.  They have teeth, by the way, these things.

Rowe from his show Dirty Jobs: Bloodworms have four black teeth, and according to Rob when they bite, it feels just like a bee sting.

Rowe: He would sell them as bait all over the world.  Rob looked like the kind of guy that if you saw him on the street, you would step around him – maybe give him a buck and wish him well.  Toward the end of the day, he showed me his house up on the hill, which he had paid for in cash.  We went up and had a beer, and I learned that he had another home – a summer home – that he also paid for in cash.  So what you don’t see – probably 40 or 50 of the people that we profiled over the years – were multi-millionaires.  Small business owners and entrepreneurs whose success just makes no sense because it doesn’t measure up to the way we are used to evaluating it.

Raz: A lot of people on this very episode have or will say a version of it “This is passion – this is what you are supposed to pursue to find success.”

Rowe:  Yeah I know.  It is great copy, and I don’t mean to dismiss it, but I think of all the people I know in my industry who are around my age who still follow their passion, and they are struggling.  They are going to struggle all of their life.  That’s not really the question though.  The question is “Are they happy?”  And if you are happy following your passion, great.  But if you are unhappy, and you are just doing it because of inertia, then somebody needs to give you a little slap.

Raz in his NPR report: Mike Rowe doesn’t just think about this in the abstract.  He thinks that the way we have been conditioned to think about success is actually hurting our ability to function as a society – hurting our economy, because we don’t dignify dirty jobs or the success that comes with them.

Rowe from his 2008 TED Talk:  So the thing to do is to talk about a public relations campaign for work: manual labor – skilled labor.  The stuff a lot of us probably grew up with, but we have kind of lost a little every single year.  Fewer electricians, fewer carpenters, fewer plumbers, fewer pipefitters – the infrastructure jobs that everybody is talking about creating are those guys.  So if I were running for anything (and I am not) I would simply say that the jobs we hope to make and the jobs we hope to create aren’t going to stick unless they are the jobs that people want.  And I know the point of this conference is to celebrate the things that are near and dear to us, but I also know that “clean” and “dirty” are not opposites.  They are two sides of the same coin – just like innovation and imitation, like risk and responsibility.  And like my time, which is gone.  It has been great talking to you.  So, get back to work, will you?

You can hear the Mike Rowe interview from NPR by clicking on the link below.  You can hear the entire podcast by downloading it from the iTunes store.  Mike Rowe speaks for about 10-minutes beginning at 28 minutes and 33 seconds into the 54-minute episode.  The podcast, listed under TED Radio Hour, aired on June 8, 2017, and is titled “Success.”