Dirt Career Advice: Mike Rowe

( Dirty Hands  | Craig Sunter)

(Dirty Hands | Craig Sunter)

"Boredom is a choice. Like tardiness. Or interrupting." 

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For about ten years, Mike Rowe hosted a show called Dirty Jobs. As the show's title implies, in every episode Rowe met ordinary Americans who worked "dirty" jobs — but in many parts of the country, they were known simply as jobs. Through these experiences, Rowe found that people who worked these less than glamorous careers, were some of the happiest people he had ever met. This was counterintuitive to some of the well-to-do folks he knew who had seemingly found their "dream jobs," yet struggled with unhappiness and lack of purpose.

Dirty Jobs to Perfect Ones

Rowe, being in a position where he has seen everything there is to see, often gets letters from fans seeking advice. You can generally categorize these letters into two piles:

A) How does one live the perfect life?
B) How does one find the perfect job?

And often, they are the same question, as we see the perfect job equalling the perfect life. That we are our jobs. An employer might love the sound of that, but as a human being, it seems awfully limiting, no matter how great our jobs are. But perfection is known, it's the thing we think we are supposed to do, so we set a course for it. But what will actually make us happy often takes discovery, and we may miss those opportunities in pursuit of what we already know.

A fan named Parker writes:

Hey Mike!

I’ve spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself and I still can’t figure out what to do. I have always been a hands-on kind of guy and a go-getter. I could never be an office worker. I need change, excitement, and adventure in my life, but where the pay is steady. I grew up in construction and my first job was a restoration project. I love everything outdoors. I play music for extra money.

I like trying pretty much everything, but get bored very easily. I want a career that will always keep me happy, but can allow me to have a family and get some time to travel. I figure if anyone knows jobs it’s you so I was wondering your thoughts on this if you ever get the time! Thank you!

Parker Hall

Mike Rowe writes:

Hi Parker,

My first thought is that you should learn to weld and move to North Dakota. The opportunities are enormous, and as a ‘hands-on go-getter,’ you’re qualified for the work. But after reading your post a second time, it occurs to me that your qualifications are not the reason you can’t find the career you want.

I had drinks last night with a woman I know. Let’s call her Claire. Claire just turned 42. She’s cute, smart, and successful. She’s frustrated though, because she can’t find a man. I listened all evening about how difficult her search has been. About how all the ‘good ones’ were taken. About how her other friends had found their soul-mates, and how it wasn’t fair that she had not.

’Look at me,’ she said. ‘I take care of myself. I’ve put myself out there. Why is this so hard?’

’How about that guy at the end of the bar,’ I said. ‘He keeps looking at you.’

’Not my type.’

’Really? How do you know?’

’I just know.’

’Have you tried a dating site?’ I asked.

’Are you kidding? I would never date someone I met online!’

’Alright. How about a change of scene? Your company has offices all over – maybe try living in another city?’

’What? Leave San Francisco? Never!’

’How about the other side of town? You know, mix it up a little. Visit different places. New museums, new bars, new theaters…?’

She looked at me like I had two heads. ‘Why the hell would I do that?’

Here’s the thing, Parker. Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the ‘right’ man. She wants a soul-mate. Specifically, a soul-mate from her zip code. She assembled this guy in her mind years ago, and now, dammit, she’s tired of waiting!!

I didn’t tell her this, because Claire has the capacity for sudden violence. But it’s true. She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations. Is it possible that you’ve built a similar wall?

Consider your own words. You don’t want a career — you want the ‘right’ career. You need ‘excitement’ and ‘adventure,’ but not at the expense of stability. You want lots of ‘change’ and the ‘freedom to travel,’ but you need the certainty of ‘steady pay.’ You talk about being ‘easily bored’ as though boredom is out of your control. It isn’t. Boredom is a choice. Like tardiness. Or interrupting.

It’s one thing to ‘love the outdoors,’ but you take it a step further. You vow to ‘never’ take an office job. You talk about the needs of your family, even though that family doesn’t exist. And finally, you say the career you describe must ‘always’ make you ‘happy.’

These are my thoughts. You may choose to ignore them and I wouldn’t blame you — especially after being compared to a 42-year-old woman who can’t find love. But since you asked…

Stop looking for the ‘right’ career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

Many people today resent the suggestion that they’re in charge of the way the feel. But trust me, Parker. Those people are mistaken. That was a big lesson from Dirty Jobs, and I learned it several hundred times before it stuck. What you do, who you’re with, and how you feel about the world around you, is completely up to you.

Good luck,


PS. I’m serious about welding and North Dakota. Those guys are writing their own ticket.

PPS. Think I should forward this to Claire?

(Via Mike Rowe)

Not the typical type of advice you'd expect to get from a celebrity, but, hey, it's free. And when you ask a "dirty" guy, you get dirt philosophy. But dirt can mean many things, in some circles it means unclean — in others, it means natural, from the earth, and grounded. Whatever the case may be, we can't learn anything, drive interest, or allow for passion to develop if we don't first get our hands dirty.

( Fisherman  | Herriest)

(Fisherman | Herriest)

In his talk at TED, Rowe said:

I’m still in ‘Poetics,’ in Aristotle, and I’m thinking — out of nowhere, two terms come crashing into my head that I haven’t heard since my classics professor in college drilled them there. And they are anagnorisis and peripeteia. ... Anagnorisis is the Greek word for discovery. Literally, the transition from ignorance to knowledge is anagnorisis. ... The other word, peripeteia, that’s the moment in the great tragedies, you know — Euripides and Sophocles — the moment where Oedipus has his moment, where he suddenly realizes that hot chick he’s been sleeping with and having babies with is his mother. OK. That’s peripety or peripeteia. ... These discoveries that lead to sudden realizations; and I’ve been having them, over 200 dirty jobs, I have them all the time ... and if I’m wrong so often, in a literal way, what other peripatetic misconceptions might I be able to comment upon?

The happiest people I know have repeated the same answers when asked about their paths to happiness: They had no idea. They didn't know that living here, doing this work, and living this life would be so enriching. Exactly! They had no idea. The known, the thing we think we are supposed to do, doesn't always end up going where we think it will. By the very fact that you are aware of this career says all you need to know: it's crowded, full of expectations, and institutional. (And don't start believing that creative fields are any different, there are no sacred cows.) So, within the context of the limited paths you are aware of, you have come to believe that this is the best, the thing that defines you. You have your heart set on it, like a first love, you can't imagine anything else making you happy, because it's all you know. Your problem isn't that your first love or your dream job is so great, it's that your imagination is lacking. But, the unimaginable thing, the thing you did on a whim or by chance or fell into, or the thing that somehow discovered you, could be everything.

So much of our unhappiness comes from our expectations. But expectations are within our control. (Because they only exist in our minds.) People who are happy don't feel all the expectations and pressures that unhappy people feel. Because the pressures of expectation are what causes unhappiness, and the lack of them is what makes people carefree (and whistling Dixie). Then our own happiness is within our control, if we are willing to let go of some of the more negative aspects of our thinking.

On this, Rowe said:

Some of the other things I got wrong, some of the other notions of work that I’ve just been assuming are sacrosanct, and they’re not. People with dirty jobs are happier than you think. As a group, they’re the happiest people I know. And I don’t want to start whistling ... all that happy worker crap. I’m just telling you that these are balanced people who do unthinkable work. Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work. I swear to God — I did it with them. They’ve got this amazing sort of symmetry to their life. And I see it over and over and over again.

So I started to wonder what would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows. Follow your passion — we’ve been talking about it here for the last 36 hours. Follow your passion — what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got. ... I mean, that’s all I heard growing up. I didn’t know what to do with my life, but I was told if you follow your passion, it’s going to work out.

I can give you 30 examples, right now — Bob Combs, the pig farmer in Las Vegas who collects the uneaten scraps of food from the casinos and feeds them them to his swine. Why? Because there’s so much protein in the stuff we don’t eat his pigs grow at twice the normal speed, and he is one rich pig farmer, and he is good for the environment, and he spends his days doing this incredible service, and he smells like hell, but God bless him. He’s making a great living. You ask him, ‘Did you follow your passion here?’ and he’d laugh at you. The guy’s worth — he just got offered like 60 million dollars for his farm and turned it down, outside of Vegas. He didn’t follow his passion. He stepped back, and he watched where everybody was going, and he went the other way. And I hear that story over and over.

Matt Froind, a dairy farmer in New Canaan, Connecticut, who woke up one day and realized the crap from his cows was worth more than their milk, if he could use it to make these biodegradable flower pots. Now, he’s selling them to Walmart. Follow his passion? Come on.

So I started to look at passion, I started to look at efficiency versus effectiveness ... that’s a huge distinction. I started to look at teamwork and determination, and basically all those platitudes they call ‘successories’ that hang with that schmaltzy art in boardrooms around the world right now. That stuff — it’s suddenly all been turned on its head.

Reminiscent of the life advice given by Mark Cuban:

Don’t follow your passions, follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.

It's not that these "dirty" jobs are literally the only jobs that can make people happy. It's a counterbalance, that even a dirty job can be happier than a high-status job. Then, we are no longer bound, there's a world of different paths open to us, any of which can be fulfilling — rather than a lonely singular path. People I know who teach, who work for nonprofits, who work for charities, who go to remote areas to help people and solve problems, none of them knew that was what they would be doing. But here they are, outside of the box they imagined for themselves, doing good work.

We are limited by a lack of imagination. We are all like Claire, we think we know what we want, and are unwilling try anything else. We shut it down because we think we already know, but keep going back to the things we've already tried. We need to be open to the unknown, and base decisions less on plans, and more on trial and error (the primary method of problem solving and discovery). Live. Get your hands dirty. Within your one life, you can live several lives. Life is not meant to be manicured and heavily charted. Life is experiential. Improvise, try living and adapt as you go along. Isn't that what we were taught as children?

And when life feels like play again, is when you will find everything you've been looking for. Because that's what humans do, improvise and adapt — it's what we are built to do, it's what gives us purpose, and it's what makes us happy.

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