Friday, September 07, 2012


“a calamity of exploding toilets and misadventures in animal husbandry.”

Mike Rowe is a TV personality that has been working for a decade or two trying to make a career in show business. He's got one of those voices that you love to listen to, so he does a lot of advertisements and was at least at one point a spokesman on a shopping channel trying to pitch weird and varied products.

His biggest claim to fame is the Dirty Jobs show he started up on the Discovery channel, which is essentially Rowe apprenticing on various unglamorous jobs from making barbecue charcoal to steaming gum off city streets, working in a coal mine and in a sewer, and so on. The show is actually quite fascinating because not only is Mike such a likable guy and able to find humor in everything, but the people he works with are interesting and likable as well.

Mike already had a deep respect for people who do hard physical labor or work at jobs like this, that's why he did the show to begin with. However, he did one show in particular that forced him to rethink a lot of his assumptions. He tells the story in a speech he gave and it is very, very well worth viewing, although somewhat grisly due to the nature of his work, probably not safe for most work places. Its about 20 minutes long, so set aside some time, but please, do set it aside. You will be very glad you did. He's funny and fascinating and surprising.

Being an actor, the concept of hard, dirty work is not something he's particularly surrounded by, and he's part of a culture which values easy work, high reward, and great personal pleasure over everything else. But he had a personal admiration for hard work in unpleasant settings and that led him to greater understand the dignity and virtue of that kind of work.

And in the video among the many things he points out, the people who work at these jobs seem a lot happier and more content than the people in show business he knows. He doesn't come right out and say that, but its the strong implication. That would be the two types of folks he knows about and works with, and the contrast would be stark.

Its not that there are no hard working people in show business or that the work is of little effort. Long hours memorizing lines and doing stunts isn't easy, or even necessarily safe. Its that the attitude you carry and purpose you understand for work is different. Show business is about fame, riches, and satisfying every personal lust and whim. Working on a crab boat is about hard, brutal, dangerous work and bringing home a check.

Show business, like a lot of modern western civilization work, has little tangible evidence of your efforts. You can work 11-14 hours a day for weeks at a time and see nothing to show for all that but the lines on your face and the bloodshot eyes in the mirror until the show or movie finally comes out. For a few weeks. And what did it all mean? What did you really accomplish, other than to make a little show to entertain people, forgotten when the next one comes along?

But putting hot tar on a roof leaves a preserved roof behind. Sweeping out a chimney means someone has a fireplace they can use. Cleaning the tank of a KC-135R Stratotanker means you save lives and help keep planes in the air. You have tangible results, its the difference between someone who pushes papers all day and someone building a skyscraper. At the end of the day, one goes home feeling empty like they never accomplished anything: tomorrow will be another identical stack of papers. The other goes home and passes by buildings they helped make. Something they can point to for their kids, something to remember and see and be proud of.

Mike is a tireless proponent of physical labor and he even has a blog he writes on about the subject, and he's written an open letter to Romney like he did one to Obama 4 years ago. Rowe has a thesis, that the loss of skilled labor is due to a general revulsion with hard work and physical labor in America and that results in people wanting to get rich quick with little effort:
Certainly, we need more jobs, and you were clear about that in Tampa. But the Skills Gap proves that we need something else too. We need people who see opportunity where opportunity exists. We need enthusiasm for careers that have been overlooked and underappreciated by society at large. We need to have a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce, and if I can be of help to you in that regard, I am at your service – assuming of course, you find yourself in a new address early next year.

To be clear, mikeroweWORKS has no political agenda. I am not an apologist for Organized Labor or for Management. mikeroweWORKS is concerned only with encouraging a larger appreciation for skilled labor, and supporting those kids who are willing to learn a skill.

Good luck in November. And thanks for your time.
Now, Mike Rowe probably is thinking a federal program and government spending is just the thing to help with this, but that's because modern people tend to think on those terms first. Get the government involved. But he's not entirely wrong: the attitude about work and understanding of how you should behave is desperately wrong in modern society. Barack Obama ignored his plea 4 years ago. Romney responded.

Ultimately, Dirty Jobs is about personal responsibility and the virtue of work. Its about making your own way, where you find an opportunity, and doing the work of making that happen, and of all the things America needs most right now, that's pretty high up on the list of priorities. Dirty Jobs has the same message as Spider-Man II: don't follow your dreams. Follow your duty, do what you are supposed to do. Grow up, be responsible, and get it done, instead of whining about how mean and unfair life is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good talk.

He is absolutely right about the war on work and the decline in respect for skilled trades especially.

That's very dangerous from a cultural standpoint, because you can see how it played out historically. One of the reasons that Europeans, especially northern Europeans, blossomed technically over the last 300 years is that there was no shame in working with your hands and tinkering. It didn't eliminate class distinctions, but it respected craftsmanship and industry.

India is probably a good example of a counter example. Theoretical and academic pursuits are fine, but turning a wrench would to get some practical experience would be beneath many of them. So they end up with a lot of physicists, but no one to run their power grid.