As the host of the Popular Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, Mike Rowe has taken on some of the most disgusting and dangerous work, including shark-suit tester (ouch!) and sewage-treatment worker (ick!). After more than 150 of these jobs, Rowe has developed special insights into the nature of work, which he shared with TIME's Kathleen Adams.
Why do people do dirty jobs?
Personal gratification. The evidence that they've made a contribution. These people take great pride in what they do. Everyone I've met who has a dirty job knows that if you removed them from the chain, then the whole thing falls in on itself. You'll see a lot of optimism and cheerfulness. These are happy people.
What are some of your favorite dirty jobs?
I love the entrepreneurial dirty jobs or the people who are literally just surviving on some crazy niche, like the avian vomitologist. Owl vomit looks very much like a piece of charcoal. The reason Don Cicoletti collects it is because if you crack the vomit open and start to pull it apart, you'll find the hair and bones from the prey the owl has swallowed whole. Don sells these things by the boatload to elementary schools, and the kids put the mouse back together again. This guy is making a living crawling through the woods looking for owl vomit.
You give motivational speeches.
I'd hate to be confused with a serious person with a huge message, but the truth is, I started getting a lot of calls from universities and blue-collar organizations like the U.A.W. and the Teamsters. The weird thing is, now most of the calls I get are from big corporations like Motorola and CBS.
What do you tell them?
Well, for example, I just came back from Motorola. I followed Colin Powell, if you can believe that. I got a room full of high-level executives who are fans of the show, and it gives me a chance to talk about the Puritan work ethic. People with dirty jobs have tons of lessons to teach.
I'll say, "I just worked with a ditchdigger. Look, it's hard work and you earn your blisters, but at the end of the day there is a ditch where there wasn't one." A lot of these men and women in offices are making a great living, but when they leave their cubicle, their desk doesn't look any different than it did in the morning. A little dirt is good. What I try to do is debunk a lot of the platitudes. Like "work smart instead of hard." It makes good sense on the surface but if you don't work hard, who cares how smart you are?
And the show honors hard work.
As Cicoletti, the avian vomitologist, says, "Hey, as long as I'm bent over I might as well pick something up." That's great advice. We are all bent over metaphorically one way or another. If we took the time to pick up whatever's in front of us, hey, who knows? It could turn into gold.