I don’t get star struck very often. I tend to think celebrities are nothing more than people who get an inordinate amount of screen time, and that the person you see in front of the camera is rarely the genuine article. Especially in this day and age.
But when I was told I’d have the opportunity to interview Mike Rowe, I got nervous.
And why not? Here, in the eyes of my friends and I, is a real celebrity. Or at least what a celebrity should be. He’s not glitz and glamour. He won’t be the talk of gossip sites, nor is he putting on an image of visual perfection. In fact, he’s just the opposite. Mike Rowe is dirty. He’s sticky, grimy, and on a few occasions, incredibly smelly. But he did it to show us something. That it’s pretty cool to get a dirty job.
For too long, we’ve been programmed to want the dream job that we’re to spend thousands getting a degree for. We’re told that if we just follow our passion, we’ll achieve our dreams.
What a load of crap.
It’s a lesson Mike learned to reject early on during his time filming Dirty Jobs, and it’s a bit of wisdom he dispensed for the 2016 commencement address for Prager U. The message was simple.
Don’t follow your passion.
Thanks to the good people at Prager U, I was afforded the opportunity to talk with Mike Rowe to ask some questions about his philosophy, and a few things besides. What resulted was a Q and A that was filled with the wit and wisdom I had come to expect from the man. We didn’t spend too long on introductions, and instead, we got right down to work.
Brandon: You teamed up with the good people at Prager U to make what is probably the most unique message to be heard this day and age. What inspired you to make it? Why with Prager U?
Mike: Well I guess a couple of reasons. First reason is years ago when I was living in LA, I was auditioning for everything, and driving all over that God forsaken town. (Prager) was the only voice on AM radio that was consistently reasonable. I didn’t agree with every single thing he said, but I respected everything he said. And I just found him so utterly persuasive in ways that other voices on the right – who I might agree with – but I just didn’t find as persuasive. So I was just a fan of his basic approach to the world, and his commitment to common sense.
As far as the message itself goes, “don’t follow your passion but always bring it with you” was really one of the first big lessons for me to come out of Dirty Jobs season one. I started keeping a journal years ago called “Lessons From the Dirt,” and I probably got 50 or 60 things in there, but that was probably near the top. So when Dennis called and said “Hey you should write a commencement for Prager U,” I just went to the old journal and picked out one of my favorites.
As you get older, at least for me anyway, the business of education stops becoming so much about learning things you didn’t know, so much about correcting things you thought you did, and that’s what Prager U does well. That’s what I try to do, to the extent that I’m able, rather than just acquiring knowledge and saying “Oh look at this! I know some more facts!”
It’s interesting to challenge the things you’re most certain about. You know, poke at em a little bit. Anything that occurs, those platitudes, those “successories,” if you can hang it on a wall, and if its a slogan with a pretty picture of butterflies and waterfalls, or rainbows or something, it’s probably worth doubting.
Brandon: Your podcast, “The Way I Heard It,” – and I really encourage my readers to go listen to it after they’re done reading this – has been going for a little bit now. You say it’s the podcast for a curious mind with a short attention span. In other words, me. I especially love the one about the orphan hero. You tell these stories so well. Can you tell us more about these podcasts, and how you decide what stories to tell every week?
Mike: The podcast itself is not a new idea. There are no such things new ideas, and I’m very suspicious of people who tell you so.
But this is a campire and a story. It’s as distilled down as much as you can get it, into a fundemental story telling beat. It’s an homage to Paul Harvey. I just wanted to find a way to combine mystery with history, and some biography, and without boring people to find a platform where I could tell stories that – I hate to say are inspirational, because that word means different things to different people – but I love to be able to tell a story about war, or veterans, or great scientists, or people who overcame all different kinds of adversity
Brandon: Or space dogs!
Mike: Ya know, that was one was really of the exceptions…although, maybe not! If you think of it in terms of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” none of that happens without the first step from man’s best friend. And there’s always – in any great thing – there’s always an unsung hero. And with any great person there’s always a moment in their past that nobody else knows about, but was absolutely pivotal in shaping who they were, and who they would become. So the point of “The Way I Heard It” is to identify those moments, look for those hidden gems in people’s past, and write a narrative around them, and teasing the reader into wanting to hang on for 5 minutes so they can learn in the end the familiar answer that was in front of them the whole time.
Brandon: And I think there’s an addicting aspect to that whenever I listen them. You reel us in with the mystery, and then you reveal who you were talking about the entire time, like Johny Depp for instance. Which I just thought was just an awesome story.
Mike: That’s the fun of it. Everyone knows who Johnny Depp is but nobody knows he was selling pens over the phone.
Brandon: I had no idea!
Mike: Who would?
Brandon: You’ve come across a lot of different careers during your time. What ones do you feel need more attention in the job market specifically?
Mike: Well, in a way you could look at Dirty Jobs and just go down the list. When the economy was completely tanking in 2009, everywhere I went on that show I saw help wanted signs. So, you know it’s true that 80 million people who could be working but aren’t, and you’ve got 5.8 million jobs that could be filled but aren’t. So the first thing to do I think is just to look around and see where the opportunity is.
Now I understand your question. You’re saying what are the jobs that are available, and the answer is a little tricky because I could tell you welding, steam fitting, pipe fitting, plumbing, carpentry, and all those things are true, but it depends where you are in the country. And one of the things I talked about with Dennis (Prager) on the show the other day, was I don’t know when we became such a sedentary people.
The country that was populated entirely by the our willingness to push west, and settle, and pioneer, and migrate. But today, the expectation is not only do I want the job that I studied for, and not only do I want that job to pay me in a way that meets my current expenses, I want that in my zip code. And that I don’t have an answer for, but in a very general way, highly skilled jobs are in demand.
And this is kind of a hard thing for people to hear, especially parents, but it’s not just the skill associated with skilled labor…it’s soft skills. There’s just a depressively large chunk of the population that is currently un-hirable and you’re not going to hear that from anybody in an HR department of a big company. But pull them aside, sit down, buy them a beer, and talk about what’s really the giant challenge and they’ll tell you. Finding people who are willing show up early, stay late, tuck their shirt in, and turn their damn cell phone off, and be of use.
Just be of use and figure out within the company where opportunities are that maybe even the company itself doesn’t understand. It’s that kind of person who’s hard to find, and the reason is simply because they’re in short supply. And that’s not a skills issue or talent issue, it’s a work ethic issue.
Brandon: A lot of my readers, especially those my age, are currently at war with these very cultural movements that promote a sorry work ethic, and sentiments that promote the idea that someone should be getting something off of their identity alone. Movements such as 3rd wave feminism. It causes them to pursue degrees that don’t mean anything like gender studies. My readers would love to get your thoughts in particular about these movements, and the useless degrees they promote.
Mike: It’s a free country, and part of being free is making stupid decisions and paying for them later. The problem is with respect to gender studies, mid-east poli-sci, and advanced basket weaving, that are potentially interesting, but not viable. The problem isn’t that they’re not viable in the market place, the problem is that we’re paying for it.
Me, and you, and all your other friends who agree with us. We’re paying for it, and this is the thing that people have a hard time making a distinction around. In my opinion, talking about people who are recently out of college, they just don’t see it this way, but the way I see it is that we have $1.3 trillion worth of student loans on the books right now. $1.3 trillion! We hold the note on that. Not just the people who owe that money.
I actually have a lot of sympathy for a millennial who’s trying to figure out what to do with their life. Who’s 18 to 19 years old, and getting all this pressure to declare a major. I’m 54. I don’t know what I want to do. And I can remember being 18 and just laughing when my parents and guidance councilors were like “yeah, you have to declare a major and then you have to spend the money, and then you have to go ahead and get on this road and that’s where the road is going to take you.” I just really think we do these kids a disservice, not only by pushing them into such ridiculous debt, but by forcing them to decide what they’re going to do with their life. Then 4 years later, yeah you’ve got your degree, and you’ve got your debt, but oh yeah there are no jobs available after all in gender studies that pay more than $30,000 a year.
So what are we gonna do? We’re gonna pay the debt, and go deeper into the red, and that’s that.
Brandon: But this actually leads me to my next question. I’m told you have a scholarship program, and you talk about it a lot on your podcast. Tell us a little bit more about that, what it’s for, and what you hope to accomplish with it.
Mike: Well, we started awarding work ethic scholarships back on labor day of 2008. “Mike Rowe Works” is the name of the foundation that I run, and it came out of Dirty Jobs. It was an attempt to shine a light on jobs that were available in the industries that had allowed my show to prosper. Eventually it evolved into a scholarship program, and the reason I do it is because most scholarships programs – most good ones anyway – they all reward the same basic thing. They reward academic achievement, or athletic achievement, or talent, or are just need based. No one seems to reward work ethic, or the ability, or willingness to learn a skill that’s in demand.
Not a skill that you’re in love with. I’m not interested in subsidizing the pursuit of your dream, but I am interested in getting more plumbers, steam fitters, HVAC operators, and electricians out in the work force, because those are the people that I depend on to keep the lights on. Plus the opportunities are there, and they’re real.
So our scholarship program was designed specifically for people who want to learn skill trade and pursue opportunity that actually exists.
Brandon: Which is awesome. Like I said, the entire Prager U video is pretty unique, and I feel like that approach is very unique as well. The ability to actually want to do anything that’s not going to get your name in the paper, or some white collar jobs – I don’t see many people wanting that at all nowadays. So this is very refreshing to hear.
Mike: Well I’m glad. I just think you win ball games by hitting singles. You get on base, you get around the bases. But the job market is not much different, except everyone is swinging for the fences. We’re not looking for jobs, we’re looking for dream jobs. We’re looking for the 4 hour work week, not the 40 hour. But that’s just who we are if we get the chance to do it. We’re also not just looking for just a woman or man for a mate, we’re looking for a soul mate. We’re looking for that one perfect person who’s going to make everything else easy. We’re looking for that one perfect job.
Brandon: We’re just looking for perfection.
Mike: Yeah! Or ease. I feel like in a very general way a lot of parents have told kids in this generation that the secret to happiness is understanding who you are, finding out what you want, and then going out and getting it. But that’s not how I was raised. I was raised with “look here’s the secret to happiness. Go out and get a job, find out how to get good at it, then find out how to love it.”
Brandon: Are there any other tired cliches other than “follow your passion” you’d like to see keel over?
Mike: Oh my God. Sure. Are you kidding me? I would like to see the entire green movement be replaced with brown?
Mike: Well, think about it. I want to live on a healthy planet. I want all the things that Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore want. I just think green is a stupid color. It’s the color of money, it’s the color of envy, it’s the color of jealousy. It’s just an odd shade to rally behind.
If I were serious about it, I’d say brown is a much better color, because everything green grows out of something brown. I did a special on Dirty Jobs called “Brown Before Green,” because not only is it alphabetically correct, it’s more accurate to point to a farm who’s normally covered in dirt, or sh-t, or something worse, and saying that guy is a steward of the environment. He’s on the front line on conservation, not because he’s a bloody do-gooder, but because conservation is in his best interest. And so they’re good at it.
Brandon: Yeah. He’s working in the dirt he’s gotta keep healthy.
Mike: I would love to see “safety first” eliminated. It’s not true, and it’s dangerous. On Dirty Jobs we had a perfect safety record for the first two seasons. Nobody in my crew or I got hurt, and we were in the most hazardous environments on the planet, and we had no training for it.
By season 3 or 4 we were all getting hurt. I mean broken toes, broken fingers, cracked ribs, contusions, concussion, stitches. What had happened was that we sat through maybe 100 mandatory safety briefings. 100 mandatory videos, all which would put a glass eye to sleep. Eventually we stopped paying attention because everywhere we looked, we saw the safety first banners. Lock-out-tag-out mandatory procedures. All this stuff.
We just stopped paying attention because you become complacent when you see the same thing over and over again. So, I did a special called “Safety 3rd,” and when I wanted to say to somebody “hey, be careful,” I’d say “safety 3rd.” They’d laugh, but it would get their attention.
Safety 1st doesn’t mean anything. Besides, if safety was really 1st, then why in the world would anyone leave their house? Why even take the risk of operating a welding torch? Because the job is first. Providing for your family is first. Safety is critical. Safety always makes sense, but “safety 1st” makes people lazy and stupid, and the minute you believe that somebody else cares more about your well being than you do, you’re in danger. You might be in compliance, but you’re not out of danger.
I’d also seriously challenge all the teamwork talk you hear in corporate America. I think it’s very important to have a good function team, and I see nothing wrong with it, but pick your favorite baseball team and show me two guys getting paid the same salary. You get on a plane, you’re not a team flying somewhere together. You’re all individuals, you’re all paid different money for your seat.
So these bromides, these platitudes, anybody can take a basic good idea like “persistence,” but if you worship it because you think persistence is inherently good, then someone like me is going to come along and say “well what do you say to a persistent mass murderer? He’s good a it right? He’s very persistent. Look he’s at it again! He killed another one. Wow! He’s sure persistent.”
Brandon: How inspiring!
Mike: Yeah! What an inspiration this Jeffery Dahmer guy is. So persistent! So we just fall in love with bromides and we fall in love with the idea of how we do a thing, but we too often forget what the thing is that we’re actually trying to do.
Brandon: When I told my friends I was going to interview you, they all had the same reaction. “When is Mike Rowe going to run for President?” Any chance you’d do the dirtiest job in America?
Mike: Look, never say never, but I have no political experience, and I have no political aspirations. I care very much for our country, and I think right now we’re seeing what happens when things get so divided that all you can really do is gauge what you value by what you hate. I have no idea what the hell is going to happen over next few months but it’s gonna be ugly.
Somebody called me the other day and told me they’d done a Nexus search on my Facebook page, and found over a millions suggestions that I run. To tell you the truth, we’ve gotten calls from more than a few people who are organized, and ready to do something.
But it’s not because of me. I better understand now than I did a year ago just how frustrated people are. Even my friends on the left, they’re so frustrated. They’ll never in a million years vote for Trump – or any republican nominee – but they’re frustrated that they have to vote for Hillary.
And my pals on the right are frustrated because they have to vote for Donald. They don’t want to vote for Donald. They want to vote for somebody who’s reasonable, persuasive, ethical, and not so desperate to have the job that they’ll say or do anything to get it.
But our machine is not rigged to run on that premise nor does it exist to reward that kind of behavior. So, I would run only if I could document the whole thing and put it on HBO because that’s as far as it would go. Like Bullworth.