Mike Rowe’s career has been in the crapper for more than a decade, and he likes it that way. The TV host made his name trying his hand at the grimiest jobs our society has to offer, first on Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs,” and now on CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.” It turns out finding dignity in the overlooked and unpleasant jobs that make our society run was a crowd-pleaser, partly because the people who did them made it that way.
“Everyone I met seemed to be having a better time than I thought they would. I thought, ‘What does this group of people know that the rest of us don’t?’”
Rowe’s advice, gleaned from years in the dirt, is not to get opportunity and passion backwards. Rowe explained in an interview with yours truly, that the people he encountered saw opportunity, got good at their work, and found passion and purpose in it, not the other way around: “I can’t even tell you how many multimillionaires I met who were covered in other people’s crap.”
Rowe has since started a foundation, mikeroweWORKS, that speaks to the “country’s dysfunctional relationship with work, highlight[s] the widening skills gap, and challeng[es] the persistent belief that a four-year degree is automatically the best path for the most people.” In his commencement speech, Rowe offers some other useful thoughts.
On the Problem with Politicians
“If I were really trying to say something smart and maybe comforting about all of the dysfunction, look, these people are trying to get elected. They have to be platitudinous. They have to talk in bromides when it comes to the definition of a good job or the definition of a good school.”
“But work and education are maybe the most individualistic things that a person has to figure out for themselves.”
“The main problem presupposes that college in general is going to make the most sense to the most peoples’ brains. I’d like to grab them all by the lapels and give them a shake. It doesn’t matter if (college) is free or not.”
“The first thing that an honest politician would say is, ‘Look, I have no idea what’s best for you and your kids, but if we’re guilty of elevating one form of enlightenment at the expense of all the others, we’re gonna create a list of problems’…that’s what we’re experiencing now. It’s amazing to me the implicit value judgments that go into all the platitudes.”
On Being Approached to Be a Candidate:
Rowe said he gets a call from someone every now and then, Republican or Democrat, saying, “You’re our kind of guy.”
“It kills me because they have no idea who I am or what I think. It’s really shockingly universal— (the idea of) meaningful work.”
Last month, he said he got a call from someone in the business of analyzing possible candidates, telling him they’d done a study of his Facebook presence and a bunch of social media and found a preponderance of “Mike Rowe for President” sentiment out there.
“I threw up in my mouth a little. Look, I don’t need to focus group this. I just threw up in my mouth.”
“Obviously it’s a sign of the times. People are grasping at straws. But I guess if the host of ‘The Apprentice’ can stand there and say ‘You’re fired’ — which, let’s face it, we all fantasize about doing (in some way) — the ‘Dirty Jobs’ guy could probably pull off something or other in a couple of states. It’s scary. I can’t even keep my dog under control. What would I do with a budget?”
On How to Cast a Vote
“Don’t vote for the person who tells you you deserve something. Just don’t do it if it’s something other than life, liberty, or the pursuit of possible happiness. If everyone is telling you you deserve something, vote for the one who is promising you the least. Be suspicious of the man or woman who tell you deserve everything. Because you don’t.”
On How to Change America’s Relationship with Work
“I don’t think the real solution is going to be governmental,” he said, referencing the Keep America Beautiful nonprofit organization’s efforts, which culminated in its most famous ad, 1971’s “Crying Indian.”
“It actually changed America’s relationship with litter,” Rowe said. It was a conglomeration of corporations, some government partners, and concerned citizens. “Something in some corollary has to happen with parents, guidance counselors, teachers and kids.”
On Whether the Country Will Ever Get the Nick Offerman-Mike Rowe Collaboration It Deserves
“Did you ever see that YouTube thing where he sat in front of the fire with a glass of scotch for an hour?” Rowe asked. Offerman, who plays the stoic, bacon-loving ultimate American Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” recorded a 45-minute YouTube commercial for Lagavulin distillery in December of 2015. In it, he sat silently by a roaring fire for 45 minutes occasionally sipping his drink. The insouciant performance has almost 3 million views. Rowe is one of them.
“I watched the whole thing. I turned it on and at some point I said, ‘The sonofabitch isn’t gonna get up.’ So, I went and got some scotch and I sat down and stared at Ron sitting by a fire drinking scotch and I drank scotch by a fire and stared right back at him.”
“I’ve never told anyone that before,” he said, wondering aloud if it sounded creepy. “But it’s true. If there’s any justice in the cosmos, our paths will cross.”
Indeed. In a year where everything in the news feels like some kind of bizarre performance art, Mike Rowe and Ron Swanson drinking scotch by a fire is the kind of performance art this country desperately needs.
Until then, you can tune into Rowe’s new podcast, “The Way I Heard It,” which is a “series of short mysteries for the curious mind with a short attention span.” Or, in Rowe’s words, his attempt to make “history suck a little bit less.”