Doing a "dirty job"

Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs”, was featured in a NPR TED Radio Hour interview Are People With 'Dirty Jobs' The Most Successful? Rowe relates, “…probably 40 or 50 of the people we profiled over the years were multimillionaires - small-business owners, entrepreneurs whose success just makes no sense because it just doesn't measure up in the way we're used to evaluating it.”

As an example, Rowe talked of interviewing a septic tank cleaner. “One afternoon, we were up to our chest in the most unspeakable filth there is in a pumping station, knocking huge hunks of coagulated cholesterol off the wall.” Rowe asked him what he did before this. “I was a guidance counselor and a psychiatrist.” Rowe continued the story: “And I said, you've got to be kidding me. Why did you leave? And without missing a beat he said, I got tired of dealing with other people's crap.”


So here’s a guy literally shoveling crap who is incredibly successful, who chose that work over what some might say is a “dream” professional job. Apparently, there is a lot of money to be made, but that can’t be the whole story.

Rowe points out that it can be challenging for someone to want to want one of these “dirty jobs” if our society does not respect or value the job.  Somehow this septic tank cleaner (and all Rowe’s other examples) found a way around that social stigma, to find meaning and thus success in their work despite everyone else’s judgment.

In his TED Talk What makes us feel good about our work? Dan Ariely explores the motivation of people doing work based on the value they give and others demonstrate for the work being done. Ariely says “So when we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it -- meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.”

Speculating about the motivation behind the guy’s success in a septic tank cleaning job, the paycheck is a part of it. But what keeps him coming back day after day to his “dirty job”, whether it’s not buying in to some negative social interpretation of the job, or whether its finding meaning, challenge, pride, or whatever it is in the work, is a matter of his own very personal choosing, of honoring his beliefs and values.

There are lots of reasons why you might find your job or some activity unpleasant, difficult, or otherwise unmotivating. So consider:

  • How much is your belief in someone else’s negative judgment or opinion that you have a “dirty job” affecting your motivation?
  • To what degree could characteristics of a “dirty job” or activity beyond the work itself, such as the eventual result, or the personal growth and experience, or the sense of accomplishment you gain, affect your motivation?
  • How much is your “dream job” defined by someone else’s opinion of success, such as social status or pay? To what extent are your beliefs and values out of alignment with that, and how does that affect your motivation?
  • How open are you to discovering your beliefs and values and exploring the extent to which they are really yours, and serve you, in order to expose different and empowering choices that may be available to you?

"It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it."

- Mike Connors as Nick Stone, a detective playing an undercover cop, in a 1959-60 TV series called "Tightrope." [link]