Rethinking Education, Work, and Finding your Passion


Provocative insights from Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs

Mike Rowe could qualify as the most prolific worker in recorded history.

In 169 episodes as host of the popular cable TV show Dirty Jobs, he tackled 300 different careers—working everywhere from swamps and sewers to oil derricks, coal mines, and the high seas. This followed his 17 years as an “inveterate freelancer,” which included singing in the Baltimore Opera; acting in TV commercials; hosting the QVC shopping network; and narrating, writing, directing, singing on, and hosting other programs on CNN, PBS, The History Channel, The Science Channel, National Geographic Channel, and other venues.

With so many diverse work experiences in a variety of professions throughout all 50 states, Rowe has gathered insights and strong opinions about the nature of work and education in the U.S. The author of Profoundly Disconnected: A True Confession from Mike Rowe, in 2008 he founded the Mike Rowe Works Foundation, which awards scholarships to students interested in pursuing careers in the trades.

We recently picked Mike’s brain on a variety of top-of-mind issues related to education and employment. He weighed in on the skills gap, how to fill seven million available U.S. jobs, and what’s up with the gig economy. He also explained why it’s time to reevaluate how millions of people set educational goals and how we as a society define and value (or devalue) different careers.

"In the same way that society needs to change its definition of what good and meaningful work is, people need to be open to the fact that their talent and their best available opportunities might not line up with their desires."

Changing Mindsets On Education And Work

How do most of us define a good education and a good job today in the United States? Over time the answers to those questions have changed dramatically here and throughout the world. Rowe thinks it’s time that more people questioned the popular dogma that to be successful a person needs an expensive college degree and, upon graduation, that they should follow their passion until it leads them to the perfect job.

“I look at work through a public relations lens,” says Rowe.“We can control the prevailing definition of what society considers a good job and a good education. Today, millions of people with college degrees are competing for a limited set of white-collar jobs that are considered the most desirable careers. A big percentage won’t find jobs they’re passionate about, at least not right away. Meanwhile, employers are struggling to fill jobs not enough people are trained to do—farming, fishing, plumbing, carpentry, steam fitting, welding, the mechanical trades. This is the skills gap. Working in the skilled trades has fallen out of favor. We need people doing these jobs because somebody has to support our infrastructure: our electricity, buildings, water, food, and highways.”

Many of the unfilled jobs in the U.S. today don’t require a college degree, Rowe believes. Recent research by Georgetown University supports this finding, projecting that of the 55 million job openings in the U.S. that will occur through 2020, more than a third will not require any formal education beyond high school.

Teachers, guidance counselors, and parents need to broaden the definition of what is considered a good job and the right post-secondary education, argues Rowe. He stresses that young people need to face the worlds of both education and work with curiosity, work ethic, and an eye for opportunities to learn valuable skills—and none of that necessarily involves passion.

Don't Follow Your Passion

This philosophy was summarized in a 2016 commencement address video for high school and college graduates that Rowe was invited to write and deliver for Prager University, a website of conservative ideas. The video garnered strong reactions both pro and con and has since been viewed more than 6.5 million times.

“The dirty truth is that just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it, ”Rowe says in the speech. “And just because you’ve gotten a degree in your chosen field doesn’t mean you’ll find your dream job. Don’t be misled by the notion that there’s a dream job out there and you have to do certain things to get it and if you don’t your world will come crashing down.”

“Don’t follow your passion” is part of Rowe’s message because passion is fickle and can take you in the wrong directions. Instead, bring passion with you to school and to the workplace but rely more on your ability to spot opportunity, to get outside of your comfort zone, and to experiment and experience. Get good at something first and the passion will most likely follow—or not.

In the gospel according to Mike Rowe, the dream job is like the romantic notion of finding our one, true soulmate. For many people that search can be confounding. Are you going to keep yourself from being happy until you find that soulmate or that elusive dream job you’re so passionate about?

“In the same way that society needs to change its definition of what good and meaningful work is, people need to be open to the fact that their talent and their best available opportunities might not line up with their desires,” says Rowe. “Your career might turn out to be something entirely different than your passion, something you didn’t even know existed. It might take you away from home and require you to do and learn things you wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to.”

Workplace Misconceptions, The Gig Economy, And The Will Gap

The gig economy and freelancing in general are rungs that allow people to climb to their own particular vision of success, believes Rowe. These jobs expose freelancers to various careers, opportunities, and experiences. For some, freelancing is a way to supplement their income, finance education, or support themselves while exploring various other work options. For others, it ends up becoming a career. But Rowe doesn’t believe that people should approach freelance work with the assumption that it will provide a baseline level of security.

“The etymology of the word freelancer is ‘free’ and‘ lance,’” says Rowe. “It was a medieval term for a knight who served no particular lord, whose lance was for sale. He was a mercenary. The job offered freedom and independence but demanded flexibility and sacrifice. It’s more realistic to look at freelancing today that way. It’s not a panacea. It won’t meet all your needs. But if you have a skill that is in demand, are willing to work hard, to learn, and maybe to do things out of your comfort zone, there’s probably never been a better time to freelance.”

Rowe believes that a big percentage of the 7.3 million people currently unemployed in the U.S. are suffering more of a ‘will gap’—a lack of enthusiasm and an unwillingness to move beyond their idea of a dream job—more than a skills gap. He has seen that many employers are willing to train workers but that the pool of available candidates is often not willing to put in the time, develop the necessary work-ready attitude, or otherwise be flexible enough to pursue these opportunities.

“We need to do a better job of telling the stories of people who have prospered by mastering skills, working hard, and climbing the ladder,” says Rowe. “New immigrants aren’t hung up on employment stereotypes, stigmas, and misperceptions of some jobs. They’re a great example of what highly motivated workers, with a positive attitude, and an understanding of delayed gratification look like.”

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