How Dirty Jobs Disrupt the Idea that Pre-Existing Passion Matters


Wisdom from Dirty Jobs

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:

Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.

His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.

In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:

In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.

We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.

If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.

“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”

It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.

34 thoughts on “How Dirty Jobs Disrupt the Idea that Pre-Existing Passion Matters”

  1. Yes! I have read Cal’s “So good…” book also. The job passion theory holds that you are courageous in pursuing your calling or passion in advance. Cal holds that passion is cultivated most via extraordinary skill development, and it’s evident to me that this is a more mature, true form of courage.

  2. Thing is, not that many people really have a passion to follow — although many have an interest in studying this or that, or in $-making jobs. For the few that are lucky to have a true passion, I feel it’s not a bad idea to follow it !

    • Yes– Cal does mention, in his book, the idea that it’s OK to follow pre-existing passions. He just makes the case that they are much rarer than most realize, and that some passions are unrealistic to turn into a career–like skiing, etc.

      • I want to disagree on that point. There are plenty passions which can be turned into compelling careers, but doing so requires a lot of supplemental effort. You could turn skiing into a career, but unless you’re allready top of the line and can become a professional athlete, you will most likely have to find some other way to tie in skiing with a job or a business, which means you need to learn several other skills to put your skiing to use. It’s possible, but it’s plenty of legwork.

        • If I’m not misconstruing Cal’s message (and anyone is free to call me out on it) it’s all about leveraging your interests and the skills that you are good at – or can BECOME really good at. The problem with “passion” advice is that it’s all fluffy, meaningless talk. Very few people have a passion for something. We can’t spend our personal, academic or work lives paralyzed by the fact that we don’t know what we are “meant” to do.

          So you’re right, if it’s skiing that you want to do, and you’re good at it, and you can make the connections you need to get better or get into the industry somehow, that’s fair. You’re taking meaningful steps to get somewhere.

        • I have to disagree with you. Even if you are “top of the line” skier, skiing is probably a bad career choice.

          Here is why:

          In sports the compensation is EXTREMELY unequal. This is apparent in the compensation of elite sprinters. For example, Usain Bolt’s net worth is 30 million while Justin Gatlin’s net worth is only 1 million. What separates Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, is .2 seconds (100m race).

          Now I want to be clear that money is NOT the be-all and end-all. However, it is important to realize that if you are going into a hyper-competitive arena such as professional sports you are going to face a “winner takes all” dynamic.

    • Good advice if you know the lifestyle you want when you graduate. I didn’t know that. I might have thought I did, but I really didn’t.

      My only passion that I had was for computer programming. I thought I wanted to make computer games, but I ended up doing systems-level programming instead because I felt the operating systems at the time were too slow to support the games I wanted to write. Then I got stuck in it but had a great time of it for a number of years, but it’s high stress. I eventually burned out and left to live out in the country running my own network support company.

      Problem is, no matter what I do, I seem to be only passionate about anything for 5 years. We’re approaching that time now and already I’m thinking of what I want to do next.

      My advice for a career is as follows: “Find what you are good at, and find rewarding and do that. And don’t be afraid to change it over time.”

  3. I find this subject quite “artificial”. I think that some people will be quite happy working on something related with their passion, some ones not.
    And some people will be quite happy working on something not related with their passion while other ones not.
    I think it is more important to develop your skills, and be good at what you do. It is not so important if it is your passion or not.
    Some persons know what they want to do since they are 9 years old (they have a vocation) and some others don’t. The fist ones will probably follow their passion, in a natural (not forced) way, and the second ones will work at whatever. Both kind of people can be equally happy, mainly if they develop their skills and feel themselves good at what they do.
    In some cases “follow your passion” can be a very bad advice, in other cases can be a very good one. For me the most important is to be good at what you do.

    • I want to add to something very important to what you said.

      “For me the most important is to be GOOD at what you do.”

      There is something very important that you need to know. In our modern world, being GOOD at something is no longer enough. With globalization and increasing competitiveness, there are 1000 other people that could replace you tomorrow.

      In his book, Cal argues that you have to develop your skills so that you are world-class, one of a kind, and irreplaceable. Unless you do this, you will continue to be a slave to your company.

  4. I think it comes down to what people want out of work. There are two kinds of people, those that work to live and those that live to work. For people that live to work, their life is their work and I think this is where we hear a lot of the passion talk. Professional chess players are a great example of this. They have a passion for chess but to keep chess as a career you have to be one of the best which requires an intense amount of study throughout your chess career. Professional video game players also face this reality and because they have to spend a large amount of time on one game to keep up being the best they sacrifice playing lots of other games for leisure. If you love programming then it is easy to live to work because it is another hobby turned into a job.

    When you work to live however you typically want things such as more free time to pursue your hobbies. This free time is often bought from the career capital you build up by being so good they can’t ignore you. Because you are valuable you can bid for the kind of work conditions you find ideal for your lifestyle.

    If I was able to make one of my hobbies a career like others have I would be a live to work type and would describe having a passion for my work. Since I will not be making a hobby a career my satisfaction from a career would be something that can pay the bills but also leave me with enough free time to do things I am interested in. This is where the lifestyle planning strategy comes in. Because I desire more time to pursue hobbies a teaching career or jobs with 3 12 hour shifts a week (nursing has many of these) become appealing to me. While I can’t say I have a passion for any of them I would be willing to become good at them for reasons that have nothing to do with money and by becoming good, passion would start to develop over time hopefully.

    But to me it seems that certain jobs come with traits that people enjoy and that can bring career satisfaction. Truck drivers for example can listen to audiobooks and music all day while they drive yet other jobs can demand greater focus towards solving creative problems most of the time. For other jobs if you are good enough you can demand more of the traits you want as long as you can still get your work done and that is another way towards better career satisfaction.

  5. Interesting thoughts Cal. I wonder though if these people didn’t stumble upon a passion they didn’t know they had before. Maybe it was there and these dirty jobs were an avenue to experience that passion.

  6. This is not directed at Cal but some of the comments I’ve seen here and elsewhere. The passion job vs paying the bills job is a false dichotomy.

    I enjoy my job and derive satisfaction from it. It’s not my passion. Most of the things I enjoy doing that are quasi-passions I enjoy precisely because there is no monetary pressure, I can just do them casually.

    I just never grokked the focus on the passion qua passion. “Autonomy” is almost as bad a buzzword. It’s great, but I suspect most people not only don’t actually know what it means, but wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it.

  7. Interesting discussion. Something I’ve noticed is that most of you begin with the assumption that we all have a (career-related) passion, and the question is whether or not we act on it. This is a fiction. Pre-existing career passion is not an intrinsic trait, like eye color, that we all possess. In fact, most people cannot identify any particular inclination that they would label a “passion” (which itself is a vague term).

    I propose that this concept is much too ambiguous to be useful in concrete career planning. Let’s drop it and ask the real question: how do we end up loving what we do for a living? Once you tackle this question from scratch, you begin to realize there’s a whole lot more to this issue than simply the match of a job to some intrinsic preference, that, for most people, doesn’t even exist.

    • Looking at the posts, it seems a little telling which posters have and haven’t read the book. For me, I only wish I’d read it when I was 20 years old. Because it would have saved me from years of deluded career thinking . To quote Seth Goodin, “Cal really delivers with this one.”

  8. I agree with the idea that “follow your passion” is bad advice.

    I don’t think there’s as much of a great secret to good/remarkable careers as you seem to think there is, though.

    To me, it rests in:
    opportunity (was the person introduced to mathematics very early on in life, as is usually the case with “remarkable” mathematicians and computer scientists? did the person even have a chance to get a college education? did the college have recruiting to good companies?),
    support networks (mentorship early on? lack of subtle societal biases or outright discrimination for not being a WASP male? connections through organizations, e.g. college, professional society? safe family environment?),
    wealth (how many people actually have enough monetary savings to be able to spend time honing their writing skills?),
    career environment (recognition, encouragement, etc. which, surprise! aren’t present universally, and it isn’t so easy to just switch if you don’t like it),
    and so on.

    Basically, you don’t create your own remarkable career. You happen to be born into remarkably supportive circumstances, you learn not to waste them, you hone your skills and use your connections (even if not deliberately), and voila! You are recognized for your “talent” (which is actually a combination of all of the above) and have career satisfaction because you are good at what you do.

    You might argue that the unskilled laborers you mention usually don’t fall into the above categories. I believe their perceived career satisfaction (if it exists; your sample size is very small) is for a different reason that has to do with a rejection of the individualistic, success-focused urban American lifestyle rather than the creation of a satisfying, fulfilling career. Theirs is a more holistic happiness, which is a different goal and a different subject than the one you generally seem to focus on and really a fallacious comparison to make at all.

  9. Cal’s book addresses the problem I had with Mike Rowe’s talk… Rowe brings up the fact that Dirty Jobs workers are very satisfied, but doesn’t provide insights as to why. Is it only the ones who are making a really good living? Is it because they don’t watch the media that tells them more leisure time=better? Is it because, as Marx said, they are not separated from the “products of their labor”, i.e. they can really see and touch what they have been working on? Is it because they are self-employed? Is it because they see their jobs as being really useful to society at large?

    I also see a lot of pressure put on mothers to take “the home” as seriously and as reverently as Rowe says we need to take these Dirty Jobs. This is called egalitarian essentialism, I think. And does our push to “professionalize housekeeping” (peak of Martha Stewart’s popularity) and “professionalize parenting” (now… see “Attachment Parenting”) push women with advanced degrees to abandon their career trajectories? I know a number of elite university graduates who have done so (and I have myself) so I think about this a lot, but I don’t have any answers.

    • If a man or a woman wants to be totally career consumed, and at the top of their field, they cannot become a great parent. Maybe a good one, but not great. Really, if a woman wants to be super focused on a career trajectory, why have children? Are they just for show? Or giving in to patriarchal peer pressure that a woman MUST bear children? If you are going to slap them into going to nannies and daycare after only taking a 3 month maternity leave, then with a 8-9 hour workday, plus commute, you are barely seeing your baby!!! I say, just like Cal, focus! When the kids are school age, a woman can get a job, volunteer gig, etc. with “mommy hours” that isn’t super demanding. But a heavy career = absentee parenting.

  10. I think that this is an interesting perspective. I never really thought about any jobs that were outside the box. I am not someone who could really handle a “Dirty Job” but I think that realizing that what is offered at a college isn’t the only opportunity out there is going to be important. This was definitely important for me because I have had classes I don’t exactly enjoy but do want to stick it out as many say the classes get better and more interesting.

  11. Could it not just be about having a passion for getting things right ? Rather than having a passion for a particular thing. Can that be developed (getting satisfaction from understanding something and therefore wanting to change it or understand more) or is that innate ? Then it doesn’t matter if your job is herding sheep or designing schools. If it interests you, you spend your time wondering how to tweak it to get it right and that makes work interesting (whether earning from it is a necessity or not). I didn’t go into my job because I had a passion for it, but it became a passion.

  12. Is it because they don’t watch the media that tells them more leisure time=better? Is it because, as Marx said, they are not separated from the “products of their labor”, i.e. they can really see and touch what they have been working on? Is it because they are self-employed? Is it because they see their jobs as being really useful to society at large?”

    Long work hours, less preoccupation with leisure -> mastery
    Self-employed -> autonomy
    Direct connection to end product + usefulness -> purpose

    autonomy + purpose + mastery -> motivation and satisfaction

    see also:

  13. Lets play an optimistic advocate of the devil, since I predominantly agree with Cal’s advice. But I think that if a person is creative and original, then he can always create a job out of his question. This is because the definitions of these words allow it to. It is the exception of his advice. Let me demonstrate an example.

    Say that a person is really passionate about banging his head into a wall (spontaneous worst example I could think of). How could you make money out of it? Well, I think about: training videos, television shows or scientific investigation (since Shaolin Monks do this too). And to be a purist you hire a friend or get a buddy that does all the administration for you. In nowadays age there is almost always somebody willing to pay for a crazy service.

    When I look at my personal situation I find out that I do not have a passion for a specific topic (e.g. Computer Science). But I am quite obsessed about the following things: self-reflectivity, associative thinking (sub-consciously), flexibility, thinking about the future, being a leader when things go wrong and feeling the urge to do something when I hear horrible stories of injustice. I would say that the combination of this is my passion, because it (almost) constitutes who I am and I constantly think about this stuff, whether I want to or not (it is quite compulsive).

    So I need to find an organization (or group of people) that is willing to pay me in something in which I am able to exercise these 6 things the most. If these six things are present, then I like the topic that I am doing. If they are not present, then I don’t. It kind of is the same thing that a cool subject on uni can be completely ruined if a horrible professor teaches it.

    In my case, my career advice seems to be centered around my work-environment. Not about the topic. The work-environment allows me to become passionate about just any topic, as long as it does not limit one of the six things that I outlined in the second paragraph.

    So I’d say: follow your passion 😉

  14. My girlfriend followed her passions right into a huge amount of debt.

    Earning very little money because she was doing the ‘Job of her dreams’ (working with animals).

    It soon became a nightmare.

    If following your passions is practical and it can pay the bills, then go for it. If not, consider something else!

    • Ben,

      You hit the point. To certain extent, following your passion is good for you and perhaps your career. But, with anything in life, it also has to make economical sense. If the passion you pursue won’t allow you to sustain that passion over long period of time, such as overburdened with large amount of debt. Maybe, you should really think about your choice.

      In the natural world, all mammals adapt to survive. I don’t think humans are not that different. I think having a job that pays and suits your passion is a privilege and only a few can have it.

  15. At the end of the day we all have to make a living, and financial survival will override passion if we can’t make a living from our passion. However I think that most people who make a living from their passion didn’t start out that way, it happened later in their career.

    So if you are twenty three and haven’t found your calling, stick with making money, follow your passion as a hobby and maybe somewhere down the line the knowledge and skills you develop for free can be turned into something profitable.

  16. I enjoyed reading this and felt that you have a very good point about following passions. I feel that doing what we are passionate about limits our possibilities. There are so many different careers out there. We all know most of the traditional careers in society today. What we don’t know is if there is a career out there that we are even more passionate about because we limited ourselves to only look specifically at our pre-existing passions. It is impossible to be passionate about something we have never experienced. I like what was said at the end of this post, “It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.”


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