Two Things ‘Dirty Jobs’ Taught Us about Meaningful Work

It’s been a few years since the Discovery Channel ended its remarkable 8-season run of Dirty Jobs.  Veteran host Mike Rowe is still synonymous with the concept, however, serving as the go-to expert on all manner of repulsive occupations.  Now host of CNN’s Somebody’s Gotta Do It, the next iteration of the Dirty Jobs concept, Rowe was interviewed for a feature article in this month’s issue of Popular Science.

Two things jumped out from the interview, both having to do with the big lessons Rowe learned from Dirty Jobs.  The first is his observation that people doing the dirty jobs had a knack for seeing the big picture:

“For example, when we were replacing water tanks on the roofs of buildings in Manhattan—you’re way up in the air and you’re pulling apart the very thing you’re standing on.  You’re on a beam swinging a sledgehammer all day long.  But, the guys in the crew, they don’t look at themselves as construction workers doing manual labor, they look at it as a job that allows eight million people to have water.  They see themselves as lifesavers.”

This is a remarkable observation because it converges with research on what makes work meaningful.  As Ryan Duffy and I review in our book Make Your Job a Calling, it’s not the case that only some types of jobs are meaningful, and others aren’t.  Instead, any honest occupation can be meaningful to a worker, provided it offers an opportunity to link one’s day-to-day activity to a greater sense of purpose that a person values.  Typically, contributing something of value to others, or to society as whole, provides a hefty dose of meaning.  This certainly seems to be the case for these water tank workers who view themselves as lifesavers.

The second interesting tidbit from Rowe was this:

“Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as a good job or a bad job. Part of this country’s problem right now is that people approach work this way. To be happy, you think you have to get one of the good jobs, and the minute you start operating with that assumption, you’ve just narrowed your possibilities for happiness by a lot. That’s really the big lesson.”

Here again, Rowe is describing something that vocational psychologists and other workplace scholars have long understood, but haven’t done a good job of sharing with the masses.  That is, most people have the latitude necessary to create or build happiness and meaning in their job, whatever their job may be. This is not to say that the nature of one’s job doesn’t play a role.  Of course it does. Teachers, counselors, and pastors are in better position to find meaning at work than, say, the guy that cleaned your air ducts last week.  Nevertheless, by reframing, recalibrating, and refocusing the social functions of our work tasks, potentially anyone can find a greater sense of meaning in their work.  If workers in dirty jobs can find joy and meaning from what they do all day, the rest of us can too.

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