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GUY RAZ, HOST:

What you do, for a lot of people, is a main measure of success. And this guy, he wants to redefine that measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

MIKE ROWE: My name's Mike Rowe, and this is my job.

RAZ: And this is Mike Rowe's TV show from the Discovery Channel. It's called "Dirty Jobs."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROWE: I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You get a little taste of what it's like to be a septic tank technician.

ROWE: Doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now get ready to get dirty.

RAZ: This year, the show finished its eighth and final season, and it was pretty simple.

ROWE: No actors. No writers. No rehearsals. No scouting. No pre-production. No second take.

RAZ: Just Mike and a camera crew tagging along with sewer workers...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROWE: What is going to happen to me today?

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: Today, you're going to get covered in sludge.

ROWE: Sludge. And what, exactly...

RAZ: He hung out with garbage sorters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROWE: As dumps go, some places smell worse than others, I suppose. And this place right here smells pretty daggone bad. Ken (ph), would you agree?

KEN: I do.

RAZ: There were chimney sweepers, roadkill collectors...

ROWE: And we worked our way across the country. By the time the dust settled, we had done 300 jobs and worked in all 50 states.

RAZ: Now before Mike launched the show more than a decade ago, he was doing bit parts on TV. He was even a pitch man for the QVC shopping network. I heard before that you were even a successful opera singer for like - like eight years?

ROWE: No.

RAZ: No.

ROWE: No - don't - opera's one of those disciplines where it's easy to confuse longevity with success. I learned the shortest aria I could find, and got into the Baltimore Opera in 1984...

RAZ: Wow.

ROWE: ...With the plan of paying my dues and getting my SAG card. But as it turns out, the music was better than I thought, and I had a pretty good time and stuck around for eight years.

RAZ: Wow. Can you, like, blow my ears away right now?

(Singing opera)

RAZ: Grazie. Grazie That was beautiful.

ROWE: (Laughter) Come on. I realized that, while I felt pretty successful working in the cracks of the industry, I wasn't really doing anything that felt meaningful or personal.

RAZ: So in 2001, he came up with the idea for "Dirty Jobs."

ROWE: Because my grandfather, who was 92 at the time and a tradesmen, had never seen me do anything on TV that looked like work. My grand-dad, by the way, was one of those guys who - he could reassemble an engine without looking at directions. He could take a watch apart, and put it together. You know, I wanted to find people who had that gene because sadly, it skipped over me.

And we show these people as they really are, which again and again, turned out to be self-deprecating, funny. And so that's a long way of saying that success - the way it's portrayed in pop culture, anyway - usually falls into these assumed verticals. And "Dirty Jobs" challenged a lot of those.

RAZ: Challenged the idea of why certain jobs - say, clean jobs, are seen as successful ones, and dirty jobs - well, not so much; which is where Mike picks up the story in his talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROWE: I started to look at passion. I started to look at teamwork and determination and basically, all those platitudes they call successories, that hang with that schmaltzy art in boardrooms around the world right now. That stuff, it's suddenly all been turned on its head. Follow your passion - what could possibly be wrong with that? It's probably the worst advice I ever got, you know. That's all I heard growing up. I didn't know what to do with my life, but I was told if you follow your passion, it's going to work out.

I can give you 30 examples right now. Bob Combs, the pig farmer in Las Vegas who collects the uneaten scraps of food from the casinos and feeds them to his swine. Why? Because there's so much protein in the stuff we don't eat, his pigs grow at twice the normal speed. And he is one, rich pig farmer, and he is good for the environment.

And he spends his days doing this incredible service; and he smells like hell, but God bless him. He's making a great living. You ask him, did you follow your passion here? He'd laugh at you. He didn't follow his passion. He stepped back, and he watched where everybody was going, and he went the other way, you know.

People with dirty jobs are happier than you think. As a group, they're the happiest people I know. And I don't want to start whistling "Look for the Union Label" and all that happy worker crap. I'm just telling you that these are balanced people who do unthinkable work. Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work. I swear to God. I did it with them. They've got this amazing - sort of symmetry to their life. And I see it over and over and over again. So I started to wonder, what would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows?

RAZ: Which is what Mike Rowe would eventually devote his life to doing. How he came to see the world that way, how he came to redefine - in his own mind, in the minds of his viewers - what makes someone successfu? With help from bloodworms. That story in a moment here on the TED Radio Hour. I'm Guy Raz, and this is NPR.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today is all about that loaded word "success" - what it means, what it doesn't and why we're so obsessed with it. So when Mike Rowe started the show "Dirty Jobs," he started to realize that the way he thought about success was all wrong. The people that you've met, you know, the people with these so-called dirty jobs - right? - like, what do you think that success means to them? To be successful means what?

ROWE: Well, it's - you know, I mean, it's very personal, you know, to a lot of the guys I met. I remember a guy up in Maine. His name was Rob. He sold bloodworms for a living. So at low tide, he and I would walk out and we'd start picking these things up out of the sand. And they were as long as your forearm, and they have teeth, by the way, these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROWE: Bloodworms have four black teeth. And according to Rob, a bloodworm bite feels just like a bee sting.

ROB: There goes a bloodworm right here. And it's very deceptive.

ROWE: And he would sell them as bait all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROB: See the head popping out?

ROWE: That's the head down there.

ROB: That's the head popping out. You don't want that to bite you.

ROWE: Anyway, Rob looked like the kind of guy, if you saw him on the street, you would step around him or maybe give him a buck and wish him well. And toward the end of the day, he showed me his house up on the hill, which he had paid for in cash. And we went up and had a beer, and I learned that he had another home - a summer home - that he also paid for in cash. And so what you don't see, 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. You know, Les Swanson from Wisconsin. I remember he was a septic tank cleaner. I spent a day with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRTY JOBS")

ROWE: You know what else I like, Les? It's nice and warm today and humid. It's a good day for...

LEE SWANSON: It enhances the aroma.

ROWE: And 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. And I look at him at one point and I say, Les, you know, what are you doing here? And he said, well, what do you mean? You know, I'm - this is what I do. And I said, well, what did you do before this? He said, honestly? I said, yeah. He said, I was a guidance counselor and a psychiatrist.

RAZ: Huh.

ROWE: 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. And that's how so many of these people did it. They didn't start by going, what am I passionate about? What do I love? People on "Dirty Jobs," they say no, no, no. You don't follow your passion. You always bring it with you, but you never follow it.

RAZ: Well, I mean, a lot of people on this very episode have or will say a version of that. They'll say, you know, this is passion. This is what you're supposed to pursue to find success.

ROWE: Yeah, I know. Whatever. Look, it's great copy and I don't mean to just dismiss it, but I think of all the people I know in my industry who are, you know, around my age, who've still followed their passion, and they're struggling. They're going to struggle all their life. That's not really the question, though. The question is, are they happy? And if you're happy following your passion, great. But if you're unhappy and you're just doing it because of inertia, then somebody needs to give you a little slap.

RAZ: Now, Mike Rowe doesn't just think about this in the abstract. He thinks the way we've been conditioned to think about success is actually hurting our ability to function as a society - hurting our economy because we don't dignify dirty jobs or the success that comes with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROWE: So the thing to do is to talk about a PR campaign for work - manual labor, skilled labor, the stuff a lot of us probably grew up with, but we've kind of lost a little. Every single year, fewer electricians, fewer carpenters, fewer plumbers, fewer pipefitters. The infrastructure jobs that everybody is talking about creating are those guys. So if I were running for anything - and I'm not - I would simply say that the jobs we hope to make and the jobs we hope to create aren't going to stick unless they're jobs that people want. And I know the point of this conference is to celebrate the things that are near and dear to us, but I also know that clean and dirty aren't opposites; they're two sides of the same coin, just like innovation and imitation, like risk and responsibility and like my time that's gone. It's been great talking to you and get back to work, would you?

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Mike Rowe. He just started a foundation that gives scholarships to students who want to master a trade. It's called ProfoundlyDisconnected.com. Check out his entire talk at TED.NPR.org.

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