Transcripts > The Tim Ferriss Show > The Importance of Being Dirty: Lessons from Mike Rowe
Hello, lady and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I’ve had a bit of wine to drink. And by a bit I mean two bottles with a friend of Pleiades by Sean Thackrey, which I highly recommend.
This show is usually about deconstructing world class experts. This episode is no exception. Although instead of a chess prodigy, or a military strategist, or an entertainment icon, we have perhaps the best story teller and pitch man I ever had on this show. Certainly he would give Cal Fussman a run for his money. He is none other than Mike Rowe.
Mike Rowe you may now from Dirty Jobs, but I am going to read his bio because I had enough to drink. This is on MikeRowe.com. Having spent some time with Mike now, this is very fitting. Here we go. I am going to read the entire paragraph so bear with me.
This episode I will say is so worth listening to in its entirety because we cover:
- How to sell a pencil
- The meaning of freelance
- The business of Mike Rowe
- His mentors
- Some of his favorite influences
- Favorite books
- The art of voice over
- Bruno Mars, and how he became Bruno Mars
- Orson Wells
… It goes on, and on, and on. I had a blast with this. Just got back from spending some time after the interview with Mike. I hope we have a part 2 at a point…. [laughs] point 3? Oh Jesus, I am with somebody next to me and they are admiring my state of inebriation. Here we go, Mike Rowe from the website:
Mike Rowe is a TV host, writer, narrator, producer, actor and spokesman. His performing career began in 1984, when he faked his way into the Baltimore Opera to get his union card and meet girls, both of which he accomplished during a performance of Rigoletto. His transition to television occurred in 1990 when — to settle a bet — he auditioned for the QVC Shopping Channel and was promptly hired after talking about a pencil for nearly eight minutes. There, he worked the graveyard shift for three years, until he was ultimately fired for making fun of products and belittling viewers.
So, all of that is true and we dig into it. You should say “hi” to Mike on either, and or, Twitter at @mikeroweworks, or on Facebook at the TheRealMikeRowe. This was a blast of a conversation that I wanted to have for 15, 20 years. I hope you enjoy it. And with out further ado here is my conversation with the inimitable Mike Rowe.
Mike, welcome to the show.
I think you mean welcome to your living room.
Welcome to the esteem studio of Tim Ferriss Enterprise i.e. my living room.
Sophisticated, understated, with a certain insouciance, and dare I say asian influence.
[Laughs] That is actually my tinder description.
Not bad. Is it working?
[Laughs] It’s converting pretty well.
I have wanted to have the chance to sit down with you for many years. I wanted to thank you right off the bat.. I am not sure if I mentioned this when we met, which we will get to, for the first time. But, you helped keep me sane for a period of several years where I had extremely punishing job from about 2000 to 2002 specifically. That is when I was logging the most hours… I would come home and there were two shows: Dirty Jobs (so you) then Jeff Corwin, who were like my tele-therapists. So I just wanted to thank you for putting out good work.
Well, you’re welcome. I mean when people say things could always be worse, it means whatever you decide it means. But then when you can actually turn on the TV and see some sort of actual optical manifestation of what worse is. Well there you go. You know, reinforcement.
[Laughs] Well, I remember one episode in particular… ah, I remember several episodes of course, but one came to mind. I have seen you do really, really dirty stuff. There was one where I think you were winterizing a boat, and you just looked so bored out of your mind. I just remembered thinking exactly what you said. You know sitting in the fire exit, violating code at this startup, being unable to move, sleeping under my desk; those are all hard things, but at least I am not doing that.
I am not wrapping a boat. Yeah, that was Manhattan Beach. Oddly named since we were in Cincinnati, on the river. It was, I think, late November. All of the pleasure crafts down there, you know, are obviously vulnerable and susceptible to the climate in a huge way. I mean they will just crack; it just gets so cold. A team of guys wrap them in the same way that you might wrap your sandwich in Saran Wrap, except it is industrial strength Saran Wrap, and it goes all the way around the boat.
And, of course, it is freezing rain. You are on a boat. It is slicker than snot. You are flying around. Your camera man is flying around. Cameras are flying through the air. The sound man is cursing you. Everybody is just… you know, it is just humiliating to, like if you can’t skate to find yourself on the ice. It is no fun. That was basically, metaphorically anyway, eight years of my life. It was Groundhog Day in a sewer in some way shape or form, even if you are wrapping a boat.
So another episode that sort of ties us back to our experience at TED/The EG that were sort of part of the same parcel is… My opener, because I was so curious about it, and just remind me before I get into it. Was it sheep?
Yeah, we were…
So sheep testicles?
We were on an escalator actually heading up to the main auditorium and I heard a voice behind me say, “I want to hear about the testicles.” Which you know, as a rule, is impossible to ignore. When you are in a crowd, sort of doubly so. So I spun around and there you were, Tim Ferriss. Yeah, we had a funny little exchange. But it was, you know, apocryphal for me because on the way up the escalator what was really going through my mind was, “what in the hell am I going to talk about here.”
Because the Discovery Channel had sent me down there. This was what 2008, maybe?
2008, I think.
So Discovery is one of the sponsors of this thing and they send me down there. I was the Discovery guy in those days basically. They said, “Yeah, it is this thing. It is like TED.” I didn’t know. I have never heard of TED. I am like so there is some guy named Ted, who I should know and I don’t so I am just going to pretend like I do. OK so there is a guy named TED and he is down in Monterey and we need you to go because we are sponsoring his thing and introduce some people and say something smart on behalf of the network. That is why I was there.
When I walked in, I saw the giant banner hanging from the ceiling. I saw my face on it. I realized very quickly that I was there in fact to say something something not only memorable, but recordable for posterity… [Laughs]… in like three hours.
Yeah, I didn’t have any visual aids. I didn’t have any real… nothing, except a lot of stories. As I was going through them in my mind, I hear your disembodied voice. You know it’s not a high voice, it’s not a low voice.You’re familiar with your voice. In fact let’s relive it right now. Say to me, “Mike, I want to hear about the testicles.”
Mike, I want to hear about the testicles.
And just like that I am back in Monterey.
So I turn around and say, “ah, you’re talking about the sheep.” And you said, “yes.” And we had a few laughs regarding the time I bit the balls off of lambs in Craig, Colorado at 8000 feet.
Now, just for people who are missing the context, can you explain why you were biting the testicles off of..
There was no context it was just Thursday. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Thursday after lunch. Three martinis and that is what you do.
I need a little something to take the edge off. [Laughs]
No, the business of animal husbandry was a very, very important component of Dirty Jobs. We worked our way through feces from every species. We suddenly realized that collecting semen from various barn yard animals was great television. Beyond the spectacle of it, just a great way to connect people to their food because artificial insemination is in fact… I mean we are just not feeding 300 million people, 3 times a day , if we don’t do that.
I was always on the lookout for interesting agricultural misadventures, and ways that we could, you know, be intelligent, but at the same satisfy the more puerile aspects of my viewers– God love them. When I got the call to really explore… they called it sheep docker, which means… With the spring lambs, you have to take their tails and their testicles.
So, I thought this is visually both alarming and potentially stunning. But, I had problems. You know Dirty Jobs was constantly under attack by an army of angry acronyms. You know I had long since fallen off the christmas card list of OSHA and PETA and the Humane Society.
So I called PETA and said, “listen, we are going to castrating sheep. I just want to make sure that we do it right.” What followed was a completely bizarre conversation that ultimately led to the TED talk that I gave. Yeah, we touched on everything from Anagnorisis to Peripeteia to modern day agriculture to regret, and of course, the unforgettable taste of testicles.
So, the visual I want to try and recreate, which is just indelibly imprinted on my mind was… you basically pick the sheep up and, please tell me if I am getting this wrong, you kind of splay them as if they are in a gynecological chair on top of a fence post?
Well, the fence post was what was handy. Look, we should be very, very clear. The reasons that ranchers for centuries have been biting the balls off of sheep is because it is not only more efficient; it is actually kinder.
This, of course, was the point of the talk. When I called the Humane Society and PETA, they were very specific in telling me the proper method, which involved a rubber band that would go over the scrotum. There by retarding the flow of blood to the testicles and ultimately resulting in their detachment in about three days. That’s the quote, unquote right way to do it.
Albert and Melanie, the people who ran the ranch, did it the old fashioned way. When you do it the old fashioned way, you only need two people. The way I just described requires three: Someone to handle the scrotum, someone to handle the rubber band, and someone to control the creature. But, in this case, Melanie just put the lamb right up on the fence post and Albert reached in and pulled the scrotum out, cut the tip off, exposed the testicles, leaned down, bit them off and spit them in a bucket that I was holding. Making a sound of the lines of “Donk Donk”.
Stunning television, but obviously unusable. So I yelled cut, which I never do on Dirty Jobs, and explained to Albert look we have to do it the right way. He said what are you talking about. I said with the rubber bands. So we used the rubber bands and quickly determined that the sheep with rubber bands around their scrotums were stumbling around in abject misery, while the ones that he had just orally addressed were prancing around without a care in the world.
The point of that talk was really to challenge the primacy of experts. At the same time, say it is possible to do honest television that is both disgusting and intelligent in a tertiary way.
How did you become good at impromptu performance? Because the fact of the matter is, at that same event… And I watched your talk, it was a very good talk I thought. The vast majority of other presenters probably spent weeks or months agonizing over what they were going to do. But you seem to have just an incredible, innate– and I hate to use that word, but I’ll throw it in there just for the fun of it– ability to improvise and perform. Where does that come from?
Thanks. I don’t is is the honest answer. But, if I had to guess, I would say… one of things that was important on Dirty Jobs, and one of the few that I really insisted upon, was no second takes. The reason I did that wasn’t because I thought it would make the show better. I did it because I thought it would make the show more authentic.
Everybody was talking about the importance of authenticity back in 2003. They still are today. It’s really hard to do. You know when you consider how many people say it is critically important and then look at the things that people do to put barriers between themselves and the authentic experience they actually want to impart. It will break your heart. Turn on news. Listen to FM radio. The reason it all sounds the same. The reason most TV I think looks the same is because we are all doing it the same basic way.
My hope with Dirty Jobs was to say, “Listen, this is going to be a hot mess. I mean this is worts and all. We are going to go into the field with a good natured crew. Everybody has a camera. We never stop rolling unless we have to. And we never go back to quote, unquote pick it up.” I don’t think I am necessarily good at improvising, but I am almost always better at take one. Because I do a lot of other things now that, you know, I like to get along with people and so they want to do it again so I’ll do it again.
But it doesn’t matter how facile you are the second time. The second time is always going to be a performance. I learned that lesson early on and forgot it for about 15 years. Then with Dirty Jobs had a chance to circle back and live it.
Whether it is a speech, or a show, or a commercial, or a podcast, or a Facebook post, whatever it is, you know, I want to get it right but not to the point where I will completely forsake the first pass.
I want to flash back to a part of your history that actually I have not heard much about and that is QVC, or was it Home Shopping?
QVC, but a distinction without a difference.
[Laughs] Distinction without a difference. Just don’t want to offend anyone at corporate if they are listening. Suzan, Susan, you know you have to be sensitive about these things.
How did you end up working at QVC?
Honestly, in the same way I got most of my jobs back in the day. I lost a bet and I crashed an audition. I was singing. This was 1989 and I was in the Baltimore Opera. It was during a performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner, interminal derg. I was dressed as a viking. I didn’t need to be on stage for the intermission obviously, but then for an hour after, which meant I could walk across the street and watch the football game at the Mount Royal Tavern, dressed as a viking, which of course I did.
Look, if you haven’t had a couple of beers then sung Wagner, I hardily recommend it, especially if you can put on the viking helmet. Anyway, I walk into the bar and my buddy Rick was pouring the beer, but the game was not on– the Ravens were not playing– instead he was watching a fat guy in a shiny suit selling pots and pans. I said, “Rick, what the hell are you doing.” He said, “I am auditioning for that guy’s job tomorrow. QVC is in town and they are having an open cattle call down at the Marriot and I am going to go see if I can get an actual job.” So I sat there, dressed as a viking, drinking National Bohemian Beer, arguing with Rick over the dismiss of western civilization. He bet me $100 that I wouldn’t get a call back if I accompanied him to the audition, which I did. The next day… This is kind of a long answer to your question… but the next day…
This is a long podcast. [Laughs]
Oh good. Let me hit you with a little interpretive dance….
So I wind up auditioning that next morning in a conference room at the Marriott Renaissance in Baltimore inner harbor, which is maybe the strangest audition of my life. I didn’t get a call back, but I got a job offer on the spot.
So what was the audition like? What was the audition process?
It was elegant in a way that I know you will appreciate as a guy who measures some value of efficiency and effectiveness. It was elegance personified by a company who had abjectly failed to create a workable audition process.
So it is 1989. The home shopping industry is just the part of the map where it says “here be dragons”. You can’t hire an actor and expect him or her to know how to sell. And you can’t really hire a salesman and expect him or her not to shit the bed when somebody says “action.” Right? So it is a very weird set of muscles. The way that they determined potential candidates, in my case, was they rolled a pencil across the desk while the camera was rolling, and the man said, “When I ask you to, I want you to pick up the pencil and I want you to talk about it. And I want you to make me want it. I don’t care how you make me want it. I don’t care what you tell me to make me want it. I don’t care if it is true or not. But I want you to harness whatever enthusiasm and passion you can muster for this #2 Pencil and do not stop talking until I tell you to.” I learned later that anyone who could do that for 8 minutes was immediately hired and put on a 3 month probationary period, where you were giving enough rope to truly hang yourself from 3-6 AM every morning on live television. So anyway that is how it happened. I talked about a pencil for 8 minutes.
Do you remember any particular feature or benefit that you focused on?
It is interesting that you use those words because if you are really trying to sell in a classic sense, or kill time in a practical sense, there is no better approach then the feature/benefit. So, all the obvious things. It’s yellow. Now that’s a feature. If you limit yourself to simply saying, “yellow,” then you are going to be out of time real fast. Why is yellow important? Well, because you are a busy executive in the middle of a busy day and when you need a pencil and open up that top drawer of your desk and gaze into it, you don’t want to play some sort of game with your receptors. You want a color that pops out there. You want to know where that pencil is and what better way to do it than by this bright canary shade of yellow. Then, of course, if you want to take a little detour, right, you can talk about the exact hue of yellow. Then you can talk about where the paint came from, or how the paint was mixed, and where the paint was mixed. You might even leave the viewer with an image of the person mixing the paint to create the exact shade of canary yellow. Then, of course, you can touch on the application process. Before long, you’ve talked yourself into this endless tautology just about the color of the pencil.
It is a New Yorker piece.
It could be. Sure.
When you started then selling at QVC, what distinguished the best performers from everybody else?
Again, everybody was making it up as they went along. In those days, at QVC, you know it is not like Fortune 500 companies were lining up, begging to be on as they are today. People would go out and do whatever they could to maintain a three or four thousand SKU inventory. Back then that inventory, I think, would be best described as the interior of one of those machines on the carnival midway, where the claw tries to grab the thing, and then drop it for you. It was just Tchotchkes. It was Capital del Monte. It was porcelain. It was collectible dolls. It was the cheapest kind of electronics. It was health team infrared pain reliever.
Did you guys have the knives and like oddly designed ninja swords and what not? Because that has always memorized me. Were those part of the package at that point?
There must have been corporate policy frowning on swords at QVC, but of course they got there own channel later on. We had knives. We had “In the Kitchen with Mike.” We had knives with full tang construction I recall, you know…The metal runs all the way down into the handle. We had cookware coated with polytetrafluoroethylene. T-Fal, the slickest surface there is. I mean all of this stuff. It was just an endless smear of adverbs and unpronounceable things.
I mean to answer your question. The people that were good at it took it seriously. They showed up three hours early. They studied the products. They committed things to memory. And they did the best they could. The people like me, who never really got off the graveyard shift, looked at all of that as a wonderful opportunity to personate David Letterman, which is really all I did.
I have actually visited QVC headquarters once. I don’t actually, for whatever reason, recall the reason, but I…
Only you would go to QVC headquarters for reasons unknown.
I leaped at the opportunity. I think I might have been dating.. where is the headquarters?
At the seventh level of hell as I recall.
Which state though?
No, there in Pennsylvania.
OK. I knew it. I think I was dating a girl around, what is it King of Prussia?
King of Prussia.
There we go. And I think I was just foresaken or left along with nothing to do and decided to go to QVC and that was it. I took a tour and I remember being so impressed, at the time– this was probably ‘99, with the control room and the units and dollars per minute being moved by different presenters.
At the time that you were there, did you have an ear piece where they fed you feedback?
I had two ear pieces at the time. One so the producer could tell me how I was doing, or beg me to stop doing whatever it was I was doing. And then another one to handle the live phone calls, which were extraordinary.
In ‘89 and ‘90, it was like radio days. You know it was like early television, early radio. We didn’t have a second second delay. We are utterly live. So you are really out there without a net. The number of things that could go wrong and the degree to which they did are nothing short of spectacular. One day, if there is time, I am going to write the book because it was just wild. But, in defense of home shopping, I have great fun in looking back and casting aspersions, but the truth is I learned more in my three years at QVC than I ever learned anywhere about anything. I probably even learned more about myself, which you will do at 3AM when you are staring into the abyss and it’s staring back and you are trying to make a Precious Moment figurine interesting. You’ll go places that you didn’t know you would go.
Kidding aside, it was probably the most honest channel in the entire cable universe. It’s utterly without pretense. It’s a twenty four hour commercial. There is no clever integration.
It’s not native advertising. [Laughs]
It is clear and present proposition. It’s transactional TV. I just think it is just also a monument to capitalism.
When did… and we were sitting down and chatting before we started recording… when did American Airlines fit into your chronology?
Oh God. Well, in 1993 I was fired for the third time from QVC.
Hold on. I have to pause. So fired from the third time. Does that mean they fired you and begged you to come back? Or that you…
I wouldn’t say, “begged.” Each situation was different. When I was fired the first time, I had only been there about 2 months. I stayed on a kind of… What did they call it in Animal House?… double secret probation for the next three years.
Because remember, for me the products were there to be made fun of. The callers were there to help me. I didn’t see them as customers. My first night on the air, I picked up the Amcor Negative Ion Generator and I looked into the camera and I said, “Look, this is item E1410.” Now, at the time, there were also items like E2800960. So E1410 meant that that thing had been there from day 1. We had been selling it for years. I had never seen it before and I didn’t know what it did. I looked into the camera and said, “If one of you people at home. And I’m talking to you, you narcoleptic, lonely heart right now. It’s 3:30 in the morning. You. You know who you are. You are watching me sit here about to go up in flames because I have no idea what this thing is. Could you please call in so my producer can put you on the air so you can tell me how this works?” I swear to God I did that. And I got overwhelmed with phone calls– hundreds of people– which at 3:30 in the morning is saying something. Hundreds of people called in to tell me how to do my job on live TV. And it was… it was awesome.
[Laughs] It sounds incredible.
It was great. I would look out at the producer, who was sound asleep.
[Laughs] Just silence in the ear bud. You’re like trying to fit his name into your dialog so he wakes up like meow with Super Troopers.
He didn’t have his ear bud in. His feet are up. He had fallen asleep doing a sudoku like 20 minutes earlier and he had thick trails of saliva coming out of his mouth and going all the way down to his chest.
I was utterly alone on stage, say for this product coordinators who would bring me this never ending chain of drek that had failed to sell in primetime. You know. That’s what it was 3 hours a night. The viewers became… they were never customers to me. They were this good natured, but slightly dangerous group of people, kind of like a Greek chorus, who would call in and instruct me. I would mess with them and they would mess with me. Occasionally, the calls would become utterly obscene and then things would really go off the rails.
Honestly, Tim, we could talk about this for days. It was utterly transformational. I had never been on TV before. Ever. I had never had a job in broadcasting before. And suddenly, it’s 3 in the morning. I am on live television. People I don’t know are bringing me things I can’t describe. And I am completely reliant upon the viewers to get me through the shift.
So, with this petri dish of live broadcasting, and with all of your experimentation, you get fired for the third time. Enter stage left, American Airlines. How did you go from there?
Well, for me what happened was… After 3 years, I did develop a pretty good set of muscles. I became a very good auditioner. I had always wanted to be a tradesman to tell you the truth. I didn’t get that gene; it is recessive. Everybody in my family did but I didn’t.
But I always looked at TV as a trade. I finally felt like I had a toolbox that would allow to approach it the way that I always wanted to, which was as a mercenary. I mean truly as a freelancer. You’re familiar with the word “freelance” and its origin?
I do not know the etymology of “freelance”.
So the etymology of “freelance” is exactly as it sounds. The mediaeval days, if you were a freelance, you were a knight without a lord.
You were a roman mercenary.
You were a mercenary. I just loved the idea of going to Hollywood without an agent, without a manager, without a publicist, without a lawyer, and booking as much work as I could. I didn’t care about the work. I didn’t care about the quality of the work. I didn’t care if it was infomercials. I didn’t care if it was books on tape. I didn’t care if it was sitcoms, or talkshows. It didn’t matter. I did it all. I tried it all and got my share.
By 1995, I had had dozens and dozens of jobs in Hollywood and New York… feeling kind of arrogant. The way you do when you think you figured something out that most people haven’t. So I was freelancing. Many, many jobs. Eight months on, four months off.
I patterned that part of my career after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee in fact. A guy who took his retirement in early installments. I just loved it. American Airlines was one of maybe 300 jobs that I Forest Gumped my way into.
In what capacity were you working?
Well, American in ‘95 realized how value the real estate was in their planes on a screen. You got 3 or 4 hundred truly captive business travelers, right. They had been doing advertising, but they hadn’t really been going after it. So, they made big deals with CI and Xerox, and, in the day, all of the usual suspects. All they needed was content.
So they hired this company, which wound up hiring me to create a show called On Air TV. Nobody cared what the show really was as long, as it was family friendly, as long as it unfolded in a destination served by any of American’s routes.
So, I would fly anywhere in the world. Land in Copenhagen. Land in Sydney, Las Vegas, didn’t matter. I spent 3 days there and I would do a show about that town. So basically I am a tourist doing all the fun things you would do in any of those places. It’s purpose, like any content really, is just to provide a landing place for the advertising.
For me, as a 32 year old kid out there in the world, it was maybe the best freelance gig I had ever had because they issued a thing called the D3. A D3, in airline parlance, is called a MF, or a Must Fly. If you walked up to the gate– this was pre-911, obviously– but if you walked right up to the gate, showed them the D3, the agent takes it, looks at it, her eyebrows go up because she doesn’t see a lot of them, it’s just for the board basically. Picks up the phone. Calls the number. Hits in a code and you get on the plane. You fly first class even if they have to pull someone off.
Mine was a D3 plus one because I always had a camera man. We were on airline business. We flew last minute often. This went on for about a year while we were in production for this show called On Air. Then a guy named Crandel came in; I think it was Crandel, American Airlines.
That space became even more valuable. They decided to do a deal with Brandon Tartikoff, and NBC, and brought in Seinfeld, and other legitimate shows to really justify the advertising, which meant I was out of a gig, again. But, they never took the D3 back.
[Laughs] It is like the keycard that gets you back into the building.
It was Willy Wonka. I was for a year, maybe 15 months, without question– and I say this with all do modesty– I think the most interesting date. You’re the girl, right. We have a drink and things are going great. I say, “We should get dinner.” And she says, “Yes, we should.” I say, “Where would you like to go.” And she say, “Anywhere.” And I say, “I know a place in New Orleans.” We go to the airport and we clear security and we walk right on the plane. And she looks at me and says, “Who are you?” And I say, “No one of any consequence.” It’s just ridiculous. I’m flying around the world with this magical thing.
Yeah, it went on for awhile. I felt guilty for awhile then I got over it. Then I completely forgot about it then one day, on a random little flight by myself down to San Diego, they called in the code and the woman eyebrow went up a little bit and she held onto my D3 with both hands. Walked back towards me. Obviously, we are on other sides of the counter. She was so cool. She said, “Well, Mr. Rowe, we had a good run, didn’t we?”
[Laughs] It is like straight out of Catch Me If You Can.
Except I wasn’t flying the plane. I was just stowing away.
When you were taking your four months off of these freelance gigs, who do you spend that time?
Well, I wasted a lot of it. Not wasted. I mean it was important time. But it was not time that I planed. All I knew was that most every month started with 30 blank squares staring back at me. I would have some anxiety, you know. Then I would look back at every month and always half to two-thirds of them had been X-ed out. Once I got used to the fact that I was always going to find enough work. Then I had to get used to the fact that I couldn’t take big, elaborate trips with my off time because I really became kind of like the– this is a terrible comparison– but a doctor on call. I always had a beeper because I couldn’t really afford to punch out, but I knew I had enough time to sit and read, and think, and write, to create, or at least maintain the illusion of fitness. To have a life, at least the life that I imagined was good for me at the time, and at the time it was. But, of course it was built on a very specific kind of fallacy and a very specific kind of hubris.
What type of hubris?
Well, like I said, the kind that allows you to look around and say, “Oh, I figured something out that you guys haven’t.” Right? All my friends are in the industry. All of them at this point in time (‘96/’97)…
And by industry, you mean television?
Yeah. TV, radio, writing. You know they are all in the machine. They got their people. They got their agent. They got their manager. You start adding up the percentage. Then throw Uncle Sam on top of it. You almost can’t afford to work.
You’re treading water.
I wasn’t doing that. I was really enamored of this romantic version of myself. This guy who eats what he kills. Who works when he likes. Who brings the meat back home. Who gets to fly around the world with his magic ticket. I just was loving it. What I was missing obviously… the bargain I had to make was I couldn’t be picky about the work that I took. I was completely sanguine with that at the time.
Really from 28 until 42 that was exactly where I was. The work didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of life in between the gigs. And, of course, keep your tongue in your check and have as much fun as you can while you’re doing all the things you have to do and you win. That was my metric.
When did that hubris lead to a reckoning? You know when did Icarus get too close to the sun? When did that change? Why did it change?
I don’t know why. I mean I could theorize. It happened when my grandfather got sick. He was 92. The guy could build a house without a blueprint. You know, the guy could take my watch apart right now blind folded and put it back together. He had the chip. The chip of knowing I used to call it. He only went to the 7th grade, but he was a master electrician by the time he was 30, a plumber, a mason, a mechanic, a welder, whatever. I idolized him.
By 2001, I was working here in San Francisco, impersonating a host over at Evening Magazine. Working really for CBS News in that capacity. My mother called me to tell me my grandfather was fading. I hung up thinking, “God damnit, I never did anything on television that he would look at and recognize as work.” You know. He loved me and he was proud of me, and vice versa, but I never… Imagine the guy I just described seeing his grandson singing opera, selling things in the middle of the night on QVC, flying around the country doing a bullshit TV show for no reason other than mercenary. For him, a guy who built things, repaired things, fixed things, I was just from another universe.
I thought before he goes it would be nice to do something on TV that looked like work. That really started a conversation with my boss about a segment that was called Somebody’s Got to Do It. That segment ultimately took place in construction sites and factory floors. The first one was me in the sewers of San Francisco, hosting a show called Evening Magazine.
It was a hugely important moment because it nearly got me fired. It did get my boss fired. He was set for early retirement anyway. You know Evening Magazine, right?
You know it’s 7 o’clock in the bay area and you sit down for another heart warming story about a 3-legged dog name Mirin whose overcome some sort of canine kidney failure. Instead you get me, crawling through a river of shit. You know. With a sewer inspector. Covered in the worst excrement there is, with rats and roaches and… It was great. And it was horrible. And half the people who called, called to congratulate me, and the other half called demanding my head, which, of course, is exactly what you want in TV.
So, even though it didn’t work ultimately on Evening Magazine; I did 20 of those segments. Cobbled them together and ultimately sold them to the Discovery Channel and that became Dirty Jobs. But it all happened fundamentally because I wanted to put something on TV that wouldn’t cause my grandfather to throw his crumbled up National Bohemian Beer can at the screen.
If this is not something you can talk about, or don’t want to talk about, that is totally fine. I’m just curious when you sold those shows to Discovery, were you able to negotiate back the rights? Or did you have them in the first place? Or how did that work?
Yeah, I am kind of simplifying and overstating a little bit. I took Dirty Jobs everywhere and heard “no” in as many ways as a person can hear “no.” You know, it was too gross for CBS. It was not gross enough for Fox. Too funny for PBS. Not funny enough for Comedy Central. Around and around we went.
I eventually should the pilot to a guy named Craig Piligian, who runs Pilgrim Films and Television. He actually owed me a favor, I think, because a couple of years earlier I hosted a complete abortion called Worst Case Scenario, which aired on TBS. He produced it and I hosted it. He said, “look, if I can ever help you.”
So I gave him this pilot. It was basically a pilot of me collecting semen from a bull called Hunsucker Commando. He showed this to Discovery. And Discovery was like, “look, that is weird. It will never work, but let’s talk to that guy.” Not even knowing that they had hired me ten years earlier in 1993 to host a show called Romantic Escapes, which turned out to be neither. But anyway, I often say Romantic Escapes was me and a pretty girl going around the world, creating the illusion of romance in 5 star hotels. From there I worked my way up to the sewer.
… And finally got a career started.
So this gent that you mentioned. How did he then return the favor?
He took the pilot I shot to Discovery and he showed it to them. That opened the conversation about me becoming the Discovery guy. So, I made a deal with Discovery to narrate their ten plus special, and to become a kind of de facto avatar. My whole pitch to Discovery was you don’t need another host, and you network doesn’t need another expert. The world is full of them. You need a fan. You need a fan of your brand. You need a curious cat to got out into the world and look under the rock with a crew that leaves a light footprint, just to ask the kind of questions I would ask if I were watching TV with my friend from home. That is what you need.
They bought that idea. I said, “can we do Dirty Jobs?” They said, “God no.” I said, “why not?” And we had this whole conversation about brand and off brand and everything else.
Eventually, they just said, “look, we’ll take 3 hours of it just to put it on to kind of introduce you. What we really want you to do is dive in a submersible with James Cameron and go to the Titanic. Then we want you in Sahe Hawask to explore sarcophagus in the largest cemetery recently discovered in North Africa.” You know all these cool expeditions.
Then they put Dirty Jobs on the air and we got 10 thousand letters first month. And that was that. But, to answer your question: No, I don’t own dirty jobs. I own me. And thankfully Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe became this thing that ultimately launched 30, 31 other shows. So, I was able, with the help of my partner, a brilliant woman called Mary Sullivan… We were able to take the basic DNA of the show, the basic guts of it that were frankly inspired by my granddad and turn that into a non-profit foundation called mikeroweWORKS. And turn that into a completely separate business.
So, while the show was on the air, I was able to start filtering a lot of other opportunities through this other entity. But… sorry I am free associating.
No, I enjoy this. I am taking notes so that I reassociate.
You’re going to circle back.
The answer to your first question was it happened through some weird mix of serendipity, me Forest Gumping my way again into this… weird area, and being called on my own bullshit, honestly. You know…. I had been making fun of TV and suddenly I am doing a show where I am getting thousands of letters from people who were genuinely grateful to see their job, to see their vocation, not as a punch line, but as and honest way to make a decent living.
So we touched on something that was really real. Remember too that in 2003 there’s no Deadliest Catch, Ax men, Ice Road Truckers. There’s no Gold Rush. There is no work on television. It was a very, very… I understand why Discovery was tiptoeing around this thing.
This was the province of Custo and David Attenborough. Now the a smart alec, covered by other people’s crap, is making dick jokes in a sewer. You know, that was scary, but at the same time we were paying a genuine tribute to the worker. So, it was the right mix subversion and earnestness.
So you are very good at crafting a compelling pitch. I have witnessed this in many different capacities, but to go back to one of the stories you just told about pitching Discovery Channel. You have this, you have this, you don’t need more of this. This is what I am proposing. Getting that deal done, how did you plan that meeting? Or did you walk in and free associate?
A little of both. When I was… I think it was 1986 I guess… I have been out of college a couple of years. I was flecking around. In those days, when you flecked around, you got up and walked over to the TV and turned the dial. You know? So I was flecking around and I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel. It was the first time that I had seen it. I was utterly enamored of the brand, the idea, the notion; the idea of satisfying curiosity. I said that I am going to work for these guys one day.
So that was the first thing in the back of my mind. As a viewer, from ‘86 until 2002 I was with them all the time, and Nat Geo, and all the usual suspects. But, I loved Discovery and loved the story of John Hendricks, one of the greatest entrepreneurs who ever lived.
That was the founder of Discovery Channel?
Yeah. His story is amazing. You would love his book, A Curious Mind.
Oh, I will look it up.
Anyway, I just always just wanted to, not just work for them, I wanted to work with them somehow. Again, I didn’t know how I could possibly do it because it was a landscape populated completely by experts. You know you and I are different in the sense that you, I think, get comfort and meaning from mastering a thing. I get anxious by the prospect of mastering a thing. So, as a viewer and as a host, I had always been a little fraudulent. I tried to be transparent about it, but I always felt a little icky memorizing a bunch of things the night before and then pretending to have always known them. I used to call it the plaque phenomenon.
You know you walk up to a statue and there is always a plaque on it. You read the information on the plaque and suddenly you get a snapshot of the biography of whoever the guy is. Well for years, everything I did on TV was based on information gleamed from a plaque moments before someone said action.
I didn’t want to do that on Discovery because I knew that they were hiring people who were genuine. So, the question became how can I be genuine and authenticate and still embrace my inner ignorance.
And, of course, the only way to do it is to be aggressively transparent.
So, just to pause for one second. I think that what you just said can be translated to so many people in so many worlds. I just think… who are suffering from some type existential malaise or career impasse. I don’t know it strikes me as very good advice.
I just don’t think there is a… I am suspicious of play books because once you write down the thing it becomes dogma, and pretty soon it is morals and dogma. Pretty soon you are Albert Pike and it’s the masons, and it’s the secret the handshake, and oh my god this is not the way you are suppose to do it. I was so certain for so long that I had cracked my own little rosetta stone. Then I became so utterly humbled by the fact that I… I am not even going to say that I was wrong. I just realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my career with so much content for the very industry upon which I relied.
So, I just wore myself out being glib and then it was suddenly time to be something else. You know, I am wary of earnestness in and of itself, but I wanted to be authentic. The only way I could do that on the Discovery Channel was as a fan with access.
We were talking, before we started recording, about the creative process, just a little bit, and the trap and the temptation of the blank the page, and parameters, creative constraints. You mentioned maybe one example, correct me if I am wrong, but that is focusing on the first take. What other constraints, or parameters, have you used for yourself in your various projects?
That’s a great question, man, because I used to be enamored of the idea that I could do anything I want. I mean it’s kind of like owning a business, right. If you ask the average person, “Hey, would you like to own your own business?” The average person says, “yes.” Then a year later, the average person doesn’t have their business anymore.
Creatively it is not so different. I think it’s very roman. You know, what is good protagonists without an antagonists? What good is a story without all these zigs and zags. The blank pages is very scary to me because there is no antagonist on it. It forces me to be both. For all of the grief and derision I’ve leveled towards QVC, they did me a huge solid because, if you were a viewer in 1990, you could turn on QVC any day of the year, any time of the day, and while you might see different people, you would see the exact same process. You would see parameters. You would see graphics that are utterly predictable. You would see rigor.
You would see all that stuff that I used to think I hated was actually the very thing that allowed me to be such an anarchist. In truth, I really wasn’t. But, when you have that much rigor around you, all you have to do is put one toe over the line and you look like a complete malcontent, a lunatic. You know, you really stand out. It made it so much easier. I didn’t do anything all that subversive in hindsight. It just looked that way because I had such clear parameters. Really when I look back at every other good thing that I think I have done, it’s always been because there is an antagonist in the room.
What would be… could you give an example of a good antagonist looking back?
Well, aside from QVC, Discovery. Again, because they have so firmly entrenched in their viewer’s mind a set of expectations. When I came along as the non-expert, just going around the country, looking under the rock, it was… it seems so obvious now. I am not saying this because I want to take credit for it. I just mean…. wow, one of these things is not like the other.
All of the sudden, I got a lot of attention. Not because I was good, because I was different.
Because you were able to contrast against the expectations that already been set.
I’ll tell you where it was even bigger than both those two combined: Ford. Ford hired me in, whatever it was, 2006. I did a commercial for theme for the Super Bowl. It was a truck commercial. It took a day and a half to shoot and it was 30 seconds long. It involved a giant centrifuge, hooked up to the bumper of a truck. We dug a giant pit and the centrifuge spun the truck like a giant carnival ride and I stood right next to it. Talking very heroically about the construction and reliability and durability of the truck. I wore a Shearling jacket and my hair had product in it and I had makeup on. I hit my mark and I said my line and I hated it. The commercial did fine, but I hated it.
That opened a dialog with Ford and their agency. It took about a year and a half, but my basic pitch was the same thing as it always is. I said, “If you guys want to put some dude in a Shearling jacket and let him hit a mark and say a line, there is a long list of guys who could do that better than I can. But if you want to shoot quickly and if you want to make your customers the hero of your brand, let’s experiment. Because I think you can take the same DNA from Dirty Jobs and I think you can shoot it straight into an advertising campaign.” To the credit of the ad agency, we eventually got around to doing it. A year and a half later, in the course of 1 day, we shot 22 commercials.
It worked. The campaign became something called Swap Your Ride. There was one called Spread the Word. There were all these different campaigns that relied not upon story boards, or scripts, but real people. All I did was get out of the way and have conversations with people. Go figure.
You have… We have sort of a mutual acquaintance, who I mined for questions that he would like to hear you ask, and one was, “He (meaning Mike) talks about pursuing opportunity and not your passion (what I agree with by the way).” And then there is a follow up to that. If that is true, could you elaborate on that.
Sure. One of the best things to come out of Dirty Jobs after we did a couple hundred of them was a new level permission from the network to basically do whatever I wanted. What I wanted to do on occasion was to look back and try to gleam some lessons from the dirt. I wanted to take some of the many experiences we have from the show and make a case for what I called alternative platitudes.
I always railed against those bromides that hang in paneled conference rooms that have pictures of guys in like kayaks, or rainbows…
A lot of eagles.
Yeah, and, you know, and something about teamwork, or determination, or persistence. That is what I meant before when I said that I was wary of earnestness. You know, I think it is so easy to serve up a good idea, but then chock on the sacredicity of it; if there is such a word. The thing that chapped my ass more than any of them was follow your passion.
I remember seeing one of these platitudes. What were they called? Successories they called them. It was a rainbow. There might have been a unicorn in it. Butterflies. Happy people. And it said “Follow your passion.”
You know, I took the position on Dirty Jobs… so many of the people that I met who, at a glance, were not enviable in any way, but, in fact, seemed to be better balanced and happier than most of the people I knew in real life. I began to ask myself, “What in the world do these people know that the rest of us don’t.”
Regarding passion I started asking around. I heard the same thing from everyone: The happiest people that I met– people that are most passionate about their work– were people who looked around, watched where everyone was going, and simply went the opposite direction.
That is how Les Swason from Wisconsin wound up with 3 honey wagons. A former psychologist and guidance consoler is now sucking the shit out of people’s septic tanks, full time. He’s in his sixties. He loves his work. He can work whenever he wants.
I am having this conversation with Les Swanson and he is saying, “look, this is not my wish for fulfillment except for the fact that I love what I do and I am very good at it.” My question to him was, “Which one of those came first.” He said, “Neither. What came first was the fact that nobody else was doing this. What came second was my own hard-headed commitment to be very good at. Then I did the thing that is the hardest thing to do and that is to figure out how to love something that you didn’t think you did.” So, “always follow your passion”, for me, became “never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.”
So we live in an area, Northern California, where you have a lot of very wealthy and simultaneously very miserable people. This is not unique to the Bay Area. There are certainly, happy wealthy people. But the money, much like alcohol for some people, seems to exaggerate who they were already. If that makes senses…
Sure. OK. It makes you more of who you are.
Yeah, and I remember being told at one point, “If you can’t be happy with what you have, nothing you ever get will make you happy.” So that observation by Les of bringing passion to what you do, or learning to do that if you don’t have it, seems to be an extremely important lesson to put into practice with whether it’s… I mean I personally use journaling in the morning and trying to practice gratitude because historically I haven’t been good at it to be quite frank.
No one is historically good at gratitude. We are not wired for that, man.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s just… Do you have any daily practices or morning rituals that you find help to keep you sane, or saner?
Look, I am afraid the honest answer is that I don’t know. But, I have patterns like anybody else except I am suspicious of my patterns if that makes sense. This is my own psychosis. It is kind of what I meant before. I am wary of earnestness. I am suspicious of protocol. And I am just…. Once I see the routine, it frightens me. I don’t know if it is a sabotaging thing, or… I don’t know what it is.
This morning I woke up and had a lot of things that I wanted to do before I came over here to talk to you. But I grabbed my laptop before I got out of bed, which is always a mistake, and I hopped over on the Facebooks, and I saw something on the wall and wanted to respond to it.
Somebody had made a list of worst jobs. It pissed me off. I posted their list and I wrote something. Then I messed with it a little bit. Then it turned into like a 500 word thing. Right before I came over here, I posted it. Now 5 thousand people have shared it and a million people have read it.
I am really pleased by that in a way that might sound a little self important. But I am also pleased that a thing that wasn’t on my list to do has triggered a conversation that a million people are a part of. It happened not as a result of a plan, but as the result of this sort of suspicion I keep talking about that pushed me away from whatever plan I try and make.
Sometimes I think it gums me up, slows me down and gets in the way. Other times I look back at it and feel terribly clever.
[Laughs] There are times, not infrequent in my case, particularly if I have a writing deadline, where I struggle between the desire to kind of zig and zag with the wind, retain the ability to improvise in that way, and on the hand, the desire to have the parameters and so on that we talked about early, to force me to not like polish my tennis shoes when I should be actually sitting down and writing.
How do you contend with those different impulses or forces?
I don’t contend with them. I acknowledge them and try and stay in on the joke. I know when I am bull shitting myself. I don’t always know when I am doing that with other people because you get caught up in a conversation. I have lived long enough now to know that it’s possible to distract myself from important things by doing other important things that aren’t just as important. Right?
I call it virtuous procrastination. It is no different than waisting time. But it is an elevated form of doing it. That, to me, is the trap that a lot of otherwise intelligent people fall into.
[Laughs] To stay in on your own joke, don’t start believing the press releases that your mind is sending.
Don’t read your own fan mail.
… at least not out loud. Don’t do it.
You have an incredible… I don’t know what that Kermit the Frog inflection was… [Laughs] It just came out of me.
I like it. It was very authentic, Tim.
You have (in Kermit the Frog voice)… very…
Don’t you cut that out.
No. It is going to stay in. That is probably the highlight of the podcast for my side of the performance.
A very impressive vocabulary… Where did that come from?
Although I don’t read as much now as I used to. I used to read a lot. I think reading, but I also think, weirdly, plays. You know, I did a lot of plays when I was a kid. I just think there is something really elegant, and maybe indulgent, about finding a different way to say a thing.
So I think often in an attempt to turn a phrase I’ll play with the language a lot and stumble across words that I wouldn’t otherwise use. Look, I’ve read Elmore Leonard and Hemingway. I understand how important it is to be simple and brief. I really do. In fact, that is probably the most important thing, which is why I think it is a little indulgent to go the other way, but I do just because it pleases me I think.
I think the lexicon is extraordinary. Sometimes “pass the salt” is the simplest thing you can say if you would like someone to hand you the salt, but it is also fun to ask them to “slide the white crystals in your general direction with all due speed.”
[Laughs] I feel like every third turn of phrase that you had in this conversation could be either a great punk rock band like tails and testicles, a restaurant in the Castro, or… and for those people who are going to get all social justice warrior with me, go to the Castro first… There is the Squat and Gobble. There is Little Orphan Andy’s. There is a theme here with the naming.
Do you have any books that you have gifted to other people more than others?
God, that is great too. I tend to recommend whatever I am reading just because it is obviously, you know, random access memory. But, the book that I have given most frequently is actually… I mentioned it early… John D MacDonald’s…
A Curious Mind?
No. That’s a good one. That’s John Hendricks, but John D MacDonald wrote the best pulp fiction that I have ever read. I am a big fan of fiction by the way. I know looking around here that I have the same non-fictions books that you do.
I just made that up. I can’t read any of these titles.
But judging from the color over there… What does that say, “The magic of thinking big?”
Yep. That’s Schwartz. We’ve got Dune. We have…
Oh, I have Dune.
We have Zorba the Greek.
I have Zorba the Greek.
We have Musashi.
I don’t have Musashi.
You would love that I think… A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.
Ah, so Bill Bryson. Right, there is a writer. That guy I think is so… What is it? The Sunburnt Land? Have you read At Home?
I haven’t read At Home. I’ve read, I think, Mother Tongue, which he wrote about the evolution of the english language.
No. I haven’t read At Home.
And The Lost Continent, which is one of my favorites. At Home real quickly… I won’t give it away. This is what you read in the preface. But he lives in this little english hamlot, up by the ocean. He lives in a vicarage next to an old church.
I am going to plead ignorance. What is a vicarage? I feel like I have read it a thousand times and I don’t know what it is.
I think it is like the vicar of such and such. So like if you are the vicar, it is some sort of priest meets chaucer kind of thing.
Anyway, he is in this old house, this ancient house, and he walks up to his attic one day to get something… it is a huge attic… and he goes down a corridor and he makes another turn and he finds a door that he didn’t think he had. He opens the door in his attic and he walks through it. It takes him out between 2 dormers onto his roof. So he is standing on his roof, having walked through a door he didn’t know he had, and he is looking around at the church next to him. He sees that the church is sinking into the ground. He is like what the hell is going on.
Not is real time, but he sees that it has sunk. So he calls the local historian, brings him up into his house, into the attic, through the magic doorway, and out onto his roof. He says to him, “What the hell is going on with the church? It is sinking.” The historian laughs and says that the church isn’t sinking, but the graveyard around it is exactly what a graveyard is. It is doing what a graveyard does when a graveyard is filled up. Bill says, “What do you mean?” He said, “Bill, how long do you think that church has been here?” Bill’s like, “About 700-800 years.” [Historian]: “It is more like 1100. How many people do you think have lived in this little hamlot during that period of time?” [Bill]: “I don’t know a few thousand.” [Historian]: “Actually it is closer to a million…. How many people do you think are duried there? What you are looking at is the history of many, many years and the all of the anonymous people who have been buried here. It looks like the church is sinking, but it’s not that at all.”
That is when Bill Bryson decides to write At Home, a look at the history of the world as told from all the different rooms in his house. In his bathroom becomes the history of plumbing. In his great hall becomes the history of entertaining guests.
That is a cool premise.
It is a great premise. Now that I hear myself talking about it that’s a book that I would recommend… but not at the expense of John D. MacDonald and The Deep Blue Goodbye, featuring Travis McGee.
The Deep Good Goodbye.
Travis McGee is a boat bum created by John D. MacDonald who lives on the Busted Flush, which is a barge he won in a poker game. Travis takes his retirement in early installments. When he works, he busy himself recovering that which has been stolen or conned away from people who… He is your last best hope. So, the Travis McGee mysteries are really adventures that are told through the eyes of this quixotic character whose really a philosopher. He is a knight errant who, like I said, comes out of retirement to do these quasi good works; he keeps 50 percent of what he recovers of course. That’s how he lives.
But MacDonald put McGee so far ahead of his time. It’s just a wonderful… these books are all time capsules. There is a color in every title: Deep Blue Goodbye, Pale Gray for Guilt, Bright Orange for the Shroud, The Lonely Silver Rain, A Tan and Sandy Silence, Cinnamon Skin, Nightmare in Crimson. All of these great books.
It is just great trash. It is the best pulp I have ever read. I have never had anybody read them and say those weren’t good. There offensive in the sense that they are politically incorrect and out of step, but there good.
[Laughs] So, I want to… I feel compelled to try to trade, or at least share. A couple that, based on that description, you might like… Have you ever heard of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem?
Have you recommended this before?
I might have.
Because I’ve heard of it and I think it was on this podcast.
Quite possibly. It’s emulating pulp detective fiction. The hero of the story… hero I guess is the right word… ends up being a detective with tourette syndrome.
I love it already!
It’s fantastic. And the Bryson recommendation… I have not read At Home and I am going to pick it up. Just the premise made me think… it is such a fantastic way to structure a piece of writing. Reminded me of John McPhee who’s one of my favorite writers. There is a… depending sort of on you subject matter… he is very similar to Bryson in the sense that he can make almost anything interesting.
People read it because he wrote it, not because of the subject matter. So McPhee has won at least one Pulitzer Prize, maybe 2. He has written an entire book on oranges. He has written an entire book on hand carved canoes. He’s written Coming Into the Country, which is about the Alaskan wilderness. But the one that I really enjoyed, two pieces: One is about a single tennis match involving Arthur Ashe called Levels of the Game, which is just spectacular and not that long. Then there is shorter piece, which was serialized in the New Yorker called BRIGADE DE CUISINE; about a tiny, tiny, tiny high-end restaurant before we had celebrity chefs. This was an older piece that just came to mind when you mentioned Bryson’s piece.
Well jot them down because I am looking for whatever is next… Motherless Brooklyn.
And you recommended another one and I haven’t read it yet… something ah… graveyard….
Oh. Yes. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
People have asked me and I am just going to answer the question here. They asked me should I get… because I have very specifically recommended the audio book… I am sure the text is fantastic, but Neil strikes me… I will drill into this with you because you have so much experience.
Neil impresses me on many levels. He is a spectacularly gifted polymath in the writing sphere and he has dabbled… not dabbled that doesn’t do it justice. He is not professional dilettante like I am. He actually does really good work in a lot of areas. But he is a really compelling narrator. As an audio book narrator, he’s spectacularly good.
People asked me should I get the full ensemble cast or should I get the Neil Gaiman. I only listened to the Neil Gaiman version of the Graveyard Book. But it is really, really solid. I believe that it is modeled after one of the greek tragedies I want to say, but I could be completely making that up to sound more cultured than I am.
You had me there for a minute.
Yeah, you know, I’ll leave that out there.
The other one that I would actually like to give you as a gift, which you can see stacks of the same books over there. So I have stacks of two books: One is About Face, which was originally recommended to me by Jocko Willink, a Navy seal commander who was on this podcast.
The other was recommend to me by my mom and my brother, who are both very particular about books. Maybe once every four or five years, a book will be recommended consequently by both of them. Motherless Brooklyn was one. Stranger In A Strange Land by Heinlein was another. For those people in the tech world or the paleo-crossfit world who use the word grok. Grok came from Stranger In A Strange Land, meaning to understand.
The smaller one is the The Baron In The Trees by Italo Calvino. About a young baron who has a gigantic tif with his father over dinner one night. Flees up into the trees, never to come down again.
Wow. That is a bad fight.
Was there at least a house up there?
He build everything in the trees. Had love affairs. Was involved with wars. All from the tree tops. Never came down. It’s a really fun short read– about 170 pages.
So I mentioned Neil Gaiman as a fantastic narrator. What speakers or narrators, voice over folks, anything involving voice, really have blown you away? Alive or dead. Just like where you were like, “God, how do they do that.”
Yeah, I am most impressed now a days by the guys, and the woman, but mostly men… you know men are dominant in the business… It is the ones who can hide. It is the ones who really don’t get in the way of the story itself, you know. It is really a balancing act. Most of the stuff I narrate now has a level of spectacle to it so I get to, you know, butch it up a little bit. And it works for Deadliest Catch and some other shows. How the Universe Works, for instance, which I have been doing for 5 years now… it is a totally different proposition.
Morgan Freeman has one of the most wonderful, recognizable voices ever, but it is impossible to listen to a show and not constantly now you are listening to Morgan Freeman.
Likewise James Earl Jones. You have a guy though like Peter Coyote, who narrates much or more than anyone. He has a really interesting way of being flat and engaged at the same time. You watch Donovan… Is it Donovan? Ray Donovan?
Ray Donovan. On Showtime I think.
Yeah. What is his name? I am drawing a blank.
You are talking about the actor?.. Liev Schreiber? I think that is the right pronunciation.
Yeah, it’s him. He is a wonderful narrator. We were up for the same big project a couple of years ago.
I had no idea.
Yeah. Son of a bitch got it and I didn’t. Heart breaking.
But honestly the best ones you don’t know their names. That is part of the deal. I am very lucky because I have used whatever little notoriety I have to just relentlessly leverage my way into that space because I just love doing it so much. The really great narrators are utterly anonymous and transparent.
If you had to pick to pick any particular female voice performer… and by voice performer, it could be a singer, it could be an actor or actress who using her voice very effectively for voice over or anything. Anyone come to mind?
Do you remember Hidden Vally Ranch salad dressing?
I am telling you if you google some of those old commercials. You’ll hear a woman narrating all them. It was a famous actress. I am not even sure if she is around anymore. She was in the original Mash, named Sally Kellerman.
Sally Kellerman had a fantastic voice. What made her voice so unusual is that it didn’t strike me anyway when I was watching her act. It was just part and parcel of her. But, it was just one of those voices when it is disembodied and right there on the radio, oh my god. It was amazing.
Orson Wells same thing. I mean just unbelievably impressive in every way. But all of the sudden to hear that guy just vocally. You really want to laugh listen to the old… There is some stuff on the Youtube with him coming unhinged at being directed.
This is like Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks or something like that, right? You hear him in the booth, you know. The pages are rustling and he is getting his copy together. He starts with, “I know a man in the fjords of Norway. A man..” And he is reading a copy and there is just some split infinitive or maybe a dangling participle and he is just pissed off. He is just, “I can’t read this shit.” Back and forth he goes with the producer. It is… I mean the greatest living director and actor is, at that point in his career where he is doing, you know, gallow. You know he is just consumed with loathing because of it and he is taking all of that angst…
… out on some poor line producer.
It is just awesome.
Bill Shatner actually has done some remarkable voice work in my opinion.
Now is this Priceline/Startrek William Shatner?
OK. Cool. I just never heard him called Bill Shatner. OK.
Well I don’t know if he would remember it, but we were actually in business together for a brief time back in New York. He always ahead of his time. Shatner is. I think one day years from now, when people who write books about this stuff look back at celebrity and the cults of personality and just the arc of a career. I suspect his will be unexampled.
We were in business… I had a friend who got the license to do phone cards, which at the time (in the early 90’s) were very big in Europe. They never caught here to the degree that everyone thought they would. You would buy your long distance time in advance. He had the idea of saying look,”What if you bought $100 of long distance and you put it on a calling card. But what if the calling card had a picture of the enterprise on it? Or the X-Files? Or the Simpsons? Or your favorite show? And what if when you called that 800 number to access the long distance platform, what if you were confronted by a voice, say mine, that said ‘Welcome to the Star Trek Information Platform. To place a long distance call, hit one. To listen to original content from your favorite Star Trek characters, press two.” You press two and you open this world of old time radio where you can take a klingon language lesson. Or send a wakeup call from Bart Simpson. All this crazy stuff.
Bill Shatner loved that idea and invested in that company. I was the voice of the company. He was the investor. He was a couple of years too early. Didn’t really work. But the fact that he was there, and the fact that Priceline came along on its heals…. I will never forget watching him make that deal with Priceline and thinking, “Hmm, this will never work. But if it does, lucky him.”
[Laughs] And as it turned out…
It worked out OK.
Lucky… what is it they say.. not “sly as a fox.” I am trying to come with a proverb that I can’t remember.
Sly as a fox is good.
But it is not what I am going for.
The important thing with metaphors, Tim, is that you should try.
I know I am just not trying hard enough. I am not trying hard enough, Mike.
I think that people might think that we’re further apart than we are on the trying hard part. I read an interview with you recently about sort of working smart, working hard. The false dichotomy between the two, where people choose one or the other.
The blessing and the curse of having a book with title a title like The Four Hour Work Week is that people never seem to forget it and that people never seem to forget it. The fact of the matter is that I have absolutely no problem with hard work as long as it is applied to the right things. The operative portion of that being focusing in the right place.
Another thing that you mentioned earlier when we were talking about passion vs opportunity. I have observed a few times in friends who’ve made this decision and then ended up having to reverse it in some way later… If you follow just your passion and not the opportunity, it is also a great way to corrupt something that gives you a great degree of personal pleasure, decompression.
Oh, turning your avocation into your vocation.
Exactly. I’ve had friends, for instance, who’ve decided that they love surfing on Sunday mornings so much that they want to do it full time. They end up teaching, you know, finance wonks how to surf at 7-6 in the morning Monday thru Friday. Before you know it, 2 months later they want to never surf again.
Yeah, you bitched up your hobby.
Here is a question. We are going to back into some of your current projects here. If you were doing a 5 minute podcast story and the secret revel were Mike Rowe, how would that episode begin and where would the story take its major turn or turns?
Wow. The key to what Paul Harvey did was find an obscure moment in the life of a famous person and then try and make that moment relevant. It almost always is. Sometimes it is a bigger stretch than others. Given all that we just talked about, I would probably circle back to the home shopping salesman, who somehow or other became closely associated with a blue collar apologist. Or an opera singer who took a very, very crooked path, but wound up becoming a proveyor of podcasts. I mean who knows. I guess I don’t know how to tell my story.
Do you think that is common among people who are exceptionally good at telling other people’s stories? Because I listened to, for instance, an episode of Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin and he was interviewing Ira Glass. It was a really difficult interview for Alec. At one point he said, “You know, it’s amazing how you can tell anyone’s story except for your own.” You are good at telling your story, but do you find those tend to be somewhat exclusive? Or what makes it hard for you to think of how that might be formulated?
I don’t know. I mean look there is something sociopathic about being grated telling your own story.
[Laughs] Easy to forget living in Silicon Valley. That is the new norm.
Yeah, I just think that if you are too good at it, it probably just means that you have been practicing it. You know? It is something I think everybody ought to do later in their life when they have become interesting enough to do it. Everybody is always more interesting from the outside. We know our own secrets too well so we probably feel a bit fraudulent if we try and stack the deck.
But look, what you are really talking about is peripeteia, the peripety. It’s the part of the narrative where the protagonist realizes everything he thought he know about himself was wrong. Where Oedipus realizes, “oh, this beautiful woman, who I love, who I am married to, who I have children with, she’s my mother? Ah crap.” That is the kind of realization that changes the direction of the narrative. That is the aristotelian definition of a tragedy, right? Those moments in our life when we realize that our identity, or our version of ourself, is either at odds with something we just learned, or more often than not, at odds with the way the rest of the world sees us. Look for me today, the biggest jolt of cognitive dissonance that I deal with on a daily basis is from fans of Dirty Jobs, who believe that I can fix their toilet, who believe that I can pour a foundation and hang drywall and take care of all that stuff. Because I was just around people who could do that for so long. And they assume also because I run a foundation that focuses on work ethic scholarships and trains people to do those very things.
The truth is is that it all goes back to the recessive gene that I confessed about an hour ago. I didn’t get it from my granddad. What I got was an appreciation for it. But it’s remarkable, Tim, how separate those things are in people’s minds and how difficult it is for people to reconcile this idea that, “yeah, that’s Mike. He narrates Deadliest Catch. Surely he knows how to fish for crab. He hosts Dirty Jobs. Surely he can overhaul the engine in a garbage truck.” I can’t. It’s been fun working hard to set the record straight, but it has also been futile, which is another great lesson. Just because it is futile, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
And just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t suck at it.
American Idol Episode 1 of any season, we see this great collision of reality and dreams. It’s not the fact that these 20 year old kids can’t sing that is so fascinating. It’s the fact that they are realizing it for the first time in their life. They always thought that their dream, their passion, and their love of music would be enough to push them into the top 40. Then to suddenly have it all come crashing down.
It’s more than a schadenfreude as a viewer. It’s very personal because you can’t watch that if you’re not a sociopath and not look at your own giant soft spots. We are covered with them. We are also rotten fruit.
[Laughs] Rotten fruit. I sometimes use swiss cheese, but I like rotten fruit, too.
Of all the creative outlets and opportunities that you have, why did you choose podcasting? And maybe you could just give people an overview of what you are doing. But I would love to know why.
Well, look. I am always late to the party. Social media or otherwise. I don’t think what I am doing right now… maybe I just don’t know what podcast means… but, what we are doing right now, I think is about as honest as example of two people having an unscripted conversation that’s touching on a lot of interesting things. I love that…. I would love to do what you’re doing.
You know, I would love to have people over to my home and have these conversations and have a glass of wine. My god, if you are actually making money and prospering from this, Tim, you win. At the moment, I can’t do it. But, I am still scratching this… I am watching your adorable dog, Molly, having a dream and slapping her tail into your hardwood floor…
You should actually get some clean audio on that because that’s just remarkable.
It sounded like… I thought someone was knocking on the door.
I did too. What do you think she is dreaming about?
I would say… Chasing birds is her ultimate, most savored, enjoyed experience in life I think. So probably chasing birds.
Does she ever catch them?
I haven’t seen a successful kill yet. But she is getting more and more athletic as she grows so I think if it were maybe one of these hard-hitting, urban pigeons with like a club foot, she might get it. She might…
… and tourettes.
Yeah, and tourettes. But it would have to be like a Planet Earth moment where they are like, you know, “The wolves have isolated a calf.”
If that happens call me. I’ll come over and we’ll recreate the old Mutual of Omaha, “While Tim and I watch from the brush, Molly will attempt to approach the illusive sparrow.”
[Laughs] I apologize on behalf of Molly. She knows not what she does. Where were we?
The way I heard it is my attempt to pay an homage to Paul Harvey, get into the podcast space without sucking up too much bandwidth. At the same time, scratching for what me is a really indulgent itch and that is writing. I don’t have time to write, but I am going to make time because I love it. Right now I am having a ball identifying people who were well known doing a little bit of research, which is so much easier today than it was when Paul Harvey was around.
So much easier.
Good grief. You pick your handheld device and tap into the large compendium of shared knowledge and everything is at your disposal. So it is really just an exercise in writing and then recording. Then see if people like it.
Could you tell us about one episode that you particularly enjoyed and the process of creating it? How you choose the person? How you choose the story line, etc?
Sure. Well, the one I just did, which I haven’t recorded yet so I hate to give it away. Ok, so, Bruno Mars, I’ll just tell you how it ends…
I was watching the Super Bowl a couple years ago. I am watching this kid on the biggest stage there is… absolutely killing it. This unbelievable cross roads of pop and rock and funk and just… wow. What’s his deal?
I read a lot of stuff that anybody can find really, really simply by doing a simple Google search. Went a little deeper and found what I thought was an interesting hook. His dad, in the delivery room, was playing oldies. His mother was a Filipino hola dancer. The guys was surrounded by music his whole life. His parents were basically in a traveling variety show.
He was imitating Elvis Presley at 3 years old. I look at some old footage of it and it was amazing. He was imitating Michael Jackson and it was incredible. He was imitating Little Richard and it was breathtaking. This guy was a genius mimic.
So I started thinking, well, how does this genius mimic wind up becoming someone so completely original. That was my sort of OK let’s… I am going to tell a very simply story and I am going to unwind it. That is the theme that I kind of want to find. Usually with these things you start writing them not quite knowing how they are going to end and it takes care of itself.
In this case, it was interesting because his name was Peter Hernandez in real life. This was really a story of Peter Hernandez, a guy who was impersonating Elvis, Little Richard and Michael Jackson, who at 17 years of age decides to go for it. He moves to Hollywood. Spends his last dime. Gets immediately signed by Mo Town. Gets immediately put in the latino heartthrob box.
Everybody wants the next Enrique Iglesias. But Peter, he doesn’t want to be that. Peter wants to be the next Peter Hernandez. He wants to be a little Michael Jackson, a little James Brown, a little Elvis Presley. He goes broke. He loses everything. He refuses to sing in Spanish.
It is really story about how Peter Hernandez gets down to his last nickel and decides somethings got to give. He walks outside. He looks up into the heavens and laughs because he finally sees his name in lights.
He is looking at the stars and chooses for his last name a planet that is truly out of this world. For his first name, he remembers his father favorite wrestler, Bruno Sammartino. So learn that what Peter Hernandez does is simply change his name, not as the first thing that most people do who come to town, but as the last thing.
The last thing that he wanted to give up was his heritage. But he had to because everybody looked at him as this very, very narrow performer. This latino heartthrob. Peter Hernandez became Bruno Mars. He was immediately resigned by Atlantic Records.
Within a year, his first album was gone bananas. Within a year and a half, he had sold over a 130 million singles. A couple of years after that, there he is on my screen, during Super Bowl 48. That is how that happened.
Look, it can be as simple as a wikipedia entry. I can tell you the story a dozen different ways, but what I am trying to do what these little stories on the podcast is find the big transformational moment– the peripeteia– in everybody’s life. And find a way to unwind it in 5 minutes or so.
It strikes me also that you are asking a non-obvious question about an obvious person. You are taking well known people and unwinding it by asking a question that few people have probably asked before.
Yeah. I mean Paul Harvey was all about… He really distilled it to the who done it. It was a mystery. His whole thing was just clue after clue. The clues became a little more obvious as you got close to the end so everybody had a chance to figure it out at their own speed. I am finding it to be a little more interesting, and maybe a little more indulgent, to spend more time in that peripeteic moment. Really try and paint the scene as richly as I can. Sometimes that means I wind up overwriting it, but it is easy enough to correct it.
I just think that it is a fun way… Look, you are a fan of Dan Carlin?
Definitely. Huge fan.
I love Carlin.
Yeah, Hard Core History, for people listening, everybody should check out. Wrath of the Khans would be my recommendation as a starting point.
I would go with Blueprint for Armageddon. But you can’t go wrong…
But what Dan does is that he make history accessible to people who otherwise would not give a shit. If you can do that with fitness… That is what you did with your books. You find a way to take a thing that most people are either blasé or disinterested about and make them care. If you can do that with history, if you can do it with biography…
The writer you mentioned before… If you can make oranges interesting, you win. That’s the challenge in all things. Anybody can point a camera at Vesuvius erupting. Right? That is great footage. But it is harder thousands of years later to write a retrospective on Herculaneum before the eruption. You know, do that. Make that interesting and you win.
I think it also comes back to… a recurring theme in this conversation, which is yes you want to be great at what you do, but if you are incrementally better, it is not enough, you also have to be different. At least it makes the journey, or the challenge, much more tackleable if you think about how differentiate yourself.
I would love to ask… and then we are going to come back to… I want to ask some additional questions about the podcast and a few other things. Just a couple of rapid fire questions for you. First is… and the answers don’t need to be rapid. The questions, to sort of neuter my tendency to ask long-winded questions, are pretty short.
When you think of the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind and why?
Carl Knobel, my granddad, for reasons we touched on before. A seventh grade education. Drops out of school to work. Becomes a master craftsman and a tradesman 4 times over, 5 times over. Lives to build houses and churches without blueprints that are still standing.
He was the guy who said to me when I flunked out of all of my shop classes in high school… He said, “You can be a tradesman. Just get yourself a different tool box.”
Oh, I like that.
It’s a good one.
That is a really good one.
This is out of my usual order, but since we had a little chat about it earlier, and I don’t know the story, but I wanted to bring it up. If you could have a billboard anywhere, with anything on it, what would it say?
The reason that question is so crazy in my world right now is I got a call about 4 month ago from a guy who said, “Mike, you don’t know me, but if you could have a billboard anywhere you want, what would it say?” I said, “What am I like inside the actor’s studio?” Well, he was a big shot mover at…
[Laughs] How did you get this number, sir?
[Laughs] Honestly, that is exactly what I said. He said, “Well, your people passed it on because they thought you would want to answer the question.” This was a guy who worked for Lamar. Lamar Outdoor Advertising is huge. This guy owns billboards. I mean 10s of thousands of them. He said, “Listen, I am a big fan of your foundation and at any given time I got 20-30 percent billboards that are empty. Advertisers do their thing. We pull them down.”
Every single person listening to this podcast right now has driven down the highway, looked up, and seen a blank billboard. He was just calling to say what would you like to put on them? I said, “Jesus, seriously?” He said, “Yeah, anything you want.” I said, “Well, we are currently in the midst of a work ethic scholarship program. We’ve raised about 4 million dollars selling crap out of my garage and various other places. We have this program, right. If I send you a picture of me holding a sign that says, ‘Help Wanted,’ and in big letter MikeRoweWorks.org Work Ethic Scholarships would you put that up there.” He said, “In a heartbeat.”
All over the country now, that is on a billboard because someone asked that question.
Wow. That is a hell of a call.
It’s a good call. I am glad I took it.
Could you just elaborate for a second on the work ethic scholarships? What does that mean?
In 2008, when the economy went sideways, Dirty Jobs was in 212 countries and the number one show on the network. I was doing well. Everybody I talked to on the show that owned a business was telling me in extraordinary thing and that was the biggest challenge that they were facing was technical recruiting, really any kind of recruiting.
Help wanted signs were everywhere I went on Dirty Jobs. While the headlines were screaming about 10 and 11 percent unemployment. I realized there was a huge parallel, but conflicting narrative, going on in the country with respect to work.
The skills gap as it existed in 2008 included maybe 2.1, 2.2 million jobs that existed that people weren’t trained for or simply didn’t want. Today the number is more like 5.8 million. I decided that it would be good for the show and good for me and hopefully good for the businesses that allowed us to thrive to setup a foundation that functioned as PR campaign for jobs that actually existed. These are not the glamorous jobs, but these are the jobs that make civilized life possible.
That PR campaigned morphed into a bunch of trips to congress and a bunch of partnerships with the Fortune 200. Then ultimately into an attempt to reward the kind of behavior that we actually wanted to encourage, which was work ethic.
Most scholarship programs, as I am sure you know, reward the usual stuff: academic achievement, athleticism, talent, and, of course, basic need. I didn’t think anybody was making an affirmative case for work ethic. We looked for kids… I am less interested in your GPA. I am more interested in your attendance record. I am more interested in people who will make a case for themselves with respect to the reasons why I should pay for them to become a plumber, or a welder, or a steamfitter, or a pipefitter, or any of the jobs that my granddad did intuitively.
That is what the foundation is. It has been around since labor day of 2008. Every six months, we release another tranche of money raised mostly from our chronic, low rent telethon that really never seems to end that involves me hawking the crap out of my garage, momentos from Dirty Jobs. I style not unlike the old QVC days, where I am now using my powers for good.
[Laughs] Your tool kit.
[Laughs] My tool kit.
If you could have every, let’s just say high school graduate in the US, read, watch, consume two or three things. You can prescribe it and every single kid coming out of high school would get these things. What would you prescribe?
The first thing… and there is no bromide for all these kids. But, in general, I think we make a horrible mistake matriculating right out of high school right into college. I think it is a hell of a thing to ask a 17 year old kid to declare a major, borrow money.
I mean the pressure to borrow is mind numbing. 1.3 trillion dollars in student loans today. 5.8 million jobs nobody is trained for. A widening skills gap. And this increasing belief that somebody has moved their cheese, you know. 25% of millennials are living back home. We are just doing it wrong.
I think the general answer to your question is… I don’t know about books or movies and things. Those impact everyone differently. I would take a year and I would say, “Look, you have to get a job. You have to do something.” Call it an apprenticeship. Call it an internship. I don’t know, but we have to back away from the pressure that has conspired to drive so many kids so far into debt and start to go down a road so soon.
Look, I always think there is time to change the road you are on– Robert Plant, Last Stanza, Stairway to Heaven– but, it’s hard. I was very lucky. I did it at 42.
Meaning you took a… What did you do at 42? I apologize.
I hit the reset button.
Ah, got it.
I decided that this career that has been based on not caring about the work I do is going to be based on caring very much about it. It just required a complete brain dump and reset button. It’s hard to do that at 42.
It’s even harder now, I think, at 26 because now you got your paper. Right? You’ve graduated. You’ve done well. You’ve done everything that everyone told you to do. But you just realized that the opportunity in the field that you studied is not what you thought it was. The 90 thousand dollars in student loans is. That is not going away.
It’s just a terrible thing to have your coffee served to by, you know, a double major in polisci and medieval french. It’s kind of tragic. Whatever we do, it has to happen between high school and this period of declaration and this horrible assumption of mindless debt.
When I say things like this, I always get criticism because people say he is anti-college, he is anti-education. I am not. I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I challenge anybody who says there is any hope of success without it. But when people say how the hell can college get so expensive.
Man, the answer is right in front of us. We’ve been telling kids for 50 years that the best path for the most people is in this direction and here is an unlimited pile of money, borrow as much as you need. Is it any wonder that tuition has gone up faster than the cost of real estate, food, energy, healthcare and 500% of inflation over the last 40 years. It’s unprecedented. But we are still doing it, Tim. We are lending money we don’t have to kids who will never be able to pay it back to train them for jobs that don’t exist anymore.
When I think about this… I get asked quite a bit about college. I went to college, but I have friends who have very vociferously disagree with that being the right path for everyone, which I would agree with. So I get asked about it a lot.
I think what you suggest in terms of… In the UK, they would call it a gap year, but not necessarily as a vacation. It is a year where you explore, try and do something. Getting a job would certainly be a very good example of that. I took a year away from college a year before I graduated because I was having effectively a nervous meltdown because I felt like I was being funneled towards, say, management consulting or investment banking. I knew both would make me miserable.
So I panicked, took a year off, and just worked. I tried a bunch of different jobs. It was extremely instructive not because it gave me the answer ie the singular passion that I should have been seeking or anything like that. It didn’t do that, but it helped me to question the assumptions that up to that point I had just being riding on top of. I completely agree. I think a gap year or a year sabbatical, internship, whatever it might be, would be a wonderful thing for people to somehow integrate into the education, which does not take place simply within the walls of an educational institution.
Look, I only say that because I don’t know how were going to get the cost down. If we do then never mind.
I went to a community college for 2 years right out of high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had just assembled my new toolbox and didn’t have anything in it yet. So I studied everything at a community college. I was amazed in hindsight at how good the philosophy professors were and how smart the english teachers were and music and drama.
At 26 bucks a credit, I could afford to be wrong and I was. I stayed there 3 years and I took every class I could. Then I took 6 months off. Then I went back to a university and finished up. I got a degree from Towson in communications, philosophy and speech. But, by then I knew what I was paying for. And again I could afford it. I finished late in 1984. There is just no way that happens today.
A kid in my exact same circumstance, the math isn’t there, he cannot afford to do it. If he does, he goes going to finish up about 45 grand in the hole. That is a milestone around your neck. And there is no reason for it.
Look, each of us in our pockets right now have a device that proves the ultimate democratisation of information. Never before has knowledge been so egalitarian. Once upon a time, I get it. It’s not fair to compare a Harvard lecture to a deep dive down the Youtube rabbit hole. But, it is not completely unfair either because we have access now like we never have.
It’s not unfair. I think that one of the primary reasons that in 2007 or 8 that I leveraged the exposure of the Four Hour Workweek to get involved with tech was to try to develop or at least enable teams to develop tools that would level the playing field a bit. You see that, not only with in this case a nonprofit example, but say the Harvards or MITs, etc. opening up a lot of their lectures and course work for people to take for free, which my brother has done for instance. But also you have companies like Duo Lingo, one that I have been involved with for a very long time, they now are the widest used language learning tool on the planet. It’s free. They have demonstrated in a number of instances how it can be more affective than the typical course work assigned in a semester of college, say Spanish instruction. So optimistic about the tools. I am very curious to see if when people have what they say they want what is this equal access to education, if they will be able to choose that instead of the entertainment and porn and everything else on the internet.
Do you really think they will?
That they will choose education over that?
I think that it will be a natural selection process. I’ve seen this, for instance in areas… I’ve been involved a number of organizations that build computer centers overseas to help with job creation. The good example would be something like Samasource, which I have been involved with here. It is a nonprofit startup. They do some very interesting work. They will take, say, repetative, small tasks at a place like Youtube or Ebay and they might build a computer center at a refugee camp or in Nairobi. Train people and then have that work sent to those people. They are also doing things domestically.
But, in examples that are not well implemented, they make these resources available without the training, without instilling the sort of philosophies and work ethic we have been discussing. People end up watching cat videos and porn. [Laughs]
I think it will be a natural selection process much like we currently see in every aspect of life. But the outcome is not life or death. At least not necessarily in the literal sense. It is more of a financial prosperity or lack there of. I think it will be case by case.
Look, you are either… I don’t know… When I try and really think in terms of what are the real fundamentals that drive education and ultimately prosperity, however he choose to define it. It’s hard to get more granular than curiosity. You’re either curious or you are not. The real geniuses that I stumbled across are people who can inspire curiosity. It’s not about imparting knowledge.
It’s about flicking the switch. You’ve got great books here on your shelve. Everybody has access to these books– not yours specifically. You get to choose whatever books you want to have in your house or your apartment. You get to choose all these things. Everybody has those same choices. I personally don’t think that the democratisation of innovation will make more people innovative. I think it will the people predisposed to be curious and inventive more so. Likewise education.
I think it is is trap to suggest that if we build it they’ll come. It’s just it never happened before. There is always going to be a weeding out process. But I think what you do on this podcast is really valuable in a way that goes beyond whatever its financial model might be. You’re talking specifically to people who give a crap in a specific way. That’s always been the struggle from a connectivity standpoint.
Yeah, it absolutely has. Part of the reason I make these podcast so ear bleedingly long is that it is for me a weeding and filtering process. I enjoy interacting with fans who are willing to commit to engaging and digesting these conversations. Because my realization… aside from this podcast serving as a creative outlet and reclaiming of freedom in a way after a number of large projects with large companies. I was very often asked by my book fans on social media or elsewhere what should I do if I am in Nebraska. What should I do if I am in fill in the blank location where I don’t have peer group that you have in San Francisco or New York City or fill in the blank? I would have these conversations with friends, much like the conversation we are having right now although not as 20 questions of course, over a glass or two of wine, and I would say, “Fuck. It is such a shame that this conversation– nothing really sensitive was discussed– was not recorded so I could share the damn thing.”
Oh my God. I just have to tell you. That is the story of my life. That is actually why I am here today and why I am still in television. I am working on a project now called Drinking with Geniuses. It is just a title in my head and I went ahead and locked it up because it sounds like a show or something.
It happened because… Do you remember a couple of years ago when that meteorite came burning through the atmosphere in Russia?
So I don’t know about you, but I am watching this on TV and the only question tearing through my mind is, “What the fuck was that? How the hell is this possible?” So I called an astrophysicist I knew over at Berkley. I said, “Hey, meet me over at Grumpy’s.” This little bar down in the financial district here in San Francisco. We sit down and get a couple of beers. I look at him just like I am looking at you right now and say, “What the hell just happened?” He said, “I know, right? You have lots of questions.” I said, “I have so many questions. I mean I get that meteorites are out there. I get that sooner and later one of them is going to flip our switch, but how did we not see it coming? How did it get past the satellite net?”
For next 20 minutes, he explained everything I needed to know about meteorites and satellites. Interestingly, that same day I had narrated most of episode 4 of How the Universe Works so it’s on my mind. The beer is cold. The brain across the table is enormous. I suddenly look around and say, “Why!?” Why aren’t we recording this? That is a show. But so is this.
Alternative title: Cold Beers, Enormous Brains.
Well, I will be one of the first to listen. I love it. I love this idea. Just one or two more questions. What advice would you give your 30 year old self? And if you could place where you were at the time. What you were doing.
Umm… OK, not to be glib, but I don’t believe I would advise myself in hindsight only because, you know, you hate to tear a hole in the time-space continuum. You know, you step on the butterfly and the next thing you know the mastedons are singing show tunes when you come back or something. Crazy stuff.
I would pull myself aside in the very, very early days. Actually, I was hired at QVC at 28 and when I was 30 I was on the verge of my own… I won’t say a mental collapse, but I knew I couldn’t do that anymore. I was trying to figure out if I could go into the whole entertainment business and freelance in an effective way. It gave me hives. I was really scared.
If I could go back, I would have probably just pulled myself aside and said, “It is going to be fine.” Then, as sort of a side note, I would have said, “Stop wearing makeup on camera. It just makes you look weird.”
[Laughs] For those people who would like to sample your podcast, and I encourage everyone to sample it because, let’s face it, you don’t always want to listen to 3 hour podcasts and you might want some professional narration and story telling. Which 2 episodes would you suggest they start with that are already out there?
You know, they are so short that you’ll know if you like them even if the subject matter isn’t your favorite right out of the gate. I mean they are literally 5 minutes long. I would actually start at the beginning. I would listen to the first one and then I would listen to the most recent one. Then you will hear a bit of a shift between the two, but not seismic. You’ll just get a better sense of where I am headed… not a big change at all. Then, if you like them, just cherry pick one in the middle. Then, who are we kidding, you can listen to them right now. By the time this thing gets posted, they’ll probably only be 20 of them out there. 20 times 5, what is that, 100 minutes. Listen to all of them.
An hour and forty.
Where can people learn more about you? See what you are up to? Hear your rants on Facebook? Etc.
You know I really hate to say it…
I will put all this in the show notes. We don’t need to rely all on your very impressive memory, which is a whole separate podcast. Are there any particular places you would like people to pay attention to? And we will put the whole list in the show notes as well.
MikeRowe.com is sort of the sun in the solar system. You can get anywhere from there.
The name of the podcast one more time?
The Way I Heard It. I am managing expectations a little bit because people get so pedantic now with facts. I mean how much grief do you get if you get a stat wrong, or a date wrong.
Oh, it’s like I skinned a child in public tied to a telephone at Union Square.
Right. So The Way I Heard It is really me in advance… You know when somebody says, “Hey, that story about Bruno Mars… You said it’s Peter Hernandez, but he really went by Pete. You know, not Peter.” And I could say, “Hey look man, this is just the way I heard it. What do you want from me. It is a big sloppy, Googley world out there. I tell you what, if you don’t like it why don’t you get a podcast and do your version.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] This is great fun. Any last words or things you like my audience to think on, do, consider, before we sign off?
Wow. No, that I am afraid is a bit beyond my pay grade, but I would like to thank them for listening to us, free associate for 3 hours. That was very decent of them.
Look, advice is that thing that you ask for when you secretly know the answer and wish you didn’t. So I am stingy with giving it. Robert Plant really had it right, man. There really is time to change the road you are on, whatever the road is. I’ve just had a ball blowing things up in my own fake little career. I would encourage more people to as well.
I can’t think of a better way to wrap this up. Mike, so much fun to hang. I really appreciate you making the time.
To everybody listening, we will put all sorts of resources and links in the show notes at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast/ (fourhourworkweek.com/2016/05/04/mike-rowe/). Misspell it anyway you like, preferably the correct spelling. Just because I don’t know what I rerouted. So fourhourworkweek.com/podcast/ .
Is it the number 4?
It’s all spelled out.
Is there a hyphen between four and hour?
No, this is one of those things that I thought would be really easy on the internet and people are like, “Oh, you mean for our workweek.” I am like, “No! It is f-o-u-r.” fourhourworkweek.com/podcast/.
Is week, w-e-a-k?
[Laughs] Work week, w-e-a-k?
Yes, I am just so exhausted. I am just so weak.
I know work weak. Yeah, you know…
You could spell the title of this thing wrong really in every single word.
So many possible ways. Maybe that will be my revised and updated edition. I’ll try and get a nice little royalty for just changing the spelling.
Everybody I appreciate you listening as always and until next time this is Tim Ferriss signing off.