Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, said the worst advice he was ever given was to follow his passion. He further indicts this instruction by saying we (as a society, as a workforce, as educators and employers) have it wrong. We do have it wrong. And so does Mike Rowe – for very different reasons.
If we continue to define “passion” as some dreamy, useless and self-indulgent amusement for which one can be paid amply, then yes it’s bad advice because inevitably someone gets hurt (as some members of Congress, the banking industry and the war on drugs continue to prove). But that isn’t what passion is, nor has that ever been. Passion is not dreamy, useless and self-indulgent. It’s also not exploitation, getting rich and walking on others on your way up. Passion is an intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction, a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.
By this definition (read: the real one, not the esoteric and seemingly unattainable one), the pig farmer feeding his pigs all the leftovers from Vegas casino buffets is following his passion. And it’s not just the dirtiest jobs where we find contented, even happy people “whistling while they work.” The woman with incredibly fine motor skills and an eye for color, who deals well with people, knits scarves in the daytime for her weekend flea market booth and waits tables at night – and on both counts she is following her passion.
Etsy and eBay are filled with the products of someone’s passion. There is a great deal of proficiency, accomplishment and self-satisfaction that goes along with making something that sells or searching for and finding something that sells – and all that requires passion for what you’re doing.
Some jobs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we find (and many of us are and/or know) people working as grocery baggers, receptionists, dishwashers, janitors and housekeepers – a lot of them relatively happy because they’re doing something they love. How can this be?
These seemingly unhappy jobs have opportunities for expression of that which feeds one’s passion. It’s no coincidence that the contented bagger has excellent spatial skills and loves to play Tetris. The receptionist who gets no respect in any other aspect of his/her life directs traffic by keeping the flow of communication going and directing even the most superior intellect to the right place. The contented dishwasher, housekeeper and janitor make neat, clean and right that which is messy, dirty and askew. Cleaning jobs in particular have the side effect of giving one a sense of control and mastery when it seems like everything else in one’s life is outside one’s control – from family issues to financial difficulties.
All of these occupations present the opportunity to get into a zone (a Zen state, if you will). Time flies, all the chaos in our own brains gets sent to the backs of our brains where problems simmer and solutions bubble up to illuminate that light bulb above our heads. The proficiency and sense of accomplishment we get from sorting, placing, tidying and accommodating cannot be overstated and it damn sure should never be criticized or belittled. This is never more apparent than in children whose parents have not only assigned them a chore; they’ve made clear that the child is in charge of said chore and that no one – not siblings, relatives and not even the parents – is to interfere with the child’s process or final result. We never grow out of this need to feel good about what we do and in fact it is the jobs we hold that either allow that feeling to flourish or crush it out of us completely.
Many think meditation and a sense of control can be achieved only by taking a break from one’s work (to sit on the beach, engage in a hobby or doing any number of things in the bathroom) and this is most often true in those jobs where the employee is being micromanaged and/or has been assigned conflicting tasks.
This is where I hope like hell managers of retail, food and hospitality are reading: Stop making an already bad economy into a cesspool of human regard. An employee whose job is to be front and center with customers must be adequately trained to make the customer want to come back. This is not done by handcuffing the employee to the register, assuming she knows anything about the inventory one aisle over, and then holding it against her when she doesn’t. This is done by adequately training the employee in those tasks that would otherwise have him calling for the manager. Everything an employee doesn’t know is the manager’s fault for not training the employee. Deliberately limiting the authority of those on the front line to act on the customer’s behalf leaves the employee feeling inadequate, unaccomplished and resentful; it leaves the customer rightly feeling she’s picked the wrong place to do business; and it is the first sign (and the tip of the iceberg) that the manager is doing a bad job.
Another sign of bad management is hiring 15 people for two positions, giving each person five hours a week, and then tooting one’s managerial horn for having given 15 people jobs. In the employee’s mind, the tasks of the job itself are directly associated with the negatives: lack of hours, lack of money and lack of worth. Scraping food off plates or restocking aisles of product isn’t nearly as bad as the lack of any opportunity to get proficient and still be unable to pay one’s rent. This is why there is so much turnover in the retail, food and hospitality industries. It’s not the jobs. It’s the managers! Those who hire for these jobs have little to no regard for those jobs and treat those who apply and get hired for them accordingly. It is not coincidental that wherever a manager has little or no regard for employees, so do the customers. There is a plague of irate employees dealing with customers who have in turn decided these employees deserve to be treated like crap. Without exception, every business with customers who treat employees like crap is being run by someone who treats his or her employees like crap. This starts and ends at management’s regard for the tasks of any given job.
Because of this economy’s limited job opportunities, advancement, hours available, pay, and benefits, it’s never been more crucial for people to stop at the want ad for a restaurant dishwasher rather than pass it up in hopes of – just the hope of, mind you – a better paying job as a restaurant manager. You think dishwashing would suck because of your experience at home. It’s not the same job – ask any dishwasher. What sucks about being a dishwasher is the regard given the occupation by the average manager, which is laughable when you consider how the manager’s job comes to an abrupt halt if the dishwasher walks out. While good managers recognizes their parts as cogs in a machine that can also identify and tap talents and passions, most managers see themselves as the electricity to that machine, which again is laughable the first time the actual power goes out.
Teaching, military service and paramedicine are a few of the fields that don’t pay all that well and yet where people are following their passion even as what they do doesn’t also meet our thwarted definition of happiness – because they are content. At the end of many days is a sense of worth, usefulness, productivity, accomplishment and self-satisfaction.
The only reason it’s inconceivable to so many that someone could wake up and look forward to a day of slopping pigs or dealing with people or washing dishes is that we’ve not only squeezed the life out of the definitions of passion and satisfaction; we’ve also made the fleeting concept of happiness a goal (which is just insane) and severely understated the value of contentedness. Just as happiness has been wrongly set as the benchmark of success, so has contentedness been wrongly set as the hallmark of resignation (read: giving up and giving in).
Mike Rowe helps show us better than anyone that passion can be found in the most unlikely places. There is a subtle and disturbing hypocrisy in his disfavor for following one’s passion as he follows his own. Can you think of anyone more passionate about hard workers and masters of craft than the man whose passion is making sure everyone knows about them and how hard they work?
We absolutely should be following our passions and doing what we love. What we should not be doing is allowing others to limit our possibilities and opportunities for passion, satisfaction and contentedness by defining these concepts for us. This includes everyone on both ends of the spectrum, from hokey-ass motivational speakers and authors to the well-meaning but incorrect Mike Rowe.