The Importance of Being Dirty: Lessons from Mike Rowe (#157)

Photo credit: Michael Segal
Photo credit: Michael Segal

“Just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t suck at it.” – Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe (@mikeroweworks) is perhaps the best storyteller and pitchman I’ve ever had on the show.

You might know Mike from his eight seasons of Dirty Jobs, but that’s just a tiny piece of the story.

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.  Now, he is a massively successful TV host, writer, narrator, producer, actor, and spokesman.

Why listen to this episode? You will learn:

  • Secrets of the perfect pitch
  • How Mike flew around the world for free (until he got caught)
  • Why to pursue opportunity instead of passion
  • How being different can help you win in business and life
  • The business of Mike Rowe
  • Favorite books, voice-over artists, and much, much more…

If you’re in a rush and just want a fantastic 5-minute story about his selling pencils for the QVC audition, click here.


#157: The Importance of Being Dirty: Lessons from Mike Rowe

Want to hear another podcast from someone transforming the way we enjoy modern storytelling? — Listen to my conversation with Dan Carlin of Hardcore History. In this episode, we discuss his meditation practice, morning routines, and creative process (stream below or right-click here to download):

Ep 20: Dan Carlin - Hardcore History, Building Podcasts, Creativity, and More

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What did you do after high school? How do you feel that decision impacted your life? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

iTunes | Stitcher | Google Play

  • Connect with Mike Rowe: | Facebook | YouTube | Twitter | Foundation

Show Notes

  • Dirty Jobs and the surprising respectability of biting the balls off a sheep [7:22]
  • Developing the skill of impromptu performance [15:40]
  • How Mike Rowe started working at QVC [18:30]
  • Describing the QVC audition process and selling a pencil [21:00]
  • The distinguishing characteristics of the best sellers on QVC [24:12]
  • How Mike Rowe was fired from QVC three times [29:18]
  • American Airlines and unlimited access to first class travel  [32:57]
  • On being a sanguine freelancer from the age of 28 to 42 [39:24]
  • When hubris led to a change [42:44]
  • On selling Dirty Jobs to Discovery and the authenticity critical to the show’s success [46:22]
  • Constraints, antagonists, and parameters for creative projects [57:06]
  • The Ford project [1:00:31]
  • Pursuing opportunities when you’re not passionate about the projects [1:02:41]
  • Daily practices or morning rituals [1:07:27]
  • Procrastination and managing distractions [1:09:38]
  • Most gifted books [1:13:34]
  • Most astonishing narration work [1:24:16]
  • While William Shatner was always ahead of his time [1:29:06]
  • Why do great storytellers find it hard to tell their own stories [1:33:07]
  • On starting “The Way I Heard It,” Mike Rowe’s podcast [1:39:22]
  • When you think of the word “successful,” who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [1:50:02]
  • If you could have a billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say? [1:50:55]
  • If you could have every high-school graduate in the US read/watch/consume 2-3 things, what would you prescribe? [1:55:41]
  • Advice to your 30-year-old self [2:10:56]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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85 Replies to “The Importance of Being Dirty: Lessons from Mike Rowe (#157)”

  1. I thought it was physically impossible for the human body to contain this gargantuan amount of charm… I was incorrect.

  2. At no point in the moments leading up to me hitting the ‘play’ button did I anticipate hearing so many minutes of discussion about goat testicles, haha.

    That said, it was as high brow as you can get with that as your topic. Awesome.

  3. Mike Rowe. A National Treasure. The quintessence of taking your work, and NOT yourself, seriously.

  4. In the spirit of your introduction, I listened while quaffing a nice single malt.

    This was like having a drink with my two favorite drinking buddies.

    Mike and Tim, you both bring so much value to your fans, I’m beyond words.

    Strong work lads!

  5. In the spirit of your introduction, I poured a nice single malt and sat down to listen. Tim and Mike, you both bring so much value to your audience! I have spent my career as a Craftsman and small business owner and after 4HWW begun to dabble in online enterprises. This was very much like sharing a drink with two great mentors and biz inspirations. I’m beyond words.

    Strong work lads! Thank you!

  6. Loved “Dirty Jobs,” and the show humbly reminds me that there is work I wouldn’t ever do. Such as the one where Mike was working at a smelting metal plant.

  7. Tim, right around the 2 hr. 4 min. mark, you and Mike talk about free access to education that is shown to work sometimes better than the education that costs so much more… and that expensive education (college) is what was pointed out by Mike earlier in the podcast as one of the biggest detriments to our people….

    This is all great, and I hear this time and time again (the idea of free access to great, sometimes superior education), but I never hear the conversation about “When will employers start honoring that type of education, and stop exclusively considering people with the typical degree from a recognized college?”

    As far as I can tell, we will never stop this cycle of kids spending their money/their parents’ money on education for jobs that don’t/won’t exist until employers step up and start training young people for their specific jobs, or until employers start honoring supplemental education….

    I’d love to hear someone with a huge following address this/get a bunch of notable employers to make a pledge to do something like this.

    1. Employers are legally allowed to discriminate against things that the applicant can “change”. Education status is one of those things. Until there are less jobs than people we will have this problem.

      At one point in this podcast Mike said he would like to find somebody without a college degree who is successful. They exist. I can’t imagine “the road” to employment is any easier or harder either way, just different.

      So after all that, the short answer is “when the government gives them something else to discriminate against.”

      An alternative answer is when natural selection has run its course and they realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot and missing good candidates.

  8. Tim, you and Mike discussed the idea of free access to education that is sometimes superior to our typical methods of education… which are methods that tend to put people into this massive debt cycle that’s been created.

    However, much like many other people to touch on this topic, I never hear it expanded to “When will employers start honoring these supplemental education methods and stop exclusively considering people that have the typical, costly education?”

    As far as I can tell, we’ll never break the cycle until employers step up and pledge to train people for the specifics that are included in their jobs, or until employers pledge to honor supplemental education.

    I’d love to hear you address this idea.

  9. Wow, I loved this podcast! Mike Rowe is such an interesting guy. I think he would be one of the best guys to have as a drinking buddy!

  10. In my rush for adventure and experience I did not quite complete further education and directly after finishing High School left to seek out the above.

    How did that affect my life? Considerabley.

    The decision opened up many avenues of thought and action, not all positive but rich in experience.

  11. I listened through once and immediately listened two more times. Two of my favorite personalities coming together and swapping wisdom in my favorite information format. Tim and Mike, you simultaneously challenge and validate a path through the world that so few allow themselves to follow: that of hard AND intelligent effort–sheep testicles included. And the idea of finding a toolbox for yourself and essentially becoming a tradesman in whatever vocation you choose is the true panacea to entitlement and apathy in all industries.

    Be well, and keep lighting our minds on fire.

  12. When Mike was talking about passion, it reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport.

    “Passion is an epiphenomenon of a working life well lived. Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become so good that they can’t ignore you”

    Keep up the great work, Tim! #timforpresident

    1. It’s a good book, but somewhat flawed, I feel. It’s certainly not the final say in an interesting discussion. I wrote what I consider to be the book’s pros and cons on the Amazon page.

  13. Hi Tim,

    What do you think of Marc Marron’s podcast and would you be able to do a podcast where you interview him?

    I just heard his 700th podcast with Louis CK and thought of you.


  14. I went to University and graduated with a MSc in Computer Science. 20 years later and I’m the Head of IT of a financial institution. Without my degree this wouldn’t have been possible.

  15. Fantastic convo! Was really hoping to find out if the story of was real but still great, thanks!

  16. Wow! This was totally fantastic. Mike has a sexy voice and all the wisdom shared was great, especially about making that pencil interesting. I sell vintage antique crap for a living (another dirty job) so I often have to do that and sometimes its difficult. By way of feedback, I love the longer episodes. I just press play and do a couple hours of work and don’t have to worry about finding something else to listen to after 20 mins. It also makes me feel like I’m listening to friends chit chat. Keep it up, boys!

  17. Mike Rowe, please write the book about QVC I promise to pre-order it. MR is a Jack-of-all-trades, master of speaking the english language, prolifically, in long verse form with free association, serendipitously, and impromptu.

  18. Can’t wait to listen to this. He’s long been one of my favorites. Follow him on Facebook if you haven’t already. After HS I worked for the summer and then went straight to college. I loved college, so great move all in all. But I have always wished I took a gap year and travelled someplace totally different. Would have been a great opportunity at a low risk time and would have made me appreciate college more. But they weren’t popular back then like they are now. I am encouraging my daughters to consider the gap year.

  19. What fun! I was laughing while outside walking! I don’t comment much, but I do want to tell you Tim how much I enjoy your podcast. Back when you first started, I didn’t think I would. There are some episodes I’ve listened to multiple times. So thanks for doing these – they keep me smart 😉

  20. I would have loved to hear both sides of the argument: Tim is pro higher education and Mike is con higher education. I’m on my second bottle of wine too Tim. No guilt.

    1. From what I’ve read, Mike isn’t anti higher education; he’s against the idea that college is the only way to educate oneself and that a college degree is the only road to a decent job.

  21. Nailed it!

    Mike was a prime choice and such a down to earth guy. Over the years I’ve enjoyed Mike as a TV personality and watching some of his brief interviews. Pleasure to get a more in-depth look into Mike as person and his life experiences.

    My take-aways:

    #1. Drinks with Geniuses – Brilliant!! (queue the genness guys)…however might steal some of Tim’s viewers

    #2. Biting testicles is more effective and more humane than rubber bands

    #3. “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” – Since Mike reiterated the STH quote a few times, I say amen.

    #4 Tim, would love to have you expound (spotlight a podcast or more) around the evolutionary idea of education, effective alternatives, and the notions you and Mike touched on.

    Keep up the solid work.

    J. Harrison

  22. What did I do after high school? Two weeks after I graduated I join the army. At that time I thought that I wouldn’t be a career soldier but after several months there I came to the realization that I made a huge mistake. I experienced the loneliness, hungriest and stressful days of my life. Today I look back and believe it was one of the best times in my life. I learn how resilient I am, I traveled and met great and influential people. But most importantly That experience helped me to have a successful career as a cop and began a new one as a professor. At 52 years old, I’m not done yet. I sometimes think back and wondered how an inner city boy with no direction have accomplished so much.

  23. Thanks for another fantastic podcast Tim.

    I’d really love to get some more of your book recommendations. Maybe just a post of a photo of your various bookshelves. I think that there would be a lot of other great ones you haven’t yet recommended.

    Fantastic listening and great interview technique

  24. Tim, by far my favorite interview. Mike Rowe is the most interesting man and has no need for Dos Eques

  25. Tim..Love your long podcasts! Please don’t ever change this format. I’m a fan of Mike Rowe and this conversation gave me so much more insight into who he is. Keep on bringing great storytellers like Mike and Cal Fussman. Their stories are treasures to be shared. Thanks!

  26. This is quite possibly the best podcast I have ever listened to. Granted, I could listed to Mike Rowe read a phone book and be intertained, but I laughed hard several times and could have listed to an hour of the two of you “free associating.” I’m looking forward to the next time you have him on!

  27. What I imagined would be one of your lesser interesting podcasts turned out to be one of your best, Tim. Awesome conversation!

  28. Mike, you’ve been a friend for a long time now, Thank you. I would never have the extensive knowledge about our solar system, had you not taken that bet.

  29. First timer here, just happened to pass by and ended up tremendously enjoying this podcast. So good. Learned so much.Will check out other episodes now. Thank you.

  30. This was an amazing episode. My wife and I have been Mike Rowe fans since watch clips of him on QVC on YouTube. (Cat sack is particularly excellent)

    After high school I took a year off and entered the workforce, went back, then quit for good. I love learning, but I disliked school.

    I’ve been able to learn 10x faster on my own, and now I have my own business teaching charisma, persuasion, and influence.

    While I wish I had dropped out sooner, I don’t regret the time I spent in college…. It’s a strange feeling.

  31. This was one of the best and most inspirational I think you’ve done … the optimism around the opportunities available to those who work hard – I think that’s just so under-covered these days! We honor natural talent … luck … looks … privilege … but someone willing to bust their ass? Nope. And yet, it’s the hard workers who really deserve the most praise (whatever they do for a living).

  32. I’ve been wanting Tim to interview Mike Rowe ever since I found his podcast a couple years ago. It was everything I hoped it would be.

  33. I’m surprised there are only 39 comments so far. Mike Rowe is a true exemplar of a well-balanced, purposeful man. He hooked me as a teenager with his simultaneous wit and humility and now I admire him for his independent thinking and creative initiative. Truthfully, I didn’t expect him to be so savvy in the ways of writing and communication, but his college history and subsequent later life explain much.

    I enjoyed hearing you guys discuss the value of certain writing formats and conceits, and their ability to unlock and disseminate truly worthwhile information. I’m trying to observe effective writers and master the art of matching the format to the occasion. Being a good writer and a good facilitator is almost painfully simple in many ways, as long as one picks the right format and frames at the beginning. That’s why it seems like your podcasts have gotten better with time; you’ve stopped trying to will the quality into existence and are instead structuring it into being. Effectively, once you have the structure down, all you have to do is plug it in, sit back and enjoy the show. Of course, this is over-reductive — I don’t mean to minimize any of the other real-time efforts you make during the interview to keep things compelling. I’m just interested in how, with a diligent eye to format at the beginning, the “mystical” aspects of writing and interviewing seem to melt away, and you’re left with this Zen-like free-flow of ideas that seem to proffer themselves effortlessly. Sharpening the saw!

  34. What a great episode!

    Right after downloaded Mike’s podcast and binge-listened to all of it. What an exquisite writing!

    Thank you Tim for indroducing Mike Rowe to us!

  35. Tim – I’ve listened to MANY of your podcasts, but this interview with MIKE ROWE is MY FAVORITE. Fascinating career path. Great storyteller. Combination of humor and authenticity. GREAT stuff. Well done!

  36. Great episode! Are you planning to film these conversations? Would be great! Similar to inside quest.

  37. Thanks Tim and Mike, I loved this episode. So much fun. I bet Mike put you up to doing that intro while sloshed, in the spirit of “the one-take!”

  38. One of the best podcasts so far. The 8-minute yellow pencil pitch story reminded me of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil”, I was expecting to hear Tim or Mike making the reference.

  39. Long time lurker, first time commenter… Wow! What a great show this was. I hope the lucky few that can call themselves personal friends of either Mike Rowe and Tim Ferriss realize what a treasure they have.

    Also… I would have given my left arm to be in the room while these two recorded this episode. (Full disclosure – I’m right handed, so I guess I could have offered a bigger sacrifice.)

  40. Hey Tim – this was a fantastic episode. Mike was so thoughtful and I really appreciate when you’re able to have a more interactive conversation with guests. I’ve listened to almost all your episodes and tune in (so to speak) every week.

    I had a small request and I apologize if this is the wrong avenue of conveying it. I know it could be far fetched for you to delve into this topic but I’d love to hear your interview an OB/GYN, CNM, or someone who works in maternal medicine. I’m 26 weeks pregnant and I’ve gotta say that it’s really really challenging to find reliable data around the so called ‘rules’ of pregnancy – and I know I’m not the only one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the science and hear from a guest on the reality of birth.

    There’s the request. Here’s more info… I read the books Expecting Better and Bringing Up Bebe and recommend them to anyone who is new to the whole baby/pregnancy thing. These grounded me very early regarding a topic that is so riddled with fear-mongering and anxiety inducing ‘statistics’ that it drives most new moms/families crazy.

    Anyway, I’d love to here a Tim Ferriss-ified conversation on this topic! Thanks again for the great podcast.

      1. US medical practice is very different to other countries driven by insurance risk management. Talk to Dr Pesce, Head of Obstetrics at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia. He brings avert different POV. Had kids in the US system and in Australia. Could not be more different.

  41. Man this podcast was sick…in the best way possible. Really enjoyed it. Was kind of sad when I looked up and nothing was there:).

    1. No, Paul Harvey was not “The Friendly Man.” According to Scott Carrier, “The Friendly Man” was based in New York City, while Harvey was based out of Chicago. Plus, Carrier was employed in the capacity of a producer who roamed the United States collecting audio for use in stories told by “The Friendly Man,” and this certainly doesn’t fit the format of Paul Harvey’s broadcasts. A better guess on the identity of “The Friendly Man” would be Charles Osgood, who hosted a daily radio feature called “The Osgood File.”

  42. Hi guys,

    very honest and interesting perspective. I’d like to contribute with my experience though when Mike talks about “going the opposite direction” instead of “following your passion”. I actually discovered in my life an even more useful pointer, to myself obviously: craft your journey and do what’s right for you, at first, and the world, secondly. It may sound as an oversimplification but this little advice completely changed my life. The “opposite direction” advice can push you slightly in a “race against the world, I’m the one” cul-de-sac.

  43. This was, without question, my favorite episode of this Podcast ever. There were so many great quotes thrown out, but the one I listened to over and over was “Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” Mike is like a dirty, impossibly charming Buddha, whose self-actualization is the furthest thing from being insincere and contrived. I have so much respect for what he’s “Forrest Gumped” his way into throughout his life.

    New life goal? Interviewing him for the book I’m writing called, “The Career Experiment” on the topic of not following your passion toward a career, but rather treating your career journey like the choose your own adventure story it is.

    Well-done, Tim.

  44. My first Tim Ferriss podcast. It took me three days of commuting to get through it and I’m hooked. Thanks!!

  45. Another great podcast with interesting perspectives. Your conversation about higher ed reminded me of the book: “Shopcraft as Soulcraft” which touches on similar issues with the path we push high school graduates to. The contrast of $26/credit allowing you to “afford to be wrong” and today, is striking. I remember being able to work in the summer and pay for school. Enjoyed this very much.

  46. I loved this episode as i do most. But Mikes style was so enjoyable and worked so well with Tims i had a ball. A little over 2 hrs gone in no time. I had a3hr drive home today. Listened to this then while stopping for fuel downlanded the first 18 episodes of Mikes podcast and listened to all of those too. Best drive home in ages.

  47. No matter his cause, however seemingly noble, you should ask yourself how much money would it take to persuade a mercenary to switch sides.

  48. Loved the podcast.

    Often Mike speaks about 1/2 the audience loving it and 1/2 hating it. His attitude of “that’s exactly where you want to be” is inspiring.

    I’m wondering if anyone has any tips for getting there? I always get so upset with the 1/2 of people who hate it, and I really want to find a way to get over that.


  49. Dude! Long-time listener of most of the podcasts you’ve ever put up….ever. This one is by far my favorite. Mike was exceptional and so unique! (…and that voice).

    Keep ’em coming!

  50. So glad you asked about his vocabulary. I was wondering the same as I looked up at least ten words during the podcast. And he uses the big words in a seemingly unpretentious manner.

  51. Awesome Episode. Mike’s stories of QVC are hilarious. I watched a few old clips too. Very funny, no wonder his producer would fall asleep.

  52. Great episode, Tim. So cool to learn the backstory behind the man that to me was previously only associated with Dirty Jobs.

  53. I was “forced” to enroll in college, chose one that I was already good at (self-taught), computer science, got in, unexpectedly, then proceeded to suck at it for 6 years, when i finally got my degree. I regret not standing up for myself back then and not enrolling, but I was already so tired of my life, I was at a breaking point, I no strength left. Now I’m restarting my life as a reseller…

  54. The only reason I listened to this podcast was the reference to John D. McDonald. I come away with so much rich information and insight that i am once again blown away.

    Thank you so very much, Mike and Tim.

  55. Love the podcast. I admire Mike Rowe’s drive and passion in the industry. They were just on the The Art of Charm podcast with Jordan Harbinger.

  56. Thank you for recording this. You and Mike Rowe bring out the best in each other, which is weird to say because you can both crush it on your own. Also weird: This conversation reminded me of my first date with my husband, when we followed a line of Porsches thru the northern CA hills. We talked about important stuff, we commented on the scenery, but mostly we enjoyed each others’ company.

  57. I really enjoyed hearing this episode. I felt like Mr. Rowe was so worldly in his experiences and so convincing with that commanding voice of his that I was never without great anticipation of his next florid account.