Mike Rowe’s Search for Meaning

Here’s a clue: He found it in the dirt
TIMEApril 8, 2020

Mike Rowe has spent his career telling other people’s stories, and he hadn’t planned to tell his own—at least not so soon.

So when he was asked to write a memoir, he said, “No, I really don’t want to write a memoir. I haven’t done enough. I’m not old enough.”

His book comes out this October 2019.

Rowe has certainly done a lot, and still manages to sum up his career briefly: Early on, there was a stint in opera; narrating science documentaries; getting fired from QVC. A turning point came in hosting the show “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” which turned into “Dirty Jobs.” It continues to run but also turned into advocacy for the blue-collar trades with his foundation Now he’s also hosting “Returning the Favor,” which he tentatively calls a feel-good show, and a short-form podcast of curiosities, “The Way I Heard It,” which has now led to a book of the same title.

The book was supposed to be a collection of stories Rowe has told on his podcast, maybe with some commentary about those stories, but as Rowe started writing, the personal parts got more personal and took on a life of their own.

Despite the fact that he’s been writing all his life, and largely for fun, Rowe found the blank pages to be a different sort of challenge. Now he was forced to reckon with himself, past and present.

“My mother—I just got off the phone with her—you’ll be pleased to know, has read it, and aside from a bunch of typos, says it’s not at all embarrassing to either she or my father. So that’s fine,” Rowe said.

Finding Meaning

Rowe ascribes his early work-philosophy to Travis McGee, a pulp-fiction series protagonist whose motto was basically to live well, but live honestly, and think of your job as just the means to your next paycheck.

“It served me pretty well until I was 42,” Rowe said.

Until then, Rowe was doing the work of what he calls an impersonator. He got into the entertainment business because he found he could do a pretty good impression of a host and a singer, and later a narrator, when his voice changed and he could pass for someone older than he was.

“I was an inveterate freelancer,” he said. “I lived in hotels; I didn’t own anything. I had clothing deals with various stores that had deals with the networks. So I was doing a show for PBS, I was doing a show for American Airlines. And I was doing a show for Fox, all at the same time. And flying around the country and stopping in Eddie Bauer and getting, you know, that week’s allotment of clothing and wearing them and then giving them away on the way to the airport to the first homeless person who looked like he was my size. And so I was living. It was a fun life.”

Then one day, while living in San Francisco and hosting a show called “Evening Magazine,” his mother called him. It was about his grandfather’s health.

“This guy was my idol. He was my role model growing up, the kind of guy who could build a house without a blueprint,” Rowe said. He was actually the reason Rowe got into entertainment and had encouraged him to do the work he had skills for.

“He was dying, and my mother said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if, before he died, he turned on the TV and saw you doing something that looked like work?'”

Rowe took this to heart, and dug in deep.

“I started doing stories from the sewer,” Rowe said. He went into the sewers, to construction sites, and places where there were people willing to get their hands dirty. People liked it.

“I got 10,000 letters and emails from people. It’s not that they loved the show, it’s that they wanted me to know about their grandfather, or mother, or brother, uncle, cousin,” Rowe said. “It just really struck me that there was a hunger in the country to share stories of work.”

Halfway through this odyssey of sewage and soil—and perhaps this was no surprise to viewers who had followed Rowe through his projects—Rowe realized he had a project that really mattered to him.

“I guess it’s sort of a serendipitous, accidental search for meaning. And I found it in the dirt,” Rowe said.


Rowe grew up with a musical mother and thespian father, and his grandparents, married 70 years, right next door—against a backdrop of probably a dozen acres of what must have seemed like deep, faraway woods.

“I thought I was Huck Finn!” Rowe said. He didn’t realize until he was maybe 12 that they really were only a few miles from the city.

He credits good fortune with meeting the people who helped turn him into the consummate storyteller he’s become.

He had a music teacher growing up, Mr. King, who cured Rowe of his stammer and got him out of his shell.

“I was a very shy kid, and he forced me onto the stage, showed me that you can make all kinds of choices as an actor, and that also reflected choices you can make as a person,” Rowe said. “And now that was a very important thing for me to figure out in high school.”

He had a rhetoric professor named Richard Vatz who changed the way he thought of the written word.

“I was very lucky,” Rowe said. “The influence of growing up with room to wander and explore, and a couple of great parents and a couple of great grandparents right next door, and a couple of great teachers along the way—that, you can’t take any credit for. I was just lucky.”

When he found meaning in the dirt, he also felt reconnected in part to who he used to be.

“[‘Dirty Jobs’] reintroduced me and reconnected me to a lot of the things that are fundamental and primal and important,” he said. “I’m probably not alone. I think a lot of people today feel like they’ve become somewhat disconnected or maybe untethered from the person they used to be, or the life they used to have.”

Rowe finds that the success of his programs is a reminder that, one, we are a fundamentally curious species and, two, we’re a bit disconnected today.

“We’re connected today more than we’ve ever been … [meanwhile,] we’re probably more disconnected than we’ve ever been. As a people, you know, we’re disconnected from where our food comes from, and where our energy comes from. And our own history.”

“Even though they’re more connected than they’ve ever been in this one way, there’s a hollowed-out kind of, maybe an emptiness or curiosity or a suspicion that something has changed. So I suspect people are looking for what that something is,” Rowe said.

His “Returning the Favor” project on Facebook is one way Rowe is trying to tackle this. Essentially, it taps into the feel-good programming phenomenon. Rowe initially regarded the idea of a “feel-good” show with suspicion. He didn’t want it to feel manipulative, and agreed only if the show could be done in a way that was similar to “Dirty Jobs,” with the crew on the road trying to find people “who are slightly better than you and me.”

The premise was simple: “Obviously, the country’s divided, and my newsfeed probably looks a lot like yours, full of angry people. … I’m just going to put something in your newsfeed that doesn’t make you throw up in your mouth and angry.”

Rowe also felt important that he was on Facebook, where the show is, and continued to involve the people who watch it. It’s easy to turn things over to a big production company, but that’s why so much content looks exactly the same, whereas when he involves viewers, things seem to go the right direction. Case in point, his foundation grew out of “Dirty Jobs,” which over the past decade has awarded more than $5 million in scholarships to help people learn skills to work jobs in demand.

“Returning the Favor” now has 2.3 million page-followers and hundreds of millions of views. It’s still running, as is “Dirty Jobs,” and his many other projects.

If there’s something of “old Mike” that lingers, Rowe says it’s his desire to not have two days that are exactly the same.

“I guess in a very general way, my purpose is to tap the country on the shoulder every so often and say, ‘Hey, what about her? What about him? Get a load of this,'” Rowe said. “I try to do it with humor, and I try not to linger too long.”