For years Mike Rowe has been travelling across the US to meet people whose laborious, often thankless work keeps the world moving forward. And across different shows and different television networks, what has remained consistent is Mike’s sincere curiosity and willingness to learn.
Mike is currently the host of Somebody’s Gotta Do It on CNN, which focuses less on the dirty and more on the unexpected, surprising jobs — from repopulating oysters in Chesapeake Bay to running monster truck rallies — that require unique, passionate individuals. We had a conversation with Mike to learn how he goes about his own work of exploring, in his own words, “real people who do real things.”
When you’re not travelling you’re based out of San Francisco, is that right?
Yeah, that’s where the mail comes, for the last 15 years. I started in Baltimore, and a lot of places in between, you know. You go where the work is.
If you had to choose one word to describe how you work, what would it be? Or a phrase.
I would say “with great respect to curiosity.”
Are you an iPhone person or Android person, or what? What kind of phone do you use?
I’m a late adopter, in most things, but at the moment I’m still enjoying my iPhone 5. But I’m told the 6s is waiting — with enhanced resolution, a better camera, etcetera etcetera.
Yeah, I kind of want that pink phone for some reason, there’s an appeal to that. Do you also use an Apple computer?
I do, I’ve got a — what do they call it — I guess it’s a Pro. The trick is, you know, not the capability of the computer, or the size of the hard drive, or the resolution of the screen, or the random access memory or any of the other stuff. The trick is does it fit on the table that folds down on the aeroplane.
I hope you can pay to get a little more room on the plane these days. Or I hope CNN pays for that.
You know what, you would think so, but it doesn’t really matter where you sit on the plane. The size of the table is always the same.
Apple should consider that next time.
That’s exactly what I hope you would express in this somehow, if Apple is listening they really need to coordinate with United, American, Delta, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, and just say look, let’s get on the same page with respect to our technology and your tray table. I really think there’s an opportunity here to dramatically enhance both the travel and the technology experience for all concerned.
And speaking of all that technology, what are the tools or software or apps that you use every day that you can’t really live without?
You know, if I can’t manage it from my phone, then somebody else has to manage it for me. It’s really that — again being a late adopter I’m relatively new to the whole Bluetooth thing. In fact I’m still not technically doing it but I’ve got these great Bose headphones that attach to the phone and have a really great mic built into it. So now when people yell and scream at me I can hear them in crisp stereo sound and never miss a syllable of their disappointment.
And when you’re not travelling, what kind of workspace do you have? Do you have an office or just work from home? Or sit in airports I imagine.
That’s it. It’s the United lounge, it’s the Amtrak, it’s the flight itself, it’s a coffee table in my apartment at home. Sometimes it’s the bed. I don’t have a traditional office and really haven’t for a long time.
I also steal desks a lot. When I’m at CNN right now, you know there’s cubicles all over the place. Earlier I was working in Brooke Baldwin’s office, then I was working in Ashleigh Banfield’s, and now I don’t know whose office this is. There’s not much here so it must be somebody who was fired recently, but I just kind of squat wherever I can. I grab phones — right now I have no idea whose phone this is. I dial out from stranger’s phones constantly.
And I haven’t bought any clothes in like twenty years; I steal everything from a commercial shoot or if there’s wardrobe handy I’ll just kind of take it. I kind of feel like I’m entitled to it because if you wear it on TV somebody should give it to you so — a lot of times people forget to give me stuff I feel like I should possess, so I feel like I should just go ahead and take it, and no one seems to mind.
It’s kind of a Native American philosophy I’ve embraced with respect to this kind of work. I understand the hands-on work, but the technology you’re talking about and the typical protocols that exist in most places, I don’t think that kind of thing can be owned. I think it’s meant to be leased or put out on permanent loan. So that’s what I’m all about: permanent loan.
That’s a good idea, it’s only tricky when you need a tuxedo or something.
Actually, the tuxedo is a great example. It’s one of the most traditional rentals. You can still rent a tux. I don’t know why anybody would buy a tux.
Oh yeah, of course.
I have three tuxes at home — none of them fit properly. All of them need to be cleaned and I don’t feel like cleaning any of them. Looking back I would have been better off having rented a tux for every time I ever needed one.
The truth is, I’d say the same thing about a car. I’d be better off with a rental car. I’d be better off renting food, honestly. And I guess in a sense we do, right? I mean nobody really owns food. You borrow it for a while and then you get rid of it. That’s the way the world is.
That’s the way it works.
Yeah you chew it, you swallow, it and out it goes. We don’t really own anything, Andy, now that I think about it. Nothing.
That’s true. I think you might’ve just answered my next question — I was going to ask what your best time-saving short cut is, or what do you do to automate things. But I like this rental philosophy.
But also with respect to time-saving short cuts, I can’t recommend enough simply forgetting. Forgetting the task. Blowing off the appointment. Like I did earlier with our phone call — I really needed to find a way to save 20 minutes because I got double booked for a thing and I had a room full of people waiting and I went back and forth on it.
But then I thought I’m just gonna call him and tell him I’m not calling him. And that way I could still cling to the ethics of being somewhat responsible, but at the same time shirk my responsibility. And that’s really the world we’re in, Andy. Just constantly trying to please everyone which means you’re always going to disappoint somebody a little. And that’s what you do in this hectic life in which we find ourselves technically bound and otherwise committed.
Yeah, definitely for sure. And speaking of that do you use anything like a to-do list manager or paper notebook to keep track of what you’re doing?
I’ve embraced what I think is a bold new piece of technology with respect to that, and that’s called the Post-it note. I still use Post-it notes; when I’m at home they’re on my refrigerator. On my computer, I still don’t really understand the business of folders and all the organisation and all that stuff. It’s on my desktop and when my desktop gets completely cluttered with photos, icons, apps, and all that all that other stuff, I just go get a new computer.
It’s the simplest thing in the world. If you’ve got more stuff in your computer than you can manage from your actual desktop, and if you’re busier than the Post-it notes will allow you to fill on the front of your refrigerator, then you’ve probably bitten off more than you can chew.
By the way, you know there’s a super sticky Post-it note that they sell? Which I much prefer.
Tell me more about that. Where can I get them and why are they extra sticky? Do we know?
They’re just normal Post-it notes, it’s the same brand, but the glue on the back is much stronger, and I find with normal ones they’re always falling off and getting blown away.
I tell ya, I love that idea because I will occasionally stick a Post-it note to my forehead, which is bigger than the average forehead by the way, and I’ll write something amusing on it and then take a picture of my face and put that on Facebook. And that’s me reminding myself to do a thing. Sometimes I’ll actually go to my Facebook page and post an image of my face with a Post-it note on my head — I have three million friends on Facebook and they can remind me. But that’s only for the really super important stuff.
Well that’s my tip for you: find the super sticky version.
I’ve made a note. Actually I’m writing this on a Post-it note right now with normal sticky stuff on the back.
Aside from the phone and the computer, do you have any other gadgets or tools that you always have with? Maybe like a pocket knife or something like that.
I used to have a pocket knife. I don’t travel with it any more obviously, because they kept confiscating them. The Leatherman is a far superior device to the Swiss Army knife, which also came in handy for years. But If you’re gonna have one tool I’d go with the Leatherman. You’ve got your pliers, you’ve got two different sized knives, you have all sorts of fun stuff in there. And I just think it’s cooler than the Swiss Army knife. Although the Swiss Army Knife has a magnifying glass, which more and more lately I find I need.
To read the Post-it notes?
No it’s not the Post-it notes, it’s the restaurants. It’s the menus in the restaurants. I just can’t read anything on them anymore. I think they’re making the type smaller on purpose, and really if you’re in a nice restaurant and you pull out a Swiss Army knife and break out the magnifying glass, people look at you funny. So it’s not an ideal solution but it’s something.
In terms of your work, when you’re not out in the field, are you always working on something and thinking of the next thing or do you pause between projects and let yourself wander?
A little bit of both. I never really stop working but sometimes I’ll completely let my mind wander while I’m working and try and figure out what’s supposed to be happening next. My business is a little goofy in a sense, in that you have to stay far ahead of the reality of your schedule because if you just start saying no to everything, by the time a couple of months catches up to you, you really don’t have anything to do, and it’s hard to fill that time in immediately. So, you know, you have to kind of keeping moving forward even when you want to stop. That’s just an old freelance mentality but it really never goes away.
I spent a lot of time in the business starting every month with 30 or 31 blank squares looking back at me, and that’s unnerving. Looking back, I managed to fill most of them in, but still it’s a tiresome way to start every month.
Yeah definitely. Being a freelancer is a very difficult thing for anyone.
You know where the word comes from? It’s actually medieval. Back in the old days, a freelancer was a free lance. A knight without a lord. A mercenary.
Oh that’s interesting. I’ll have to fact check that but that’s pretty interesting.
You fact check it, you’ll see. Freelancers: they eat what they kill.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? Is there any secret thing you’re really good at?
Well, I don’t really have a lot of skill, to be honest with you. I haven’t mastered anything in the traditional sense. I’m average or a little above average at almost everything but not great at anything. And so professionally speaking what that means is I’m not very intimidating on camera, which has come in really handy because most of the kind of work I do is with real people who do real things. And so the faster I can get somebody to be comfortable with me, the easier my life is. And people are generally comfortable with me quickly because they realise I’m not there to show them up, and even if I was, I probably couldn’t. Unlike most traditional hosts who are experts on TV, I’m more of a guest. And so that’s my special talent, I’m a good guest. And I think I’m a decent guest in real life but I’m a better guest on TV because I don’t try and control whatever’s going on around us. Typically that seems to make people comfortable.
And you kind of act as a vicarious person for the viewer to experience other people’s jobs too.
A surrogate, I think is the right word, or even like an avatar. It’s an important thing, when you think about Discovery — the Discovery channel in the old days was all experts, and most news channels today, it’s all based on expert, authoritative voices telling you serious things in a serious way, and the truth is most people that I know, including me, I’m more interested in hearing from an authentic person than I am from an expert. So I think in a lot of ways we’ve seen a transition from authority figures to authentic figures, which is kind of interesting.
That reminds me of something I was thinking about. People like me who sit in an office all day, we would watch you on TV doing all these dirty jobs — this kind of pertains to the old show — and that kind of makes me want to pick up a shovel or something and go out to a farm. It’s kind of a very privileged delusion. So why do you think for office workers that’s so appealing, to think about doing some kind of more manual labour?
Well I think for the same reason that the manual laborer would occasionally find him or herself fantasizing about the idea of sitting in a climate-controlled office on the telephone. The truth is, with respect to work, in my opinion, we’ve created this whole divide between blue collar and white collar, and the reality is I don’t think it’s meant to exist. I think most people should and could be a lot happier if there was a mix of blue and white collar in the their life. Ayn Rand talked about it: the muddy boots architect. The person who could use their brain as well as their hands. And I met a lot of those people on Dirty Jobs and a lot of them on Somebody’s Gotta Do It too, and by and large, they’re just more balanced than most people.
And that’s the real fun of being an engineer; I think it’s one of the great jobs. To be able to go to South America and build a bridge, y’know? It’s kind of an epic thing to do. But most people don’t get to do that so most people wind up in either a traditional white collar job or a traditional blue collar job, and the reality is there’s as much drudgery on either side of that gap as there is the other. My guess is you were just looking at greener grass on the other side of the fence, just like everybody else does.
Do you listen to anything while you work? When you have to sit down and write something, do you prefer music of silence?
I prefer silence. Although, if I’m gonna listen, then I find now that I’m more interested in listening to music that I find by accident on Youtube. This Spotify thing I just got? I haven’t figured out how to work it yet. But just the idea that you take these weird deep dives on Google and Youtube and suddenly you’re listening or watching something that you had no idea you’d even be interested in. I’ve found more music through Youtube than I have sitting down specifically looking for a thing or going out of my way to listen to a thing. It’s more fun when you find it by accident.
What have you found recently?
This is really weird but I stumbled across a guy two nights ago named Mike Flowers and if you google “Mike Flowers pop” you’ll see this guy that kind of looks like Austin Powers singing Oasis songs in the style of Paul Anka.
But the orchestrations are really good and I like a mix of new and old. So I like an old style of performing and an old style of singing mashed up in this weird, unexpected way. Check it out, you’ll like it. Actually I don’t know if you’ll like it at all but you probably haven’t heard it before.
I’m sure it’s interesting regardless. Are you currently reading anything — any novels or magazines you always go to?
Right now I’m going through the Jack Reacher series, which is written by Lee Child. He just came out with a new one; he’s got about a dozen or so. I’m a big fan of the continuing character. I also like really good pulp fiction, so every couple years I reread all the Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald. I also recommend a series by George MacDonald Fraser called the Flashman Papers, which is just great historical fiction. Let’s see, Richard Russo — I’ve got a book on the bedside table now called Straight Man, and he’s written everything from the The Risk Pool to Mohawk, to Bridge of Sighs, a lot of great books. I like Russo a lot and then there’s just a giant stack of stuff. I used to read every day — now I read once a week if I’m lucky.
And how do you recharge when you’re not working? What do you do to get yourself away from work?
I don’t know. Whatever it is I haven’t done it successfully in a long time.
But you read once a week.
Yeah but you know what, I’m reading on a plane. I’m reading now when I know I should be doing something else. But really to truly unplug, you’ve got to get one of those Pottery Barn overstuffed leather chairs and sit down, and you look at the fog that’s blowing over the Golden Gate, and you light a fire and you pour some wine and you grab some of that pulp fiction and you just sit there. And that’s a good thing.
You know, I really don’t fantasize anymore about seeing the world or travelling all over. I’ve been lucky to have done a fair amount of that. I’m more about sitting still.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or an early riser?
I used to be a total night owl, and I kind of still am. I do like to be up late, but as I get older, I wake up earlier and earlier. And actually now I find — as long as I haven’t crushed the wine too hard the night before — I’m really at my best the first three hours of consciousness in the day. The first cup of coffee, you know, that first sip is almost as good as the first gin and tonic. Because you only get one first sip a day and then it’s whatever. But that’s the best part of the day for me: a third into my first cup of coffee, sitting down, waking up, that’s when I feel like I’m about as present as I’m ever going to be.
If you were to choose someone to answer all these questions about their work, who would be your person of choice?
George Plimpton. Either Plimpton, or Studs Terkel, or Charles Kuralt, or maybe Paul Harvey. These guys are all dead and they all left a big gap. Not a lot of people talk about work the way they used to, so I think they were relevant and I think they still are.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Well, that’s tricky. You’ve got two basic categories, with respect to advice. The first category is practical advice, and I’d say the best practical advice came from my dad when he told me to duck.
We were playing horseshoes out back in somebody’s yard and somebody had thrown a horseshoe and it got away from them, and my father was on the little balcony looking down. I recognised his voice, and I didn’t even know who he was talking to, but it didn’t matter, because it was loud and I knew it was him, and so I put my head down and I felt the horseshoe whiz right over my head. And it hit a guy named Chuddy Baker right in the face unfortunately. He was two feet on the other side of me. Knocked his teeth out, but it just as easily could have knocked my head off. Anyway that was great advice, and when I think back on it, it had everything that all great advice needs to have: it was brief, it was loud, it was familiar, and it was compelling. And I took it, and I’m glad I did.
The other bit of advice is just life advice, and that came from John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, who I mentioned previously. And that advice is “be wary of all earnestness.”
Both salient points I think. Is there anything else you might like to say to our readers and your fans and viewers?
Authenticity still matters. If you’re looking for it, whether it’s in politics or in technology, or even in reality TV, you’ve got to look hard. It’s a balancing act that even writers like yourself — you don’t want to imitate anybody, but at the same time you can’t turn something in that your editor’s gonna look at and say “what the hell are you talking about?” It’s hard to be authentic. We try and do it on the show by not doing a second take. Different people have different ways of getting there but that’s the trick: everybody’s trying to figure it out for themselves, including me.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]