By Greg Drobny
I have engaged with several people over the last couple years—and read the thoughts of many others—on the subject of whether or not philosophy matters in the modern world. Although many say that it doesn’t, I argue that it does—just not in the way most people immediately consider that topic.
The general perception of philosophy seems to be of a bunch of stodgy professor-types, who have read a bunch of books they think are important (but no one else does), arguing about why their idea of “the way things really work” is a better and more complete idea than anyone else’s. Meanwhile, everyone else is out in the world actually doing things and not at all paying attention to what the professional philosophers are arguing about, thus proving the point that what they’re arguing about doesn’t really matter.
To an extent I largely agree with this sentiment. Jeff Bezos doesn’t change the core focus of Amazon because of some new theoretical argument from Dr. Philospher at Oxford; he changes things based on his vision and certain reactionary factors of the market. Tim Cook doesn’t run Apple any differently because a couple guys at Princeton disagree about the importance of Wittgenstein or Heidegger.
But on another level I am vehemently opposed to this very notion. Ideas do matter and the foundations upon which they rest have a great deal of influence on our daily lives.
Enter Mike Rowe.
By now, his is a household name. Growing to national prominence with the show Dirty Jobs, Rowe carved out a niche market in which he shined a spotlight on jobs that are often considered “undesirable” by many, yet keep our very society doing what it does. As the name of the show implies, it examined occupations where things get a little messy, but also went a very long way in demonstrating why there is nothing wrong with that—and a lot right with it.
Although the show was a huge success, Rowe was not content to let that be his legacy. Instead, he pushed forward with the same concept that made him so unique and is using his foundation to reexamine how we view the concept of “work” in our society—something that has almost become a bad word, especially in the last few decades.
With this effort, Rowe has not only shone a light on the growing need for people with physical skills—and who can actually work for a living—but also done a great deal for calling out our current higher educational model.
“We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist. That’s nuts.”
This now-famous quote is punchy, catchy, and appeals to common sense while being far deeper upon closer examination. It synopsizes a very large problem in our country and it does so from a position of knowledge without being over the heads of the masses.
In other words, it’s everything philosophy should be.
Do some people have skills that you don’t and vice versa? What do people want and need in the market right now, and how can you use your skills to provide some of those goods and services better than your fellow human beings? Why are so many people lazy when so much evidence exists for the benefits of working?
These questions apply directly to what you do when you set out to answer the classic elementary school question, what do you want to be when you grow up? But these are also directly tied to some very deep and profound questions regarding the fundamental aspects of the human condition. Individual abilities, needs, and wants are all fairly complicated issues, but nowhere are they examined in a more visceral fashion than in the real-time application of this concept we all know of as “work.”
Would we all be happier if we didn’t have to work, as we like to think? If I just had $10 million, a house in Fiji, and be debt free, I could be the person I’m really supposed to be.
Or would we all be insufferable assholes who suddenly don’t even understand what the term “happiness” means because we lack context? Would we devolve into hopeless negativity because we lacked any discernable purpose?
Some might think of this as just an intellectual exercise fun for classroom discussion or arguing over beers with your friends. But I think there’s a far more applicable use for working through these questions.
Mike Rowe’s effort to “make work cool again” is real world application of that very process:
“We’re churning out a generation of poorly educated people with no skill, no ambition, no guidance, and no realistic expectations of what it means to go to work.”
In light of statements like that, Rowe is not only pointing out a problem in our society (a fundamental aspect of philosophy), he’s showing himself as more capable of doing so than the so-called professionals—mostly because they are part of the problem itself. In other words, he’s using practical philosophy to show why “elite” philosophy is meaningless to most people.
Children and young adults in college would be far better learning this than a great deal of what is currently being passed off as “education” in academia.
In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl stated that, “when we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” When we look at the world we occupy, I think we are divided into two camps: those who think it’s unfair that life isn’t like the movies, and those who work with what they have to make their immediate surroundings better by adding something of value—because that’s what makes them valuable.
Mike Rowe has developed a philosophy of pushing people into that second camp, and for it I think he’s a better philosopher than nearly everyone out there today. I for one would like to subscribe to his newsletter and think you should, too.
Thus endeth this week’s edition of “man-crush on Mike Rowe.”