What kind of work is most valuable? At this magazine, we tend to talk about ideas and inspiration and management techniques, but less often about the dirty work of getting the job done. Which is why this issue's feature about Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe was such an opportunity. Rowe, until recently, was a screwup. He worked a sequence of low-end acting gigs, more intent on entertaining himself than on having an impact.
Then he discovered Dirty Jobs—or, more precisely, he created it. He found a way to use his particular skills effectively, and he found the motivation to act on those skills. And it all worked.
Rowe is on the cover not just because his compelling personal saga illuminates how entertainment networks operate and the resurgence of cable's Discovery Communications (which airs Dirty Jobs)—though it certainly does that. But Rowe's story also allows us to examine an underappreciated aspect of economic success: the genius of expertly executed craftsmanship. It is the glue that cements ideas, on one end, and hard work, on the other, to fuel productivity. Either type of asset is squandered if inappropriately deployed. Execution is the great differentiator in our global economic competition.
Consider the acknowledged hero in American business today,
In a completely different arena, consider MIT's stylish Stata Center. Designed by Frank Gehry, the building has been plagued with problems since it opened—late and way overbudget—in 2004. It is now the subject of litigation between the university and the starchitect. Yet as Anya Kamenetz explains in "Lost in the Funhouse," the problems more likely stem from how Gehry's design was brought to life than from any flaws in the design itself. Even a brilliant concept may be destined for trouble if not married to brilliant execution.
When Mike Rowe climbs into a sewer or strips shingles off a rooftop, he invariably fouls something up. These are jobs that others look down their noses at, yet he demonstrates by his own ineptitude just how hard they are to do properly. The message—that dignity and genius can be found in even the most unexpected places—is crystal clear.
And so is the challenge: How do we balance the importance of creative ideas with the imperative of erecting buildings that don't leak or software that doesn't crash or TV shows that actually entertain? For American businesses striving to improve productivity, it is a crucial question. I'd welcome your thoughts. As Malcolm Gladwell notes in a somewhat different context, in "Is the Tipping Point Toast?", "All [we] can ever do is uncover a little piece of the bigger picture, and one day—when we put all those pieces together—maybe we'll have a shot at the truth."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.