6 Things I’ve Learned from Working a Dirty Job

Prerequisites for the position: Willingness to crawl in the damp darkness under a house on your belly, clearing thick old cobwebs with your face.

Sounds nightmarish?

Wait, it gets better.

Whilst crawling, you also need to drag in a cable behind you, and be moving an assortment of tools in front of you. The crawlspace is too tight to roll over, your shoulders will get stuck, so try not to bump your head. Hopefully you don’t mind an asbestos-rated respirator pressing into your face for a few hours. At least it keeps you from smelling the dead rat you just had to push out of the way.

Feeling squeamish?

That’s my reality most days. I don’t get to feel squeamish. Get in there and get it done.

We recently took on an apprentice. Several times he has been reduced to a quivering mess. I’m fairly sure he was wiping tears away on two occasions. But he’s learning. Learning he can’t expect the luxury of being able to crawl on all fours through a roof every time. Sometimes, you’ve got to get your yoga on, get on your belly and use your upper body strength to prevent yourself from falling through the plasterboard as you weave through timber braces. It may be the middle of summer and 20 degrees hotter in that roof, but I’d recommend leaving your sweater on. Fibreglass insulation has a very unpleasant tendency to bury itself in your skin.

He’s also slowly becoming accustomed to spiders. It’s best to wait and let it crawl across you before moving on.

His physical strength isn’t there yet. I try not to let frustration get the better of me when I hear the masonry drill stop every two minutes. “Stay on it, dammit!” I think to myself. Cutting an eighty millimetre hole in a block wall is just a matter of perseverance. Ignore the lactic acid build-up in your shoulder. The ladder will stop wobbling if you just stop shifting your weight.

He’s learning.

Just as I did when I started this job. Becoming accustomed to the intricacies of the work takes up the first year or so, but after that it all becomes second nature. Installing several hundred air conditioning systems per year means you will find a method for every situation. If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about life too.


Be the Expert

In a dirty job, your clients are relying on you to perform work that they cannot do themselves. Not only do they have no desire to get dirty, but they have little to no understanding of what is involved in producing their desired result.

How you choose to guide their naivety defines you as either a salesman or an expert.

A salesman over-promises, and often under-delivers. No obstacle is too hard to overcome for the salesman. He finds a way around everything, and if it means bending the truth to satisfy the client’s questions, he’ll do it. A salesman will skim over technical issues as if they don’t matter. He’ll default to selling his product’s features and benefits. He may stretch the truth on some of those benefits.

An expert will tell the customer the hard truth. He will take the time to look at all obstacles. An expert will tell his client exactly why the job cannot be done a certain way. He will find a creative solution. He shares his knowledge with the client and helps them to understand the technicalities. An expert is genuinely interested in finding the true best outcome.

Most people know when they’re being sold to. They also recognise expertise.

In the small company I work for, many of the bids we win aren’t because our price was the cheapest. It’s because the client recognises that we actually know what we’re talking about.

Be the expert. You create a much more valuable proposition. Bringing real value means you’ll win more than you lose, and real value brings real satisfaction. Satisfied customers do your marketing for you.

Don’t Be an Asshole

“Would you like a coffee?”

It’s such a small offer, but it could make all the difference to my day.

The dollar or so that it takes for you to make that coffee may result in a 100x ROI in the extra time and material I use to provide you with a superior result.

The difference in a job done well, and a job done exceptionally could be as simple as receiving a welcoming greeting, an offer of coffee, and a genuine conversation.

Unfortunately, in a dirty job, I experience many condescending attitudes from people who turn their nose up at me. Assholes, basically. Treating another human as below you, as stupid, or unimportant will bring only one result. I’ll feel contempt toward you, and I’ll complete the job as quoted, but it will be to an absolute minimum standard. I’ll make no special effort.

Likewise, on a jobsite where there is a multitude of tradesman simultaneously bringing a building together, there is no room for assholes. If I piss off the plumber, the electrician, the carpenter — I’ve just made my own job harder. Everyone’s work affects someone else. If we’re all in harmony then the plumber will add a point to his pipework for my drain, the electrician will gladly wire my cable into the switchboard, the carpenter will add supports to his wall so I can cut out the section I need.

It’s the golden rule — treat others as you would like to be treated.

Don’t be an asshole.

Do It The Hard Way

I’m in total agreement with Mike Rowe speaking with Lewis Howes about what he learned from his time on Dirty Jobs:

“Short cuts lead to long delays.”

Taking the easy way out, figuring out a shortcut, almost always comes back to bite you later. It’s delayed punishment for not having done the work properly.

Putting in the time, the effort required to master doing it the hard way all but guarantees that your work will be superior. Give more weight to performing your work effectively rather than just efficiently.

Master Your Panic

The coin-sized point of light illuminating the subfloor directly over my face was the only reprieve from the absolute darkness. My pelvis was jammed under a sewerage pipe. I was well and truly stuck. The sound of my breathing in my respirator was getting louder. It felt like everything was closing in on me. For the first time I was experiencing a feeling of claustrophobia.

It was my own fault. I hadn’t dug out the sandy soil under the pipe deep enough. I was tired from having spent the morning digging my way under beams and pipes with a hand trowel, trying to create spaces big enough to fit through. I had been fine until this point.

Trapped under the floor of this house, I was panicking.

But I noticed it. I noticed the panic. In my awareness, all of a sudden I was able to remove my thoughts from the wave of emotion that was carrying me. My decision making was now made with a calm mind and driven by rational thought. “If I got myself into this position, I can get myself out by exactly reversing my movements.” Instead of thrashing around, I slowly repeated the steps in reverse order that had resulted in my predicament. I was free.

Good decisions are never made by a panicked mind. Heightened emotions aren’t conducive to rational problem solving. Notice the onset of panic or fear and force your rational mind to take control. Let the wave pass you by.

Hard Work Brings Fulfilment

I’ll be straight with you. I don’t enjoy my dirty job. But never do I finish a day feeling like I accomplished nothing. At the end of every day, the evidence is there for everyone to see, in plain sight, that the things I did that day bore fruit. I can be proud in the knowledge that I did something and it was hard, and it took skill and it took perseverance.

I have friends with office jobs that have the sort of titles which leave you wondering what they actually do. The sort of jobs that, if I’m honest, make me a little angry. If you can’t explain to me in a single sentence what it is you do as a cog in the corporate machine, and you earn more (a lot more) than me, that kinda pisses me off. I know that these people often will go home having accomplished nothing more than busywork. And that’s why they’re unfulfilled and complain about their job.

Don’t run from hard work. It doesn’t have to be physical work. Do the hard things that others don’t want to do, and you will have results that others won’t. Finish your work day fulfilled, having accomplished things of value.

Appreciate Your (And Others’) Achievements

Completing a goal, bringing an idea to fruition, deserves acclaim. Even if it’s you giving yourself a pat on the back for your own achievement.

It’s easy to keep pushing forward, keep chasing towards more, to discount the importance of the journey toward the destination.

Take a moment to step back and appreciate what you have accomplished. It’s an important point to keeping up your morale and motivation. The same goes for the accomplishments of others on your team. A few simple congratulatory words can be powerful.

What’s the point of doing the hard work, gathering the knowledge, and taking action, if at the end there’s not even a bit of fanfare? Throw yourself a mini parade, you deserve it.


Working a dirty job means I come home covered in brick dust, my hair matted with cobwebs and my hands cut and bleeding. It also means that I’ve developed a work ethic far above most people I know. It has taught me lessons that will be valuable to me as I progress. Doing a dirty job that not many people want to do gives me the drive to do more things other people don’t want to do. Things which will eventually mean I can leave my dirty work. And lessons which will help me make a positive impact.

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