Corbett Barr

Lifestyle Business Weekly

Yes, The World Needs Trash Collectors Too, But It Doesn’t Have to Be You or Me


How many of us will be lucky enough to really live out our dreams? When is it time to “be realistic” or settle for a “regular life?” These are questions that Ashley Ambirge’s guest post from earlier this week might have you thinking.

The question of whether you should chase your dreams (or continue to chase them) to me is mostly a personal question. You should examine what is important to you in life and what path will make you happiest. For some reason however, people like to argue against following dreams by invoking macro-economic points.

For example, someone (anonymously) commented on Ashley’s post about how “the world needs trash collectors too.” I’ve heard sentiments like this frequently before. The same commenter asked, “how many musicians, artists, restaurant owners … athletes, doctors, lawyers, socialites, movie stars, etc. etc. etc. does the world need?”

For the sake of discussion, let’s look at those two points specifically.

I completely agree, the world does need trash collectors too. Until someone invents the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor from the Back to the Future movie, the world will continue to need hardworking people to drive around and collect trash.

It’s also true that not everyone can be one of the eight things mentioned (musician, artist, restaurant owner, athlete, doctor, lawyer, socialite or movie star). There are other critical functions, like manufacturing and food production that someone must do for humanity to survive.

As a side note, following your dreams is definitely not restricted to pursuing one of those eight things. If you surveyed readers of this blog (or of Ashley’s blog The Middle Finger Project), I doubt more than 10% would say becoming one of those things is part of their dream life. Also, pursuing dreams is about a lot more to most people than just a profession, but I digress.

However, even though both of the points are true, neither of those realities has anything to do with whether or not an individual person should choose to follow a particular dream.

When planning out your life, is it your responsibility to worry about who is going to take out the trash? With 6.7 billion people on the planet, my guess is that if you don’t decide to become a trash collector, someone else will. That’s just how the economy works. Jobs like trash collecting get filled because there will always be people willing to do them at a certain wage. If no one is interested because the wage is too low, we all have to pay a little more until someone accepts the job.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but not many people decide to really pursue their dreams. Sure, everyone has some ideal life or plan for “getting rich” one day, but how many people do you know who really invest all the blood, sweat and tears necessary to do something remarkable?

It turns out that not that many people are willing to do it. Most people choose certain comfort over hard work and uncertainty. You can’t fault anyone for making that decision. Pursuing your dreams could end up meaning 5 or more years of pain with no real reward. That’s the risk involved, and that’s what keeps most people working for someone else.

My point is that if you’re going to argue against pursuing dreams with a bunch of macro-economic points, you have to look at both sides.

Yes, not all of us can be musicians, actors, etc. The world wouldn’t function. But in reality, relatively very few people will even try to pursue a big dream because the risk of not making it isn’t worth giving up the comfort afforded by the status quo.

One final point about trash collecting. Just because someone is a trash collector (or whatever other undesirable job you want to substitute here) doesn’t mean that person has given up on his dreams. It also doesn’t mean the person hasn’t achieved some or all of his dreams.

It could be that collecting trash is a stepping stone for the next Philip Seymour Hoffman on his way to becoming a great actor. Or, it could be that collecting trash pays enough for someone to live in a way that makes them happy. It could also be that some people enjoy collecting trash. More power to them.

Future artists, actors, musicians, lawyers and restaurant owners everywhere have to pay the bills somehow. They may not collect trash for a living until their dreams come true, but I know plenty of them who teach, work in retail, serve customers in restaurants or move furniture. When they leave those jobs to follow their passions full time, the next crop of dreamers will take their places.

Pursuing dreams is an individual choice. The world will still function if you decide to try and become an actor or if you want to start a location independent business and travel the world. That’s the upside to sharing this planet with 6.7 billion other people.

The more important question is whether you have the talent, guts and determination to make your dreams come true.

So, yes, the world needs trash collectors too. But no, that doesn’t mean it has to be you or me. And even if you or I do end up being a trash collector, who’s to say we can’t live out our dreams anyways?

What do you think? Who will take out the trash? Let us know in the comments!

photo by LexnGer

Corbett Barr

A weekly curated email of useful links for people interested in lifestyle businesses and independent entrepreneurship.


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  1. Jen

    Very true Corbett! I think sometimes people use this argument as a way of justifying not following their own dreams. Loved Ash’s post btw.

  2. I think this is just a case of people transplanting their views into other peoples lives and situations. To me trash collecting may not be that great, but for some having a simple, fairly secure job and then spending the rest of their time surfing or hanging out with friends.

    The lifestyle design community is a tiny percentage of the world. Not everyone wants to travel the world, create art or build a business. And nothing is wrong with that. Everyone has their own ideas of happiness and make what they feel are the right choices to attain that state.

    • It’s a tiny percentage of the world that I’m happy to be a part of! But yes, it’s not for everybody. There are plenty of roads to happiness. Isn’t being happy about enjoying the journey instead of focusing on the destination anyways?

  3. As Jen mentioned, the trash collector quote (which may have been popularized by Office Space, great movie) is most often used to backward rationalize a person’s own decision to not pursue their dreams. It – like money and time – is just a hackneyed scapegoat and a weak ego protection mechanism.

    Even dividing “careers” into the elite-8 cluster (actor, socialite, etc.) and trash collecting cluster create an overly simplified abstraction of the world, which by its very nature reduces it to a caricature.

    The world is enormous. There is infinite possibility out there. And it’s only limited by imagination and determination.

    • Hey Markus. Great points. I thought the elite-8 cluster was pretty funny, considering how few people I know trying to be any of those things (people are even trying to escape some of those careers).

  4. The world’s always going to need people doing ‘lesser’ jobs as some people call them.

    But its not the job that defines itself as lesser, it’s the people who define themselves as better.

    I agree with David when he says some people just want a simplistic job so that they can enjoy other things in life that appeal to them. Not everyone want to be a rock star or award winning novelist.

    This comes down to perspective.

    • Yeah, Dean, perspective is really important to remember. Just because someone isn’t following your dreams doesn’t mean they aren’t happy or fulfilled.

  5. A good differentiation is that achieving your dreams does not necessarily mean getting rich, and vice versa. If I could be doing what I really want to be doing and living comfortably (not extravagantly), I’d take that over being rich and doing something I hate any day. I’m guessing most of you would as well.

    Really enjoying your blog, Corbett!

    • Thanks, Dave! Glad you enjoy reading the blog. I totally agree with you about the being rich thing. I gave up being what some would consider “working rich” to pursue a dream of being self-reliant and location independent.

  6. Corbett – good points here. I specifically like you questioning what’s wrong with being a trash collector….honestly nothing. I often get to thinking when people say things like that…”the world needs trash collectors” or “the world needs janitors.” Yes, I suppose that’s true, but by saying that it seems the person is implying that there’s something inherently wrong with those professions.

    To be honest, some of my most fulfilling jobs in life have been in the service industry (working as a line cook and on the grounds crew of the golf course). It’s really more your attitude about life and how you live it. I think we get too caught up in what you do, not how you live. Being a trash collector is not necessarily any better than traveling the world or building a location independent business. It all depends on the person.

    It goes back to what society thinks is acceptable. That having an office job is a good thing and you are an industrious person if you do that. Or, if you quit and travel the world you are brave and adventurous. The point is, none of these choices are any better or worse than the other.

    David hits it right on the head…….it comes down to this:

    “Everyone has their own ideas of happiness and make what they feel are the right choices to attain that state.”

  7. I’ve been a manager of a Tribal Solid Waste Program for the past 14 years. And yes, I have worked on trucks sligging garbage bags as part of my job as a manager.

    The people working in the garbage business are a great group of people. We’re generally easy going, dedicated to getting our work done and providing the best service to our customers, and have a good sense of humor. We do what we do because we care about the common good for the environment and the people that we serve. I would say that is pursuing a dream worth living for.

    • Hi Laura, thanks so much for sharing your first-hand perspective on this. I wouldn’t have guessed someone in the waste management industry might actually read the post, and I’m glad you did.

      The simple fact is that waste is a part of human existence that we have to deal with. If it’s done correctly and helps minimize the impact our waste has on the environment, I’m sure that’s something to be proud of.

  8. tom

    My daughter and I were talking about this topic this morning on our walk. We live in Buenos Aires where things are simpler than the US and people, in general, seem OK with less stuff and less status.

    My daughter pointed out that I get stuck on the issue of status a lot. According to her, it is not the status, or the job that makes a person a better or more complete person. In fact, the job should only be one segment of anyone’s character.

    The main thing to watch out for is if your job, or your quest for status is making you a worse person.

    I thought she made a good point.

  9. Wow, Tom’s daughter makes a great point. Status (and deciding that a particular profession dictates that) is largely in our heads. Let’s put our dream lives out there to be reality, whatever that means to you to be living your dream, and accept the ‘reality’ of status as something figurative.

  10. Great post Corbett – I am starting to read one of Tony Robbins’s books and in the opening chapter he says that he get s mad that only 10% of people read past the 1st chapter of books. He then goes on to say that this statistic makes perfect sense.

    I don’t remember the exact stats so I will make some generalizations:
    There are many, many people that are overweight
    There is a thin, thin group of people who are financially free
    Most small businesses fail within the first few years
    Over 50% of marriages end in divorce.

    If it was as easy as reading a book, a blog post, going to a seminar or conference, we would all be attractive, fit, happily married millionaires. The fact is that this stuff takes hard work. You lose pounds from breaking some sweat. You make money from sweat equity.

    The fact of the matter is that many people are cool with the idea of financial freedom, few have what it takes to branch out and do it.

  11. Brian Tracey, the motivational speaker, tells a story about how he asked a group of elementary school kids about what they want to be when they grew up. One kid raised his hand and said, I want to be the guy who rides the back of the garbage truck.

    Living your dream has nothing to do with what you do for a living. Harrison Ford likes to live on a ranch and fly airplanes, which has nothing to do with being a great actor.

    • That’s a very interesting point. People can perhaps work in a job that is not their dream job, but follow their dreams outside those hours.

  12. There is a lot to be said for “lower level” job like trash collecting. You never have to take work home with you. You aren’t on call. It’s a good, low stress job. It’s always going to be needed.

    One thing that is missing from jobs like the one I currently have is a tangible finished product that you can point to, and share with others. When you are a landscaper, you have that landscape to point to afterward. In my job, and many other jobs like it, I can only point to the fact that nothing is horribly broken. That doesn’t give you much to really show people :) With photography there is a tangible end product to point to, the image at hand.

    Now, I don’t have aspirations to be a trash collector, but, not everyone aspires to be a photographer either. We all have different tastes, and different desires.

  13. Dan

    I think anyone who reads this should also watch this…
    Great post Corbett, often these types of jobs are stepping stones, other times they are holes people fall into but the macroeconomics is not what matters, most of these people CAN move into a better/different job. We are applying a philosophy, not an economic plan for the whole world.

    • Whoa – just watched this the other day via TED’s podcast. Nice connection, Dan.

    • Fantastic video, Dan. This is exactly what I love about blogging. It’s a conversation, really. I put forth a half-baked concept and everyone else fills in the details. Mike Rowe makes some really good points in the video about how marginalization of “dirty jobs” does society no good. Great share.

  14. Ash

    I just wanted to pop in and say thank you to everyone who has participated in this entire conversation, from the Dream Zapper post to today’s awesome follow-up that really drives home an important point. You guys are all awesome. That said, Dan up above made a really salient point that I think deserves a second mention:

    “We are applying a philosophy, not an economic plan for the whole world.”

    I’ve received many private messages that have questioned the practicality of such a philosophy, and Corbett’s post today provides an ideal response that rings true. We’re not starting a world revolution (or are we?); we’re simply trying to increase the quality of our lives.

  15. Dreams and professions can exist separately – it should be the happiness of the person that is the major indicator. A happy trash collector is by far more successful than a miserable lawyer.

    I am always dumbfounded at how rarely a person’s happiness is considered. I am almost never asked whether or not I am happy, while people are quick to point out the negative aspects of me living a nomadic lifestyle. We are conditioned to make so many assumptions about people simply upon hearing the word “trash collector” (or hundreds of other words) associated with someone’s life.

    • Dreams and professions can exist separately, but often the profession gets in the way of dreams if they aren’t integrated in some way.

      Your mention of the happy trash collector and miserable lawyer reminds me of another statement I heard a lot growing up in a working-class community:

      The worst day fishin’ is better than the best day workin’.

  16. This article just encouraged me to follow my dream, it is never easy, that why is a dream.

  17. People are different. It is up to us what we should make of our dreams. I think life has its way to make success an uncomfortable pursuit. :-)

  18. Brian W.

    The world needs rock stars too – who else would the unhappy masses daydream about being? Kind of twisted, but I suspect that we, humanity, have a sociological need for a small percentage of us to have awesome lives so that the rest can live vicariously.

  19. I live in Nashville, TN, a city filled with waiters, construction workers, and yes–trash collectors—who just see their day job as a means to an end. It pays their bills while they work on their real dream of becoming a songwriter, musician, or bonafide rock star. The funny thing is, for the ones that make it, this back story almost always figures in there somewhere in their whole foundation biography. For every Taylor Swift prodigy who came through a talent contest, there are 100 people who toiled away and worked menial jobs until their dreams came true. The key is to think bigger while you’re working small.

  20. Rob

    I heard a lady on BBC Radio 4 talking about similar things. She was saying that excitement about the digital revolution and swiftly changing ways of working didn’t apply to dustbin men. The fact is, the conversation wasn’t about dustbin men, it was about professional workers and how they can change their working environments to be happier, freer, and more productive. Comments such as the ones you mention in your post aren’t part of the same conversation. Although those jobs are no less valid ways of earning one’s crust… they’re not as immediately impacted by the new technologies of the new economy. People need to be clear which conversation they’re having.

  21. I think Tim Ferriss said it best. When faced with a choice of unhappiness (staying in the status quo) or uncertainty (pursuing a dream) – most people choose unhappiness. The mindset comes mainly from imagining that the worst that can happen is truly terrible and something you will never recover from. As Tim points out, the worst that can happen rarely is all that bad.

  22. There will always be someone to collect the trash.Some may like doing it and for others it is just a stepping stone to greater things.Don’t feel guilt,do what you want to do.Being an employee is what many people will settle for as it gives them security.Your own business?They would run a mile.

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