How to Build a Career in the Dirt World


Most people start their Dirt World careers as laborers. You show up on day one, the foreman hands you a shovel, and your career begins.

But most people don’t want to be laborers forever. Maybe you dream of one day becoming an operator, a supervisor, or something else. So how do you get from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow?

You listen to Jocko Willink. You may know him as a Navy SEAL and leadership expert, but he started out as a construction laborer. Here are his best tips to building a successful career in the Dirt World.

Work hard

There’s no substitute for hard work. Especially in the Dirt World. The men and women who work in blue-collar industries pride themselves on the effort they put into their jobs.

When you do the same, your coworkers and bosses will see it. And they’ll be willing to help you, teach you, and put your name forward for opportunities. If you're a hard worker, you’ll go far in the construction industry.

And you’ll find that the work you put in is extremely rewarding.

Jocko likes to tell this story: “I remember one day I was building a retaining wall at my house, and I was still in the Navy. In the Navy, you’ve got people to deal with. You’ve got all these situations unfolding. You got worried about people getting killed. And I told my wife, ‘You know, when I retire from the Navy, I'm going to start laying block again.’”

Why on earth would a Navy SEAL tell his wife he wanted to go back to construction like he did when he was 18? “Because it’s a very gratifying job. You can quantifiably see what you did, and that's very rewarding,” Jocko explains.

Pay attention

You’ve got to pay attention if you’re going to work in the Dirt World.

First and foremost, always pay attention to safety and your surroundings. Newer workers are statistically the most likely to have accidents that hurt them or others.1 But you can help prevent accidents by staying vigilant.

Second, pay attention to the job. Ask questions, because that’s how you learn.

And third, pay attention to people. Don’t just learn your job; learn everybody’s job. Then you can see what roles you want to pursue and build relationships with people who can help you get there. Plus, you’ll develop good people skills that make you an asset to your crew—and they’ll be helpful at home, too.

Love to take responsibility

Building a career requires you to take on new responsibilities. Whether you’re trying to move up into leadership or become the best at what you do, you can always do something new to improve your skills.

Another way to take responsibility is by looking for ways to help make your boss’s life easier. “I would pull things off my boss's plate as often as I could,” Jocko says.

That shows them you’re taking initiative and working hard. Just make sure that you still respect their authority, too. You're trying to make their life easier—not steal their job.

Take ownership when something goes wrong

In construction—just like in life—it’s not if things go wrong. It’s when. You’ll eventually come up against a problem or make a mistake on the job.

But there’s a right and a wrong way to deal with that. Trying to hide it, denying it, or hoping the boss doesn’t notice are the wrong ways. Instead, Jocko says, “You're going to own that problem, and you're going to get it fixed.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but when you take ownership of problems, people will trust you more. Trust builds good relationships and a good reputation—and that helps you build a good career.

One last piece of advice

The Dirt World is an amazing industry. “There is unlimited opportunity. It's a great business. It's a great life,” Jocko says.

But there’s one more thing you need to remember.

On any construction site, Jocko says, “There's some 18, 19, 20 year old kids. What are they doing? They're going to work hard, but then they're going to get drunk that weekend. They're not looking for any additional responsibility. They're not looking to figure out how to do anything on their own. They're gonna be a laborer for a long time.”

You won’t build a successful career in this industry by partying on the weekends, coming in hungover on Monday morning, or even just showing up five or 10 minutes late every day.

“If you apply how hard you're willing to work with a little bit of proactive smarts, that's the difference maker,” Jocko says.

The people who succeed are the ones work hard, learn, take responsibility, and take ownership.

He concludes, “Those are the guys who have unlimited potential. If you want to work hard, you want to be smart about it, the ceiling is unlimited.”


The Dirt World is an amazing industry, and you build a successful career in it. Just follow Jocko’s advice:

  • Work hard
  • Pay attention
  • Love to take responsibility
  • Take ownership

Then, set yourself up for success by showing up on time, being proactive, and taking care of yourself. If you do that, the sky’s the limit.

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