When I was a skinny, punk-ass 16 year-old… My step-dad, Scotty, ran a construction crew building new homes in Tampa.
He was a tough-as-nails, but fun-to-be-around guy (picture Walter White and Jeff Spicoli merged as one) who had one rule on the job site: Never get outworked.
That summer, rather than sit around broke watching CHiPs reruns, I decided to take Scotty up on his standing offer to join his construction crew and make a few bucks.
How hard can it be? I thought. You get to wear a badass tool belt, you measure some boards and smack a few nails. Presto! New home.
Cut to: Monday morning at 5:30 as Scotty rattles my bed with a kick as if Florida’s first earthquake was happening directly beneath the house.
“We leave in 15 minutes, dude. You need to eat before we go.”
It was still dark outside.
I managed to woof down two pieces of white toast and by first light we were pulling onto the muddy streets of half-built houses and heavy equipment.
The air smelled of fresh-cut lumber and swamp water as the droning hum of tractors and the whine of buzz saws swirled with classic rock blaring from busted boom boxes.
The wood beam skeletons of soon-to-be family homes perched naked on concrete slabs like shy patients on cold tables wishing the doctor would finish up and hand them a robe.
I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake.
As much as I admired the true grit and simple wisdom of those blue-collar warriors, I learned quickly that hard labor just wasn’t my thing.
Yet, by the end of that first week, I was getting a feel for it.
There’s a soulful satisfaction in putting in a hard day’s work.
That pain shooting through your back means you’ve done your job. A check is coming. Beer-thirty on Friday will taste like it should.
Then came the rookie mistake that doomed it…
I was sitting on a cement wall after a short rain storm, eating lunch from a bag, when Scotty came over (he never stopped for lunch)…
“Don’t sit on wet concrete, dude… it soaks your bones, you’ll be sick as a dog,” he said, pulling over a sawhorse. “Use this or stand.”
“Shit, I’ve been sitting here for like 20 minutes,” I said.
“You’re probably fucked then.”
Fucked was right.
I woke up the next day with the nastiest cold I’ve ever felt. Every joint in my body ached and my head pulsed like a diesel engine stuck in first gear.
“I feel like hell,” I told Scotty as he earthquaked me awake.
“I feel like hell every day. Don’t make me late on top of it.” He snapped back.
I didn’t have the guts to tell him this wasn’t the hard day’s night kinda hell — this was see a doctor kind of hell.
By lunch break I was pale and droopy-eyed enough to earn a sympathetic “wait in the truck” assignment.
I sweated out the afternoon lying across the bench seat of Scotty’s silver F250… dreaming of a soft couch, air conditioning, and Ponch and John speeding down the 101 after some crazy driver.
Mercifully, as the sun dropped below the windshield, the noise outside finally subsided to the lone strain of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” in the distance.
Scotty slipped into the truck beside me, cranked the engine and said, “Good news… you’re fired.”
“Thank God!” I said.
Later, when my fever died down and a human-like hue of color returned to my face, Scotty admitted that my pitiful performance on the job was everything he’d hoped for.
“You’re a smart dude,” he said. “You might not know that yet, but you are.”
Then added, “So if you ever take one piece of advice from me, it should be this: Do work with your head, not with your hands.”
Punching it with, “It’s not for you — and that’s a gift.”
It’s rare that a teenage boy is able to see past his hormonal haze and know-it-all-ness to recognize a turning point in his life as it’s happening.
But that moment was one for me.
I discovered in less than two weeks on a soggy construction site in sunbeat Florida that it was okay not to fit in where you don’t fit in.
And sticking around long enough to begin to fit in where you don’t fit in can cause you to miss your path entirely.
Thanks to Scotty, my job this morning, I decided, was writing this message to you.
Technically, I did use my hands, but tapping keys sure beats the hell out of pounding nails.
And while there are plenty of days as a business owner when nothing seems to go your way (and you refuse to stop for lunch)…
The freedom to create your own day is a battle worth fighting.