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 Willem DaFoe 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 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 AM as Scotty rattles my bed with his foot 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 2 pieces of white toast and by first light we were pulling onto the muddy streets of half-built houses and construction 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 just finish up and hand them a robe.

The whole thing looked like a disaster scene in reverse.

I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake. Much as I admired the true grit and simple wisdom of those blue collar warriors — 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 cozy 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 dog,” he said, pulling over a saw horse. “Use this or stand.”

“Shit, I’ve been sitting here for like 10 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.”

I didn’t have the guts to tell him this wasn’t the hard day’s night kinda hell — this was see a doctor hell.

By lunch break I was pale and droopy eyed enough to earn a sympathetic “wait in the truck” assignment. I sweated out the day 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 the fever was down and some 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. You might not know that yet, but you are,” he said. 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. It’s not for you — and that’s a gift.”

It’s rare that a teenage boy is able to see past the hormone rage 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 2 weeks on a soggy construction site that it was OK not to fit in where you don’t fit in. And sticking around long enough so you begin to fit 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 blog post. Technically, I did use my hands, but tapping keys sure beats the hell out of pounding nails.

And while there are plenty of tough days as a freelancer when nothing seems to go my way (and I’m still stuck with the credo of never getting outworked)…

…for me, the freedom to make my own day is the greatest benefit of a freelance career.

What about you?

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