Striking out for freelance gulch: An extended metaphor for starting a freelance career

Perhaps you live in the big city of corporate workplaces. Things are logical and centrally planned, you’re told what to do and when to do it, you receive money for going through motions, and everything is calm and predictable. Your decision-making power is limited; it may even be nonexistent. Your employers like it that way.

But you don’t.

So you board a train and strike out for points West — Freelance Gulch. You’ve heard it’s a land of promise and opportunity, where everything is in constant flux, anything can happen, and money is there for the asking.

But you’re nervous. Because you’ve also heard that you don’t get money unless you go out and do a thing that somebody desperately needs. Which means figuring out who needs what and putting yourself in their way. You know your decision-making power will be absolute and… honestly, essential. There’s freedom in that, but it’s scary for someone like you from Office Jobs City who isn’t used to being in control.

In Freelance Gulch, you’ve heard, nothing is calm and predictable. That’s the draw but also the danger. If you don’t watch your back you might up at the wrong end of a shotgun.

The train rumbles across the plains. You fretfully eat the egg salad sandwich you brought in a brown paper wrapper. You take off your suit jacket and put on a leather vest and a wide-brimmed hat. You worry that your shoes look wrong but you forgot to buy new ones.

When the train lurches into Freelance Gulch, you take a deep breath and head out into the hot and dusty afternoon. Almost immediately things are more real than you had expected. You witness a shootout and almost step on a rattlesnake. When you take a room at the inn with your savings from your big city job, a scorpion is sitting on the bedside table looking at you. 

But then you walk outside and bump into a tycoon who asks you to dig a well for him when he hears you’re looking for work. You say yes and dig the well, despite never having held a shovel. You figure it out as you go along. Your back hurts like never before, but he pays you in bags of gold.

As you count your largesse, gloating over your success, other new arrivals are coming in off the train from Office Jobs City, looking about them in wonder and trepidation as they doff their suit jackets and adjust their bolo ties.

You’ve been here long enough now to feel smug — you’re practically a Freelance Gulch native and have it all figured out. Those newbs will likely get cross-wise with a gang of thieves or find themselves hooked on laudanum before long.

You spend the gold on a new horse, figuring there’ll be more gold to come. But for the next couple weeks the only gigs you can drum up involve replacing roof tiles at a remote farm for a penny a pop. Suddenly all the new arrivals pouring off the train seem threatening. There’s a lot of competition. Making it out here seems overwhelming. You smell failure on the wind.

You’re about to head back to Office Jobs City when you see that someone’s building a new church in town. Since you have experience laying roofing tiles, you approach the project manager and offer to do the roof.

“Thank the Lord!” bellows the project manager. “Our guys don’t do roofing and I was wondering what to do.”

He asks how much you charge, and you find the words “penny a tile” forming in your mouth. But then you stop and think.

You think about how the job of digging the well earned you way more income in far less time than the farm-roof job. Why was it so different? For one thing, the tycoon really badly needed a new well — his old one had run dry and he was getting thirsty. The farmer, meanwhile, was just doing maintenance without a sense of urgency. For another thing, the tycoon was richer than the farmer, so the money seemed less precious to him — he was more willing to spend it on something he wanted or needed.

You think about the church situation. There’s a strong need for a roof — immediately if possible. And you’ve learned upon chatting with the manager that the church is being built by a denomination that you know has plenty of money to spare and is expanding its outreach across the Western states.

It seems that the church is more like the tycoon than the farmer. You decide to up your prices. But you feel that if you quote a price-per-tile, the project manager will be drawn too closely into the details of what you’re doing and how much you’re doing it for. It will invite him to nitpick, making him into a more of a partner than someone buying a product (that is, a new roof).

You pluck up your nerve, hook your thumbs in your belt buckle, and quote him a flat rate that translates into approximately ten pennies a tile — ten times what the farmer paid you.

You feel the project manager’s hand shaking yours and see his walrus mustache curving up in a huge smile. It’s a deal!

The job will keep you in bacon for weeks and buy the horse new shoes. Forget Office Jobs City. Suddenly you know you can do this. You stroll like a boss back to where your horse is tied up to retrieve your tools, feeling like you can take on the world. You’re in business!

In Freelance Gulch, you realize, making it is a matter of deciding to saunter down the middle of the street with spurs a-jingling instead of waiting on the verandah for something to happen. You can do that, one saunter at a time.

Soon enough Office Jobs City will seem as foreign and nonsensical as Freelance Gulch once did.

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