Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Middle Flipper Career Guide To Getting Re-Motivated

I never talk in absolutes.  Ha ha! No really, I do talk in absolutes sometimes, like when I say EVERYONE loves donuts.  Or NOBODY likes fire ants.  I'm sure that there are people out there who do not like donuts.  I'm sure there are people out there who like fire ants.  But sometimes, expressing a concept in absolutes is the best way to get a point across.  So you'll forgive me if you are one of the rare exceptions to the topic I'm about to introduce (but please at least tell me you're a donut lover).

All trainers, at one point or another, go through a period of time where they feel like they're stuck in their job.

Oh man, don't tell me there's a dead end in marine mammal training!

This manifests at different times and in different ways.  For the most part, you see it more commonly in one of the the following three (grossly generalized) stages of your career:

1) Between years one and two

2) After you've been at the mid-level for a while and you are basically cleared/checked-off on working with the animals in your department, and do most of the other animal-related tasks in shows and interactions

3) At the senior level (senior trainer, assistant manager or some kind, manager, curator, supervisor, etc.)

Now, the third category does not include the trainers who choose to move on to a different path.  Some trainers do not feel stuck, but rather move on to different life experiences.  Lots of amazing trainers are ready to leave after many years of the job, start families and/or move to support spouses  and decide to take a break.  This is not the topic of this blog; there are times when it makes more sense in life to take a different path!

But what I'm talking about today is that no matter how stuck you think you are, you aren't.  Trust me, I've been there.  I've also seen a lot of people go through this feeling of Stuckage, and the methods they use to help (or hurt) their career.   But have no fear!  I'll share with you some tips that may help you now or later.

Hey! Don't forget about me! I'm the reason you do this job!

"Wait wait wait wait wait!" you say.  "How can you possibly feel uninspired in this job?! YOU HAVE THE BEST JOB!"

The first thing to remember, and this is especially good for the aspiring or braaaaaand new trainers out there, is that just because something is amazing and wonderful doesn't mean it always feels that way.  Actually, I'd say it's the contrary.  Anything that experientially and emotionally valuable often comes with a lot of soul-searching challenge.  Getting your dream job does not mean it's a downhill coast until you're too old to do the job anymore.  Getting your dream job means you signed up for some incredible experiences, but that you earn them.  Sometimes earning them means you have second thoughts, or periods of time when you are frustrated or disillusioned.  

If I dream of having a dozen donuts, I have to go get them.  They don't just appear.  :(

The second thing to realize is that well, it's still a job.  It is an awesome job, but there are things about it that remind you it's still a job.  We'll go into more detail on this later, but there are still time-off requests, there are coworker conflicts, there are issues with bosses, there are days you have to interact with some RUDE guests and still be sickeningly nice, the animals can have bad days too when they don't feel like doing anything, etc. etc. etc.  

How do you know you're feeling disillusioned and stuck?  That might seem like a strange question, but not everyone realizes that's what's going on.  I'd say about half of the people who go through this know exactly what's going on.  They'd tell you they feel bored at work, or frustrated they can't get a promotion.  They may tell you that every day is the same, and they're just worn out.  

The other half don't admit what's going on, but they become very lazy and know-it-allish.  If that's you, and you realize you're sort of just squeaking by trying to get through the day, or that all of your coworkers and bosses are morons because they don't see things the way you see them, guess what?  You're in Stuckville.  Look, it's okay if you read this and go, "oh my god, that's me."  Because it's a normal thing to go through; what matters is that you figure out a way to snap out of it.  

Do what the cat says.  

In fact, whether you know you're "stuck" or not, the only important focus you now have is to snap out of it.  Why?  Here's a short list of reasons:

1) One unfocused, uninspired and/or snobby trainer on a team can single-handedly damage morale

2) You owe it to the animals (YOU DO!!) to give them everything you got; not just a let's-get-through-the-day attitude

3) You owe it to yourself to figure out what you need to do to feel happy and inspired again

4) Getting recharged and unstuck sets an awesome example for the rest of your coworkers at any level

So how do you get out of Stuck City?** Start by admitting it to yourselves, tell yourself that it's OKAY and 100% NORMAL, and that you're now focused on a plan of action to improve your situation.   Then read the rest of this blog....knowing I've gone through all three of these stages!

I'll break it down into the three aforementioned categories.  If you're past some of these points in your career, it can't hurt to read the section addressed to them.  Why?  Well, first of all maybe it'll inspire something in you to help out the people you work with going through the same thing.  Second, maybe it'll spark an idea or remind you of something you tried at that time, and then you'll share your thoughts with me and whoever else reads this!  Okay, let's get started.

The Not-So-Rookie Anymore (1-2 years of experience)

Me, two years in the field, right in the middle of my Funk.

Oh MAN did I get this bad.  It's like the first year you're a trainer you learn SO MUCH.  All the knowledge in the training universe seems like a bottomless well.  You see more experienced trainers doing things you have dreamed of doing since you were a zygote, and for the first time you have an actual shot at getting to that level.  The only thing in your way is this massive check-list (literally or figuratively, depending on where you work).  You work and toil and learn and finally, after lots of constructive feedback and mistakes, you finally start working with animals without supervision.  You're allowed to make training and trouble-shooting decisions on your own.  You start building real relationships with the animals.  All of the training philosophy makes sense without having to think really hard about it.  

And then....

The learning significantly slows down.  At least, you think it does.  There are no more loaded check-lists.  Whereas in the first year, you were learning multiple new things at a time, now you're learning three or four new things in a year.  The types of things you're learning how to do take months and months to get checked off on, and there are no real obvious criteria.  

Ain't no curve in a learning curve! Just lots of plateaus with a couple'a jumps.  You can either play on the plateaus, or wallow in a pit of despair and roll around in your own defensiveness. 

For example, when I started working at an interaction facility, I had just over a year of experience.  Starting at a new facility meant I had to learn a lot of new things about how the facility ran, but it didn't take long to get cleared on that kind of stuff.  What I did have to do was learn the interactions.  At first, it was really exciting because it was very different than the type of thing I did at my first job. I had someone actively watching and coaching me, plus I had all these new dolphins to get to know!

But at some point, after I was cleared on the programs, I started to get bored.  I was allowed to do interactions with basically all of the other dolphins, and I just felt all I did was the same thing every day.  Not to mention, I didn't have that great of a relationship with some of the animals.  There was a point that this one dolphin, who asked that she be left anonymous, would just leave me.  My boss eventually did not let me take this dolphin in programs because it got so bad.  

And you know what my attitude was at this time about this whole thing?  It was, "This isn't fun anymore."  And "I don't get why this animal doesn't like me, it's probably because my training style is different than everyone else's." 

I should've worn this on the back of my shirt.  And on the front.

The vicious cycle happened.  You know this cycle, right?  The one where your attitude takes a giant poop and then your bosses pick up on this (but you think you're SO clever that they'd NEVER notice you're feeling down?) and they start really watching you to pull you out of your funk.  But they're not necessarily like, giving you a back massage, braiding your hair and telling you how great you are.  They're watching your sessions and basically going, "uhhhhh?"

My bosses noticed my womp-womp attitude.  They each had a different method in trying to help me get through it ranging from sit-downs to calling me out in session.  But no matter how much they tried to help me, I kept going back to this prevailing attitude that I'd hit a wall.   Sometimes on my worst days, I'd think, "Why are they picking on me??" or "Why are they focusing on the stupid stuff? I KNOW what I'm doing!!"

I looked for jobs elsewhere.  I even considered switching fields.  A lot of me felt guilty for even thinking of leaving the field, because I loved the animals so much.  But I just felt like there was nothing left to learn, and I didn't understand why my relationships with some of the animals were not great.  I couldn't see myself progressing.  

And then, I got this advice from someone not even in the animal training field:

"You have to make your own way.  You're the only one not helping yourself.  You're not listening to people who have years and years and years more experience than you.  You're focused on defending yourself, and not so much as to what you can do to control your own progress."

It made sense when I heard it.  And so, that's what I did.  The animals who didn't want to give me the time of day, I made it a personal mission to find out what made them tick.  I watched sessions of trainers who had great relationships with those animals, asked questions, and combined their tips with my own style of training.  The challenge was deep and interesting.  Suddenly, I felt like a sponge again, learning and learning and learning.  And while it wasn't necessarily something "new" per se, it was teaching me how to make my own path.  More importantly, it was teaching me how to be a better animal caregiver and trainer.

They deserve the best!!!

Does any of this sound familiar to you?  

Here's my advice to you (it might sound familiar!):

1) You don't have the best relationship with every animal.  No, no you don't.  Stop arguing with me! Go make a good relationship great.  Go make a strained relationship great.  Research, observe, ask, and experiment.  It's not about giving SDs and chucking fish.  It's about discovering how you can be significant in an animal's life.  

2) When you feel like your senior staff members are full of it, that's your first warning sign that maybe you're not as open-minded as you need to be.  Don't be hard on yourself for feeling defensive right away; lots of us feel like that.  But don't react.  Instead of acting on the defensiveness, use it as a cue (an SD!) to tell yourself, "Okay, this feeling REALLY means I need to listen and take this to heart."  

3) Reach out to your bosses, mentors, and/or people you trust who have some experience.  Tell them what you're going through.  I wish I'd done that, because I feel like I would've come to a better conclusion sooner.  

The Mid-Level Chuggin' Along Trainer (3+ years)

Me as a mid-level trainer.  Boy did I learn a lot around the time this photo was taken.

So now you're past the newbie/quasi-newbie phase, and you're a mid-level trainer.  You can do all the shows, interactions, research trials, and you can work basically every animal.  You mentor interns and new trainers, and are relied upon as a very valuable member of the staff when it comes to your animal skills.

And then, you hit a wall.  Similar to the 1-2 year trainer stuckage milestone, you start to think you know it all, you've seen it all.  Only this time, the dangerous thing is that you probably HAVE seen a lot of stuff.  Why's that dangerous?  Because it makes you even more convinced you know it all.


A classic symptom of someone in this funk is a person who stops doing work.  I know that each facility has a different method on how they organize staff and what tasks they're expected to accomplish during the day.  You know your facility best.  But you may be in Mid-Level Stuck when:

a) You think cleaning is beneath you
b) You consistently are disappointed when you see you're scheduled for sessions...
c) ...and you're happy when your day is free and clear
d) You only want to do the "really hard" or "really exciting" stuff (usually stuff you're not ready/qualified for)

On top of those signs, you may be talked to by senior staff.  No matter what stage you're at in this game, there's a lot you can do to pull yourself out of it.

In some cases, trainers from other facilities get like this quickly if they become disillusioned by the change from what they're used to.  Or, they get an understanding that they are hired on as "consultants" versus actual staff members.  I'll do another blog on this type of thing later, but I do think some of those people qualify for Stuckage.  It's another symptom of feeling like you've done it all and there's just nothing left.

You're not stuck in your career.  This puppy on the other hand, he's effing stuck.

The good news is, WRONG! There's ALWAYS stuff to learn! Always new things to see and experience!  And even more good news! YOU are the person who can change this situation!  Here are some tips:

1) BUILD RELATIONSHIPS.  You. Never.  Have. The. Best. Relationship. With. Every. Animal.  With. Whom. You. Are. Cleared. To. Interact.  This concept is a built-in career booster, beyond the fact that it's the BEST part of the job AND it provides the animals with substantially higher quality of life.

2) Get off your butt and scrub a bucket.  Camaraderie is forged over the fish house sink.  Scrubbing buckets, habitats, whatever is another easy way to provide for the animals.  If you've got time to sit down and be bummed you're on five dolphin shows, you've got time to wash one (1) bucket.  It's not just a pointless exercise.  You're doing a kind, important task; that clean bucket means a healthy animal.  Talk and laugh and get to know your coworkers.  Find joy in the things that before made you roll your eyes.

3)  Look at each session you're scheduled for as an opportunity to improve your relationship with the animal.  Challenge yourself, whether in broad terms like "be more variable", or in very specific terms like changing reinforcement schedules (or goofy ones like, every time someone says the word "dolphin", you have to move from your location).  Is that going to mean you never get tired of doing the same thing in the busy season? No.  But it does mean you won't have that feeling very often.

I can haz relationship?

4) Embrace the fact that you are still learning, even though you may be very good at the job you know how to do from a technical standpoint.  Realize that maybe why you haven't started learning those really exciting/hard things is because your bosses can tell you're Stuck and are waiting for you to snap out of it.

5) Remember that especially from this point on in your career, there are lots of people looking at how you handle yourself.  New trainers, interns, and coworkers will look to you and say one of two things: "WOW, he is really inspiring!" or "WOW! She is really lazy and crabby!"  Which one would you like to be?

6) Ask for help.  Go to your senior staff, someone you trust a lot, and tell them what's going on.  Show some humility, show that you're willing to work hard to get out of the quagmire.  It'll pay off (if you listen).

7) And once you've done at least SOME of the aforementioned things and you're still unhappy at work, it might be time to start looking at other jobs to get a fresh start (but remember, Stucksville is encompassed in you...not the facility***)

The Senior Level Trainer Who Wants More

A senior trainer with a senior dolphin!
This stage is totally inevitable if you're a career-climber and are in the field a while.  Why?  Well, that's easy!  There are not nearly as many senior staff jobs as there are interested candidates.  In fact, this topic alone could be the subject of a novella-length Middle Flipper blog (hmmm...), but we're just going to talk about how to get through this.

The first thing to remember: no matter what your situation is, YOU have control over your development.  You may not have control over a promotion...but you can always learn.  And sometimes, it might mean looking for a place with more room to grow.

So are you frustrated that you're not moving up the ladder?  Don't know how you're ever going to make it Big In The Field?  Pat yourself on the back (seriously)!  Those fears and concerns are only there because you are passionate.  And passionate people NEED to be in this field.  

Now, it's time to figure out how to use that passion to get yourself re-motivated.  Here are some things that have helped me very much in the past:

1) Read management/leadership books.  Read lots of them.  They are dirt cheap and really, really interesting.  The best part is you don't have to wait for your boss or mentor to sit you down and go over this stuff with you.  You just have to turn the page.  Think about how these books apply to your job and how YOU treat your staff.  Don't read them with the thought of, "OMG, my boss NEVER does this", because how the heck does that help you if you're judging them?  It only helps you if you apply it to yourself as a leader, no matter what level you're at.

Take a look!!!!!

2) Have I mentioned the thing about building relationships with the animals?  Usually by this point, you totally get that concept.  So use it as an excuse to get a little more animal time (since that seems to start disappearing the further we get away from the senior trainer title).  Reconnect to the reason you're in the field: to make the animals' lives better.

3) Talk to your boss.  I don't mean go in and complain, "Hey, I'm sad because I'm not being promoted.  Fix it."  I mean, "I'd love to keep developing my skill set as an animal trainer and as a leader.  I realize there is not an opportunity right now for a promotion, but based on your knowledge of me, what kinds of things do you feel I should work on so I am prepared when the time comes to move up?"   Maybe you have some ideas.  One of my bosses at another job was very open to me creating a staff development program.  I happened to read about it in a book and wanted to try it out.  Had I never asked my boss, I would've never been able to get some really valuable experience AND have a blast doing it.  Even if she'd said no, I could've tried in more subtle ways to work on my leadership skills.

True stuckness

4) Remember, you're a mentor to a lot of subordinate trainers.  Don't forget about them, because they want you to be involved in teaching them.  So many times we focus on our own anxieties and frustrations about being Stuck that we slack on putting in the time to develop the staff.  Especially at the senior trainer level, you're really the mid-way point between the trainers and the management.  You've got a great balance of responsibility.  When you're feeling pinned down, go back to encouraging your subordinates, find out what motivates them, identify who plays what role on your team.

5) And at some point, when you've tried all the things I've written above, it may be time to move on to another facility.  But not in a mean, guns-blazing, bridge-burning way.  No, not even if you think you're 100% justified in feeling that way.   There's that saying "Don't run away from a job; run TO a job."  Sometimes, the stars don't align and there isn't room for growth.  Or another opportunity pops up, and you have to take it.  Just don't get Stuck, not try to fix your situation (and I mean, REALLY try to fix it without blaming everyone else for your frustration), and then head over to another place.  Why? Because guess what, the same problems will be there.

omg naps <3

There are lots of reasons people can be unhappy at a job.  But the reasons we get Stuck are almost ALWAYS something we can control.  Isn't that awesome?  We have the power to change and improve our situation.  The only thing is, it's hard.  It requires a lot of self-discipline, introspection, and above all HUMILITY.   But let's recap on the benefits of getting through Stuckage:

1) It benefits the animals
2) It benefits your coworkers at all levels
3) It benefits YOU
4) It sets a great example for people
5) It sets you up to get through the next time you feel Stuck

So what are you waiting for?  Get movin'!

* I hope that there is no one who hates donuts AND likes fire ants, because I don't think we could be friends.  Or within a 10 mile radius of one another.

** God that sounds awful

*** With some rare, rare, rare exceptions and I hesitate to even say that.  


  1. I can not thank you enough for this, I needed to read this right NOW. I want to share this with all of my co-workers.

    Thank You again!

    1. Thanks, Michelle!!! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

  2. I am fully motivated on flipper career guide! All points are absolutely right that can also bring a lot of concerns to get motivated for better Career Guide !

  3. Often it happens to many people feeling stuck in their job or sometimes the job gets too much boring. So here you don't need to be frustrated rather it's time to make your work more interesting to you. Being a guide to the animals is one of the most interesting works I guess. You must have been enjoying your work, Cat. Thanks for sharing all about the things you are feeling and saying. It was really interesting to read it the whole.