Sunday, August 16, 2015

Find A Friend!

There’s something really special about your first job in your chosen career field.   By “special”, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s always super fun.  The first position you hold, especially in a competitive field, carries a special sort of terror that is hard to replicate.  It’s the type of fear and anxiety that starts out as sheer catastrophic thinking and evolves over time into a comfortable and even pleasant Remember When memory.  The process by which this occurred is as mysterious to me as math concepts such as: long division.  But nonetheless, I remember my first job so fondly that it’s hard to imagine that I ever felt anything other than warm, fuzzy nostalgia.

Seriously, this was a great first job.


Now, I don’t want to scare any aspiring trainers reading this blog.  I know that you have worked really, really, really hard through college, internships and volunteering.  And you probably see getting your first job as the crest of the hill, and the rest of your career as an easy, downhill slide into bliss.

Well, it’s not totally like that.  I mean, it’s awesome when you land the job.  And you are going to have some awesome milestones and enjoy your job overall.  Chances are, you’ll work with some really great people.  But no matter how perfectly situated your workplace is....you’re still gonna have a healthy helping of anxiety.

Hey, I was an anxious Cat too!


Why? 

Well I mean, come on.  This is what you’ve always wanted.  And you had to compete against a lot of other people for this position.  Now you have to prove yourself and Do A Great Job.  But you, like everyone else*, are not perfect.  You’re gonna make mistakes and they’re going to feel like The End Of The World.  And also, someone you work with may call you out on that mistake in a way that falls into the Really Nice to Utterly Frightening continuum.  No judgments passed here in this blog, but that’s just the way it is.

My first job was like that.  I’m not complaining about my first job, but I’m just saying that I made some mistakes and was convinced on a regular basis that I was totally going to Get Fired and also that if I wasn’t the Worst Trainer Ever, I was at least in the top 5. It was perfectly normal anxiety, but boy at the time it seemed apocalyptic.  But I found there was something that got me through these feelings, and now I will share this advice with all of you:

Find A Friend.

A+


My friend was a girl I’d met swim testing.  We got along right away, even though we thought we were technically competing with each other.  I was actually really intimidated by her initially, because she was so confident, friendly and just had the Dolphin Trainer look.  In fact, as I thought that looking at her, another girl in our swim test group said it aloud to her.  

We were both hired in the same department, and started within a week of each other.  We bonded immediately over our n00bness.  I wouldn’t say we even competed with each other, even though that commonly occurs with animal trainers at the starting stages.  We saw each other as an oasis and buoyed one another through the proverbial storm.   We were there for each other, alternating roles of therapist and patient through all of the Terrible Mistakes We Made That Totally Meant Our Imminent Termination, including but not limited to:

  • Not LRSing long enough
  • Weigh out the show buckets incorrectly
  • Forgetting to unlock the beach ball box during show set up
My life from summer 2006


Some of our mistakes really made us think we were finished.  When we had our checkout dive with the supervisor (and important milestone not only so we could contribute to the team, but also because it meant one more check on our checklist we needed to complete in that first year), we both screwed up.  I jumped in without my weight belt on, my friend jumped in without her regulator in her mouth.  We were both correctly called out on these blunders, and afterwards we told each other that we would probably wind up working in a bank somewhere.  You know, cleaning toilets.

But the shining moment we both enjoyed together - a moment I don’t think I would’ve survived on my own, and one we still talk about today - involved gravity and a thermometer.

Fact: This person should probably not handle breakable objects


We were both in the fish kitchen doing fish prep.  At the time, our apprentice trainer group was having difficultly completing fish prep for the 15+ dolphins in our department in a timely fashion.  I was one of the worst culprits, which is another story in and of itself.    So our boss irritatedly told us we had to be done by a certain time, with zero mistakes, or else there would be serious consequences.  All of us young’uns bucked up and toiled endlessly to find ways to be more efficient, terrified we’d Get In Trouble.

My partner in crime and I had had some problems in fish prep that morning.  They resulted in us needing to thaw a totally frozen box of fish, which TAKES FOREVERRRRRR.


I couldn't help myself



Those problems would slow down any Fish House maverick, but threw us into a total panic.  Plus, one of the more experienced trainers was working that day, and she was TOUGH.  We respected her a lot, but she was a tough boss.  We definitely didn’t want to disappoint her.

When we’d finished weighing out the fish, we busted out cleaning the entire kitchen, walk-in fridge, and did breakout.  We watched the clock tick closer and closer to 9:00, knowing we couldn’t take any shortcuts with this task for the sake of the animal’s health.  And we knew that if we walked into our office late, we’d get in trouble, get written up, which would go on some mysterious Marine Mammal Trainer Permanent Record and we’d get blackballed from the field and wind up selling pinecones door to door for the rest of our lives.**

But! A miracle occurred! We finished all of the cleaning.  Our pride with our task gleamed brighter than the sheen on the stainless steel sinks.  Not an item was out of place. All of the fish was weighed and sorted properly, and we had two minutes to spare.  One hundred and twenty glorious seconds to bask in our accomplishment, or so we thought.

There was a thermometer, like an old school one.

...just in case you forgot what a thermometer looks like.


We had to clean it.  And luckily, we had two full minutes to do so.

I don’t recall the process of cleaning it.  What I do recall is cleaning it, and then watching it decide to join in holy matrimony my arch nemesis: Gravity.  The thin, glass tube rolled gracefully out of my hand and plummeted onto the tile floor, shattering and scattering glass and its innards across the floor.

My coworker and I stared at one another in Utter Terror.  

If this had happened to us today, this is how the resulting conversation would’ve gone:

Me: Oh bummer.  I dropped the thermometer.

Coworker: Haha! You klutz.  Well, we better clean it up.

Me: Oh I got it.  You just let them know in the office what happened and I’ll be there in a minute.

Coworker: Okay! I’m sure Tough Boss will understand what happened.

But this is the conversation that actually happened:

Okay so this is slightly worse than our situation


Me: OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I DROPPED THE THERMOMETER AND THERE IS GLASS AND WHAT IS THAT FLUID?? IS THAT MERCURY??

Coworker: OMG WHAT IS TOUGH BOSS GOING TO DO, HOW DO WE CLEAN THIS UP??

Me: I DON’T KNOW BECAUSE THERE IS MERCURY AND ISN’T THAT LETHAL? WHAT IF WE DIE? BUT WE HAVE TO CLEAN THIS UP BECAUSE WE HAVE NO TIME AND WHAT IF THE MERCURY SOMEHOW GOES INTO THE FRIDGE AND CONTAMINATES THE FISH AND THE DOLPHINS EAT IT AND THEIR ORGANS TURN INTO METAL AND THEY BECOME SOME SORT OF DOLPHIN VERSION OF TERMINATOR 

Coworker: WE ARE GOING TO GET FIRED

Me: YES YES WE ARE

So in our panic, instead of asking our boss (who would’ve totally understood the situation) about what to do, we decided to take matters into our own, shaking hands.  We got latex gloves (you know, to protect against the “mercury”), a dust pan and a knife and tried to scrape the little globules of thermometer juice up.  We may or may not have also tried to spray it with the hose, only to realize the substance was hydrophobic and split into zillions of tinier globules, giving us a rare real example of Infinity.

Once we had gotten most of the Mercury up, we hung our heads in shame and walked into our office.  Tough Boss was there, waiting to ask us about our latent arrival.  We explained to her what happened, saying we needed to make sure all the mercury was gone because we couldn’t have a hazardous chemical on the ground.  We knew our heads were on the chopping block, like totally for sure our career was over, but we deserved it after such a heinous mistake.

Haven't we all


Tough Boss laughed, explaining of course they wouldn’t have a mercury thermometer in the fish kitchen (it was gallium) and that we should really calm down, that kind of stuff happens.

So crisis averted.  But let me tell you, had that happened while I was by myself in that fish kitchen, I probably would’ve cleaned it up as best as I could through an intense panic attack until everything was clean and I could write what happened with dry erase marker on the refrigerator  (I’M SORRY I DROPPED THE THERMOMETER PLEASE LOOK AFTER MY PETS) and then my heart would stop and off of Marine Mammal Purgatory I’d go.

But having my pal there made all the difference.  We shared the fear in equal parts and processed the situation in a frantic but perfectly survivable manner.  And we never got fired.  In fact, we’ve both done pretty well in our careers.  

So Find A Friend, and remember that as long as you learn from your mistakes, it’s okay to mess up.  That no matter how god-awful your blunders seem, chances are you’ll laugh at them heartily later (after intense therapy in the early days thereafter).  And most importantly, especially for those of us more experienced trainers, to remember these early scary days and to be sensitive to our new employees when they drop thermometers.  





________

* Exceptions: Chris Hemsworth

** Or so it seems

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