Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year's Reflection: First Days On The Job Are Hard For Everybody!

The inspiration for this post came from a multitude of muses, one of which being my first year anniversary at my current job on January 1st.

I'm sure most people spend the end of the year reflecting on their accomplishments of the previous year, including but not limited to: marriages, babies, graduation, winning the lottery, or in my case, realizing I really like Rice Krispy Treats after a lifetime of hating them.

I don't know why I hated them, but I love them now and that's all that matters.

My current job began on January 1st of 2013, so it really went without saying that I'd sit back and think about what I'd learned and achieved at my new job when New Year's eve rolled around.   Not only that, I read a few nervous interns post on IMATA about what their first job experience would be like.   

So let's explore this topic of your First Job as a marine mammal trainer (and I'm sure this applies to those of you working with the terrestrial types, too).   

First, let's get this little factoid out of the way:  It's always scary to start a job, no matter what your experience level is.  Your first internship, your first paid position, your first job at a new facility even though you have a few years of experience, your first management job at a new place, it's always nerve-wracking.  How nerve-wracking?  It's somewhere between "Starting Sixth Grade With People From The Other Elementary School" and "I'm Naked And Have To Give A Public Presentation".

An actual picture on me on day 3 of my job at CMA.  You can probably tell how well that went from this picture of me and Winter.  Why is my bucket floating away from me????

Okay, so it makes sense that it's terrifying to start your first internship.  I mean, for me, I was excited to start my journey towards my dream job and all.  But I wanted to make a good first impression, I didn't know basically anything about training, I didn't know if I'd be good enough to ever Make It, etc. etc.  It's normal.  Even your first paid position feels a lot like that, because while you've made it over the hurdle of getting your foot in the door, you still have a lot to prove. 

But why then, once you get your Coveted Training Experience, would a new job still feel so scary?  Allow me to opine in a simple-to-read, itemized fashion (my favorite style, as you've probably gathered).

1. You Don't Know Where Anything Goes

Marine mammal training is ORGANIZING.  Well, it's a special kind of organizing.  It's not like, nice and neat per se.  Some facilities look like The Container Store and others look like my bedroom does right now, but like I totally know where everything is in my bedroom, it's just in stacks or piles.   

Is this what your facility looks like?

Regardless, marine mammal facilities have to meet certain legal standards for cleanliness (still others, like ones I've worked at, have to hit higher criteria to get the highest accreditation possible just because we're awesome like that).   Not every facility has the funding to have a place for everything that's nice and neat, but they sure do have clean, secure places for everything.   

Your feeding buckets, for example, have a Place To Live.  Sometimes it's on wall racks, sometimes it's in a clean refrigerator, sometimes it's on shelves, sometimes it's on a drying rack cabinet thingy Who Has No Name I'm Aware Of, or maybe they are stored neatly in clean bins once they are dry.   But as a trainer of any level, you need to know where your buckets Live.   You feel like 3/5 of a trainer on your first day at a new job when you've successfully cleaned a bucket but have no clue where to put it.  So you stand around wondering, "Will I look dumb if I ask where this thing goes? Isn't that something I should know?"   No, you won't look dumb.  Yes, you'll feel dumb for asking.

It's not just buckets that have to be stored in their correct place.  Toys, vitamins, your uniform, medical equipment all need to be in their proper location and it is different at every single facility, so basically nothing you are used to from your old job will transfer over to your new one in this capacity.  

This is something that is really jarring for me, because I am not organized at home (see above comment about bedroom) but I am at my job.   If I don't know where something goes at my job, I panic because I can't do what I do with things like my laundry, half-read books, bills….which entails me putting them on the nearest flat surface, telling myself to put them away later, then putting them in a box years later when I eventually move to my next apartment or house.

2. You Want To Help, But You Don't Know What The Hell Is Going On

This especially applies to all levels of experience, because you always want to make a good first impression at your new job.  And we all know how much cleaning, lifting, fish-sorting happens on a daily basis.   This topic also overlaps with the first one.  Here is an example to illustrate this point:

Trainer: Hey, can someone please find me Sammy's toothbrush for my next session?
Me: Oh! I want to find it! I want to find it on my very first day so you will think, wow, Cat is really
        good at her job!
Trainer: Okay, sure, it's in the med lab in the drawer underneath the centrifuge.
Me: Where is the med lab?

Then the trainer explains to me where the med lab is, which is something like, "It's the second door on the right down the hall", but my nervous brain interprets it as walking directions to far-away places, such as Washington D.C.    Then I get hopelessly lost until someone points me in the right direction, at which point I grab the wrong toothbrush and can't actually find my way back to the trainer to tell them that I'm hopeless and should probably just get fired.

Hey, do you know where this pole is supposed to go once I'm done with it?

Especially once you've had an internship under your belt, you know when things need to get done.  Habitats need to be checked for the night, buckets need to be scrubbed, fish needs to be ready for sessions, shows, interactions.  But you don't know how to do those things yet at your new job and so you stand around terrified that you appear as useless as a butter knife and/or bipartisanship.  

Butter knives are………..pointless!!! HA HA! Get it?

3. You Don't Speak The Mysterious Facility Terminology

Terminology is the lifeblood of animal training.  Most marine mammal facilities rely on a standardized and mostly-scientific set of terms.  Some of these terms are familiar to the laymen (e.g. positive reinforcement, desensitization), some of them are familiar to people who are trying to break into the industry (e.g. SDs, LRS), and others sound like medical ailments common in the mid-to-late 1800s (e.g. abulia).

I didn't make this image: This guy did.

For the most part, the behavioral terminology is consistent in each zoo or aquarium.  But the Facility Terminology is an entirely different animal.   Your first few weeks on the job will be filled with words and phrases that make literal sense on a word-by-word basis, but the overall meaning will be entirely lost.   Here are some real life examples of how the phrase, "My animal left me me mid-session" would be said at each facility I've worked at.

"Flipper wandered."

"Not all who wander are lost…but they are all not under stimulus control."

"Flipper cruised."

Whoa, Death Valley!

"Flipper drifted."

Just drift away...

"Flipper hit the pool."

Hit the pool! Relax!

As an intern or new trainer, it's even more foreign to hear how more experienced trainers talk about their animal family and their behavioral histories.  I remember very clearly listening to one of the senior trainers at my first paid job talk about changing up social groups for a show and how that gating would go.   If she were to explain it to me, a novice trainer with zero clue what was going on, she'd probably have said something like, "We're going to ask dolphin A, dolphin B, and dolphin C from group 1 to swim into B pool, which is this pool right here, from A pool, which is where they are now.  Then we will have dolphin D, dolphin E, and dolphin F from group 2 swim from that pool over there (D pool) into A pool, so they can do the show."

But of course, since I was new and completely irrelevant to any gating scenario, there was no need for this kind of long-winded explanation and so a more cogent and Facility Terminology-riddled direction was given:

"Sep the Ones into B and the Twos into A."

Sep? What? Was that a word?  

When I started working with pinnipeds, the phrase "chewy" was used to describe a seal or sea lion who was playing with their fish.  But the first time I heard this phrase it made me actually laugh out loud because I could not for the life of me figure out what was happening.  It went something like this:

Me: How did that sea lion session go?
Trainer:  It was okay, Sea Lion was chewy.

I could only think of the granola bar.   Or gummy things (I LOVE GUMMY THINGS).

OH. EM. GEE.  Now THAT'S chewy!!!!!!

Every time I go to a new place, I'm always jarred at the images that pop immediately into my mind the first time I hear some of the new phraseology inherent to each one.   But of course, as I become fully immersed in the language or culture of the facility, I say these phrases knowing fully well what I (and my coworkers) mean, which is the point of terminology in the first place. 

This also includes SDs for anyone above an entry-level position.  Learning new SDs feels the same way it did learning Russian in college when I couldn't (and still cannot) for the life of me remember the word for vacuum cleaner so I just kept making something up.  

Side note: the word for vacuum cleaner is "пылесос" which was about as easy for me to figure out as was the back bow SD at my first job.

4. You Don't Know Anyone By Name Or Any Other Identifying Characteristic

At any job at any level, it's always weird to be the New Kid because you don't know important information about your new coworkers such as: their name.

I try pneumonic devices but I'm blond and consume too much sugar to really have a chance at that.  Luckily, Facebook is a great tool for one to get to know their coworkers before they start working somewhere (hmmm, this sounds familiar).  But there have been more than a few times when I've tried to start a friendly conversation with a new coworker (or, gulp, a boss) and realized I can't for the life of me remember their first name.

On top of that, you don't know anyone's personal history.  No inside jokes, no knowledge about anything that you could potentially relate to….but that's okay, because that's just how it is.   And of course, the more sincere effort you put in to getting to know your new pals at work, the faster you get over this syndrome.

This breaks the ice in every way fathomable.

My preferred method of Breaking The Ice involves allowing gravity to do its evil thing to me, because it never fails that I'll have had at least one to three embarrassing falls at work by the time my first two weeks are up.

5. You Don't Know Any Animal By Name Or Other Identifying Characteristic 

By. Far. The. Hardest. Thing.

Animal ID.  No, not, "Oh that? That's a bottlenose dolphin! And that? That's a river otter!"

I'm talking about correctly identifying individual animals without hesitation.

They always match!

You want to know all of the animals, no matter what stage of the game you're at.  If you're an intern, well you want to be the first intern to get cleared on animal ID.   Any other experience level above that, you want to know your animal ID quickly so you can prove you know your stuff and so you can hit the ground running as soon as you can start working with the animals.  Put another way, you're not allowed to work animals if you can't correctly identify them immediately.  D'uh.

Sometimes, it's not too hard.  If you're at a smaller facility or your department doesn't have lots of critters, you're okay.  

But when you have a bunch of African penguins staring at you, your heart rate starts to pick up.  Nothing is more humbling than not knowing your animals.   When you work with a particular taxa, it's a little easier for your brain to distinguish between individuals you've never seen before.  But when you go to work with a different species, it's like your brain can't figure out what to make of the visual information you're receiving.  

Eventually though, being the visual animals that we are, our brains DO figure out who's who.

6. You Will Make Mistakes But That's Totally Fine, Because You Are Not SuperHuman

People worry all the time that they are going to Make A (as in one, singular) Mistake when they start their new job.

Read, remember, rehearse.

Well, I'm here to tell you not to worry.  You won't make A mistake.  You'll make lots of mistakes!  Why? Because:

1) You don't know where anything goes
2) You want to help but don't know what the hell is going on
3) You don't speak the mysterious facility terminology
4) You don't know anyone by name or any other identifying characteristic
5) You don't know any animal by name or any other identifying characteristic

Also, you're a human being, not some kind of deity with a perfect track record of knowing where buckets are stored.   

If I listed all of my mistakes that I made as a new employee ALONE, this blog would take up 67% of the Internet.   

So let's bring this all together.

If you keep your head in the game, don't unnecessarily beat yourself up, and know it's normal to feel waaaaaay out of your comfort zone at a new job no matter WHAT level you are, you will get through the weird awkward times and enter the land of Confidence.  

It'll only take days to know where things go and what the hell is going on.   It'll take days to weeks to understand and then fluently speak the facility terminology (and then you feel really cool)*.

You cultivate relationships with not just your human coworkers, but your animal ones as well.  And one day, that magnificent brain of yours will take all of the visual information you obtain looking at the animals on a regular basis and make it impossible for you to mess up individuals.  In fact, it's only a matter of time before you think to yourself, "It's so OBVIOUS the difference between these otters, they look so entirely different! How did I ever mess this up?"

So for those of you starting new journeys at new places, whether it's your first first time or your fifth, take comfort in the discomfort.  It's where you grow.  It's where you learn.  It's where you harvest fodder for later hilarious stories, which you'll use to comfort and boost the confidence of employees and interns that come to your team in the future.   It gets better if you allow yourself to persevere! 


* You're basically multi-lingual by the time you've worked at two or more places


  1. I love your blog, Cat! As a new trainer (less than a year full-time), I agree and relate with everything you've said. Having confidence in my abilities, even when I continually made mistakes, is something I struggled with in the beginning. Thanks for the laughs and sharing your experiences with trainers & non-trainers alike.

  2. My worst one is wanting to help but not knowing what's going on. You never want to be labeled as lazy and making a good first impression means showing I'm a hard worker. Even training in a different area of the same facility the first couple days there's a lot of standing around and watching, and I'm always paranoid that they're going to think I'm just slacking off. So I jump in to help and end up messing things up.

  3. I loved reading this, my dream was to be a trainer, my whole life. Unfortunately, I was never able to get my ears to equalize when I went for my scuba still trying to learn to deal with letting go of my dream...i enjoy reading things like this to see what it would have been like. It brings a smile to my face.