Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Middle Flipper's Guide to Good Interning (Part Two)

Hi everyone! How was your week?  Ready for part 2 of how to be a good intern?  No?  You should probably take a gander at Part One, then come on back for some more.

Be good!

For those of you ready for more, let's get this show on the road.

As a recap, last week we discussed the pitfalls of overly-focusing on hands-on experience, not spending enough time observing and asking questions, not taking advantage of rare opportunities, and being overly-competitive.  The over-arching concept is to remember to focus on your own development so that one day you can be a great animal trainer and caretaker.

So let's start with the second half of the common mistakes interns make (and as always, solutions!).  Remember, it's OKAY if you've made some or all of these mistakes.  We all did to varying extents.  What matters is learning from them and moving forward!

Mistake #5: Not Being An Obnoxious or Silent Ninja (a.k.a. Not Being Yourself)


Starting an internship is terrifyingly exciting, ain't no other way to slice it.  There's a particularly raw and unique feeling when you start the process of defining yourself as a marine mammal trainer hopeful.  You're at the bottom of the ladder, you're in competition not only with your fellow interns at your facility, but everywhere (because you're all applying for the same jobs!), AND you're trying to prove yourself to the trainers.  That's on top of all of the normal nervousness that naturally comes with starting a new job.

This is what nails a lot of interns.   They get so wrapped up in the competitive, holy-capelin*-I'm-in-the-field-kinda atmosphere that they start to lose their identities and become Obnoxious or Silent Ninja.  Both Ninjas develop from a place of tremendous insecurity, which of course is something we all suffer from when we are interning.  

I'd call him an Obnoxious Ninja if he wouldn't think that was a compliment

Obnoxious Ninja (herein referred to as ONs) is someone who over-compensates for their insecurities by becoming Pushy, Overly-Competitive, Bossy, and/or Just Really Loud Without Any Filter Whatsoever.   ONs don't have to have all of the aforementioned qualities.  There are ONs who are not bossy at all, but who constantly interrupt people talking so they can get their opinions heard.  Or maybe they are very socially polite in conversation, but push people under the bus.  I'm sure you all know the type and their various ON traits.   ONs may or may not be hard-workers; it's hard to tell their work ethic because their loud or aggressive tendencies distract from the actual work they are doing.

Are Shy Guys Silent Ninjas? Discuss.

Silent Ninja (SNs) is someone who completely disappears.  If they speak, it's either very quietly or with a lot of very under confident words.  They apologize profusely for doing anything that makes them visible.  Usually, SNs work very hard, but you never can tell because you never see them.  They make a point to not talk to any trainers above an entry-level, unless there is some pressing need to discuss something with a senior staff member.  The SNs completely cloak their personalities, which has the same effect as the ONs on noticing their work performance: it is impossible to see what they're really doing.   You look around and go, "Hey, where's that Silent Ninja? They've been missing for five hours!"  They've been working, but you had no clue because they are avoiding being near anyone with authority.

If you've just read all of this and are like, "oh my god, I am obnoxious!" or "Hey, I'm just SHY! That's not a big deal!" take a deep breath.  And then another.  

Cheesy but true.  Plus, cheese is awesome.

It's completely understandable that for the first couple of weeks at your internship, that you're just figuring out your role and place not just in a work setting, but in a social setting too.  Most people are a little shy around people they've never met.  Some people (like yours truly) have a personality that is a little uh, loud.  If you're a class clown, that's long as you know how to be serious and professional in appropriate situations.  If you're a quiet person who's naturally introspective, that's okay too.  You just have to know when to ask questions and turn on the charm around park guests and to some extent, your coworkers.

Let's take a look at some scenarios in which ONs, SNs, and a normal intern take a stab at the situation.

Networking with a senior staff member

ON: Hey boss, just wanted to say that Alice, you know that intern with the giant head? I helped her out today.   I decided that I'd help her clean buckets since she's not very efficient at it.  Then I decided to do you a favor and took the opportunity to tell her that she'll NEVER get a job in the field if she doesn't get her act together.   Anyways, I've noticed you bridge late on some of your behaviors.  You also give the fluke wave SD differently than anyone else, but I think you're much better at showmanship than a lot of the other trainers.

SN: ............ sorry to bother you, nevermind.  

Normal:  Hi boss, I have a question about that training session I saw you doing earlier.  Do you have some time now to talk about it?

Conflict between interns

ON:  I need to talk to you.  You are such a kiss-ass.  You make everyone look bad!!!!!!! I know you're telling everyone I'm mean, I heard it from like three other people. 

SN: .....sorry, nevermind.

Normal: Can I talk to you for a second?  Lately I feel like there's been some tension between us, and I wanted to talk about it so we can get on the same page.  I enjoy working with you, but sometimes I feel as though we don't work as a team.  Here is a specific example of a situation where I felt this way. 

Confessing to a mistake

ON:  Oh, I didn't do that.  Oh, I misheard you.  Oh, that's not what you said.  Oh, she told me to do it this way.  Okay well, that isn't how I interpreted that situation.  Oh, well you didn't see what I did before/during/after that.

SN: I'm sorry. 

Normal: Okay, I understand.  I'll make sure to do better/differently next time.  

Some ninjas are cool.  Like it's okay if you're a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

See the difference?  Think I'm being extreme in my examples?  Don't.  I was a Silent Ninja for a few weeks at my first internship, even at my first job.  I was so scared to screw up around the trainers and my bosses that I figured I'd just keep my head down and work hard.  I realized (with a lot of help) that that wasn't helping my coworkers really see who I was.  I wasn't a quiet, shy, terrified person.  I was only like than when I was nervous.  But once I started asking questions in sessions, and started letting my personality show, I started making a good impression.  You can do that, too!

The lesson here is to BE YOURSELF.  No one is naturally a Silent or Obnoxious Ninja.   Ninjas are created, and when they operate they are intense.  There is no stopping a ninja (unless you're another ninja? What about a samurai? Could they stop a ninja? I'm confused).   So regardless of your brand of Ninjaness, you're essentially embodying the most extreme forms of not-so-flattering personality traits.

What's the solution?  A leap of faith in yourself, and self-checks.  Tell yourself it is NORMAL to be nervous and unsure...everyone feels like that.  If your insecurity makes you suddenly start noticing the mistakes and actions of others, that's your first self check.  

"Okay," you tell yourself.  "I am focusing a lot on other people, maybe because that's easier than me focusing on my own journey.  Good thing I noticed that, so I don't become an ON!  Time to refocus on MY goals."

I did a search for "self-check", which now I realize was dumb because you can imagine what images I found...ugh!  So here's another inspirational thingy, to spare you from what I can now never unsee. 

If you notice you've gone weeks without talking to staff members above an entry-level position, or if you've never chatted with a senior staff member, that's a good self check.

"I'm only here for a couple of months," you say.  "I need to make the most out of my time here.  I'm nervous to talk to the senior trainer, but they were an intern once, too.  It's okay to ask them a question about their own career development, or about their training ideas and experiences."

Being yourself in a professional setting, one that focuses on your own stuff and puts teamwork as a high priority gets you as close to guaranteeing success as anything.  Show how great you are through your actions, remind yourself that you have a right to ask questions and engage in conversation with your coworkers and bosses.  There's no need to be a ninja of any sort!

Mistake #6: Doing Too Many Internships

Too many kittens? Impossible.  Too many internships? Possible.

I can hear hearts stopping!!!!! 


No! Don't worry! Remember, these are mistakes you can come back from if you've made them.  This blog is here to help!

I have to tell you, every intern group I encounter I have this conversation with at least one person.  The chronic internship-doer.  

Why are you guys avoiding applying for jobs?

If you're still in school and you just want to fill your summers up with internships to network more, to see how other facilities operate, and to beef up your resume, I totally get that.  But that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking you all of the rest of you, the ones who are about to graduate or are out of school and have already done an internship.  Why are you applying for a second or third one instead of a job?


"Because," you answer.  "I don't have enough experience."

There's that blasted word again.   If you had a successful first internship, and you're done with school (or almost done), it's time to apply for jobs.  It's okay.  You can have one internship; that's enough in many cases.  

Here is a list of good reasons to do a second or third internship:

1.  You've applied for jobs for six to twelve months and haven't had any luck
2.  You have two or more years left in school
3.  Your strategy is to get an internship at a facility that tends to hire a lot of interns
4.  You didn't have a great first internship experience and want to apply what you've
     learned to another one
5.  You want to know what it's like to work at a place that's completely different from the
     one you were just at (e.g. you were at a show facility and want to know what an
     interactive place is like)

If your reason isn't on that list, you should be applying for jobs.  But just in case that's confusing.....

Here's another list (I LOVE lists, can't you tell?)!!!  

Not-so-good reasons to do a second or third internship:

1.  To gain experience
2.  Because you're afraid of applying for jobs
3.  Because you think you're not qualified to apply for jobs
4.  You think prospective employers will look at your resume, see you interned a year ago
     and have been working at a retail store or something and think, "oh, why didn't he stay
     current in the field?"
5.  Because you think lots of internships look good on your resume

Do you gain experience in a sense doing multiple internships? the sense that you are seeing another facility, you're meeting new people, and you may be learning what it's like to work with different types of animals.  Those things are great, but here's the thing you have to remember:

Your experience at internships does not carry over to the next one.  It is not cumulative.  So for all the reasons why doing a second internship makes sense, it is not often enough to boost your resume.  It doesn't automatically look better if I have two resumes of strong candidates who did different numbers of internships.   

Less is more!

In fact, some employers start to wonder why a candidate has done a bunch of internships (if they've been out of school) instead of getting a job.  Is it because they are having trouble landing a job...and if so, why is that?  You might think this an unfair assumption, but I'm just here to tell you like it is.

If you're concerned about an employer seeing a "gap" in your resume, don't.  We all know how hard it is to get into the field.  If we see someone who did an internship a year ago and they've been working at Whole Food just to pay the bills, we aren't going to think they are somehow so outdated that they couldn't possibly be a good candidate to interview.  We'll think, "Oh man, I remember when I was in that position!"

Because for many of us, it's financially impossible to do back-to-back internships to "stay current".  The good news is, you're not really staying current if you do back-to-back internships because remember, you start from square one at your internship, no matter how many others you've done before.  You don't get perks just because you've already learned a bunch of stuff previously.

Gaps are okay in this case!

The solution? Of course, apply for jobs.  But you can be smart about it, even if it's just to make yourself feel like you have a safety net.  Set goals for yourself, like, "If I don't have a job offer in the next nine months, I'll apply for internships that are more likely to hire interns.  But I'll still apply for jobs, too."  That way, you have a it's financially a little easier to manage.

You can also apply for jobs WHILE YOU ARE INTERNING.  It's OK!!!  Why are you doing an internship?  To get a job.  So why not start the process?  One of the interns I mentored came to me really scared about five weeks after she started.

"Cat," she said.  "I need to talk to you about something."

Oh god, I thought.  "What's wrong?"

"I'm so sorry," she said.  "I got a job offer at SeaWorld and it starts in two weeks."

"That's great!! Congratulations!!"

She was shocked that I was happy for her that she got a job.  Did that mean we were short an intern? Yes, but that's okay.  We can manage.  In this competitive field, it's never a bad idea to try for every opportunity to land that first paid position.  Is it likely that you'll get a job while you're interning?'s possible, but not likely.  But it is POSSIBLE.   You won't burn a bridge by informing your intern coordinator that you have to leave the internship early because you landed a job (and intern coordinators, if you have a problem with that, re-check your priorities.  I know it's great to have intern help, and we all rely on it because they do great work, but remember you can always fill their spot). 

If you've done a bunch of internships, and you're panicking now, because you did all the things on the not-so-good reasons list, it's okay.  Just put your two most current internships on your resume, and focus on applying for jobs, networking, and polishing your swim test and interviewing skills.  It'll be okay!

And just in case I wasn't clear, APPLY FOR A DANG JOB!

Mistake #7: Never Making A Mistake

The master of happy accidents!

Do not be afraid to mess up.  Do not.  I don't care how intimidating your boss is, or how competitive and fast-paced your facility may be.  I know how scary it is to make a mistake, especially if you have a strict manager.  But just as we set the animals up for success in animal training, set yourself up for success and do not expect perfection.  No one is perfect (except Chris Hemsworth), so if you expect you will never make a mistake, you're already failing.

The only mistake is that he's not sitting next to me right now.

What does it mean to mess up?  It means you tried something, and it didn't work.  There are obviously extreme cases of this, like if you make the same mistake repeatedly.  Or if you do something really, really, really bad (like blatantly disobeying policy, being dishonest, or doing something that hurts you or a human or animal coworker, or guest).  You can spend your career avoiding making those kinds of mistakes and be set up to succeed.

But the other mistakes? The one where you forget something?  Or accidentally do the wrong thing?  Or try something and totally mess it up?  Those are normal mistakes.  Those experiences mean you're taking calculated risks and GROWING from them.

Look, I've worked for a number of different managers.  Some are easy to make mistakes around, others are not.  But they all shared something in common: They wanted me to learn how to do my job well.  

Poor Dolly.

I remember so well when I made the first mistake at my internship.  In those days, we weighed out the dolphins' diets in the morning but didn't water thaw the fish until about twenty minutes before the session.  We'd go down to the fish kitchen, weigh out the session amount, and water thaw it.  The only exception to this was before lunch, when we'd come down from the last morning show and weigh out everything for the next afternoon show.  That was just how things were done, so the trainers could enjoy their lunch without having to do cram in fish prep.

Well, I totally forgot about this.  I took the buckets downstairs from the morning presentation, cleaned them, and went to lunch.

When the trainers went downstairs to get their buckets a couple of minutes before the afternoon show, they realized nothing had been separated, weighed, or thawed...a process that took at least 15 minutes, and they didn't have that time.   The head trainer found me and told me of my mistake, which of course made me feel so embarrassed and ashamed of myself.  I thought the world was over, who would hire me now?

I took my medicine for that mistake.  It didn't matter how the feedback was delivered to me from my boss, what mattered was what I did with that experience.  I could let it destroy me and make me terrified to ever do anything ever again, or I could look it like, "That sucked, but I won't do that again!"

The solution?  Do your best.  Seriously.  Do your best, and don't freak out when you mess up.  Embrace the fact that you're going to mess up.  Yeah, maybe that means you'll get yelled at depending on how your senior staff manages people.  You can't control that, you can only control how YOU respond to the situation.  Even if your boss has a short temper and flies off the handle, you can bet they'll notice the difference between an intern who accepts their mistake calmly, versus one who gets defensive or shuts down completely.  

All of this sums up into the next mistake....

Mistake #8: Putting Your Ego First

Not to be confused with Eggo.  You can put Eggo first.

Every mistake I've mentioned can really be traced to this one.

Putting your ego first can mean you try to be the best at the expense of others, or you are so scared to mess up that you protect your ego from being judged or criticized and never let yourself grow.  

WHY are you interning? 
Because you want a job.

WHY do you want a job as an animal trainer?
Because you want to make the lives of animals better, both in your care and in their natural environment.  You want to inspire the general public to care, so that they too can make a positive difference in the lives of the animals we love.

The animals are why we do what we do

How do you become the BEST animal trainer possible?  By putting their needs first.  By working hard, but taking constructive feedback well, by taking a risk and being yourself, by focusing on your own journey while supporting your team members.  Why?  Because all of those things make you the best animal trainer you can be.  The earlier you learn this concept, the better off you'll be in your will all of the animals under your care. 

Not only that, but you LEAD BY EXAMPLE when you correct the mistakes I've listed over the past week.  People see how you take calculated risks, how you are kind to others and how you find professional methods to network, how you are yourself without trying to take out "the competition" or by diminishing your self worth.  Those people see that and go, "I want to emulate that", and then boom, you've started influencing MORE people who focus on the right things.........which means MORE animals benefit.  

You are interning to learn how to give the best possible care and training to all animals you encounter.   Keep that as your focus, and you'll stay on course for the most part.  And when you stray off course, you have the tools and the drive to get yourself back on track.  How cool is that?

Put me first!!

So good luck out there, all current and future interns.  Use this as a resource, in addition to checking out IMATA, checking in with your current or previous coworkers and bosses, and feel empowered to be the best you can be for the sake of a greater good.  And as always, I'm here to answer any questions you might have!

For trainers reading this, please feel free to comment your opinions on this topic!  Even dissenting opinions.  Lively discussion is always welcome, as long as you're not a butthead.

* Ha ha! Occupational humor is punny.**
** I'm out of control!!!!!


  1. I really appreciate this. It gives me a new perspective on my own interns and can help me be a better mentor.