Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Professional Failures: Aspiring Trainer Edition

Failure failure failure.

The saddest of endings is when a ghost with googly eyes eats you. 

This blog is a lot about failure and how to not let yourself get down by it.  I’ve said a lot about this, attenuated with semi-brief* anecdotes from yours truly.  But over the past several weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people both in this field and aspiring trainers who compliment my blog and then address me like I’m some kind of Big Name.  As an aside: I’m no Big Name, just some moron who writes and does whacky google image searches while showing my clumsy, Dolphin Huggery personality. But nonetheless, I’m still flattered and humbled by the positive feedback.

Anyways, when these kind people tell me they like my blog and that it helps them out, that means a lot to me.  But I hope everyone knows that I started out just like anyone else, I struggle with insecurity in my own job performance sometimes, and sometimes I get a little down.  I mean, all of that is normal.  In fact, if I didn’t go through that stuff, I’d never grow as a trainer, a supervisor, or a person.  You guys all know that is true about yourselves, too.

But let me remind you all that it took me almost a year to get a job as a trainer.  I know that isn’t going to win me any prizes of “Longest Time It Took To Get a Friggin’ Job”, but it wasn’t an easy ride for me either.  So I figured I’d write a blog about all of my failures (and yeah, some of the embarrassing ones) in trying to get a job as a marine mammal trainer.

Even though I mess up, I still have a job I LOVE!

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to work with dolphins.  I knew a lot about the ethology and natural history of most of the species of dolphins known at that time. I just devoured information on dolphin species, and focused a lot of my efforts on my favorites: orcas, rough-toothed, bottlenose, and Pacific white-sided.  I spent so much time on the biology of the animals that by the time I met people like me on the great Internet, I thought I had it made.  Who wouldn’t want to hire someone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of delphinidae?

See? I STILL love rough-toothed dolphins

The group of people I’d met online who belonged to a forum dedicated to cetaceans and basically how to get a job as a trainer knew a lot of stuff I didn’t.  They knew all the individual bottlenose dolphins and orcas at a variety of facilities.  Some of them even knew trainers.  They knew behavioral terminology and how different facilities did things (how accurate this was, I have no idea, but it sure impressed me at the time).  They talked about internships, which hadn’t even crossed my mind.  It was obvious I knew nothing about the field I wanted to get into...and that freaked me out.

My 17 year old brain figured that the only way to start getting in front of the 8-ball was to go to my local aquariums (the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo) and start to identify the animals.  That’d really show how good of a trainer I’d be.  

The dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo wound up being pretty interactive at the underwater viewing window of the main habitat, so on weekends I’d drive down to the zoo and try to play with the dolphins.  This was great until eventually, one of the trainers told me to stop because it could disrupt training goals for their youngest dolphin.  Now that I’m a trainer, I understand where she was coming from, but at the time I thought it was career suicide.  

Especially when she asked my name, and I got all nervous and not only told her my name but added, “AND I’D LOVE TO DO AN INTERNSHIP HERE SOMEDAY!”



When it was time to apply for internships, I had a brilliant idea.  I’d apply for internships in the Chicago area, because that way I wouldn’t have to spend money to live away from home!  It’d be easy, and I mean, I heard how competitive these internships were, but surely they’d pick me, right?  I could identify their animals.  I knew a lot about dolphins.  And NO ONE on Earth or in any neighboring galaxies could possibly love dolphins more than I do.  I was a shoe-in.

I looked at the applications for Brookfield Zoo and Shedd Aquarium.  Both of them said I’d be working pretty hard, lifting stuff, standing on my feet, cleaning a lot.  I started going to the gym to work out, so I’d be ready for the physical requirements.  That was probably the only smart, prudent step I took in getting ready for an internship.  

My application to Brookfield Zoo was denied, because my letter of recommendation didn’t arrive on time from my university’s registrar’s office.  It wound up being a clerical error on my school’s part, but that didn’t change the outcome.  Having so many intern applications come - many of which represent equally qualified candidates - means that often, intern coordinators need to have ways of paring their selection pool down to a few.  Strict application deadlines are one of those methods; it’s completely unbiased.

So I didn’t make that one.  And when I interviewed for the Shedd internship, it’s safe to say I bombed that one.  Again, having not really prepared myself for what the marine mammal training field was like, I figured the internship was like any ol’ summer job.

“Do you have any schedule conflicts within the dates you’d be interning at the Shedd?” the interviewer asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said confidently.  “I need a week off in August, and another weekend for a family event.” 


Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get that internship either after the interviewer kindly explained that taking a weekend off was one thing, but an entire week was not possible.  He gave me advice on how to present myself the next time I interviewed for an internship.  And while I was embarrassed and disappointed at the time, I appreciated the unsolicited advice because hey, maybe I would’ve made the same mistake.

The more research I did on internships, the more I realized I really needed to broaden my search.  I applied to every marine mammal internship, made overly certain everything got to where it needed to go on time, and made sure I had no schedule conflicts with the internship periods.  Eventually, I landed an internship at Clearwater Marine Aquarium and was there for six months....

...and rearing to get a job.  I didn’t want to go back to school, because I had finally had a taste of my dream job.   And right after I got back from my internship, I was diagnosed with melanoma.  Talk about a &#%(-y time.

I wallowed a little bit, not gonna lie.  I was really scared of the melanoma diagnosis not only for my own health, but also because I didn’t know how it’d affect my future in marine mammal training.  I knew I had to cast my net wide in the job search; I couldn’t just limit myself to the indoor facilities because I’d heard so much about how difficult it was to land an entry-level job ANYWHERE, much less at a place you think you want.  I felt defeated and scared before I even sent my first job application.

But then, I started applying.  Everywhere.  No entry-levelish job on AZA and IMATA was safe.  I applied for every animal training job (not just marine mammals) I could find.  I scoured the internet for zoo and aquarium websites to see if they had any additional job postings that weren’t up on IMATA or AZA’s websites, and found a good amount.  I sent out resume after resume after resume.  Over 80.

C'mon Apple, let's get on this.

And I heard back (this includes rejections) from about 8. 

Before I go any further, let me make something clear: the places I list below are amazing facilities.  Their decision not to interview or hire me is 100% okay. I have absolutely no bitter feelings towards them whatsoever.  Why didn’t I get an interview or get hired at these places?  Simple.  I wasn’t a good fit.  Nothing more to it!

Most of the applications I sent out went into the void.  Even places I knew people, thinking that maybe they’d be like, “Oh that kid, let’s look at her resume” they didn’t.  I don’t know what was harder to adjust to, accepting a rejection or never hearing back.  I struggled with sending follow-up emails or phone calls, because What If It Got Lost In The Mail?  What if they couldn’t Open The Attachment?

I acted on an emotional impulse, and made a mistake by initially following up with the mysterious black-hole applications.  I didn’t hear back from them either, which I took as a message loud and clear as: don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Yet again, I felt embarrassed and frustrated, mostly with myself.  I worried that they’d remember my name, like in a conversation like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh my god, this Cat girl emailed us again.

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Really?!?! She is SO annoying

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Let’s forever remember this name

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Yes, let’s remember this name and BLACK BALL HER FROM THE
                                         FIELD FOREVER


Of course, that’s not at all how that goes.  You know how that situation probably went?  Something more like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh, there’s another follow up email from an interested candidate.      Obviously passionate, but young.  Next!

And speaking for myself, because I am terrible with names (and details in general), if someone makes a little mistake or whatever, I’m not going to hold it against them or even remember them whenever they apply again.**

Eventually, because perseverance and time pay off, I got a swim test at SeaWorld San Diego.  I practiced my butt off for that thing, figuring the hardest part was going to obviously be the test.  If I could pass the test, then I knew I could ace the interview.  Why? Because I’d interviewed, failed, and learned so much from my internship search experience.  Plus, I had six months of marine mammal training under my belt, and felt confident in my basic knowledge.  I knew I could convey that while I understood the lingo, I was not a know-it-all and was eager to learn learn learn.   They’d be crazy not to hire me!

With this confidence, I took the swim test.  I passed the swim test.  And before I interviewed, I got tossed into an improv-type situation that totally took my by surprise.  I did my best, as I’ve written in a previous blog.  And then, the interview.

Well first, I had all the wrong clothes.  For anyone who knows me personally, this is not surprising.  I am actually The Worst Female in the Western hemisphere when it comes to fashion sense.  I hate dressing up, I never know what’s appropriate to wear.   What I think looks Interview Good is what most people might wear to an establishment such as Wal Mart, but like, at reasonable hours like from say 5:00pm to 7:00pm.   So give me some credit.


So I show up in this weird outfit I thought would be a perfect Marine Mammal Trainer Interview get up, green jeans (.....) with a silk button down shirt.  I looked atrocious.  I have no idea why I thought those two things go together.  I wish I had a photo, but if I did I’d probably have destroyed it because I don’t think some of you could survive the laughing fit that would ensue upon seeing it.

When I walked into the room, I saw a bunch of very Important People sitting at a table waiting to do my interview.  All of these people where very kind and did a great job putting me at ease.  Then, they began the worst interview of my career.

They asked me questions like, “Tell us about a time you were put in charge of a project, and it failed.”  

“Tell us about a time you dealt with an aggressive incident.”

These were questions I had never encountered in my internship journey.  Had I done a little research about interviews, I would’ve been more prepared for that particular brand of questioning.  But because I thought I’d already gone through that learning process, I didn’t bother.  What a mistake.  

Uh oh

I’m not sure what the interviewers would tell you about the caliber of my answers, but from my perspective I definitely did not do well.  I tried to answer confidently, but I was so shaken and so frustrated with myself for being so complacent that it was hard to really focus.  What was the point of answering so many seemingly-negative questions? To see how you work under pressure.  To see how you are when you’re thrown off.  And maybe, to see how you deal with inevitable failure, because there is no one who avoids making mistakes.

At the end of the interview, they asked me if I had any questions.  This was yet another major fail on my part: I’d never thought about what questions I’d ask a prospective employer for a paid job.  The internship interview questions I asked where logistic, but would it look cocky if I asked those same kinds of questions for a job?  Would it look like I assumed I got the position?  I have no idea how SeaWorld runs their departments, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell them no, I had NO questions.   And so, in my wisest, proudest moments, the best Look At Me, I’m Hireable question was:

“Do you guys like, sometimes get animals from the navy?”

And it just came out of my mouth and was hanging in the air in front of all of those really  Important Sea World people and I wanted to die.  What a stupid question.   

They answered the question politely, and asked if I had any more.

Me: Uh, no, I'm going to go die now. 

The Monster At The End Of This Interview

Okay, I didn't really say that.  I tried to save face as best I could by saying no, thanks so much for the opportunity, I had fun (and really, up until that point, I had).

All of the mistakes I've talked about really shook my confidence.  It make me question not only IF I'd ever get a job, but if I SHOULD.  "Does anyone else make a fool out of themselves?" I'd ask myself.  "The field is so competitive, can I afford to make these mistakes??"

The voice inside every aspiring animal trainer's head

Take a deep breath and let it out in pure relief, because YES.  You can.  As long as you keep a positive attitude, and force yourself to get out of your head so you can learn from your mistakes, you will be fine.  The people interviewing you were brand new at this job once.  They were scared and fumbled around with their words, their technique, and their image.  They can empathize with you, even if they don't think you're the right fit.  They won't hold it against you for future job opportunities.  Just keep yourself positive (and stay off of Facebook!).

Guess what? The job I have now came from failure.  That's right.  One of the resumes I handed out was to the director and general manager of Marineland back when it was still privately owned.  Marineland had a table at the IMATA conference job fair in 2005.  I gave my resume to the director and introduced myself.  He laughed when he saw my name on my resume and said, "That's an interesting name.  Right now we don't have any openings for entry-level trainers, but keep us in mind when you get some more experience." 

I remembered that, and applied after I'd had experience at Miami Seaquarium.  Guess what? The director at Marineland remembered me, I got an interview, and landed the job.  That director is now in charge at the place I'm at now, and he brought me over.  We both joke all the time about our first encounter at the job fair; and remind aspiring trainers how important it is to network, to get outside of your comfort zone, and learn from your mistakes.  You will benefit in ways you can't even predict.

Great success!

I could go on and on about my failures.  I made so many mistakes in my job.  So maybe later I'll write about mistakes at different parts of my career later.  Yeah, that would certainly break up your reading experience instead of what is turning into a blog of Russian novelist proportions.

So any of you out there struggling to get your foot in the door, terrified that you made decisions or said some things that "for sure" have sealed your fate against getting a job, please don't worry.  Take this blog as a reminder that we've all been in your shoes.  Just keep the following things in mind, no matter how much you think you've messed up:

1) Be confident, even if you blew the interview and you have to fake it to the last moment.  It's better to be confident and professional even when you know you've "lost".  Not just for your future job prospects, but out of respect for yourself and your development

2) Stay positive; never trash-talk the facility or anyone who interviewed you.  Why? Because you're the one who messed up, not them...and that's okay.  It's okay if you're not the right fit for that job.  Maybe you will be later, but only if you take it in stride.  And maybe you'll never be, which is great too because who wants to work at a place where they wouldn't be a good fit?  Let the people interviewing you worry about that; you just stay positive.

3) LEARN.  Learn learn learn learn learn.  A mistake is an utter waste if you use it to tell yourself you suck, if you use it to tell others they suck, or if you just let it sit and fester in your head.  A mistake is a gold mine if you learn from it.

4) Know you'll fall, over and over and over.  You'll get ahead, think you've "made it", and then you'll fail.  It's normal, it means you're pushing yourself and you're growing.  It doesn't mean you aren't worth it.  So pick yourself up and keep going.

We're cheering for you!

Yeah you do!

* I’d be lying if I said anything I ever write is “brief”

** ...unless someone chooses to publicly decry their woe or disrespect for the facility (facilities) they’ve applied to and from which never heard back and/or got rejected.  We remember those people.


  1. Hey Cat, I have a question for you.... Whats your thoughts on sending your resume into places that aren't currently hiring? Do they usually just get lost in translation? Is it better to just wait until they are actually hiring for a position so you have a better shot of actually being considered for a job? I've been wondering if its worth my time to send my resume out to a few facilities that are on my list of "places I would love/kill to work at" but I didn't know if that was a good idea or not.

  2. Learning from failure is so important! But also really tough. You need to either be pretty resilient or learn to be resilient - there is no in-between! The other thing is learning that you have to work extremely hard to elevate yourself out of a field of competition and persevere. Being good is okay. But hundreds are good. Thousands!

    Celine Goodson @ RMS Recruitment

  3. Hi Cat! So no green jeans and silk top :) but what do youwear? I'm worried about being overdressed. Are heels appropriate? Blazer? Thanks for your advice