Moments before my first rotation, Annie asked whether I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous, I was terrified. After briefly trying to determine what the correct answer should be, I admitted that I was a “little” nervous. Annie smiled. Judy, sitting right next to her (as always), in a loud voice (as always), demanded, “What? Why are you nervous? You shouldn’t be nervous!”
Annie turned to Judy and began, “I think she should be a little nervous! It’s her first time…” but I didn’t get to hear the rest of the discussion. I was already walking around the pool to the lifeguard stand.
Judy and Annie were my bosses, the Head Guards. The other returning lifeguards loved them, and one of them may have been my swimming teacher so many years prior. I immediately idolized them. They were smart, funny and coolly in control. They had been working at the pool for eight years, had been best friends for at least that long, and were like opposing sides of the same coin. Where Judy was brash, Annie tended toward a softer touch with the newer guards. It balanced well. For a new lifeguard, the combination of their personalities stressed the importance of standing on your own and being independently capable, but also let you know that you were protected and would be taken care of. In short, the perfect environment for someone starting their first job, ever.
Over the course of the years I spent working at Cumberland Pool, I likely learned everything I’ll ever need to know about working anywhere, ever.
Almost. The dress code was awfully lax. Not to mention, swimsuits are generally frowned upon in non-pool employment.
Lifeguarding is a great first job. It’s a lot of work, but just as much fun (if not more). I gained lifelong friends, countless pool (and house) party memories, and a standard for which no future group of coworkers will ever measure up. And, in terms of job skills, it taught me volumes about personal responsibility and accountability.
The large staff and tiered hierarchy of management (and my own climb through several positions) allowed me to understand how a single issue can be seen so differently from each of those layers. How, as a lifeguard, restrictions that seemed completely inane, could suddenly – as pool manager – be the most rational approach. For example, a lifeguard running around the pool with backboard head-immobilizers strapped to their noggin was still hysterical, but also highly inappropriate.
I learned about public relations. How to listen to, and understand, the complaints and concerns of our patrons who were, again, looking at things from a very different angle. How to accommodate, negotiate, compromise, and most importantly, diffuse an emotionally charged situation.
While I’d always been taught about respect for all people, lifeguarding at the city pool allowed me to put it into practice. To interact with infants, senior citizens and every age in between, swimmers who spoke no English, or came to the pool clothed head-to-toe due to religious requirements. Understanding, accepting and respecting differences was a daily activity.
I also learned the importance of asking questions. That may sound insignificant in comparison to the things listed above, but hear me out.
Asking questions, at all, was a tough lesson for me. I’d been an incredibly timid child – the most appropriate descriptor being “terminally shy.” However, in a position where everything is exposed, and your tasks are physical things, done in front of other people, there isn’t any room for faking it. While many desk/office positions can be flubbed (for a time, at least), the immediacy of lifeguarding forced me to ask questions. I already knew that I wanted to do the job correctly, so if I didn’t know what I was doing, I asked.
The first few times were difficult. I imagined the respondent laughing at me, looking at me like I was a fool. But it didn’t happen. In fact, I was even thanked for asking questions. I was told that it showed my desire to learn, my commitment to the job.
Later, when I knew that I was ready to move up to the head guard position, I asked for the promotion. It was a large staff, and there were a number of guards who started at the same time as I. My manager seemed mildly surprised by my request. While I was moved up to head guard the following summer, I was also told that if I hadn’t asked they might not have realized I wanted the position and likely it would have gone to someone else.
And when I finally moved on from the pool? Everything I learned there has served me well in the other employment adventures I’ve taken, but none is so universally significant as the ability to ask questions. Specifically, I have a tendency to change not just jobs, but careers. From running a pool to telecommunication. Then to civil litigation, bridal gowns and freelance writing. In every case, my ability to ask questions has not only helped me, but has been appreciated by my superiors.
Of all the advice I could ever give to someone just starting a job, it is this:
Asking questions is how you learn. It’s how your superiors know that you care about your job. It creates a bridge of communication, a rapport, between you and your coworkers. It’s the simplest, most valuable thing you can do.
This past summer, on a trip back to Cleveland, I visited Cumberland Pool. The current manager was a lifeguard under me many (many) years ago. His wife, also a pool coworker, was at the pool that day, carrying their first child. As I walked out, two women caught my eye. There, along the fence, sunbathing and chatting away, were Judy and Annie. The women who essentially shaped my concept of work. Were they still living in Cleveland? Were they just visiting? What sort of careers did they have now? I had so many questions…