Commentary, Firefighting

Five Tips for Maintaining the ‘Beginner’s Mindset’

By George McNeil

The past year of my career has been a humbling one. In May of this year, I was fired from a job for the first time in my life and career. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t see it coming. However, while I was employed at this organization, my attitude was probably the worst it has ever been in my entire career up to this point.

August 2018 marked nearly 12 years of me working in emergency medical services (EMS) in some capacity or another. By this point in my career, I had grown very comfortable with my knowledge base and skill set, perhaps a little too comfortable. In September, I was afforded the opportunity to join a high-performance EMS system in Texas after I had been laid off from the service I was working for in Colorado. I hit the ground running and was eager and excited to be there. 

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During field training, I received high praise from not only my field training officer but also the service director for my knowledge and experience. Shortly after completing probation and field training, my second partner and I were recognized as two of the top 20 patient care/experience providers in the entire service. For reference, at any one time, there are more than 100 people working in the field. However, my attitude started changing rapidly shortly thereafter. I lost my “beginners” mindset; I let my “experience” level and comfortability with my skills and knowledge base get the better of me. 

There is a term in Zen Buddhism known as Shoshin or “beginners mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of perceptions when it comes to trying to master one’s craft or study a certain subject. While you read on, think about the last time you read a book or a magazine article on the job. When was the last time you watched an online training video? When was the last time you went to class to which you weren’t being paid to go? 

The things I will suggest in this article may appear easy to do, but they take a conscious effort and, if you put the time, will keep you from getting too comfortable and losing your Shoshin.

First and, perhaps most importantly, treat every single day like it’s your first day on the job. Remember the first day you walked into the fire or EMS station? Remember how excited you were to be doing your dream job? After I was fired, I engaged in a lot of self-reflection because I had forgotten what that first day on the job was like. Excitement and unease went hand in hand, but I put those feelings aside and dove in with both feet. I took full advantage of being a probationary firefighter and learned everything about the job that I could. Since coming back to the fire service on a full-time basis, I have started treating every day like it’s my first day, and my mindset toward the job has changed significantly. I am excited to be at work again and it shows in the work I do around the fire station, which is highly appreciated by the senior staff of my fire department. 

Second, never, EVER forget where you started. A common mistake most people make, especially as they get time on the job and gain rank, is to forget where they came from. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine once after I had spent nearly an hour cleaning and rolling 400 feet of hose by myself. He commented to me that this type of work was a probie’s job, and it really shocked me. We should all always remember that we were once probies. Never forget the pride one can take in doing simple jobs like cleaning and rolling hose or doing details around the fire station. When someone has a question, don’t be bothered by it. Take the time to provide them with an answer. If you don’t know the answer, do your best to find one for them.

Third, every single day is a training day where you should train on some important fire or EMS topic. There is an old saying that you can’t train enough for a job that can kill you. Truer words have never been spoken; when you don’t train, complacency sets in. Complacency kills and injures first responders. We live in a technologically driven society. Thanks to Internet search engines, you can literally access any type of training material you can imagine. One of my favorite training exercises is to watch online training videos with my crew. EMS training is easy to come by, too; you can find a lot of quality information on social media, and there are many Web sites that provide low-cost solutions to online training materials.

Fourth, be confident but not cocky. This one can be rather difficult, because where you might think you’re confident in your skills, your confidence may come across as being cocky. I had a brand-new paramedic for a partner in late 2018, and I got extremely cocky. I treated my partner poorly, and I ran my mouth about being experienced, all in an attempt to impress him. Eventually, we ran several critical calls back to back. Rather than help my partner through the calls like a good partner should, we fought and struggled to work together. We finally got to the point where we could not work together, and that partner requested to go back to nights, where he worked as a dispatcher—his first job in the service. My cockiness ruined a good partnership and friendship with a person that invited me into his home the previous Christmas, where I had nowhere to go and no one with which to spend the holidays. 

Fifth, be grateful for every opportunity that presents itself to you. Over my career, I have had many opportunities to do different things and, because they were not what I wanted, I came up with some reason as to why I couldn’t accept them. One thing I learned from doing this was, by not being grateful for every opportunity that came to me, I was only hurting myself. Bear in mind, I am not telling you to say “yes” to every single opportunity that comes along, but you should be grateful for every opportunity that comes along, and you should give them all equal consideration.

I hope you will take these tips and apply them to your career. I believe they will keep you from having to live through the humbling experiences I have had to over the past year. I also hope that those who read this cautionary tale will take something from it and not repeat my mistakes.

Photo by Tim Olk.

GEORGE McNEIL, BS, MS, NRP, ISO, has a decade of experience working in rural fire/emergency medical services, serving in roles from paramedic/firefighter to emergency manager and flight paramedic. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and a master’s degree in leadership from Grand Canyon University.