Essential, Yet Under-Emphasized, Keys to Success in the Field: Industriousness

This week we continue our series on some of the lesser-instilled qualities of a successful field scientist.  Last week we focused on cognizance, or awareness of your physical surroundings, as well as those individuals around you.

Getting your hands dirty in the field is essential for progress, and an upbeat attitude (photo courtesy Natalie Toth).
Getting your hands dirty in the field is essential for progress, and an upbeat attitude (photo courtesy of Natalie Toth).

This week we shift gears a bit, becoming less concerned with passive attributes and more concerned with action.  In essence, we’ve got our personal protective equipment on; we have applied sunscreen, now it’s time to pick up a shovel.  This week we discuss industriousness, or a constant state of productive activity.

Let me state this flat out; industriousness in the field can be HARD.  Field conditions are almost always physically demanding.  The midday sun beats down, relentlessly draining every ounce of energy you squeezed out of that piece of jerky twenty minutes ago.  Physical exertion is ever-present, be it through hiking, climbing, lifting, digging, or countless other activities.  Dust, pollen, and plaster cooperate in a debilitating trifecta to make every activity, even respiration, that much more arduous.  The only repast you seem to get is a swig of water that is, at best, lukewarm, and the shadow that a scraggly yucca plant may provide.  Why couldn’t these animals just die in the shade…?

Field work is also mentally demanding, especially for those of us in a supervisory position.  Not only are we faced with the physical demands, but we have to make sure that everyone stays motivated, we must ensure that our crew is clear on daily and seasonal objectives, we need to manage our time efficiently and make decisions (and in many cases, sacrifices) accordingly, and we need to see to the safety of our teammates, all while staying upbeat ourselves.    Consequently, we have to live with our wrong decisions, whether they result in broken fossils, broken bodies, or broken wills.

The rigors of the field are precisely why industriousness is imperative.  Field crews NEED to stay constantly active, not only to accomplish their goals, but to maintain morale.  One of the most basic tenets of any survival situation is to stay as active as possible, not only to ensure food, shelter and safety, but to keep your mind occupied so you don’t fall into despondency.  Idle hands are the Devil’s playground, and an idle mind is a recipe for despair, especially when faced with demanding conditions.

Most field sites are hardly comparable to being lost in the woods or desert, but the same principle applies.  Shiftlessness allows the mind to wander, and the easiest thing to settle on once the mind strays is how uncomfortable you are or how demanding the present situation is.  Even the most enthusiastic paleontologist gets worn down by the rigor, but being constantly productive helps keep the mental and physical toll of that rigor in check.  It keeps you moving forward, literally and figuratively.  Have you ever noticed how unexpected “days off” in the field, due to weather, are some of the most miserable?   This is a direct result of inactivity.

Don't be the individual on the left (photo courtesy of David Levering), be the guy on the right (photo courtesy of Gary Johnson).
Don’t be the individual on the left (photo courtesy of David Levering), be the individual on the right (photo courtesy of Gary Johnson).

So, go out and give 150% in everything you do, right?  Attack that overburden like a berserker; carry that equipment like a tireless worker ant; prospect those hills like your life depends on it, correct?  No, I’m referring to a CONSTANT state of productive activity.  If you give 150% at everything you’ll be spent before the sun hits its zenith.  Take a note from the security blog entry and pace yourself, but try to be productive even during your down time.  While someone spells you on the shovel, sit down and write notes.  While others are busy with photography or mapping, get materials ready for plastering.  While others are plastering, take some time to tidy up the quarry and its contents.  While prospecting, if you need to sit down and take a break, observe and document the geologic context in which you are working.  During lunch break, have a discussion about paleontology, local geology, or local history.  Stay active to accomplish your goals in the limited time you have, but also stay active to keep spirits high.

Essentially, keep your mind occupied, and your body will be much more cooperative, even in the harshest of conditions.  Embrace the hardship, but pace yourself to ensure industriousness for the entire day, and the entire season.

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