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

We continue our discussion of some of the lesser-instilled qualities that lead to success in the field. Last week we examined the need for industriousness, or a constant state of productive activity.

This week, we discuss selflessness, or putting the needs of the team or others ahead of your own. We all have to take our turn at digging a trench, carrying buckets of matrix, or washing dishes if we want to successfully excavate an important specimen or enjoy a meal at the end of the day. Every field excursion has its thrilling and glamorous side, as well as the tedium and toil; as a team, we share both, be it making an amazing new find, or carrying that find to camp at the end of the day. Doing your part helps make this happen.

The bucket line, a classic example of field teamwork.
The bucket line, a classic example of field teamwork.

Nearly every field endeavor is a team effort, and in previous posts in this series we’ve tried to emphasize the cooperative effort that field work entails. Most of the time, the team effort in the field is devoted to a larger goal, be it a grant-funded study, survey or salvage for a company or agency, or education of students and the public. Rarely is the focus on the success of a single individual. The group effort is what gets results.

In any team sport, the goal of the “game” is not about how many points one individual scores, it’s about how the sum total of all points leads to victory, or at best a game well-played. This is equally true in a field setting; each individual is contributing to a larger objective, each in their own way. The particular skills or desires of a single individual cannot override the group effort; every individual needs to be working toward the comprehensive objective, and everyone needs to be working together.

When training future paleontologists, specifically those who aspire to a career in the field, I caution them on the failings of what I call the “finder’s mentality.” Everyone with field experience has encountered someone with the finder’s mentality, that individual who, “…just likes finding fossils.” These are the individuals who are so consumed with the thrill of initially finding the fossil that they are unable to effectively contribute to the greater objective, even if they’re great at the finding. Instead of following the directed prospecting and collecting procedures, they’re off in the wrong stratigraphic interval or geographic location picking up absolutely everything in the hopes of it being something great. Instead of following through and assisting with the documentation, stabilization and excavation of their own discovery, they’re off to find something else, leaving the hard work to the rest of the crew. The “finder’s mentality” is the antithesis of selflessness.

The finder’s mentality is perfectly understandable, and acceptable, in the avocationalist, who may not comprehend the importance or scope of the bigger goals. Indeed, the excitement of discovery needs to be emphasized with this type of participant, and their discoveries need to be acknowledged and celebrated. Additionally, finding new and exciting fossils is essential to the science, and those who excel at initial discovery, whether amateurs or career scientists, are making valuable contributions. But the career paleontologist, the research scientist, needs to balance the thrill of finding fossils with the need for accomplishing the goal at hand, especially when that goal comes with the obligation that funding entails. No matter how magnificent a discovery, agencies tend to frown on discoveries made outside of designated political, geographic, or permit boundaries, especially when you’ve used their money in doing so.

Curbing or even abandoning the finder’s mentality will also ensure a more satisfying field experience. Once you become less concerned with being the “one” who makes the big find, every find becomes your own. Group discoveries become your discoveries, and you can genuinely enjoy every success your team experiences. Being a field instructor demands losing the finder’s mentality; you must be vicariously excited and satisfied with discoveries your students make. At the least, you can take pride in the notion that their thrilling discovery was likely the direct result of your influence as a mentor.

So, when you find yourself disheartened because you have to do dishes, or you’re the one manning the shovel, remember, an individual can find a fossil, but it takes a team to document, excavate, transport, prepare, identify, curate, describe, illustrate, review, and publish a discovery. Field science is a group effort; by doing your part, you’re scoring points and helping your team win.

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