If you find yourself in a job that feels unrelated to your long-term career goals, look for the lessons and skills you can take from it that will carry you far in the rest of your career. After graduating from some of the best universities in the country, and being trained by some impressive-sounding employers, I can honestly say that everything that has made me successful I learned from spending my summers working at a waterpark. More specifically, from Turk Waterman. Turk passed away a few months ago, which has caused me to reflect on the lessons I learned from this wonderful mentor, long before I knew what a mentor was.
Turk, with his wife Judy, brother Jack, and sister-in-law Mary, built a hotel/restaurant/waterpark empire in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Six summers working for the Watermans (their real name!), especially Turk, had an enormous impact on me. From Turk, a big guy who made the Energizer Bunny look lazy, I learned so many Turkisms that I think of regularly. A few of the most memorable:
- “Cream rises to the top, Aimer.”
- (One familiar to many of my former students:) “There are people who get where they are because of family or money. You’re lucky because you are earning everything yourself. That means you’re eventually going to go farther, and when you get there, you’ll never have to ask how.”
- “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” (Turk didn’t come up with that one on his own, but he stated it often, and my husband can attest to the fact I continue to recite it. . . .)
In addition to the Turkisms I still remember today, Turk taught me other life lessons that may be helpful to you in your career. They include:
· Even unimportant tasks should be done well. My last summer in college, I worked for Crazy King Ludwig’s Adventure Park (seriously) and Houlihan’s restaurant, both owned by the Waterman family. Turk sent me to a food safety course to get the necessary credential for the snack bar at Crazy King Ludwig’s. We were talking about it the day before and I joked that I was looking forward to getting to wear normal clothes (instead of my go kart park uniform) and being inside all day. Turk looked at me and asked “do you know why we’re sending you?” I told him I didn’t. He said “because you’ll take it seriously, you’ll pass, and we’ll be able to open. So don’t let me down.” I studied the entire night and was the only person in the class to earn a perfect score.
· Don’t be intimidated or swayed by someone just because they try to embarrass you. Even when they are the customer. I learned this lesson after a customer screamed and threatened to call the police because another employee had supposedly cheated her out of $20. The till was pulled, a count was done and the till was exactly correct, meaning the customer was not right. As Turk put it, “sometimes it’s cheaper to pay $20 to calm someone down. Other times if you do that, you’re just asking for the next person to demand $50.” I have thought of that lesson many times, particularly when an opposing lawyer was screaming at me at the top of his lungs outside a courtroom when I was a junior associate. He kept making demands, and I kept holding in giggles remembering Turk and the $20 bill. Needless to say, opposing counsel’s demands weren’t met simply because he had a loud voice.
· Don’t be afraid to ask for favors or to help those who don’t know enough to ask. After they sold Noah’s Ark, Turk and his equally inspiring wife Judy hired me to work at some of their other businesses, and even vastly overpaid me to take their two younger kids to play laser tag, do errands driving their Land Rover, and do odd jobs. I made a comment once to Turk about appreciating their generosity and he responded, “You’re supposed to help people who help themselves. You help yourself, so we help you.” I told him “but I eat all your Dove bars!” and he responded, “Yes, but someday you’ll be able to buy your own Dove bars.”
· Don’t rest on your laurels. It didn’t matter how many records the park had shattered the year before – every spring, employees returned to discover that the Watermans had added some new water slide or attraction, always bigger and better than anything else in the country. And after the Watermans sold Noah’s Ark, they could’ve retired early and puttered around. Instead, they continued to create and build businesses in the Dells.
· Be resourceful and figure things out. Whether it was a broken ice cream machine on a hot day, long lines of cars waiting to get into the park (creating a risk they’d keep driving down the road to a competing waterpark), or a complaining customer, Turk was a creative problem solver, good at communicating with customers to let them know we were working on it, and always willing to laugh about it after the situation was over.
· If you love your job enough that you would work there for free, you’re in the right job. One day when I was 16, Turk sat me down at a picnic table at Noah’s Ark and asked if I was happy, and if I liked my job. I told him I loved it. (That wasn’t a lie. I truly did.) Then he asked if I wanted to work on my day off and stay late a few nights when the park was busy. I said yes immediately before I even realized that I would be paid. (I seriously believed he was asking me to volunteer. At the largest waterpark in the country. I may not have been a shrewd negotiator at 16.) Of course I was paid, and those extra hours enabled me to graduate with less college debt than almost anyone I knew.
· People respect those who take their jobs seriously. Later on I learned that Turk had asked if I wanted extra hours because he had overheard a conversation in which I was not very . . . encouraging or friendly to a popular male employee who had asked me out. (I don’t remember the details, but essentially I had conveyed that I was far too focused on my “career” at my summer job to have time for such nonsense, and I had heard too much about that employee’s love life.) Evidently Turk decided I was crazy and that it was better to keep me busy, or decided he needed to give me more hours so I could better pursue my “career.” Either way, he knew that I took my work seriously.
· Don’t pass the buck, and don’t throw in the towel before the day is over. Turk happened to walk in one night before the waterpark closed and found us closing down the part of a restaurant exposed to the customers. He asked why, and I explained we always did that. He had me walk outside and look in. He was right, of course – any customer walking by could see us cleaning and would believe we were closed. And far better for the customers to buy one last tray of nachos/slice of pizza/hot dog from us than get in their cars and buy something down the street. He told me he never wanted to see that again, and I told him ok and I would let the manager know, but when I was in charge, it wouldn’t happen. He looked at me quizzically, and left. A couple of days later, I was promoted to manager of the largest restaurant at Noah’s Ark at age 17. Turk came by to congratulate me and asked if I knew why I had been promoted. He explained that I had taken responsibility while the actual manager hid in the back, and I had never thrown him under the bus.
· Surround yourself with good people. Or, don’t surround yourself with idiots. I never knew how, but Turk found out I had a date with one of the most desirable of creatures in the waterpark social structure: a lifeguard. The next day he came up to me as I worked at an ice cream cart and asked if I had gone on the date. I said yes. He said “did you figure out that he’s not good enough for you, or do I need to explain it to you?” I told him I had figured out. “Good girl,” he responded, then announced that some of my beloved ice cream treats looked too soft to sell, so we needed to eat some, lest a customer accidently get a less than perfect product. (Turk and I ate a lot of “melted” ice cream over the years.)
· Take a break. Work hard, but play hard, too. All four of the Watermans were notorious for their incredible work ethic, and their kids were always working at their businesses once they were old enough. But the Watermans also held regular social events for workers throughout the summer, and you knew once Turk poured a beer in one of the cafes or bars that the day was almost over. That lesson can be hard to keep in mind, but I continue to work at it.
· Overtip. When I waited tables at Houlihan’s, I discovered that among my talents is not the ability to be an outstanding server. You wouldn’t have known it from the tips Turk would give. The servers would actually all lobby to have Turk seated in their section, which you wouldn’t normally expect when the owner came in. I remember his generosity every time I have a hapless server who clearly doesn’t know what she is doing, and I try to show as much patience and generosity as he did.
· Let people know when you’re proud of them. I was at work at Crazy King Ludwig’s counting the tills late one night when I found out I had been picked for a White House internship. As soon as Turk heard, he made sure I – and everyone else – knew he was proud of me, even if he didn’t agree with the occupant of the White House on much of anything. (He also offered to help me get a job with his friend Governor Tommy Thompson instead.) His pride in me was a huge confidence booster when I started to panic about how I was going to go from a summer job at a go-kart park to the White House.
· Reward people in ways big and small. Noah’s Ark famously awarded a car at the end of every summer to the employee with the most staff and guest nominations. Less well-known was that many other awards were given out – TVs, stereos, and so much more to top employees from each department. We also received a generous hourly bonus at the end of the summer if we stuck it out through Labor Day.
Much smaller on the balance sheet, but no less important, were the Starbursts we received if our till was perfect at the end of the night. I’m not sure anyone ever counted change more carefully solely because of the prospect of Starbursts, but that little reward at the end of a long, hot day was always a nice recognition of what it took to have everything come out perfectly in sometimes very stressful circumstances.
· Stand up for others and support them when they can stand up for themselves. One summer it looked like I might need to go home to Iowa for an indefinite period. Turk didn’t know much about the situation, but knew that I wanted to stay in Wisconsin. Without asking, he offered for me to stay with him and Judy as long as I needed and to step in himself to make sure I could stay in the Dells. In a very stressful time, knowing that the owner of my employer was willing to help me – a high school kid with a great work ethic but no particularly special skill – meant a great deal, and gave me the confidence to stick up for myself, a lesson that I’ve needed and drawn on throughout my career.
· Every person has immense power to brighten someone else’s life. Every July, Noah’s Ark held an all-staff meeting. We’d gather by a wave pool, and were lectured on the importance of being our very best through the end of the season, even though we were tired. While that wasn’t especially memorable, the way it was explained to us has stayed with me. Guests in August, we were told, were often people who had taken their kids to Europe or somewhere exotic in June. Now their kids were wanting to go to a waterpark, and they were going to do that for a fun weekend before school started. Those guests were the supervisors in their jobs, used to being treated well, and we needed to deliver.
The other guests in August, we were told, were the ones who had last choice of days off at their jobs, which might be a manufacturing plant that closed for a week to give everyone their one summer vacation. These were people at the bottom of the pecking order for 51 weeks a year, and our job was to ensure they and their kids had an amazing time for that one week they got to be treated like they’re special. Every single year, my fellow high school and college kids and I left that meeting feeling emboldened. We may have just been making shave ice, sweeping parking lots, handing out rafts, and watching people come down waterslides, but we also had tremendous power, and we wanted to use it to brighten our guests’ lives.
· Be an example. As his obituary said, “Turk spent his life helping anyone he heard was in need – a trait passed down from his father Poppy Waterman. He hoped to pass this same trait down to his children through example. Therefore, in Turk’s memory the family asks in lieu of flowers or memorials, that an act of kindness be bestowed onto a loved one or stranger in his honor. It will put a smile on his face.”
When I was 15 years old and applying for a summer job, I never could’ve imagined that decades later, I’d still be so influenced by the experiences I had working at Noah’s Ark Waterpark. I’m grateful to have gotten to learn from Turk Waterman, and, as the beneficiary of so many of his acts of kindness, hope to live up to his high standards.