I recently read an article about developing the skills that seemed to come so naturally to Jason Bourne, the protagonist in several motion pictures and popular novels written by Robert Ludlum. The article’s primary focus was on situational awareness and how to develop it.
Although it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever need to fend off international spies or race a Mini Cooper through a farmer’s market like Bourne, we still need to keep our eyes and ears open to what’s happening around us.
One of the core ideas of situational awareness is simply noticing anomalies. What is there that shouldn’t be? What isn’t there that should be?
Through years of stacking boxes, flying arrays, pulling cables, and trying to cram 26 feet of gear into 24 feet of truck, we can eventually learn to predict the future with surprising accuracy, because we’re fully aware of our situation. The “newbie” might be riding a pallet jack around the dock, but more seasoned folks know where it’s going to end up. Those who become aware of the dangers around them usually adjust accordingly.
Proper training can help in making quick assessments of potential issues that might affect a production. Safety is a top priority in professional audio (in case you haven’t noticed) and anticipating whether or not a rig can do what’s needed without anything crashing to the floor, catching fire, or sacrificing your paycheck is a learned skill.
It’s not learned overnight, and it’s also not anything I’ve seen taught in school. I believe it’s a trait only found in people who are fully engaged with their situation.
Playing around with social media on your phone when there’s work to be done usually says you aren’t engaged. Understanding that lives and jobs are at risk, taking ownership of your position and constantly looking for more effective and efficient ways of doing your job can eventually make it second nature.
Anyone who’s ever opened the back of a truck after a long haul knows immediately whether or not it was packed by someone with experience. Understanding concepts such as — well, I don’t know, gravity and movement — should logically inform that the heavy stuff should probably go under the light stuff.
There’s nothing like finding the wheels of a motor case punched into that expensive new moving light fixture because it was bouncing around in an improperly packed truck. Or getting a call that your entire system is going to be late since it’s laying in a parking lot because nothing was strapped down and the doors were open when the driver pulled off the dock.
Both of those things actually happened; I witnessed them. They were very expensive mistakes made by folks who didn’t understand the likely consequences of their actions. They weren’t aware of their situation. They weren’t engaged.
Untrained stagehands might happily sabotage your highest profile gig of the year without even realizing it. Folks with years of experience probably won’t. Engaged crews will likely understand that this isn’t some stupid reality show and prefer to have a successful gig.
Even the greenest stagehands should be told that they can ask questions when something doesn’t look right. Make sure they’re free to expand their understanding of this industry. Maybe even compliment their concern and/or desire to learn, boosting your own odds of future success as well as theirs.
We must be selective about giving responsibility to the new kid who doesn’t show engagement. Potential is great, education is great, but watch for the ones asking questions and learning more on their own time. Anyone doing more listening than talking may be future front of house or management material. That one is going to make life better and reduce stress.
The others, maybe not.
The bottom line for those just starting out in this business: if want to make it, you must be fully engaged and aware of your situation. If you don’t care, just keep playing with your phone until your replacement arrives.