• Home
  • Resources
  • The Owl of Many Question: The first 90 days in a new job

The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 1

Yana Kane-Esrig

This is the first installment in a series of articles in which Yana shares her thoughts and practical experience relevant to starting a new job or, more generally, navigating a big change in day-to-day life

About ten years ago I was asked to give a talk to a group of students in their last semester before they were to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering. The topic was “the first 90 days in your new job”.

During the past year of the pandemic, I pulled out the notes I prepared for that talk. I decided to turn them into an essay. I feel a need to refresh in my own mind these points about navigating change. Much of the advice I was offering to the students apply to me in my present situation. Although I am quite far in my work and life trajectory from the position of a college graduate embarking on her first job, for the past year I have been encountering and adapting to large shifts in my own work and day-to-day life. And it looks like we are far from having reached a reliable steady-state in how we, as individuals, families, and society at large, do our work and conduct all other aspects of our lives.

I am glad to share these thoughts in the hopes that they will be helpful to others who are navigating big changes, be it starting a new job or adapting to major shifts in some other external or internal circumstances.

This is the first installment in a series of articles on this topic.

The Owl of Many Questions

When my daughter was little and was just starting to read on her own, I bought her a book called “Stranger In The Woods”. It had whimsical animal characters. The character that I found most memorable was “The Owl of Many Questions”. An owl blends into its environment and does not attract attention to itself without need. That bird’s survival toolkit includes excellent hearing and ability to see well even when the light is dim. It can swivel its head about 270 degrees allowing it to gather information from many directions. And while I do not know whether real owls ask a lot of questions, the owl character in the book certainly did.
I find that owl to be worthy of imitation. I choose her as my guide in thinking through the subject of entering a new situation.
I will start with blending in with the environment. This is based on the ability to observe and listen actively and carefully. My advice to myself when I enter a new situation is: do not try to mask your newness — ask questions; do not seek to make a strong impression right away by doing something extraordinary — focus on being useful and not causing too much disruption.

The first 90 days at work are, by and large, about taking care of things that are basic and plain. The next 90 days, 90 weeks, and 90 months are also, by and large, about taking care of things that are basic and plain. A call for the extraordinary: the advanced, subtle, spectacular, even heroic, may come from time to time. When it does, and if you are prepared and able to rise to the occasion, it is memorable. But success in most situations is built out of the bricks of taking care of the basic and the plain.
This is not to say that you should hide or hang back even when you have something to contribute to the discussion. And I certainly do not advocate being a meek doormat. It is necessary to be ready to be assertive in matters concerning your own well-being and doing your work right.
Rather, I am saying that beginners, newcomers, especially those who are used to being “the A-student” (i. e. someone who excels), tend to be anxious to establish their credentials, feel a pressure to live to their own standards , to prove themselves right away as “the A-students”. I have seen this in my “inner mirror”: I include myself among those people who are pushed by this internal pressure. And I am not alone: I have seen this pattern in some of my younger colleagues whom I have mentored over the years.

In my view, such a compulsion to make an immediate big impression does not necessarily arise from a self-admiring or excessively competitive nature (in fact, quite often the opposite). When I observe this tendency in myself or others, I try my best not to critique it, but to acknowledge its existence, be aware of it when it comes to the surface, and make an effort to keep it in check. Focusing on trying to wow your boss, your customers, your new colleagues, can distract you from tuning yourself to the situation at hand. It can interfere with learning and with making yourself useful. On occasion, it may make you look plain silly.

When I am in a new situation, channeling my inner “Owl of Many Questions” helps me reduce the “A-student” problem I just described, and it furnishes me with the information I need to navigate and adapt.
Some of the questions I need to ask are about myself, some are questions addressed to other people or to my environment in general.
I will now outline a few of the areas that “The Owl of Many Questions” needs to address in her search for understanding a new situation; in particular, the first 90 days of work.

  • Before you start: thinking through the logistics
  • Your first boss (and/or customer )
  • Your colleagues
  • Your first work assignment
  • Falling on your face without breaking your nose
  • Presenting your work
  • Wrapping up

In this installment I will cover the first of these areas. I will address the rest in future installments.

Before you start: thinking through the logistics

There are some questions I would suggest you ask yourself before you start your new job. I assume that in the process of choosing your career and looking for a job you already asked yourself the fundamental questions about what you are and what you want: what are your values and dreams; what are the possibilities and constraints of your practical situation. You came to some decisions about how to balance all these consideration at this stage in your career. This new job you are about to start is part of that initial set of decisions. You may need to revisit your initial answers to these fundamental questions once you learn what the actual day-to-day reality of your work is like. But getting ready for the first 90 days, as well as during that initial period of adaptation, is probably not the best time to revisit your overall plan. It is the time to focus on the practicalities of that period.
So, the preparatory questions I suggest are down to earth.

  • What is the optimal physical and social work environment for me?
  • What is the optimal work schedule for me?
  • What is likely to be the actual situation on the ground? In what ways is it going to meet and in what ways will it fail to meet my needs and preferences?
  • If there is a big mismatch between what works best for me and the environment and/or schedule that I am likely to encounter, how can I mitigate it? How can I prepare to deal with the consequences of this mismatch? What do I need in my “survival kit”?

The answers to these questions are likely to be very different for different individuals.

I have to admit that early on in my career it took me a while to realize that I should ask myself these questions, rather than simply take the external environment as given and roll with the punches. Once I did face these issues, I found that it is possible to make some adaptations, and these adaptations do not need to be dramatic in order to have an impact.
My first observation was that I require a quiet environment in order to concentrate. In addition, in order to be productive and focused, I have to take a couple of breaks during the day when I can be alone. Finally, I realized that I need to be actively moving (walking) to gather my thoughts.

So, whenever I have to do my work in a busy office, or while traveling, I include a couple of sets of ear plugs in my “survival kit”. Even on the days that are filled with meetings in a corporate setting, I still try to find a place and a time to go for a walk by myself. Sometimes, the only place I can find for a quiet walk is a stairwell in a building or an empty conference room. There are some days when it is completely impossible to arrange to go for a walk or spend time by myself. But when this happens, I at least know what I need, even if my needs are not met. This makes it easier for me not to be blindsided by the consequences, but to expect them, to take into account the discomfort and fatigue that result from being in a situation that does not suit me.

The first 90 days of work are likely to be demanding in terms of energy and attention. During such a time it is especially important to stick to a healthy lifestyle in terms of food, exercise, sleep, etc. And yet, when your energy and attention are sapped, it is difficult to summon the discipline needed to stick to the wholesome behaviors; it is especially tempting to just cut corners and make do with junk food, caffeine and distractions, instead of recharging yourself. So, it is a good idea to ask yourself in advance how you can take care of yourself in such a situation.

One simple but significant thing I observed about myself is that when I am busy, when I am in an unfamiliar environment and my attention is absorbed by a new situation, I forget to drink enough water. I am tempted to turn to caffeinated drinks for a short-term boost. This can make me feel cranky and tired, without me being aware of what the true cause is. Simply carrying a large-size hiking water-bottle filled with plain water and making sure that in the course of the workday I drink all that water is a tremendous help. And there turned out to be a bonus to this strategy: the hiking bottle is for me a familiar object. It comes with happy “outdoorsy” associations that provide a subtle cue to relax.

The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 2

The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 3