For many, figuring out what to do after your time in the military is going to be one of your biggest challenges and frustrations when you leave that life behind you. I’m not qualified to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do next (I barely feel qualified to make those kinds of decisions for myself), but I can tell you something about the mental tug-of-war you are about to go through.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” When it comes to finding your next career after the military, there are two ideas that are at odds with each other that you are going to have to wrestle with. For better or worse, one will eventually win out over the other.
Idea #1: Following your passion.
You will be told by mentors and those that have made the transition from the military that you should figure out your WHY (Simon Sinek: Start with WHY ) and follow your passion in your post military life and ride it into the sunset. This makes perfectly good sense: if you love doing something, it doesn’t feel like work, you put more effort in, and success eventually follows.
In the movie “Ford vs. Ferrari” there’s a scene where legendary WWII pilot, racecar designer and driver Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) gives a speech to a crowd about leading Ford’s new racing program:
“When I was 10 years old, Pops said to me, ‘Son, it’s a truly lucky man who knows what he wants to do in this world. ‘Cause that man will never work a day in his life.’ But there are a few, a precious few, and, hell, I don’t know if they’re lucky or not. But there are a few people who find something they have to do. Something obsesses ‘em. Something that if they can’t do it, it’s gonna drive them clean out of their mind. I’m that guy.”
For so many of us that served, this was something we had to do. When we started off it may have been for practical reasons, like getting a pathway to college, or maybe we just needed a job and to learn some useful skills along the way. But none of us stuck around for 10, 20, or 30+ years in the military because of free college and a paycheck. We made this a career because we wanted to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The job and the people we served with became our passion, and for many, an obsession. We grew into it as we went along and those we served with became our family.
Loyalty is a value in the military that runs deep. Many will try to seek an equivalent culture and sense of purpose in their next career. While there are certainly great companies and career fields out there, for many of us this is a high expectation with a low probability.
If you feel like a particular career or endeavor after the military is your passion, perform a quick ‘functions check’ by asking these two questions:
1) Am I good at it?
2) Can it make me money?
If the answer to either one of these is NO, then your passion might be better suited as a hobby, not a career.
This brings me to the other side of the equation, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “opposing idea.”
Idea #2: Screw this passion stuff. I need a job.
What if you don’t find your WHY right away (or at all), or your “passion” doesn’t have anything to do with your next career? At some point you need to take a job or pick a career that can pay the bills, put food on your plate, and a roof over your head. It sounds crazy, but it is possible to work in a career that’s not your passion and still be ok. That’s the reality for most people. There are roughly 159 million people employed in the US and not everyone is working in their dream job. In a recent survey by Bankrate, an estimated 55% of people in the US will look for another job in the next 12 months. During the pandemic some have referred to this as the “Great Resignation.”
Just because you are not working in a “dream job” doesn’t mean you don’t have something to be passionate about…for many, their passion doesn’t have anything to do with work. Your passion might be a hobby, a side hustle, volunteer work, coaching little league, or spending quality time with your family…all of which can be fueled with your day job.
Look — I enjoy my job and the people I work with, and I consider myself very fortunate, but I’m not jumping out of airplanes, climbing mountains, and slinging lead with a Special Forces team anymore. I still have plenty I want to accomplish in this life, and many of these goals are outside of my work.
None of this is an argument to give up on your passion or settle on something that you don’t like just to earn a buck. Just understand that your passion might be in your work or it might lie outside of it. Know the difference and don’t go chasing waterfalls (yes…I just quoted TLC). If your passion lies outside of work, find something you can be happy with that matches your skill and experience and can make you money so you can live your best life when you are off the clock.
Kirk Windmueller is a retired Green Beret and Army veteran with over 22 years of service. He is a senior manager at Avantus Federal and a volunteer for Project Transition USA, a non-profit organization that teaches veterans how to use LinkedIn to network and find their next career. He lives in Fayetteville, NC, with his wife and three kids.