As you exit the military, you likely hear well wishes that sound like, "Thank you for your service to our nation. The world will fall at your feet! Go choose what you'd like to do next."
While often well-intentioned, these sentiments can create confusion and frustration. I've coached thousands of transitioning service members and consistently hear their angst over what to do next. If this is your experience or if you feel stuck, you're not alone.
For nearly nine years, each month, I drive about an hour to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to teach on Day One of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), a program that covers personal branding and military transition. It also draws participants from surrounding military bases, so the room isn't filled with just airmen.
Every session, the group members answer the prompts "What are you most excited about as you exit the military?" and "What are you most anxious about as you exit the military?" on opposite sides of a page.
Every month for nine years, that sheet has looked virtually the same for every group.
On the "Excited" side, the list is long and includes things like:
• I get to choose what time I wake up in the morning.
• I can pick what I do for a living.
• I decide how I want to dress and develop my own style.
The "Anxious" side includes such concerns as:
• I don't know what time to wake up.
• What are my career options?
• How do I choose a civilian wardrobe?
Having choices is thrilling and empowering, but only if you know how to make those choices. When you have a clear sense of self, purpose and direction, choices become clearer. When you don't, or you're unsure of how to evaluate options, choices become paralyzing.
3 Tips for Navigating Choices
As you work through the many options you'll evaluate in your civilian career, here are three suggestions:
1. Find your sense of self.
Most people think they are self-aware, yet studies show most people are not. Self-awareness is defined as the "ability to perceive and understand the things that make you who you are as an individual, including your personality, actions, values, beliefs, emotions and thoughts. Essentially, it is a psychological state in which the self becomes the focus of attention." As the military teaches you to focus on others and align with Service Before Self values, this one might be challenging. But, as you exit your military duties, you will need to learn who you are, what you want, what you believe in, and where your personal goals align with a career and employer. Spend the time reflecting on: What led you to join the military? What are your greatest sources of personal accomplishment? When do you feel most empowered and confident? Which of your core values do you lead with? When do your emotions get in the way of your relationships?
Self-reflection leads to self-awareness and helps filter out options which are not right for you.
2. Find your people.
From mentors to clubs to peers to friends, surround yourself with people who can offer reassurance, counsel, information and support as you navigate choices. They can be like an advisory board to help you evaluate which opportunities are right for you, because they may be able to offer insights you lack. You'll want different viewpoints, so surround yourself with civilians as well as prior military contacts. By embracing a diversity of perspectives, you'll be better equipped to make good decisions for you and your family.
3. Give yourself grace.
This is a transition like none you've ever done before. People leaving the military and navigating the reintegration process tend to be hard on themselves and set unrealistic expectations. They sometimes over-analyze each failed attempt to see what they did wrong. The reality is, sometimes the timing is just wrong. Sometimes, another candidate had better relationships. Sometimes recruiters forget to call candidates back. Sometimes things go sideways, and it's not always because you did something wrong. When if you make a mistake, use it as an opportunity to evaluate better choices going forward. Giving yourself grace ensures you can learn from what went wrong and modify your actions. Failure is not to be feared, but to be accepted as part of the military-to-civilian process.
The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication, and reputation risk management.
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