As good at the transition preparation you will receive is, there are aspects of separating or retiring from your military career you will find overwhelming and unfamiliar. Books, articles, online forums, and in person conversations will highlight the opportunities you, as a veteran, will face when transitioning to a civilian career, and some of those conversations will point out the challenges. Leaving a culture, work style, and system as well-oiled as the military takes time, attention, and patience.
Don't be shocked or surprised when you encounter issues. You are not the first (or the last) service member going through this transition, and navigating the obstacles and opportunities that will help you grow a civilian career.
Here are some of the things you might not know when you separate:
- The transition will be hard. You will feel unprepared for this mission, because unlike the training you received in the military to face a battle plan, there is no sufficient way to prepare you for every possible civilian scenario you will encounter. There will be times when you'll wonder why you are leaving the familiarity of your uniformed service. You will question whether transitioning is "worth it" for the stress you will feel. If you know you are ready to leave your military career, then the answer will be "yes, it's time". Trust that.
- Choice will feel exciting and terrifying at the same time. Veterans tell me they are excited about all the choices they will face out of uniform: The ability to choose what to wear, when to get out of bed, the kind of work they'll do, and how they will spend their days and life. Similarly, that same choice brings anxiety: How will I support my family? What will I do with my time? What will I wear to work? Choice is a double-edged sword, accept that.
- The people who get jobs right away aren't necessarily smarter, luckier or happier. Some of your colleagues transitioning with you will have secured jobs before they separate. Don't let this intimidate or discourage you. These colleagues may have a narrower scope of focus, or they may choose to work with a defense contractor or government agency who is familiar with their experience, or they may have worked their networks well, or any other reason for a successful placement. In some cases, however, they are accepting the first job that comes through, with little consideration to their long-term career goals. In this case, they may be unemployed very soon. Your path is your path, remember that.
- There is no "secret formula." If only there was a manual that laid out clearly all the steps, actions and connections you need to move to your next career, that would be simple, wouldn't it? Your career after military service is individualized, it's about you and your goals, passion and experience. A formula wouldn't work. When you can accept that your journey will be unique, exciting, challenging and yours alone, you can embrace the power you have over your future. Don't forget that!
- Team is a different word in the civilian workplace. While in uniform, you knew what it meant to be loyal and committed to the team you serve with. That loyalty goes until the end, if necessary. In the civilian world, you will find that teamwork and loyalty appear the same – we have each other's back, we support each other, collaborate and are loyal to our teams and company – but they do not hold the depth of values you are accustomed to from the military. It's just different, accept it.
- You must learn to be vulnerable. Asking for help in the transition, and in your civilian career, will not be viewed as signs of weakness. Contrary, they are signs of strength! Confident and self-assured individuals can show vulnerability and seek guidance and do not need to be stoic in all circumstances. Whether it's asking for help with networking, your resume, interview skills or finding a mentor, lean on others to assist you. Civilians want to help you. Your fellow service members want to help you. Veterans who've transitioned before you want to help you. Allow them to.
- Get clear on WHO you are before you decide WHAT you want to do. It's tempting to jump into writing your resume and applying for jobs when you hand in your separation papers. However, if you can invest in building your personal brand, develop a solid narrative ("what makes you valuable to your next employer?") and build a network of contacts, you'll be ahead of the game. A resume focuses on what you've done in the past, you need to focus on who you are, and what you can offer an employer in the future. Remember that.
Also important to note: Everything you will feel as you leave the familiarity of the military is felt by every other veteran doing the same. You have unique talents, hopes, dreams and goals that should be fully explored and exploited in transitioning to your next step. Then, you can focus on finding a meaningful career after the military.