Ten Lessons from 26 Years of Military Experience


After a 26-year military career that spanned both active and reserve duty, I'm convinced that experience is the hardest teacher since it gives the exam before any lessons are taught. Here are some of the important lessons I've learned over the past two decades in uniform and from my experiences in public service and the private sector.

#1 – Take care of yourself You need to take care of your own health, family, education and career first. Don't put off going to the doctor, attending family events, investing, or planning your education and career since no one else will. I learned much of this the hard way and wish that I would have paid more attention when a mentor shared this lesson with me early in my career. Take the time and ensure these items are aligned before problems become insurmountable.

#2 – Know what's important There's always more to accomplish than time allows and attempting to do everything is a recipe for disaster and burnout. Goals and priorities allow you to focus on activities which have the greatest impact. Don't spend precious time and energy on things that don't matter. Identify, focus and accomplish what's most important first. Then go back and address additional tasks and activities that aren't priorities.   

#3 – Be positive Optimism is a force multiplier that can enable monumental accomplishment. It draws people towards your purpose while negative attitudes push them away. It can also disarm potential conflicts. Regardless of the situation, put on the face of optimize and move forward.

#4 – Read One of the best ways to learn and expand your horizons is through reading. Books, magazines, journals and blogs are great sources of information. Find a few minutes each day or schedule a block of time each week, at minimum, to learn and grow through the ideas of others. If your schedule is so busy that you can't find the time to read, consider listening to a few audio books.

#5 – Listen Don't confuse hearing, which is passive, with the active function of listening. Listening results in understanding and learning, which is critical to success. Supervisors, subordinates, instructors, peers, friends and families want you to listen – not just hear. Repeating the important points of a message is a great way to demonstrate that you were listening versus simply hearing what they said.   

#6 – Think No situation is permanent and thinking is the first step to effecting change. Think about where you're at and what you want to accomplish. Military members are expected to follow direction, but they're still allowed to think. You don't have to voice or act upon individual thought, but don't lose the ability to think for yourself.  

#7 – Follow-through Persistence and follow-through are critical to success. In turn, adversity is a part of life. Skills and judgement are developed based up experience, which includes challenges and obstacles. Commit to your actions and what you tell others you'll accomplish. Not doing what you say erodes creditability and empowers resistance.

#8 – Focus on results   Don't confuse activity with accomplishment since results are what matter. Effort and intent are important but irrelevant when positive results aren't achieved.   #9 – Have a mentor Everyone should have at least one trusted advisor they can speak with, discuss ideas and seek council. The ideal situation is having several mentors, both inside and outside the military. If you're more senior, you should also be a mentor to others who need an honest sounding board and candid insights.  

#10 – Start planning now Decisions made while in uniform will have a major impact on your post-military life. Lifestyle, occupation, income and location are a few items to consider. And the sooner you begin thinking about your future, the clearer this becomes. Don't wait until the last minute and limit your options following the military. Make use of resources such as the interactive database at www.military-transition.org and Military.com's Transition Center to inform and guide your path.

About Brian Niswander

Brian Niswander is an Air Force veteran and the founder of Military-Transition.org. For almost 20 years, he has worked with service members on their transition and integration within the civilian workforce. Veterans are encouraged to share their experiences, through the ongoing transition survey, and help service members better understand the process of becoming a civilian again. The survey is located at www.military-transition.org.

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