“Sometimes it’s just as valuable knowing what you don’t want to do.”
-Dr. Amy Kruse, former DARPA program manager
Look, excellence doesn’t transfer. It’s a common mistake to think it does, and one that many SOF vets make.
I know, I know, you were an excellent soldier. You were a medic, or sniper, or intel guy, or drone pilot. You worked for Orange, or Green, or Blue, or Black or whatever they’re calling themselves now. Your CV lists all the impressive credentials you have: Leadership experience, 18 Delta, weapons authority, driving expert, PSD, dive supervisor, Tac Air, and on and on.
Now you’re out and faced with a tripartite quandary:
First, contracting is the same thing you’ve already done with slightly different rules, higher pay, and less stability. It’s nothing more than a transition job and you know it.
Second, you’re overqualified for jobs you know how to do.
Third, you believe you’re woefully uncredentialed for the work you want to explore.
You (believe you) were excellent and now you’re nothing. Excellence didn’t transfer.
So, here you are, wandering in the wilderness of your post military time. You yearn for a clear mission and a community of pipe-hitters in the civilian world. You wonder why you got out, why your skills aren’t valued in this new world.
This new world requires a willingness to stretch your mind into unexplored territory, an acceptance and embracement of mistakes.
Many of the mistakes you’ll have to make yourself. It’s how most of us are wired; we don’t believe it until we experience it.
You were a superb soldier, so you’re not used to making mistakes. Failing at anything is likely to be foreign to you. The military cultivates a “success” mindset of 4.0 evals. This is reflected in achieving safe perfection over imperfect learning.
Hidden in that perfection mentality is the source of your future success: You have been taught and programmed by one of the most effective mind-shaping organizations that ever existed to pursue excellence.
The mistake many veterans make is to confuse the value of their hard skills, like shooting fast or coordinating comms between 9 different assets, with their value as a human. Those hard skills have little value in the civilian world, and the realization that you’ve spent years perfecting skills that no longer matter can be crushing.
While the skills don’t transfer, the method absolutely does. Your experience of the method of building skills from non-existent to mastered is the biggest advantage you have over most of the rest of the civilian world.
The extraordinary bonus is that pursuing excellence creates stoked humans, no matter where on the path they are.
The idea of exploring unknown territory is equally as crucial as applying your ability to pursue excellence.
When you begin to explore unknown territory and pursue excellence, you’ll discover in your mistakes the deep value of knowing what you don’t want to do. Knowing our dislikes creates a healthy contrast that increases our pleasure in those work environments we enjoy.
At this point, with you out of the military and being unsure of your next step, the specific directions I can helpfully give you become less and less accurate; what worked for me may not work for you.
The mistakes I made in learning that excellence doesn’t transfer were extensive and at times nearly mortal, but individually are of little use to you. The dream I have and have had will almost certainly not be yours.
Still, if you can acknowledge the existence of your own dream and apply yourself to producing excellence, knowing that someone else has engaged successfully on the same quest you’ll get much further down the road then by remaining ignorant of it.
At our end of service, we vets walk out into the wilderness of civilian life. The maps we’re provided to navigate this wilderness don’t always match the territory. For many of us, the only information on the part of the map we must explore is the same phrase that thrilled the heart of many an adventurer before us: “Here be dragons.”
Many of us have wandered this wilderness before. You are not alone, though you will feel alone much of the time. Others are out here, shining a light in the dark. We have found a place to clear a patch of forest and build a house of excellence, to lay down roads to other clearings, to begin to understand the new wilderness we inhabit.
You can do the same, and if we veterans are to build the next, brighter version of the world we wish to inhabit, we share the responsibility to develop that world using the tools we’ve been given of learning to achieve excellence.