Letter to a Soldier

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.

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