Myths Transitioning Veterans Believe, Part 15: There is a Secret Formula for Civilian Success

Some veterans experience frustration in their civilian careers because they can’t seem to recognize the formula for success and advancement. For them, it seems that there are unspoken rules that others have identified which they are unwilling to share. When promotions are not earned or bonuses not achieved, some veterans hearken back to their active service as a time when things, like youth itself, seemed clear and uncomplicated. While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for civilian success, there are four key drivers of its achievement. These are talent and fit, luck, effort and choices (including planning and purposefulness). Upon quick consideration, there is little controversy in this notion. The devil is in the details of this theory’s application to actual civilian life behaviors and choices.

###Talent & Fit
Most would agree that talent is a God-given set of abilities and competencies. No amount of practice or luck can make up for the athletic brilliance of a LeBron James or the prodigious intelligence of an Albert Einstein. The challenge is to discover what exactly constitutes one’s own talent. Often people only discover their gifts after arduous trial and error or serendipitous encounter. In identifying one’s key talents, there are no substitutes for experiential learning and vicarious research. It is not always possible to live the life of a banker, restaurant manager, or lawyer. But it is possible to try to understand their worlds vicariously. Veterans are lucky in that they have three to twenty years or more of experience with real-world activities that can help identity true personal talent gifts and fit. But that tenure is only useful if its owner chooses to reflect and learn from it.

Talent must be discovered. In some cases, it is obvious what the talent is. In others, it may take a lifetime to reveal itself. In all cases, the operative concept is “discovery.” In order to discover one’s true talents, a veteran must be vigorously active in trying different paths to see what feels right intuitively and works well objectively.

We all know people who were in the “right place at the right time.” Indeed, and especially as veterans, we also know the unfortunate ones who found themselves in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Either way, there is no question that chance plays a large role in career development and life outcomes.

Malcom Gladwell in Outliers pointed out that the role of luck is so profound that the prodigiously accomplished technology titans of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Michael Dell would surely not have been so successful if they had entered the technology scene five or ten years earlier or later than they did.

But whereas the English word “luck” is descriptive, the sometimes-misunderstood concept of “fortune” may be more helpful to us. From the Latin root of “fortuna,” the word captures more connotation of destiny and making the most of one’s circumstances. Today’s transitioning veteran job seekers must consider the times of today and the likely scenarios that might play out across the span of a thirty- to fifty-year career. For example, there is little doubt that careers in healthcare, technology, and energy should produce many opportunities for advancement and growth as the inevitable tide of demand rises. The trick is placing a bet with your career time investment that matches this demand with your innate talents and interests.

Another challenge, of course, is that our world does not stand still. We make decisions based on imperfect information and a very cloudy crystal ball. There is often a role for counterintuitive bets and contrarian plays but one should be mindful of tolerance for risk while considering them. Furthermore, veteran job seekers must place themselves in opportunities to enhance the odds of fortuitous outcomes. Engaging themselves in vigorous activity, networking, and reading widely and deeply will put individuals in the best place to identify and exploit opportunities as they arise.

That effort is a variable of life success is obvious enough. Those who work hard will generally achieve more than those who do not. Beyond the Puritanical admonition to work hard for its own sake, our first question must be to ask what drives the tendency to expend effort. Specifically, what combination of factors and fit will be a force multiplier of effort? When I ran at the turn of the 21st Century (and the beginning of the first dot com bust!), we had a tag line that declared “when you love what you do, you’re alive.” The maxim could have easily and more verbosely declared when you love what you do, hard work becomes easy and ideally does not seem like work at all.

As before, when choosing a civilian career, the issue of fit is paramount. When the veteran job seeker has interests, talents, and ambitions that fit the career, work becomes play and hard work can be sustained over the decades to contribute rather than detract from life contentment. In simplest terms, to produce maximum effort, the veteran job seeker ought to find himself in a place and a path that suits him.

The fourth and most intangible variable of life success is choices. Throughout one’s life there is a never-ceasing cascade of choices that must be navigated. There is no avoiding this reality. To not make choices is to choose a path of passivity and acceptance.

To be successful in life, one must make good choices of omission and commission. It is no accident that theologians use those two words in the context of man’s proclivity towards sinful conduct. First, the veteran must choose to avoid behaviors that are damning to any life. Substance abuse, dishonest living, poor spouse or partner selection, haphazard family planning, and criminal behaviors are all negative pathways that have the ability and tendency to snatch even the most promising veterans if their maturity or personal ethics are lacking.

The choices of commission in life are far less obvious or clear cut. Most of these choices involve opportunity cost or tradeoffs. If, for example, I choose to attend graduate school or college, that commitment involves the investment of time that might have been differently spent in a civilian job.

The key to making good life choices, therefore, is:

1. Being explicit and clear about choices. I suggest the use of written plans and analysis to identify and analyze alternatives and tradeoffs.

2. Investigate thoroughly with print, video, and in-person research. There is so much information available today at the strike of a keyboard that there is no excuse for being ill-informed. That said, there is no substitute for in-person engagement to collect intelligence, opinions, and advice.

3. Be active in making choices; don’t just let life happen to you.

4. Learn to forgive yourself for “mistakes” and “failures.” Seek to learn from them and use them as springboards for positive action.

Above all, making good choices is a function of understanding clearly and logically the choices on the table. One must ask the right questions before expecting the correct answers.

Success can be elusive to anyone in life. There is no secret code or handshake in the civilian world that is secreted from veterans. Be mindful and deliberate in the self-assessment of your talent and make good choices; work hard on the right things and then hope for a few lucky breaks. Success is not sure to follow but it has a much better chance than if you attack without a plan, diligence, or follow up.