Career Transition Lessons from Sci-Fi – 8 Military-to-Civilian Career Lessons From Starship Trooper’s

Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic “Starship Troopers” has significant lessons on how to have an effective career transition for military veterans.

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Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Starship Troopers, published in December 1959, is a permanent fixture on military reading lists among the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Starship Troopers describes how Johnnie Rico starts as a private in the Mobile Infantry, an Earth-based military force that serves as a galactic and heavily armed raiding force. The Mobile Infantry was similar to a WWII Marine Raider force or the Army Rangers of WWII – high on firepower, shock tactics, and infantry force.  The essence of Starship Troopers was a fight for survival of the human race across the galaxy.  Humans were threatened by a race of intelligent, highly skilled, and ferocious spider-like creatures (“Bugs”).  Standing in their way, the front line of Earth’s defense forces, was the Mobile Infantry.  The Mobile Infantry could be considered as interstellar Marines, transported from plant to planet in huge starships and then “parachuted” from planetary orbit.  On the ground, the Mobile Infantry fought in incredible, 2,000 lb, powered, armored suits.

Starship Troopers showed us that, despite the technology, being in the Infantry was still the Infantry with constant hard work, impossible odds, and zero thanks.  The Mobile Infantry fought and trained as Infantry has always done: outnumbered, in the cold and dark, and against incredible odds to save the human race and each other.  Starship Troopers made its way into the modern military lexicon more than a decade ago, most notably during the U.S. involvement in Somalia, where local Somali militia were referenced as “Skinnies” in comparison to one of the antagonist militaries that the Earth forces fought against in the opening chapters of the book.

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a great refresher on some of the truly vital and critical skill sets that veterans bring to organizations in their post-military careers. If you are on the first day or your 10th year of your military transition, be sure to look down this list to contribute all you can.  There are 8 key insights that matter to how effective military veterans can be in business and their second careers.

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  1.  The entire team works on the primary mission.

The motto of the Mobile Infantry is, “Everybody drops and everybody fights.” On numeruous drops, all of Rico’s unit went into combat.  Regular soldiers, but also cooks, administrative personnel, and even Chaplain’s – everyone fought.  From an organizational standpoint, this was the sheer genius from the Mobile Infantry. Literally, 100% of the organization was dedicated to its primary purpose of combat. The concept of “everybody fights” was a simple and valuable reminder that the majority of your organization should be dedicated to its mission.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  When you come into a new company or organization, how much of your job should be dedicated to doing what your company does for its customers? If your primary job reinforce safety standards on oil rigs, then how much of your time do you actually spend enforcing and training on oil rig safety standards? In the military and in the corporate world, it can be very, very easy to be distracted by activities that take time and effort, but do not contribute to the primary purpose of your organization towards its customers.

  1.  Performance in The Present, Not In The Past, Is All Important

Every person in the mobile infantry, and society at large, was judged by what they did, how they performed, and how well they followed orders. This focus on performance as the sole benchmark of personal value weas refreshing. In Heinlein’s sci-fi future, you could be rich or poor, from a great family or a questionable one, or have a PhD or a high school degree, and the only thing that mattered in the mobile infantry was well you performed.  In business, you can have a great corporate culture but if the product was bad, the customer service ineffective, or the company was not innovative, then you failed.  For both business and the military, performance was everything.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  Performance was a central driving criteria for veterans because no matter that you were a crewmember on a destroyer or an Apache Helicopter pilot, what mattered was how well you performed your current job. Don’t worry about how your background compares to others in your organization. Worry about how well you perform and always seek to improve.

  1.  Difference And Diversity Is A Non-Issue In The Modern Workplace

Starship Troopers gets some diversity and gender issues right and others completely wrong.  Gender, physical disability, and race played significant roles throughout the book. Women were allowed to perform all combat roles, even direct ground combat. However, there were barely any women in the Mobile Infantry because they were better suited for more vital military roles, like being starship pilots, serving in military intelligence, or weapons development. Women, it turns out, were even more valuable than men in effective combat performance and outcomes. The most important, strategic positions were reserved for women.

What Heinlein missed was the concept that a woman would want a direct combat position?  If Heinlein had ever met Ronda Rousey, then the whole Mobile Infantry might have been women.  The vast majority of Rico’s teachers were disabled combat veterans.  His Strategy instructor was the best military strategist who only happened to be blind. If anything, according to Rico, it made him a better strategist. Based on the concept of superior job performance that permeates the book, disability was an illogical reason to exclude anyone, because everyone’s value was based on how they performed.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  For military veterans, we are used to dealing with gender, diversity, and other issues on a daily basis.  Military members, like the Mobile Infantry, are used to dealing with different races and religions.  Veterans will need to work with other non-veteran civilians to have their military service fully understood and how it contributes to their current workplace.  Veterans will need to strive at times to be open and understanding with others as they explain and demonstrate the value of their service for their employer’s success.  The lesson from Starship Troopers was that when an organization unites under a compelling mission, truly focuses on performance, then difference does not apply.

  1.  Incorporate New Team Members Quickly for Effective Team Performance.

Combat casualties were an enormous issue due to the incredible damage that laser beams, portable atomic missiles, and planetary bombs caused to the Mobile Infantry. All Mobile Infantry members had to have the ability to assimilate the culture of a new unit quickly and understand the standards of the new organization. The Mobile Infantry were great at welcoming new replacement soldiers, training them, and quickly incorporating them into the unit’s operations, often within days.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  Military veterans going into new organizations need to remember that at times they will have to be the primary one that observes, learns, and adapts to their new organization. For military veterans, this should be one of their best workplace traits because they have done it so often.  Veterans can take the lead on this and help other new team members to be a strong member and to incorporate new members quickly.

  1.  Technology Enables, Not Reduces, Initiative And Individual Action.

The second protagonist in “Starship Troopers” was the powered suit of the Mobile Infantry. The suit had life-support, offered substantial physical protection, incredible strength, the ability to jump, run at amazing speeds, and carry a vast array of weaponry and ammunition. All of this technology and firepower allowed the Mobile Infantry trooper to operate at the full potential of their individual abilities. The technology enabled and created more effective operations as it maximized each trooper’s battlefield potential. The powered suits were an essential combat tool used to empower individuals with greater understanding of the tactical situation, communication, and unsurpassed combat effects against the enemy.  In Rico’s fight against the “Skinnies” in the begining of the book, Rico described the suit’s technology allowed him greater individual action and initiative – technology did not reduce it.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  Military Veterans will have to learn new technologies and should strive to learn as much about how the new technology makes their companies better. The knowledge of new technology, how the business delivers value to its customers, and the effects of combining military initiative with technology will make the veteran employee a great asset.

  1.  Train To High Standards of On the Job Performance.

The graduation rate for the Mobile Infantry was between 15-20%. The attrition rate was due the inability of other Mobile Infantry trainees to meet the high perfoamce standards of the Mobile Infantry. The Mobile Infantry trained in physical fitness, hand-to-hand combat, weapons, tactics, survival, history, math, and the powered suit. It was the adherence to high training standards both in basic training and while in the Mobile Infantry that made the force great.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  It can be hard at times to start at the bottom of an organization, but it must be done so you learn and also reinforce the high standards of the organization. High standards are never static and require a constant attention and dedication to training.

  1.  Physical Fitness Is A Requisite For Career Advancement.

In the basic training section of Starship Troopers Rico was constantly running, marching, and doing calisthenics. The point of the physical fitness training was that the training would make him better at his job and better able to perform at a higher standard. Solid physical fitness is a condition of doing any job well.

Relevance to Military-To-Civilian Career Transition.  The Harvard Business Review Blog has run several articles on the value of physical fitness to job performance.  Great physical fitness will not only make you better at your job but it will also make your performance better against your peers in your company who may be less physically active. Physical fitness is a lifelong commitment to high performance. Physical fitness is not just exercise but sufficient sleep, proper nutrition, and minimal use of alcohol.

  1.  Individual mentoring and coaching improves performance.

All of Rico’s breakthroughs come after individual coaching sessions with mentors. Whether his Mobile Infantry basic training sergeant, the platoon sergeant in his first assignment, his high school history teacher, and his company commander when he is a temporary “3rd” Lieutenant on a combat operation. Even with all the technology, use of hypnosis for mission indoctrination, the seminal learning points come when individuals meet to discuss performance versus established standards and what the trainee can do to further improve their performance.

If your current job does not have a coach or mentor figure, then try to find one somewhere. It could be a higher education professor, someone from another department in your company, or a peer that helps you on one subject while you help him or her on another. You also have to look for opportunities to serve as a teacher or a mentor to someone else. All of my major career and performance breakthroughs have come from individual sessions of mentoring and coaching.

Starship Troopers offered great career lessons and entertaining military reading, not everything should be emulated. Heinlein’s conception of women was at times highly sexist.  He firmly believed that women could perform any combat function that a man could, even direct ground combat. Heinlein also believed that only military veterans could be full citizens with military veterans solely possessing the right to vote in the society of the future. Other citizens still had rights, but they could not vote.  Conveniently, Heinlein had the Mobile Infantry fight large bugs and eight foot humanoids to bypass the issues of civilians on the battlefield, humanistic treatment of prisoners, and the complexity of balancing rules of engagement versus devastating operational effects. Finally, Heinlein firmly advocated that some mistakes in combat and in combat training, such as even minor insubordination, were punishable by whipping and even death.

Putting aside some of Heinlein’s outside views on society and social issues; Starship Troopers makes incredibly relevant and insightful points on how individuals and organizations should operate.  Take these eight lessons with you to work today.  Remember your military service and how that service makes you better in your career.

Chad Storlie

Author, Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success

USAA Member Community, Blogger



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Chad is the author of two books: (1) Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and (2) Battlefield to Business Chad StorlieSuccess.  Chad’s brand message is that organizations & individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective.  Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units.  He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States.  He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab.   Chad is also an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at Creighton University and Bellevue University in Omaha, NE.  In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics.  He has been published in over 60 publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today.  He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.