It’s been a little over a year since I started my first full-time job after leaving active duty. What have I learned about transitioning to civilian life? After years of serving, why is making the transition so hard? I realize it has to do with framing.
When my unit was deployed, we had some ridiculous rules. For instance, we had to wear reflective vests for our safety in order to eat at the dining facility, even though we were at war. I remember my soldiers looking at me after putting on one such neon vest and asking, “What are we doing here, ma’am?” and more broadly, “Why are we here?”
Back then, I told them that they needed to zoom in or zoom out until the answer to that question made sense to them. “If you’re mad at me or your squad leader because the tasks you’re doing seem pointless, you need to zoom out and think about the U.S. and democracy, and all those things that you joined the Army to defend. If you’re mad at our country and its policy makers, you need to zoom in, look to your left and right and remember that we’re here for each other.”
I told them to reframe their situation as many times as necessary to get through the day and the deployment.
I’ve tried to follow this advice myself, but now that I’m not in uniform, I find this drill doesn’t work as well. When my job gets tough, I can zoom in and look to my colleagues on my left and right to help me get through the day. But when I’m doing the civilian equivalent of wearing a reflective vest to lunch, and I zoom out, that’s where the exercise falls short.
Am I doing this for money? Few things are going to replace what used to motivate me in tough times. So now what? I’ll never be in uniform again, and the idea of being able to zoom out and see the principles of duty, honor, and country is really too high of a bar for a job outside government service.
I think this inability to find deep purpose in civilian work is what makes the transition so hard. It’s also the root cause of isolation, as it’s difficult to find camaraderie with colleagues when no one in your new job has the same united sense of purpose.
I say again, so now what? How do you find deep purpose in your work and thereby ease the transition to civilian employment? It comes down to reframing. You have to do what everyone else has had to do from the beginning of their civilian careers: Define what your higher purpose is. Is your purpose to make enough money to provide for your family or pay back loans? Work in an industry that’s exciting and interesting? Live in the city of your choice?
Whatever it is, help yourself get through the tough times at work so that you can fight the urge to compare your daily struggles with the most difficult challenges you’ve ever had to face while serving in the military. Of course redoing some report at your new job doesn’t feel as important as leading your squad. Spoiler alert: It never will.
Comparing task to task isn’t helpful, but finding a new sense of purpose is. It is worth the temporary pain of redoing that report in order to lay roots in your hometown or work in a field you find fascinating. No job is perfect, and you have to find something that will motivate you to make it through those reflective-vest tasks. After this first year of work, I’ve found that the best thing you can do for your transition is to give yourself something to zoom out to.