Like many veterans exiting the military, I went back to school. Unlike most of my military peers who earned law or business degrees, I earned a history degree.
“History?” people would ask, “What will you do with that in the real world?”
My answer: “You mean with the diploma? Nothing. The research, writing, and presentation skills I learn? Everything.”
Though I love reading history, just learning about the past was never enough; I also wanted to learn a marketable skill. I wanted to learn how to write with velocity and punch. I wanted to explore radical ideas and then record my own ideas on paper, and if possible, do it with style.
There was one glaring problem, however, and my former commanding officer said it like only a Marine major can: “Capt. Hinman,” he barked, “You suck at writing.”
After acknowledging the obvious, I walked out his office door and left the Marine Corps soon thereafter, determined to one day write like a pro.
Before I left the Marines, I applied to graduate school. And after some tough rejection letters, one school “sort of” accepted me thanks to a 70-year-old, no-nonsense professor who sympathized with my military background and was willing to overlook my low Naval Academy grades.
“Okay, Hinman,” he said across a 15,000-mile phone call to Bahrain, “When you return from deployment, you’ll enter my academic boot camp and before the history department officially accepts you into our graduate program, you must earn a 4.0 in the fall semester.”
I knew his rules: Earn a 4.0 and go. Once I began school, I executed my two-year writing improvement plan. Every day, I read, scribbled, and typed in an empty, glass-encased study hall tucked inside the library’s basement. At a large rectangular desk scattered across with books, I wrote morning, day, and night. With words garbled together and clarity nowhere in sight, repetition and my wife’s encouragement were all I had. Every morning, I walked down the library steps, and each evening, I walked back up. Through it all, over and over again, I discovered one concrete fact: Writing wasn’t hard, it was painful.
Like any challenge met head on, my practice began to pay off. As I laid it on thick, etching one draft after another, my confidence and ability as a writer grew. And despite the pain and frustration, or maybe because of it, I’d never felt more accomplished in my life. And after two dense years in school, I graduated with a 4.0, a master of arts in history, and … no job. So I did what any unemployed former Marine living in Los Angeles might do: I became a bodyguard.
Bodyguard sounds a bit simplistic; however, I did join an executive protection and threat assessment firm as an entry-level protector and soon began protecting at-risk families at their homes in Beverly Hills. A year later, I started traveling with and protecting clients around the world. It was exciting work, yet I never stopped writing.
On my off days, I’d hit the local Starbucks armed with ear plugs and Bose headphones. I’d buy my caffeine, sit at one of those tiny Starbucks coffee tables, and just write for hours — no pressure, no deadlines, just expression. A few months into my new career, I redirected my efforts and began writing about security and protection topics, and soon posted my work on the firm’s internal intranet. Eventually I caught the eye of a senior executive who asked me to write a new recruitment strategy to hire military veterans. After that, the CEO asked me to manage the recruitment and selection division. As time passed, I found myself writing more and more for the firm. I wrote talking points for our recruiters and guidelines for our interviewers. I designed the layout and wrote the language for our careers website and even authored a few addendums and forewords for security-related books. After a while, my personal brand became “the guy who writes.”
Three years into my career, I was promoted to director, and I still continue to write — often for online publications like this one and often from that same corner Starbucks. For me, I’m living the dream: I’m paid to write.
All that being said, I encourage every transitioning veteran to determine their own vehicle for success (or personal brand) and get paid to do what you love most. What will your vehicle be? Here are some potential action words that can propel your career to the next level:
Where will your vehicle for success take you? Pick an action verb that ignites your personal brand. When you do choose your vehicle and turn the ignition, I urge you to step hard on the gas and accelerate your career.