I doubt Mick Jones and the rest of the The Clash had any idea how much their 1981 song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” would so completely sum up the thought process many veterans go through when they contemplate whether to continue on with a military career or take the leap into the private sector. Of course, that’s the beauty of a good song, it can be applied to many people in many situations.
As much as I have preached the value of leaving the service on your own terms, as opposed to being “politely asked to leave”, I know it can still be scary. Many times I would ask myself the very same question…”Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
But in the end, the words of Mick Jones also reminded me that “If I go there will be trouble, but if I stay it will be double“. Sticking around the service just because you can is often trading the security of today for the opportunity of tomorrow. There is a shelf life to our skills and experiences. We need to understand this in order for us to time our departure so that, when we do leave the safety of that predictable paycheck on the 1st and the 15th, we are prepared to market ourselves with skill sets that are both recent and relevant.
For example, I recently spoke with a Navy Operations Specialist who is currently on recruiting duty about his long-term (post military) career plans. If he planned on getting out now, his experience in working with sophisticated electronic equipment would be, at a minimum, three years old. Skills atrophy. Equipment changes. As each month goes by he becomes a less and less attractive candidate. Should he stay or should he go?
If he wants to work in electronics after the Navy, he should absolutely stay in the service a few more years. He should ensure his next set of orders takes him back to an operational job. Once on that job he needs to understand the metrics for success used by outside organizations and then look for ways inside the Navy to document similar achievements.
On the other hand, if he is enjoying working as a recruiter, then perhaps he should investigate civilian positions in sales or recruiting. Positions that leverage his people skills, while still working inside the electronics industry may even be a better fit. So, if this is the direction he wants to go, that previous plan we had just spoken about is NOT the best option. Instead he should look at either getting out of the service now and cashing in his recent/relevant experience or staying in the Navy but remaining in the field of recruiting.
His dilemma is not unique. Service members are constantly asking ourselves whether we should, in fact, stay or go. Sticking around the military might mean more rank and more money, but if the promotions aren’t taking you towards your post-service career goals, then the short-term gain may end up causing long-term pain. Service members need workable post-career plans.
Even with a strong personal career plan, however, there will come a time that requires execution of said plan, and this can be scary. Being scared of the inevitable is natural. The problems arise when we let the fear paralyze us. Fear of the event can become much worse than the event itself. Enter the 19th Century Poet, Emily Dickinson to help us out.
While we were fearing it, it came –
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair –
There is a Fitting – a Dismay –
A Fitting – a Despair –
‘Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.
The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.
Granted, Emily Dickinson’s poem is about death, not career change, but the point remains. Military transition ranks right up there with death and taxes on the scale of inevitability. If we continue to be afraid of life outside the military, it will sneak up and hit us unprepared. I’ve seen this on the faces of those in transition classes who can’t put together a good resume, not because they can’t physically produce a document using Microsoft Word, but because their career experiences don’t tell a coherent story about who they are and what they do.
These are the people who spent their time in the service enjoying the relative safety of the organization but never put together a personal career plan. They avoided thinking about the future, because it was scary and uncertain. And so long as they showed up on time, worked hard, and produced results, life was good. And it stayed good. Right up to the end. Then it wasn’t.
This is why it’s so important to begin thinking about life after the military early in your career. Which assignments to take, which schools to attend, which certifications to seek out, all of these questions should lead you down a path with a clear goal in mind. This way, when you ask yourself, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” your answer won’t be based on fear.
NOTE: I’m much more of a music fan than a poetry scholar. I found the Emily Dickinson Poem, via an obscure band known as the Amygdoloids, which is actually composed of a group of Neuroscientists from NYU. As part of my certification course to become a veteran transition coach we were having a discussion about the part of the brain that regulates fear and decision-making, known as the amygdala. During a more lighthearted tangent someone mentioned that there was a band named after that part of the brain. This led me to their song “Fearing”, which was based on the poem above.