Career Advice From The Clash and Emily Dickinson

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?

Punk Rock and Poetry


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?

It depends.

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.






Sell Your Talent, Not Your Title

There’s a lot of PR going on right now around the topic of veteran hiring.  Private organizations are picking up on the terrific talent pool coming out of the armed forces and many even have specific outreach programs designed to attract recently separated military personnel.  Let’s be clear though, no one will hire us because we are veterans, they will hire us because we have something to offer their company.

If you’re still on active duty, look around your unit (if you’ve recently separated think back to your last one).  Do you believe everyone in that group was equally talented?  We as veteran job seekers can be quick to point out things like “NCO’s make great managers”, which is true.  But can you really say that every NCO you worked for was great? Can you even say that all of them were even adequate?  The same goes with every job and billet in the military. Not every Commanding Officer is an awesome leader. Not every Supply Officer can handle logistics in an exceptional manner. Not every technician is trusted to work on the most critical of equipment.

By definition, everyone in your unit is a veteran.  But not all of them are talented.

Veteran (adj) Talent (n)

In the military we focus on mission accomplishment for the unit, not necessarily the individual. This is why you may see a unit or staff function succeed even despite the obvious inadequacies of certain individuals.  I’ve seen officers that would never survive without their subordinates going above and beyond their job description. I’ve also seen officers put in ungodly amounts of extra supervision (and sometimes even hands on work) to make the mission succeed because they were dealt a lousy hand in terms of NCO’s.

In order to succeed on the job market then, we need to ensure we sell our talents, not our titles. When recruiters are tasked with finding veteran talent, the word veteran is the adjective, not the noun.

The following are some tips on how to do just that.

1- Make sure your resume (and LinkedIn Profile) lists actual accomplishments, and understand that being responsible for something isn’t an accomplishment.

2- Learn about industries that you would like to work in after the military to understand what types of metrics they use to define success. Seek to put yourself in positions to do the same type of measurable work while still on active duty.

3- Keep steady and accurate documentation of your success.  If the success metrics for the civilian world don’t exactly line up with the success metrics of your current billet in the military, so be it. Just keep parallel documentation.  In the end, your performance evaluations can help you build a civilian resume, but they can’t replace it.

The ability to demonstrate our talents is critical to success on the job market.  The best advice is to start early in your career to find ways to put yourself into positions to learn, grow, and ultimately perform, at the tasks valued by private organizations. It’s only when we demonstrate the talent that the adjective “Veteran” gets a chance to work it’s magic.

Transition Class: Attendance Required, Results May Vary

The following is my review of the Transition, Goals, Plans, Success (TGPS) Seminar that I attended last week.  It is offered as a snapshot of one evolution of the course offered at one location.  Individual experiences may be different than mine and I would love to hear about them.  My opinions were included in the end of course feedback forms, but I also believe they are also worth sharing with a larger audience because I believe a dialogue on this subject can be helpful to many individuals transitioning to the civilian world, as well as those involved with developing and delivering the TGPS curriculum.  Again, I would love to hear the thoughts of others on this subject, so feel free to comment.

Getting The Ball Rolling

In order to attend you need to have your command fill out a few forms in order to grant you the time off, and you also need to get a DD Form 2648 and have it filled out and signed by your career counselor. I’m not exactly sure the purpose of this form, other than for the government to have documented proof that they asked you about the various topics that may pertain to those separating.

Forms Completed? Check Class Attended? Check

Forms Completed? Check
Class Attended? Check

I’m not saying that the websites listed on the DD 2648 are bad or the information they contain isn’t important, but don’t show  me a website, ask me if I want more information on a subject, and then refer me to the same website.  I’m busy and my career counselor is busy, too. This seemed like a waste of both of our times.

OK, I thought, maybe this will be of use during the course, but, alas, not so much.  The coordinator made sure we all had them.  She collected them and made copies for her records, but that was it. No feedback from anyone. The form was used for nothing more than an admissions ticked to the course.

We also had to do an Individual Transition Plan (ITP)  which was also turned in and returned to us during the week. The coordinator had to make copies of these in order to document that we had used the form.  Now this form isn’t quite so bad.  I can actually see how it could be of value to someone unsure of their future direction, so I won’t knock it just because it wasn’t effective for me personally. I just bring it up here to show that it’s yet another form whose true purpose is to exist with my signature on it, not to necessarily be useful to me.

The decision to attend the course also has a second order effect in that by simply asking to attend, you change the way you are perceived at work. While this may happen to some more than others, it does happen and should be considered before making the decision to route your requests.

This is particularly of concern for those leaving the military by choice, as opposed to those who must leave for medical or administrative reasons.  More than one participant in my class talked about being marked in the bottom category of their peer group once the command knew they were planning on separating or retiring.  Dropping one person down because they are leaving allows a command to move someone else who is not separating up into a higher category.  So, if you’re not 100% sure you will be getting out, this is a legitimate issue to consider before routing the request to take a week off and attend this course, because nobody will go back and alter your previous promotion recommendation just becuase you changed your plans.

The Audience

This, in my opinion, is the single greatest issue that prevents the course from actually preparing individuals for success outside of the military.  Our class had a wide variety of participants and based upon my conversations with others, this is the norm.  For example we had:

  • Two Physicians still on active duty, both of which had already secured employment following their separation.
  • One pending retiree who was going to be a stay at home dad.
  • Multiple individuals with technical (in this case Intel/Computer Networking) skills that were seeking positions in the same field. Some had qualifying degrees, others did not.
  • Two individuals with less than 30 days remaining on active duty attending for the first time.
  • Four individuals with months remaining taking the course for the second time.
  • Multiple individuals exploring complete career changes.
  • At least one individual seeking a career in the field of talent acquisition, training and development, or technical sales, who also blogs about helping veterans position themselves for employment.

The program coordinator said it best when she stated, “In this group, some of you are perfect, some of you are paralyzed, and many of you are somewhere in between.”  She was absolutely right.  Unfortunately, the course cannot be all things to all people.

The primary purpose of this course to ensure everyone ATTENDS, not to make sure everyone gets a job or even increases their level of knowledge or preparedness.  Even if that were the case, I don’t think all of these goals could realistically be achieved in the current model.  While breaking the course into smaller, more focused,  groups would encourage more peer to peer learning, doing it this way would be much more inefficient, and would probably lead to a lot of people “finding their way out of attending”.

The fact is, just as there were some individuals who didn’t research the service before joining, there will be many that don’t research the civilian world before returning.  We may not be able to make them prepare, but we can certainly  make sure that they sign a roster stating that they attended a class. The DOD theory seems to be that it’s better to inconvenience the prepared rather than to allow the unprepared to exit without having had the opportunity to learn.  This is probably the best choice given the current situation.

The Course

The real shame is that this need to check the box for everyone overshadows some significant progress in the program. The actual three day course put together by the Department of Labor (DOL) is pretty decent. In my opinion, it’s exactly the kind of information people need before exiting the military. The topics are relevant and the textbook is well written.   The slides had just enough information to act as a springboard for discussions.

The Workshop designed by the Department of Labor is a great program.  Effective delivery of the information is the key.

The Workshop designed by the Department of Labor is a great program. Effective delivery of the information is the key.

A good course often can’t overcome a bad instructor, however, and unfortunately many in our class felt our instructor was less than stellar.  He spent way too much time telling personal stories about his career and family experiences and not enough on the actual topics in the course.

It became obvious that there were certain topics in which his knowledge was no deeper than the slides. For example, the curriculum referenced a statistic citing 83% of employers plan to hire through social networking and referrals yet he had no working knowledge of critical platforms such as LinkedIn.  On another occasion he spent 45 minutes on a family story about his son, and then covered federal hiring practices and the General Schedule (GS) pay scale in three minutes to ensure we got out of class on time.  It turns out that our instructor was more motivational than informational.  

Of note: Aside from the three day DOL course we also had some individual classes by other presenters throughout the week.  The class on networking and social media (Presented by Chrissa Dockendorf from and the dressing for success class were both received very well by almost the entire class.  The financial prep class was also solid with some good info for just about everyone in attendance. The week ended with a long brief on VA benefits which was complicated, but kept everyone’s attention. We ended the course with a panel of employers and recruiters that were there to answer questions.  They also added a lot of perspective on the civilian job market and validated the information about social media and networking that had been previously offered.

What It Means

The best advice I can offer is to take control of your own career, and do so early.  It is my intention to go over the topics in the Department of Labor course with future blog posts because I believe they are spot on as far as establishing a transition plan.  I’d also love to start a dialogue with others getting out, or who have recently gotten out, because I believe we can all help each other succeed on the outside, just as we do on the inside.

As I’ve written about previously, preparation for your civilian career needs to start the day you get in. You never know when you’re going to get out of the service. You may be “asked to leave” for many reasons, some of which may be out of your control.

On the other hand, you may get the honor of serving until retirement, in that event, the more you know about the civilian world, the more at peace you’ll feel when you take the plunge and decide to begin the process of hanging it up.  If you end up “taking one for the team” at eval time, it will be less of an issue, because you’ll be more confident that you are making the right decision.

There is nothing presented in the TGPS course that is not  already available through multiple sources.  You can learn and prepare yourself now without any formal announcement that you plan on leaving the service. Remember that nobody is responsible for your post military career except you.

Others are tasked with providing you with information and their success may be measured by a sign in roster and some checks in a bunch of boxes. The part of this process where something actually happens, like getting a job, that’s on you.

Transition Risk Management Requires Parallel Planning

Slow is smooth,

I took a big step towards retirement last week by submitting my request to attend TAP (Transition Assistance Program) in August.  The course is designed to assist service members in the transition process and members are allowed to attend as soon as 24 months prior to retirement and you can attend multiple times. Unfortunately most do not take advantage of these opportunities. My intention is to attend here at Fort Meade and then take another class closer to my retirement date.  Hopefully by that time I have a better idea of where I might end up.

As I’ve noted before, the process of transition can be nerve racking, particularly if you’re not sure which area of the country you want to end up in.  For us it’s really come down to either Maryland or North Carolina.  For this reason, I am planning to do the second TAP class in Camp Lejeune (NC) if necessary.

I’ve gone through my military career working on the premise of parallel planning, and this situation is no different.  In the military we got ORM (Operational Risk Management) drilled into our heads……now it’s time for some Transitional Risk Management or “TRM”.

During my career I often counseled my Sailors to “Do what you can, when you can” when they were frustrated with the pace at which they were arriving at their personal goals.  I told them it was about what you did with the opportunities in front of you.  The key was to be ready for them and not let them slip away without taking action.  At the same time, not to lament the opportunities that were not currently in front of them.   I still stand by the advice. And right now, all I can do is plan, network, and lay the groundwork that will enable me to capitalize on future opportunities.

My parallel planning involves looking at both locations.  Each has its pro’s and con’s, and I need to be equally prepared for either.

My TRM plan focuses on the following topics (listed in no particular order).

Job Prospects For Me

Baltimore/DC has a great deal of organizations and I believe I could secure a position in the general fields of staffing, training, or another HR discipline.  I took the assignment to recruit physicians in Baltimore for a number of reasons, one of which was because of the opportunity to establish a good reputation in the civilian sector.  I like to think I’ve done that.  I’ve been active in local community events and have a number of advocates in the area.

Traditional employment opportunities for me in Jacksonville, on the other hand, are a little more limited, with government contract work being the most likely option.  To be honest, though, there are relatively few of those jobs that I would be interested in.

I, like probably everyone else in the world, want to do something that I have a passion for.  For me, that happens to be setting people up for future success.  This may be through staffing, or training, or even some opportunity yet undiscovered.  My hope is that by thinking ahead, I can avoid having to take “any job that pays the bills”.

I am also looking at opportunities in Wilmington, NC which is a 30-45 minute commute from Jacksonville.  It’s a bigger market that Jacksonville, but not as big as the Baltimore/DC area.  I also don’t have an existing network there (yet).

Finally, while Jacksonville, NC does not offer as many opportunities to for civilian employment, it does provide a better climate for starting my own small business.  After living there for ten years, I still have a strong network and see potential for success in that arena (another story for a future post).

Job Prospects For My Wife

This transition is more than just mine, it’s a transition for the entire family.  My wife is a registered nurse and has recently started working in a new position as an office manager for a physician’s office.  For the first time in a long time, she has a Monday through Friday schedule.  Just as with any great position, this was something that she was offered through solid networking and establishing herself as a smart, hardworking nurse.  Her business background and pending completion of a Masters in Nurse Education made her a great fit for the practice.  She absolutely loves the people she works with and would hate to leave.  At this point, her current job is certainly one of the biggest reasons we think about staying in Maryland.

On the other hand, once she completes her Masters in Nursing Education, that degree carries more weight in a rural area such as Jacksonville than it does in Maryland.  MSN’s are literally a dime a dozen around here, and she has no desire to pursue a PhD at this time.  It is good that she also maintained a good network in Jacksonville in the event we head back there, In addition, opportunities exist for her in Wilmington with many of the same issues (good and bad) facing her as were mentioned above for me.

Food and Shelter

Retirement pay is the same no matter where I live and the estimated $2,000 a month I will get will go further in NC.  In fact, that money will more than cover the mortgage payment on the house we already own in North Carolina (and really like).  We are currently renting in Maryland, and although we don’t particularly want to remain in this home after the lease is up, we have been ecstatic about the community.  Schools have been great, people have been great, and there are a TON of things to do here.

Without an actual job offer, however, it’s impossible to estimate how much money I would be making, and therefor very difficult to house hunt. The fact that our VA loan is tied up in the house in Jacksonville, NC makes purchasing a new home a bit more of a financial challenge as well.  Renting would likely be our best option at first, but one thing about retirement that we are looking forward to is settling down. Renting would not really do that for us.

The Way Ahead

So we trudge on with our parallel plans.  I continue to network in the Baltimore area like this is where I will stay and continue to keep up with the happenings in North Carolina as if that is where I will go.  I attend the job fairs here and subscribe to job boards with email updates for the Wilmington/Jacksonville area.  My wife continues to work hard at her position, not only on a daily basis, but also in helping to craft long term solutions for the office.  The key is to work at each job like you plan on keeping it forever.  If we stay, she remains at a thriving and successful work place. If we leave, she walks out with terrific references and an impressive resume that lists accomplishments as well as responsibilities.

I think the best thing about living and working here, is that we have both learned a lot through our professional relationships. The mantra of “work hard and be nice to people” is always good advice. It got  my wife the great job she has now and is positioning me for similar opportunities if we remain here.  In the event we return to NC, the experiences will have made both of us smarter, more well-rounded, professionals.

GWR-11x14-Serenity Prayer (1)

My plan is to retire from the Navy in the summer of 2014. Doing so would allow me to take terminal leave (use up all my saved vacation days) and, in effect, stop working for the Navy around April or May.  Since I still haven’t requested a date, I could still conceivably move it up if the right job comes along, however. One thing is for sure, we know the next year will be a roller coaster.

Whenever I get frustrated about the things I don’t yet know I just fall back on something they repeated over and over in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Class, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”.  That saying keeps me moving forward. The Serenity Prayer keeps me sane.  I have to believe that slow and steady will win the race.