Experience is always something you get after you need it.

In life, those ten words prove true time and again. The moment you realize that your new boss is the person you cut off at the front gate. The first time you forget to check the dress code before a social event. That feeling you get when the excitement of being assigned historic quarters is replaced with the knowledge that your new home is infested with rabid bats. If you only knew then what you know now.

Life is like that, throwing one curve ball after another. You live, you learn. Over time, you adapt, gaining the wisdom of experience and the insight that comes with it. You understand that rushing blindly into new situations isn’t always the best practice and you learn to gather as much information as possible before making crucial life decisions.

Then you transition, and it starts all over again.

Why? It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve learned better over the years, especially when a milestone event in life is involved. But, you do it anyway. You attend a transition seminar, meander around a career fair or two, and muddle through mounds of near-indecipherable paperwork with the personnel office. Then, on that fateful day, you step outside after your final outprocessing appointment only to realize that life is much different than what you anticipated.

Despite what you hear around the bar in the local VFW hall, no one makes the decision to transition overnight. You come to that realization over time, usually after recognizing that the time is approaching to make a career change. The signs are there, you just have to acknowledge and accept them. Once you do, you can take your first steps toward preparing for your eventual transition. And, like most things in life, nothing is more important to a successful transition than preparation.

how to prepare for a successful military transition

  1. Start Early. A successful transition requires the same level of focus and commitment you apply to any other significant life event. Don’t wait for a transition workshop or job fair to begin preparing. Time is a luxury you don’t have, and every day you procrastinate is a day you won’t have when you need it most.
  2. Visit the Doctor. If you’re like most of us, you push through the minor aches and pains of life and don’t spend any more time at the clinic than you must. There’s nothing life deals you that you can’t manage with a little Vitamin M (Motrin) or “rubbing a little dirt on it.” That stops now. Make a list of everything that hurts, doesn’t move right, or makes noises it shouldn’t. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and run down that list like a pre-flight check until every ailment – however minor – is documented and addressed. You’ll be surprised at how much damage a human body can endure and continue to perform: broken bones, nerve damage, hearing loss, degenerative arthritis, and torn tendons, muscles, and ligaments, to name a few. Fixing yourself is part of the transition process.
  3. Find Mentors and Coaches. Leveraging the experience of others is typically the most valuable and least utilized aspect of transition. You’re not the first person to “throw your boots over the wire.” Reach out to people you know who have recently transitioned and seek their advice. What you’ll find is a veritable gold mine of wisdom, from how to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs, to where to buy business clothes so you don’t show up to your first interview dressed like a 45-year old fraternity pledge. Most of them earned their experience the hard way. Take advantage of that wisdom and put it to work for you.
  4. Network, Network, Network. Frankly, you can’t say that word enough. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, networking is the single most important factor in post-transition employment. It’s estimated that 90% of jobs today come as a result of networking. Polish that resume until it shines, but if you’re not networking, you have better odds of winning the lottery than landing your dream job. Networking will open the doors that put your resume in play, and that’s where your future starts.
  5. Keep a Journal. You’ll be surprised at how many people you converse with in the months leading up to and following your transition. Open a new notebook and take detailed notes of every meeting, every conversation, every phone call, and every exchange you have that relates to your transition. Use a tab for each major agency with which you coordinate: the personnel office, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the legal office, etc. Those notes may very well spare you major headaches later on in the transition process, and they could prove essential for someone else someday.

Ultimately, preparation gives way to patience. If you’ve done your homework and laid the groundwork for a smooth transition, all good things will come with time. And, no matter how well you prepare, not everything will proceed according to plan. That’s just the way things go sometimes. Despite all my planning and preparation, my own transition hit a snag in, of all places, the Central Issue Facility. There, I had one item to turn in after 28 years in uniform: a pair of “Goggles, Sand, Wind and Dust” that were still in their original packaging 25 years after deploying for Operation Desert Shield. As I slid the goggles across the counter to the mythical “little old lady in tennis shoes,” she looked up at me, frowned, and said “Wrong ones.” A little patience (and a check for $127.50 later) and I was on my way to my final outprocessing and a new stage in life.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.