This month marks five years since I left active duty. Five years since I threw my “boots over the wire.” Five years since I walked away with a DD-214 in hand. Five years since I took my first steps in a second career seemingly far different than the one that had defined the previous three decades in my life. Five years gone, just like that.

Knowing that this day was coming, I took some time to reflect on what I’d observed and what I’d learned during that time. Fortunately – for me, at least – I have been fairly good about speaking and writing on the subject of transition, so I had a lot of notes to review. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in that time, and I’m not too proud to say that I’ve never stopped learning. As long as I’m not learning the same lessons repeatedly, I like to think I’m doing alright.

There’s no shortage of advice on how to land a new career after transition. Some of that advice is good; more of it is garbage. Most of that advice is focused on making a successful transition – translating military skills, dressing for success, etc. – but not so much on what to do after you’ve made the leap. Settling into a new career is hard enough; settling into a new career after years in uniform can be even tougher. How do you define “normal” when it’s all new?

Over a year ago, I wrote a short piece on succeeding in a post-military career, looking back on the strengths that helped me find my footing in life after the Army. Finding that footing was a wonderful feeling, but it didn’t happen overnight, and it was not an easy process. Although the advice I offered in that article was sound, I didn’t address the challenges I experienced in gaining that footing. Challenges, I might add, that are not all that uncommon. Understanding such challenges are a key to finding some peace and sanity in the post-transition world, and maybe ensuring some steady employment along the way.

Change is constant:

A 2014 Military Times survey noted that 65% of veterans are likely to leave their first civilian job within two years. I was no exception: in five years, I’ve held three different positions. Each position change represented increased responsibilities, duties, and (thankfully) pay, and I was fortunate to make those changes without changing employer. Don’t expect to find the perfect job out of the gate. Oftentimes, finding the right job means being patient and, well, going with the flow.

To thine own self be true:

People will always tell you to be true to yourself, but let’s face it – when you’re starting a new career, it’s easy to end up becoming what you think others want. To be comfortable in a job, you have to be comfortable with yourself. That won’t happen if you’re trying to be someone other than yourself. Remember, the company hired you; they want you, not some sanitized or neutered version of you.*

* Unless, of course, they’ve only ever seen that sanitized or neutered version of you – good luck if that’s the case.

Live your values:

In every company, there are shady people doing shady things. You may not be in a position to do anything about what you might see, but every day that you look the other way will eat at your conscience. No job is worth compromising your values. Better to walk away with your self-respect intact than to hang on to a job that won’t allow you to look at yourself in the mirror each morning.

Stick to your battle rhythm:

Remember the old recruiting slogan, “In the Army, we do more before 9:00 a.m. than most people do all day.” It’s true. One advantage we have over a vast majority of the population is that we get up, get moving, and get stuff done before most people get out of bed. In business, that’s called a competitive advantage. Use it to your own advantage.

Take care of your body:

All those years of living on Vitamin M and caffeine will eventually catch up with you. Aches that used to hurt for a day will hurt a little longer. Things that you break or tear won’t heal as fast as they once did. We tend to put a lot more wear and tear on our bodies than most people, and we do it for a lot longer. You’re only issued one body. Listen to it. Take care of it. Make it last.

Have fun:

I haven’t had a four-day weekend in five years. I thought that would be the end of fun as I knew it, but it wasn’t. It was just the beginning. In the words of Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Remember to stop and look around as often as you can.

With five years down, I have to admit that life after the Army is pretty good. No one really told me exactly what to expect (everyone’s experience is a little different), and I certainly didn’t know to ask the right questions (about the things I didn’t know about, anyway). Still, I persevered, as will you. Success after transition comes down to pretty much the same things that define success before transition: surround yourself with good people, work hard, and be the best you that you can be. The rest will come with time.

Related News

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.