Why Vets Fail After The Military …. And How to Make Sure You Succeed!

N1-Reason-Veterans-FailAbout two million servicemen and servicewomen have completed tours of duties since 2001.

That number is expected to grow by about another million over the next five years as we draw down in Afghanistan and the different branches budget for smaller standing forces.

As a fraction of the American workforce, that’s still less than one percent.

But it’s a fraction that’s plagued with substantially higher-than-average unemployment.

…..and even that number (about 9.9%) disguises the much larger percentage that are “underemployed” — working jobs below their skill level and ambitions just to make ends meet.

Why does this happen?

The Number One Reason Vets Fail: Mindset

No one’s passing out blame here.

It’s a tough job market for anyone right now, and veterans face unique challenges, ranging from injuries suffered in combat to a résumé that’s short on qualifications a civilian HR manager can understand.

So “failure” may not even be the right word.

Click here to watch The Number 1 Reason Veterans Fail video on Youtube

But we all know what we want to avoid: becoming the guy who can’t get a job,  who can’t make enough money to support a family, or settling for a job he hates. (Men and women face these challenges alike, so don’t let our use of “guy” bother you — the challenges are the same for male and female veterans, and America has plenty of both).

No one wants to be that veteran. No one wants anyone else to be, either. But it’s a mindset that can be incredibly hard to break out of.

As a soldier (or a sailor, airman, or marine), you’re a disciplined, trained part of a cohesive whole, working toward a collective endstate.  Your mindset is one of following orders and doing your job – and expecting others to do the same.

Out in the civilian world, the system is not built this way. Some parts of your old mindset will help you — others will hurt.

Weaknesses of the Military Mindset

 high speed low drag soldier in the mud

The “military mindset” is, fundamentally, a group-oriented one. Soldiers are pieces of a larger whole that functions together. Obstacles and goals aren’t individual — they’re collective. Individual successes serve larger successes.

It’s also a training-focused mindset. An officer might spend a year at Fort Knox, training six days a week for over twelve hours a day, and that’s before specialized skill sets come into it. Everyone has to be highly qualified — and there’s a system in place both to train and to evaluate.

Those are incredibly powerful tools for waging a war. They’re not so great for running a business, or being a part of one, and the less structured the business is, the more of a liability those assets become.

As a civilian you have to get out of the habit of thinking in terms of specializations. A tank takes a crew of four to run, each with their own job, but your household or your business doesn’t have four people trained to run different parts of it. The whole show is on you.

So beware of two major obstacles in the military mindset:

  1. Dependence on large-scale support systems and on-call specialists
  2. Relying on formal training before starting something new

It’s not always going to work that way in civilian life. You’re going to have to start some things on your own, and you’re going to have to do it without a pin or a patch that says you’re qualified.

Advantages of the Military Mindset

 high speed low drag soldier push up

On the plus side, a veteran has strengths that civilians don’t.

Military training is ferociously disciplined, both physically and mentally. You’re trained to endure in a way that people outside the military rarely are. A “bad day” in civilian life has nothing on a good day in a combat zone.

Properly focused, you can turn that into a “take the bull by the horns” mentality. Obstacles are there to be overcome. And whatever the obstacles are, it’s a sure bet you’ve already overcome something worse — different, maybe, but worse.

The military also gives a good object lesson in how important every single person and his or her skills are. A unit that has lost a member — any member — is a unit that isn’t operating at full effectiveness. In the case of specialists, a single person’s loss can be downright crippling.

That’s bad when you’re losing people in combat, but in the civilian world it just means that you’ve got a lot to offer. You know your value! If you can remember it, employment struggles will be a lot easier to handle.

So keep those parts of your military training close to your chest in the civilian world:

  1. The drive to do anything, and overcome any hardship or obstacles
  2. The awareness that your skills and your efforts are vitally important

It doesn’t matter if you’re coming into a new kind of work that you’ve never done before — you’re still a guy who’s trained to do whatever it takes to succeed, and at the end of the day that’s the only skill that matters. Everything else can be learned as you go along.

Building a “Do Anything” Civilian Mindset

 high speed low drag soldier shooting

Leverage the best parts of your military experience — and leave behind the parts that only work within the structure of the military — to create a mindset that works for the civilian work force.

The biggest hurdle for most prior service is realizing that no one can tell you what to do anymore. Oh, sure, you might sign up for a job with a boss — if you want to — but you’re only limited by the contracts you sign and the arrangements you make.

You don’t need formal training anymore. It can help, but it’s not required. You can self-teach, do research at libraries and online, work ideas out in your garage or at a public work space; even take jobs for short periods of time to pick up the basic skills before launching on your own.

There doesn’t have to be a set course of instruction followed by pass/fail exams. No one’s going to give you ratings or rankings anymore.

Make the effort to teach yourself some skills, or to start some ventures of your own. You don’t even have to be doing it with the intent to create a business or a career for yourself in the long run, though it’s great if you can — for a recently discharged vet, it’s worth doing things independently just to teach yourself that you can.

Worth keeping in mind — if you check out and thoroughly read three good, introductory texts on any given subject, you’ve probably already got more expertise than 85% to 95% of the population. Expertise is easy to come by — a lot of vets just don’t realize they can go out there and take it for themselves, without being told what to learn or how to learn it.

The other key part here, aside from “do anything,” is the word “civilian.”

It is important to start thinking in civilian terms. What that means from an employment standpoint is that you don’t have to be guided entirely by your training anymore. Just because you were an EOD guy in the military doesn’t mean your only possible civilian employment is on the police bomb squad. Maybe you’re done defusing bombs for a living. Who would blame you?

Start something new. Go civilian. Look for an occupation that has no ranks, no badges; nothing that even looks like a weapon. Some of the most successful military-to-civilian transitions have been in fields like business, technology, politics, and even art. Broaden your horizons to include possibilities that have nothing to do with military skills. Remember, you can learn anything you want along the way.

Finding Excuses vs. Finding a Way

 high speed low drag soldier walkingIf you’re looking for excuses, you’ll find them — we all know people who spend time trying to find things to be unhappy about.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. When things aren’t going well, it’s natural to think about why. That makes you think about things that may be beyond your power, which makes you frustrated and angry — and then you end up thinking about how angry you are, and not about creative solutions.

When men and women get caught in that “negativity freeze” in combat — focusing on the obstacles, rather than the mission — it can cost lives. In civilian life, it’s more likely to cost you happiness and opportunities.

Always be assessing your behavior. If something’s keeping you from success, are you working to find a way around it? Or are you trying to do the same thing you’ve been frustrated in doing, and meeting with failure over and over again?

Don’t beat your head against brick walls. Not everything’s going to work out. If a task is impossible the way you have it set up, restructure the task, or change your goals — or, worst-case scenario, just walk away. You have other opportunities waiting for you.

Watch out for a military training mindset that defines you as your scores or your records. You don’t want to define yourself by your résumé. A lot of guys who are used to being placed based on aptitude tests and rank will nod obediently when HR managers and bosses tell them that they’re not qualified for positions, or raises, or whatever.

Nine times out of ten that’s bunk. You’re dealing with someone who doesn’t understand your skill sets because they’re not defined in terms of education and civilian job experience, or you’re dealing with someone who does understand but is hoping to take advantage of you.

Remember that you’re not in the military anymore, and don’t let other people make excuses for you any more than you do yourself.

Keep an eye on yourself for negative signs. If you’re angry or unhappy a lot of the time, sit down and look at why you’re angry or unhappy. Then work out a plan to get around those causes.

How to Change Your Mindset

 high speed low drag soldier with kidsAll of that’s easy to say, but it’s hard being a veteran in America right now, especially a recently-discharged vet who’s looking for work.

So what are the practical steps you can put into action to start changing your mindset to the “do anything” civilian mindset?

Step One: Open Your Mind

It sounds corny, but it’s important — and it’s something that the military tends to deliberately drill out of people.

It’s no secret that free thinking doesn’t get you a ton of rewards in the military. There’s a high organizational value on conformity, obedience, and method, because those are things that make a combat unit efficient under pressure.

Outside the military, those habits can hinder your scope. Take steps to make sure you’re living and thinking like a civilian and an individual:

  • make friends that aren’t ex-military — the different perspective will help
  • look for veterans doing things completely different from the military
  • look for job opportunities that aren’t specifically targeting veterans or looking for military skills

It takes more outreach to start hanging with a bunch of computer programmers and working at a Silicon Valley start-up than it does to join a private security company and work with other vets guarding bank trucks — but it also gives you a broader sense of what’s possible.

Step Two: Meet People (and Veterans) Who Inspire You

 high speed low drag 2 soldier The more fresh from the force you are, the more important it is to have role models who aren’t from that part of your life.

You’re going to have the friendships and bonds you formed in the service for life — that’s guaranteed. But it’s important to make connections outside the circle of “war buddies” as well, and fellow vets who’ve spent some time in civilian occupations can be a huge help there.

Look around for high-achieving veterans who inspire you. A few things are working in your favor here:

  • Veterans will almost always make time for other veterans. “I was in the armed forces” is a huge door opener. If someone you admire was in the military and now has a business, send him or her an e-mail. Say why you admire his or her success, and ask how they handled their transition to civilian employment. Odds are you’ll get a personalized response.
  • Veterans have a lot of networking possibilities, ranging from government aid services that work to put potential employers and potential employees in touch to the less formal networks of guys down at the VFW post.
  • Knowing successful ex-military men and women isn’t just useful in networking terms — it’s also an important personal boost to be able to say “yeah, he/she did it, and so can I.”

You’ll need those role models and those advisors during your rocky periods (and there will be rocky periods). Start making the connections as soon as you can.

Step Three: Teach Yourself Something — Anything!

 high speed low drag soldier writingPick up a book or go to a night school course and learn something you never knew before.

Doesn’t matter what it is. Learn some carpentry. Take a course on 18th-century English poets. Read a couple library books about the history of the early Buddhist missions to the Indian subcontinent.

This is your way of teaching yourself a skill, but also of teaching yourself how to learn a skill. You’ll go on acquiring different ways of doing it over time, but that first self-instruction is an important confidence builder.

Remember, the most basic military training is incredibly extensive. You’ve already learned more skills in less time than most people are ever asked to.

Doing it on your own isn’t any harder — you just have to be the one making you do it. There’s no drill sergeant yelling at you now, but the process of learning is the same.

Step Four: Think About What You Want to Do

 high speed low drag soldier workingIt’s easy to get caught in the mindset of “this is what I know how to do,” or “this is what I’m good at doing,” and to let that define your options.

You’re not your existing skill set. You’re the person that learned those skills. You can learn anything else you want to, too…so what do you want to learn?

This can be one of the hardest decisions for anyone to make. But the beautiful thing is, there are no wrong answers. The only bad job is one you don’t like.

Set aside practicality for a moment and dream. In a perfect world, what would you be doing?

Odds are it’s not something you can just up and do and make a decent living off of. But it is something you can work toward, and aim your career toward, even if it has nothing to do with your current skills or experience.

It sounds like an intangible step — and it is, to some extent — but if you don’t do it, you don’t have an eventual goal for your work. This gives you something to work toward, so that you’re not just making ends meet indefinitely.

Step Five: Remember Your Pride and Your Strengths

 high speed low drag soldier firing Military service is an incredible achievement. You’ve done mighty things.

A recruitment officer who never left the Midwest has been through more than most people will ever experience in terms of training and personal trials.

That’s something you should always keep close to your chest when you’re feeling intimidated. Remember that you’ve already faced harder things than the worst the American workforce can offer you.

Don’t be intimidated by the successes of others, or by your own temporary setbacks. Be motivated by them. You’ve got the discipline and the confidence to do whatever you want to — if you can remember that you have them.

Click here to watch The Number 1 Reason Veterans Fail video on Youtube