“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
I grew up consumed by the desire to lead an Army Special Forces team. That goal served as the anchor for all my decisions from age 15 through 32. The path was crystal clear. Everything was subordinate to achieving this end. I was bursting with hope and oozing ambition as I made my way from waypoint to waypoint, slowly moving along the largely linear path from high school to Green Beret. It was exceedingly challenging and rigorous, yes, but the journey was beautiful in its simplicity.
At the end of the short time the Army allotted me to lead a small team of some of America’s smartest and most skilled warriors, I picked my head up and for the first time and gazed beyond the trail at my feet. Seeing that opportunity existed in literally an infinite number of directions beyond my path, I quickly filled with curiosity about where and how my experience and skills could benefit others beyond the military. Suddenly, at least to my conscious mind, the decision to leave the Army dawned on me (having several years to reflect since this moment, I realize that the decision had been deeply considered in my subconscious mind for some time.)
A number of fundamental questions loomed large. What now? Where do I go? What do I do? What do I want out of life? What would I like my legacy to be? Who am I, if not a military officer and a Green Beret? What proportion of my sense of identity should be comprised by my profession? What is my purpose? What was I put on this earth to impact or accomplish? How do I find meaning beyond leading Green Berets?
After three years of experiences in the private sector, one year in a prestigious MBA program, hundreds (if not thousands) of focused conversations, and months of self-reflection…I do not feel much closer to answering many of these questions with any confidence.
I’ve done much in an effort to gain clarity. I’ve worked in 2 very different industries: construction and health care delivery. Through classmates and networking, I’ve exposed myself to many more to develop a good sense of their cultures and potential: oil and gas, management consulting, non-profit and social outreach, and further government service. I’ve spoken with countless people to understand their perspective and experiences. I’ve read many leading career search books. I’ve completed and deeply reflected on several career and personality profiles. I’ve spoken to friends, family, career counselors, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
The options are simply too numerous and absolutely overwhelming. When I think about the attributes that I desire in my next career, I recognize that these conditions exist in many, many different professions. I need work that contributes to making the world a better place by solving essential human needs. I need to know that my direct contribution is impactful. I want to be challenged, asked to deliver outcomes that are a stretch. I want to work with men and women who are extremely committed and capable, with disparate backgrounds and diverging points of view. I want to feel needed and necessary, with colleagues depending on me to deliver in my role on a high-performance team. I want to innovate and create, looking beyond convention to discover new and better ways of meeting needs. Unsurprisingly, when I share these desired attributes with advisors and potential mentors, it provides them no clear direction in which to advise me. They, like me, recognize that these attributes exist in very many industries and fields. They struggle to provide me any meaningful device as I give them very little to work with.
I could likely be satisfied doing a number of drastically different things. It would be meaningful to enable a healthcare system to develop and implement innovative new ways of delivering care to patients as the industry becomes concentrated, but care is increasingly decentralized. I would have fun opening a pizza restaurant in a neat community, participating in the chamber of commerce and connecting with local social outreach programs to embed in the community. I could launch my own company to produce and distribute outdoor recreation apparel or even package outdoor recreation vacations, both of which would engage my passion of helping connect people to the natural world. I could launch or lead a veteran focused non-profit to assist my military veteran colleagues work through the exact same types of tensions I am describing in my own life. I could go back to work for the government in a role that would allow me to contribute to our nation’s security and economic leadership.
Many advisors, all highly respected and successful in their fields, have encouraged me to resist the impulse to set too rigid of a trajectory. Doing so may blind me to emerging opportunities. It is unwise, they counsel, to be too focused lest I eliminate doors before they can open. They suggest that it is unnecessary and unproductive to have a 20-year plan oriented on an ultra-specific anchor. I hear them and try to adjust my world view.
Recently, an extremely successful health care executive asked me what skills I bring to contribute to a health care system. As usual, I stammered out an unconvincing response that failed to inspire confidence in my fit or ability to succeed. Although I have spent countless hours brainstorming and listing the skills that I consider to be both essential and differentiating, I am consistently incapable of reciting them to others in an impactful way. Inspiring confidence in others requires internal confidence, which of course grows out of the conviction created by clarity.
I’ve placed a lot of stock in these types of engagements, knowing that I can uncover a lot through the experiences of others. No conversation is wasted time, as I always come away with an idea or insight. Yet, after so many, I would expect to have gained greater clarity. I am always searching for mentors, those advisors that result from an unusually high degree of mutual trust. Yet, I have successfully cultivated very few. In fact, I have struggled to develop more than a handful of close relationships with those around me, gaining instead a large quantity if loose acquaintances. This is especially troubling, based on my extroversion and dependence on drawing energy from enabling others. If my happiness and confidence is linked to other’s dependence on my skills and contribution, then this type of isolation is crippling.
So here I stand at nearly 35 years old, staring at a seemingly endless field of forking roads spidering out around me, hoping that a path will be illuminated. It seems unreasonable to ceaselessly explore potential careers and expect a professional direction to occur to me suddenly in a cataclysmic lightning bolt moment, but this seems to be my default mode. I can’t clearly identify a cause to champion, a passion to pursue, or a purpose to which to bind to my ego.
Is it acceptable to simply not know what I want or who I want to be? How clear of a professional direction should I expect?
At a certain point, idealism is inappropriate as the bills must be paid.