A Veteran's Guide to Making Critical Life & Career Choices

Many Veterans are faced with difficult life and career choices after military service.

Do you ever find yourself struggling to figure out "what's next?" Does your experience, education, and skill set suggest one path, but your heart, energy, and real interests are calling you in a different direction? Do you settle for the familiar or do you explore a new path? What happens if you’re wrong? What happens if you fail? What happens if you get lost?

Every one of those concerns are legitimate. Listed below are a few things that could hurt your decision making process - and what you can do to counter them, when you’re making big choices about your life and career.

5 Common Ways of Thinking that Can Cloud Your Judgement

There are five recurring and potentially negative ways of thinking that can undermine clarity, creativity, and choosing as you navigate the transition to a different career or life phase.

  • Either/Or Thinking - In Western culture, our default way of thinking tends to be very black and white … either/or. We can either do this or that. We will either succeed or fail. We will make a good choice or a bad choice. We will do the right thing or the wrong thing.

  • Choice Overload - While one side of our nature drives us to see the world in terms of black and white, we also love our choices and options. We can see so many alternative futures for ourselves, that we find ourselves in "choice overload." Limiting our options to no more than five gives us mental space to make good choices carefully without causing us to throw up our hands in confusion.

  • Everyday Demands and Distractions - Is it easy to feel (and actually be) overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. Commitments, obligations, endless "to do" or "ought to do" lists, smart phones, computers, the Internet, ready distraction, social expectations, etc., etc., etc. Whether imposed by others or self-made, this noise and distraction can rob us the time, space, and presence to really reflect on our lives and futures.

  • Need for External Validation - We are social beings and it is natural to seek social validation for our choices. It feels good to get the pat on the back. It feels good … except when we’re rewarded for something that is not right for us - emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually.

  • Lack of Self-Trust - We have all done dumb things, made "what was I thinking?" decisions, rushed to judgement, misread situations and people, and talked to and about ourselves in ways that we would never do to another human being. It is called being human. It also can erode our trust in our own "inner-knower" and "wiser self."

So, when faced with an important "what's next?" decision, how do you counter black/white perspectives, choice overload, distractions and soul-sucking busyness, the constant search for validation and self-doubt? Below are five practical ways to create some breathing room for creative, productive decision making.

Setting Yourself Up to Choose Wisely

1. Create Some Space And Time Be By Yourself

Retreat from the noise, from being distracted, and from being connected. You need quiet time to think and to hear your own heart. If the choice your making could alter your future, you owe it to yourself to make time and space to hear yourself think.

2. Write Down Your Thoughts

The act of writing and translating your ideas into words helps connect old and new insights/thoughts. It brings clarity and creates something you can look at from different angles. Whether written or typed, words enable you to revisit and clarify your thinking over time. It makes it easier to catch either/or thinking and craft the creative "and" or alternative.

Caution, keep these private reflections, private. Done with sincerity and with brutal self-honesty, these are fragile and personal thoughts. They are works in progress and deserve to be protected from critique until you are ready to share them with those whose opinions you trust and value.

Ask, And Listen To Yourself

Ask yourself some serious questions and capture your answers.

What are the most important things in your life - really? What matters to you - at this moment in time? Be brutally honest.

What do you really not want to do? This is part of narrowing down your choices. What can you take off the table (while realizing that reality sometimes has short-term compromises)?

In a perfect world, if you had the money and no one would laugh at you, what would you do? Open your lens. Where would you live? How would you spend your time? What would you contribute? How would you feel?

Open The Lens Wide And Then Narrow The Decision Space

Create 3-5 distinctly different alternative futures. Think about them and gauge how they make you feel. Energized? Excited? Bored? Uneasy? Afraid? Put a label on the emotions and add them to your notes. There’s usually is a mix of emotions associated with each potential future.

For each alternative, write down what you really like about it and what you don't. Be explicit and look for patterns across alternatives. Are there recurring themes, such the thread of skilled craftsmanship, the outdoors, or entrepreneurship? Can the alternative futures be combined into something even more interesting and energizing?

Take your time to look at the alternative futures and really seek to identify the conscious and subconscious dimensions. Go for a walk. Clear your head. Listen to your heart. Take a deep breath. If it is your tradition, pray. Be still.

Decide And Develop An “Exploration” Plan

After careful consideration, write out the potential alternative future you are going to explore. Note, the word is "explore." Outline for yourself a plan for understanding what this new career or life path might entail and require. All work and all life-styles have pros and cons. What research do you need to do? Who do you need to talk to? What assumptions do you need to test? You may not be able to jump immediately from where you are to where you envision you would like to be and that is OK. Just start.

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If you’re a Veteran in the process of making some big choices about your future, you can talk with a Still Serving Veterans virtual career and transition counselor, for free. Every career counselor is a Veteran who has experienced transition themselves. They can help you find your next career or work through some of the tough choices you might face when you’re building your life as a civilian.

To speak with a Virtual Counselor, fill out the form below and someone from our team will contact you within 24-48 business hours.