Forget about who you were and discover who you are

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That homily makes a great e-mail signature or bumper sticker, but it also carries a warning to a particular segment of veterans.

The military excels at giving its members a ready-made identity: you’re not an individual, you’re part of a team. You take responsibility and behave at a higher standard. You’re a leader. The military culture emphasizes our identity (and holds us to it) by making it very clear to everyone else who we are and what we’ve done. We develop that identity through training and camaraderie to the point where some are literally willing to die for each other. After a couple years in your service you learn how to scan someone’s uniform, insignia, and decorations just like speed-reading a résumé. With a little more experience you can read the other military service’s résumés too.

We don’t just do it with a uniform, either. We document our service with body tattoos (even when we’re sober).  Navy deployments are frequently accompanied by “cruise jackets” custom-made in overseas ports with patches and appliques to show where you were and what you did. Our vehicles are decorated with personalized veteran’s license plates, warfare decals, and service ribbons. Homes and offices include “I Love Me” walls of photos, plaques, and citations. Front yards might even include flagpoles with service flags and other honors.

Can you imagine seeing this behavior at Intel? Ford? General Dynamics? If we saw a group of civilian employees behaving that way, would we make fun of their management or even think it a bit peculiar? My father and my father-in-law used to joke about their MegaCorp “Who I Was” jackets. Company windbreakers had the corporate seal on the chest (or splashed across the back) along with other corporate logos. Some employees would add patches for their divisions or certain projects. My father kidded his co-workers that (for a small additional fee) they could have their résumé embroidered into their jacket linings or bar-coded down one sleeve for easy reading. They used to think it was silly– and that they needed to get a real life.

Servicemembers reinforce each other’s identities, too. Especially at the more senior enlisted and officer ranks, it’s easy to become accustomed to an extra helping of ego-enhancing deference and respect. We’ve all seen certain individuals surrounded by staffs whose main goal is keeping them happy. Subordinates cater to their preferences, seek their advice, and even laugh at their jokes. (It’s not just the officers, either.) Of course we were never like that!

For those who strongly identified with their missions or ranks, retirement can be an unpleasant splashdown into very cold water. Suddenly you’re on your own, maybe even alone. No one seems to care how your weekend was or what everyone should be working on today. No one even asks your opinion, let alone scurries off to implement your directives. It’s hard to tell whether people miss your benevolent leadership, let alone care what you think. You may feel as if you’ve lost your identity and purpose.

If you want to keep your military identity then you might need to review your reasons for retiring in the first place.  Stay in the military as long as you can, and if you’re still enjoying your avocation then keep working as long as it’s fun.  But if you want to create a new identity, or find a new mission, then retirement is the opportunity of a lifetime. Humans are uncomfortable with change and retirement is one of life’s biggest changes. But rather than resisting the change and trying to cling to an identity, use your retirement to seek out who you want to be and what you want to do– for you– not for the organization.

Take a chance:  start with a blank slate and re-invent yourself. Who would you want to be if you hadn’t joined the military? What other “collateral duties” have you taken on over the years? You may already be a spouse and a parent. You have interests and hobbies, and now you can devote more time to them. You’ve had to look a certain way and dress a certain way for years, but now you can take control of your own appearance. If you’ve been taking care of other people for decades then you don’t have to stop now– find a volunteer activity where you can care for other people again. Even if you’re not ready yet to totally leave your military identity behind and re-invent yourself, you can take small steps. Join a veteran’s advocacy group or a military service organization for the camaraderie you’ve been missing, and then use that as a safe starting point to branch out to other activities.

While you’re figuring out who you are, don’t expect your family to step into the supporting roles filled by your former staff and soldiers. Not only will your family resist playing that part, but they’ll worry that you’re not handling the transition very well. They’ve spent years making sacrifices of their own as you made your personal sacrifices for your own mission and your battle buddies. Now you have an opportunity to acknowledge their sacrifices by giving them your time. Don’t try to lead them. Instead let them show you how they want to spend their time with you, and then you can show them how you want to spend your new retirement time with them.

You may have been in the military for one enlistment, or for more than 30 years. You may have retired in your 30s or kept working at bridge careers until your 60s. But if you’re close to the demographics of your generation’s lifespan then you’ll be retired for at least 25 years. If you retired earlier then you could be looking at four or even five decades of “not being in the military”. You’ll always honor and cherish your years of service, but take advantage of the chance to be someone else! No matter what else you do during the first few years of retirement, you can always go back to being the retired veteran.  It’s a safe place– but don’t make it a boring and stifling one.

There aren’t many references to link for this post, and I didn’t want to send readers shopping for cruise jackets.  However, if you’re having a particularly difficult time figuring out your new identity then you may want to try a free subscription to the My Next Phase newsletter.   Their newsletters are intended for hard-core senior civilian executives who have totally identified with their corporate careers and who have reluctantly retired (or been forced into retirement).  You can review their sample newsletters here.  It’s a dose of tough love for people who really aren’t sure they were ready to stop working and who haven’t planned the next phase of their lives.  It’s not for everyone, but it can help if you’re feeling totally overwhelmed by the prospect of figuring out what you’re going to do all day.

In the next few posts we’ll go into more details on handling other retiree issues. As Chief and other military retirees will warn you, even if you stop working there are still a few surprises ahead…

Related articles:
“But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?”
The transition to a bridge career
When should you stop working?

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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