How Do You Measure Success When You Leave the Military?


I recently celebrated my 47th birthday, a rather unremarkable milestone. With each passing year, it becomes harder to convince myself that I am on the windward side of middle age. These occasions have become more of a time for reflection than celebration. Birthdays are the time of year when I assess how I am progressing along the journey of life. I typically include familiar metrics like wealth and status in my assessment, but this year was different.

On my birthday, I received a card from my two boys - Aidan and Everett. By "received a card" I mean to say that my wife purchased a card and made them sign it. I know how this game is played because I do the same thing for her. On this card, Aidan took the time to write more than just his name, and in doing so, provided the best assessment for how I am doing in life after the military.

The Price for the Conventional Definition of Success

Like you, my number one concern in life after the military is the ability to provide for my family. We tend to measure success by the quantity and quality of the things we can provide. How much money do you make? What is your job title? What neighborhood do you live in? How much are you putting away for college? These are the qualifiers we use to gauge our level of success, and sometimes, they come at a very high cost.

Too often we focus on the things we think are important at the expense of those things we know are important

I was so focused on proving my worth to society that I wasn't engaged with my family at home. Ironically enough, family was the main reason why I decided to leave the army in the first place. I learned rather quickly that the demands for many civilian jobs can rival the most aggressive deployment schedules in the army. In my civilian roles, I travelled a lot. I spent my weekends working. I was hardly ever home, and when I was, I was exhausted. I wasn't paying attention to the things that mattered the most to me.

Because I was preoccupied with the idea of success, my family struggled. My wife was counting on my support to reenter the workforce having spent the last 12 years as a homemaker traveling around the country with the army. My youngest son, Everett, had problems at school. His behavior impacted his performance to the point that he almost didn't advance to the next grade. Transition isn't just hard on the service member, it is hard on the entire family.

I think my oldest son struggled the most. Aidan had a passion for baseball - a sport I didn't like and couldn't really play myself. He had been an accomplished player in previous seasons, but he reached a point where he simply couldn't hit the ball anymore. He left every game devastated because he was the last batter in the lineup who consistently played the least amount of time in the field. In school, he started failing test after test in math. I was so busy building a name for myself in the civilian world that I had everything and nothing at the same time.

A Leap of Faith

I thought that achieving the conventional standard of success would lead to happiness, but it didn't. I was miserable, and so was the rest of my family. I needed to be better. More importantly, I needed to be myself. My family didn't need "things." They needed me. So, I decided to start living according to my values (authenticity, passion for life, innovation, faith, and service to others) and pursuing my purpose - to inspire leaders to live empowering lives. When I couldn't find a path that aligned with my values and purpose, I decided to create my own path. I took a leap of faith.

I founded my own business on the belief that the military experience is preparation for more meaningful opportunities in a world starving for leadership.

Today, I work harder than I have at any previous point in my life, but it doesn't feel like work. I put in almost 80 hours a week, and I still find the time and the energy to be more engaged with my family. I support my wife as her leadership mentor. I also tend to the needs of our household. I cook. I clean. I do the laundry. As for our boys, I help them with their homework, I participate in school activities, and I practice their sports with them. I have the energy to do these things because I chose a path that helps me be the best version of myself.

So, how has this change worked out thus far? Well, we can't afford our dream house right now, but that will come soon enough. Money is tight, but I managed to clear expenses last year. As for the more important things, my wife has re-established herself as a leader in healthcare administration at the premier institution for sports medicine. Everett hasn't had a disciplinary incident in over eight months, and next year, he is enrolled in honors level classes. Aidan hit an incredible 12 of 15 during the playoffs on one of his two championship baseball teams, and he was invited to play on a traveling all-star team for the summer. In school, his final grade in math went from barely passing to a 91. Right now, I may not have the wealth or status to call myself successful in the conventional sense, but I am grateful to acknowledge that I have so much more.

Your Own Measure of Success

What I learned on my birthday was that we sometimes rely on the wrong metrics when it comes to assessing success in life after the military. We strive to do things that demonstrate our value, but value isn't determined by what you do. It is measured by who you are. Sometimes it is the subtle moments that have the greatest impact on the people we love. We focus on the big things. They notice the little things. That makes all the difference.

I am not suggesting that you quit your job and start your own business. You may very well find the right job in some corporate or government sector. That's not the point. What I'm suggesting is much simpler yet harder at the same time. I am asking you to have the courage to be yourself. Instead of chasing someone else's definition of success, follow your heart. Discover your passion. Pursue your purpose. Show up and just be you. I think you'll find that life has a way of rewarding you with the all the success you truly want. Why settle for less when you can pursue a path to have it all?

Nobody said it was going to be easy, but given your experience, you are uniquely prepared to persevere and achieve your own measure of success. When you leave the military, it may be time to do something different, but in the eyes of those people who mean the most to you, it has never been more important to be yourself. Those seemingly insignificant moments define the legacy we hope to leave on this world. I didn't see it, but Aidan did. He was paying attention. As you strive for your own measure of success in life after the military, I hope you're paying attention, too.