I was officially retiring [from the military, not working] on December 10 from 11:54 to 11:59 am. Then I changed my mind.
The decision to retire was the hardest I’ve worked through. For starters, it was the first time I’ve ever had to make this decision. The military is not just a job or career, but a culture within which I’ve been a part of since 1996. Secondly, I could find no one with an unbiased opinion. Friends that were retired said it was the best decision they ever made. Mentors still in said I’d be crazy to retire. I thought I had already worked through not finding my identity in my job, but evidently not completely. Staying the course in a career that is happy to tell me not only what is expected of me for the next promotion, but also what to wear every day and where to live is comforting. Walking away is scary. I needed a decision framework.
As the possibility of retirement drew near I developed a framework based on three variables: interest, stability, and pay. If two of the three variables were higher than present, it was worth applying for the position and pursuing an interview. If all three variables ever turned out to be higher, it was time to switch careers. At twenty years of service I completed the Transition Assistance Program, updated my resume, and created a professional online presence through multiple websites. I was #opentowork.
Then I was selected for promotion. Though 20% of me felt validated for two decades of hard work and familial sacrifice, 80% was nervous for a new assignment process (and fewer fun positions). I had promoted out of the top of one system into the bottom of another, was given a passive-aggressive process guide to help me, and told that the decision would be easy: take the job offered or retire. Thus inspired, we requested a handful of great locations with interesting jobs followed by local jobs that were interesting enough to stay motivated. In all I listed 32 jobs with my current one being the last and retiring being somewhere around number 22. I was given number 32.
How could I get my last pick? How could someone else get the acquisitions job that I was preferred for? Enter an updated decision framework.
After weighing my options and testing the career transition waters, I officially requested retirement. Five minutes later I was offered my number 12 job if I withdrew my request and after talking it over with Deb, I accepted the offer. However, the next day I was told the job was given to someone else; I’d be staying in my job and trying again next year. WTF?! I was convinced that I was still being rational via my optionality based decision making framework and preparing to resubmit my request when a mentor told me to “put my pride in the corner.” Pride?
The Bible teaches that pride is the root of all evil and Richard Taylor defines it as the “love of oneself.” When I look back over other times my pride was hurt I chose one of three responses:
- Fight: I’ve seen others try this and fail as it is hard for you to change someone else, much less a 87,569 person bureaucracy. Whist we each strive to maximize our own personal promotability, the military strives to maximize the pool of promotable people to choose from. Unlike the commercial market that is driven forward through competitive pressure, the government avoids pain. Agencies avoid oversight from their department, departments hard questions from Congress, and Congress the ire of their voters. Though I similarly wanted to do the best possible with that for which I’m responsible, the government only needs me to just do good enough as there is no competition. Except for a special few, you have very little bargaining power in that situation.
- Flight: this is what I initially chose. With Talib’s optionality on my mind I was certain there were more options in the civilian world that the military. Choosing to remain in my position would mean promotion in the Fall followed by two years of obligated service. I then would play the assignment game again next summer with a rising high school senior and zero bargaining power. I could instead take the career capital I’ve built to a company that valued me and test what I could do outside of the government. There were known downsides to retiring and unknown upsides.
- Freeze: Though there was at least one sleepless night, I don’t think I ever stopped trying to action on my environment. I asked others for advice. I applied for a dozen jobs, interviewed for three, and was just about ready to accept one. I maintained a sense of agency throughout the process.
One night our sixteen year old mustered the courage to tell us that he’d rather move going into his senior year as he’d be eighteen and could travel on his own. Our thirteen year old confessed that he only wanted to move if it was back to Florida. Our daughter likes living near her grandmother and my wife enjoys her job. I now see that I was looking at short-term options and only my own. Put my pride in the corner indeed! If my family wanted to stay put for a while longer, there was no sense in retiring. We decided to let come what may. There were unknown professional upsides to retiring, but they would require the time investment of a second career. There were known downsides to staying in, but they could offer personal upsides further down the road.
As fate would have it, only 24-hours after deciding to remain in my job God brought plans our way. Unbeknownst to me, my admiral had been working to establish a new office that manages equipment owned by the Navy but was unable to get it approved in time. Luckily for him I was available and luckily for me I’ll be doing something new until at least 2023…