I Got By With Help From Civilian Friends
My separation from the military kicked off with two years of graduate school in an MBA program at UT Austin. I figured this period would be a great time to learn how to act in the civilian world. What I didn’t expect was how much I would learn from my civilian peers. They taught me how to interact with them at work much more subtly and effectively than I would have been able to on my own.
I often meet new veterans who have no civilian friends and are proud of it. They hold contempt for civilians for not being as tough, reliable, or disciplined as they are. Sadly, these same people are the ones that struggle the most to find civilian employment or hold meaningful relationships once they separate from military service.
How can a group of civilian friends help you to succeed once you’ve separated? The answer lies in three separate domains: socialization, support, and advocacy.
Socialization: Learning from friends
Have you ever heard the someone say that “you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with”? This is because we tend to conform to the behavior of the group around us. There’s a biological and evolutionary imperative around this. Before modern civilization, when humans were hunters and gatherers, survival literally depended on belonging to a group. We developed mechanisms to show belonging through similarities.
Over time, as new skills were gained, individuals would share the skill with the group, creating a basis of knowledge from which all could operate.
In modern times, it may not seem that the stakes are quite so high, until you’ve found yourself struggling and isolated for a few months. Suddenly, finding a group to belong to seems critical. It’s at this point especially that veterans tend to reach out to other veterans.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. Veterans are always going to be most supportive of each other. The problem is when groups of veterans do one of two things:
Finding a healthy group of civilians to hang out with provides you with a circle of people to provide you a balanced view of civilian life. This group will subtly teach you how to behave as a civilian.
Imagine yourself as a circle with a big wedge missing. This wedge represents everything you think you need to know about civilian life but don’t.
Now, no single person can fill in this hole. There are two reasons for this.
1. The hole is larger and much weirder-shaped than you thought.
2. The other person has gaps in their own knowledge, and they are just as weird.
To mitigate the risk of getting really terrible advice in more than a couple of areas, you get a few civilian friends you can trust. Now, your circle of trusted people looks like this:
Now, you can take bits and pieces from all of them and fill in your gaps nicely. In so doing, you’ll also fill in gaps for each of these people that they had no idea that they had.
That is socialization in a nutshell: we all know more together than any one of us can know on our own.
Support: Like socialization, but on purpose
Support represents all the times that you purposefully go to someone else for advice, help, or just to listen.
This is one of the toughest parts for veterans. Veterans tend to isolate themselves and try to work it all out on our own. It can be tremendously damaging to do so. We lose a great opportunity to grow and learn when we refuse to ask for help.
Part of the problem lies in everything that happens in our minds before we ask for help. Our minds tell us, “They don’t want some noob depending on them for everything. I’d better not bother them.” The reality is that most people feel flattered when you ask them for help. As veterans, we don’t want to be seen as dependent. Most people realize, however, that we will make an honest effort to figure it out for ourselves before we ask for help.
The best way to ask for help is to receive it before it’s necessary (read as: before you make a mistake).. Say something like, “I’m brand new here, and this is a really different environment from the military. I’m going to try to figure a lot of stuff out as I go, but could you watch out and let me know if I’m making any obvious mistakes? Also, if I’m getting stuck, can I ask you for help when it happens?”
Asking for help explicitly is critically important. We all assume that everyone else is fine and doesn’t need our help. By making your needs explicit, you turn someone from an indifferent observer into a powerful ally.
People are more receptive to questions they know are coming. If they truly can’t be reliable, they’ll usually tell you and point you to someone more appropriate.
Advocacy: For when you’re not part of the old guard (yet)
Advocacy from civilian friends creates opportunities for recently separated veterans that would otherwise be inaccessible. They can offer a voice on your behalf when you aren’t in the room.
The best way to ask for advocacy is to minimize the risk to the advocate. You want to make sure that the person you are asking feels comfortable making the ask on your behalf, and the best way to do that demonstrates your value to the person.
Start by saying, “I’d be really interested in applying for this job with your recommendation. What would I need to show you or demonstrate to you to make you feel confident doing so?” This approach gives you a critical information that may not be on a job search board. You might need to get some additional training or develop some volunteer portfolio projects to show competency. But you won’t know where to spend your time and efforts without knowing what will make a difference.
Giving the person ammunition ahead of time, like your resume, talking points about your background, and evidence of quality work, will give them everything they need to speak to a hiring manager on your behalf.
Advocacy can go far beyond career transition. Advocates within your circle of civilian friends can entice others to give you the benefit of the doubt as you navigate life’s uncharted waters after separating from military service. This will be the difference between having a solid group of people supporting your transition or belonging to a group that detracts from the veteran experience. All it takes is a few friendly words from an advocate on your behalf.
A group of civilian friends can provide socialization, support, and advocacy, making your transition from service far easier. Reach out in your community and get plugged in before you even look for a new job. You’ll be surprised and relieved at how much people will want to help you, and will find your transition moves much easier with a little help from your friends.