"What I'm really looking for is meaningful work," one of my veteran clients told me. "When I say this to people, I've been told that whatever I do, it will never be as meaningful as the military. I'm OK with that. But how do you find meaningful work after the military?"
How do you find meaningful work?
I think that is one of the greatest life questions anyone can ask. While veterans can filter job listings by industry, and salary and location, there is not a filter for meaning. If there was, we all might click it at once.
Because people do find meaning at work. In a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, people were asked what makes life meaningful. Family and children were mentioned more often than any other item. Occupation was the next most frequently mentioned item, outscoring material well-being, friends, physical and mental health, freedom and education, among others.
The problem is that when I coach veterans, spouses and military transitioners through a job search, they seem to think certain jobs or certain companies are more likely to prove meaningful. They seem to think meaning is something you find in a place.
There's no place like work.
I love that idea. If meaningful work could be found in a particular place, I would tap my ruby red slippers together three times and transport you there right now.
I don't think that is the way veterans find meaningful work. As the transition master coach for Military.com's Veteran Employment Project, I can tell you that for veterans, meaningful work is not something you find. Meaningful work is something you make.
And that takes time. If you want meaningful work after your military service, start with these steps.
5 Steps to Meaningful Work After the Military
1. Give yourself credit for knowing what "meaningful work" feels like.
Often, the people who are looking for meaningful work have experienced meaningful work during their military career. Experiencing that feeling once really does help you recognize the signs of potential for that work in the future.
2. Dissect the experience.
When you think back on your most meaningful job in the military, ask yourself what you were doing exactly that made that job meaningful. Most active-duty service members tell me about being at sea, being deployed overseas or flying over something that was amazeballs. Then they stop, because they know that kind of amazeballs work is not plentiful out here in the civilian world.
Instead of stopping there, however, keep going. Dissect the experience. Ask yourself what kind of problems you were solving that felt meaningful. Were they problems with people, equipment or logistics? Something else?
Ask yourself whether the kind of people with whom you were working made it meaningful to you. Were they younger? Older? Peers? Were they smarter or more experienced than you? Was your role as a leader relevant? Finally, look at your values. Which of your values and aptitudes did this work fulfill?
3. Realize it is not the job itself.
Researchers have found again and again that what the actual job is matters less for job satisfaction and meaning than what you perceive is true about your job.
In one week, I had one program manager tell me he hated his job, because it was nothing but nagging other people who never called you back. Another program manager told me the job was boring -- "just babysitting." Then a third program manager told me her job was about helping people ship their dreams and motivating them to do the work they wanted to do. Same job, different values at work.
What do you believe about your current job? What are you telling yourself is true? What else is true?
4. Shelter the dream.
It is perfectly legit to want meaningful work, but that is not the same thing as wanting a good dental plan. Talking about meaningful work to people in your network is mystifying for them. They don't know what you will find meaningful so they feel stuck.
Since we know the research suggests that meaning at work is often connected to a sense of accomplishment, professional efficacy and recognition for a job well-done, talk about how and when these factors have played out in your career and where the opportunities lie in the civilian world.
5. Find a place to stand.
I know you want to find meaning in your first job after the military, but don't look for it to appear first. Instead, cross over from the military to the civilian side and find a place to stand. Give yourself time to learn about how the civilian world really works and where you can be most useful. Then and only then, will you be ready to start finding meaning at work one day at a time.
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
Learn More About the Veteran Employment Project
To get more tips on how to make a successful military transition, sign up for one of our FREE Military Transition Master Classes today. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.