by Kevin Richard McNulty
Excerpted from: The Gap Between Two Worlds: Turning Difficult Life Transitions into Personal Growth Experiences. Humadyn-Life Skills Institute, 2012.
I began to research this topic after one of my most challenging transitions — from a 20-year, highly structured, military lifestyle to a very different one — that of a private citizen. If you also count my nearly 20 years as a military brat moving around the world every two years and similarly living in a structured military household, you can better grasp that becoming a private citizen at age 40 was truly a new world, a foreign land for me. Concisely, I felt as though I had moved to another planet.
I loved my military life — the diversity of people, camaraderie, travel, security, and stability that came with it. More, it was all I’d ever known. But I can also say that not a day went by that I didn’t have the thought that although I was doing important and rewarding work in the Air Force, I had another purpose and dream to fulfill, and eventually, I would have to move away from the military. Right around the 20-year mark, although I was deathly afraid of making the transition, I knew it was time. In retrospect, I can see that what I loved about my “old world” (my military life) would in part become what caused such a challenge in my transition.
The Best Laid Plans
According to John Lennon, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” If you’re expecting a significant change or are in the midst of one, you need to manage your expectations before you can effectively manage the situation. Try to be as realistic as possible about current conditions and eventual outcomes so you don’t end up surprised and stunned. Life is unpredictable, and even the most organized plans can take unexpected twists. The most effective approach is to anticipate disruptions and changes in directions or approach. You might be forced to regroup at times because your expectations are out of sync with that thing we call reality.
Expectations Gone Awry
When I began to transition from the Air Force, I worked from a plan I’d been formulating for more than three years. During my years of military service, I knew I would make my exit at the 20-year mark, which gave me a lot of time to think about my transition and make some plans.
However, even with what I thought was a solid plan in place, things did not go as expected, at least not for the first few years. Being swiftly derailed stopped me in my tracks. I thought I had designed a great plan in which more or less everything would work out as I had envisioned, but as things began to unfold in a different direction, my frustration morphed into concern and then panic; that’s when I knew I was in trouble.
When I planned and visualized my transition, the expectation was that I would shift smoothly from the structure and discipline of military culture into civilian life and a new career. For instance, in the military, an underlying culture and expectation is that you plan, and things are done. Further, there is a collaborative culture that you can rely on others to do their part and on time. Don’t get me wrong, things go off course and schedule, but the general culture is such that one gets used to the structure and discipline of staying on course and on top of the mission at hand. Thus, getting off course and somewhat losing control flew in the face of my assumptions and expectations and left me perplexed.
I began a tailspin. In retrospect, I did not attend well enough to the element of “expecting the unexpected.” When you approach or are in a major life transition which you are entering a place of significant unknowns, expecting the unexpected is a much bigger dragon to slay. If I had attended to this idea more, I’m certain I could have handled my crisis differently. Now, consider that I understood the idea of managing expectations, and I had put together a good plan, I thought I was covered for about anything, but I wasn’t. So I want to encourage you to think this through and then think again. It’s that important.
Expecting the Unexpected
It is often said that hindsight is always 20/20, and I agree. There’s nothing like the passing of time to give us perspective. As I look back on what I learned and how I grew from being stuck in the Gap, only now do I realize that things did unfold as they should — meaning I learned from being stuck and perhaps it was what I needed to learn. Part of what I learned was that my first expectations didn’t include the aspects of my life that were beyond my control, such as how much time it would take for my plan to get traction, how others would respond to my ideas, and many large and small unnamed stumbling blocks I would encounter. With the best of plans, again, when you are venturing into uncharted territory, adaptation and managing expectation must be key words in your self-talk vocabulary. I now know that managing expectations involves more than creating a plan.
Final Thoughts on Closing The Career Transition Gap
At some point in your life, you have probably been told to “expect the worst, but hope for the best,” and if you don’t take it too literally, you will find much wisdom in that adage. I’m not suggesting that you be a pessimist, but part of managing your expectations is acknowledging up front that you are not in control of everything and that, by their very nature, transitions bring with them many unknown elements. The unknowns, the unpredictable and uncontrollable factors, make it impossible to have an ironclad plan that will neatly unfold as you hoped. Even when you “expect the unexpected,” you will still encounter surprises. Count on it.
Check out all the Job Transitioning for Vets & Former Military.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
This article is part of Job Action Day 2013.
For more than twenty years, Kevin Richard McNulty has worked as a personal development coach and speaker, helping thousands of people discover (or revisit) simple but powerful truths about learning, changing, growing, and achieving. Further, through his speaking, writing and coaching, Kevin moves people to a higher level of understanding and comfort with more difficult or challenging aspects of work and life. He is the author of The Gap Between Two Worlds: Turning Difficult Life Transitions into Personal Growth Experiences. He lives with his wife Jane and two daughters near Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinMcNulty. Contact him at Kevin(at)humadyn.com.
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