Veterans, Do You Strive for Success or Significance?

A medic with the 10th Mountain Division, climbs the mountain at Smugglers’ Notch in Jeffersonville, Vt., Feb. 18, 2016. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nathan Rivard

When I talk about the work that I do with veterans as a mental health counselor, people are often surprised when I tell them that we don’t talk about war all the time. Every conversation isn’t about rehashing old memories, tearing off old scabs, and opening duffel bags that have been locked in a closet for years. Many times, we’re talking about what to do next, what to do in their post-military lives: how do I become successful? Instead, however, I take things in a different direction…instead of trying to achieve success, what about trying to achieve significance?

As I was listening to an conversation between Christopher Lochhead and Jeff Hoffman the other day on the Legends and Losers podcast, Hoffman talked about doing something meaningful in your life. He talked about this quote that he saw written on a wall in Philadelphia:

You May Be Successful, But Will You Matter? 

That got me thinking: when a veteran leaves the military, do they know what they’re working towards? A house with a white picket fence? When we leave the military, whether it’s after six years or twenty-six years, there’s the question: what next? What do I want to do, what do I want to be. For may veterans, that’s the most important question that is never asked.

Success is defined in several ways, but Webster defines it as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, the attainment of popularity or profit, or a person or thing that achieves desired aims or achieves popularity. That means that our value is tied to something external to us: whether people like us or whether we have a lot of money. Significance, on the other hand, is defined as the quality of being worthy of attention; importance. This is an INTERNAL value…even if no one pays attention to me, am I worthy of attention? Deciding whether we are going to strive for success or significance is a choice that make a big difference at the end of the that journey.

Significance Doesn’t Mean Being Well Known

There are a lot of reasons people may want to be well known. It may be ego, I can only measure my worth by my position against those around me. It may be that you want to be well known in order to be able to help that many more people. The challenge is, if being well known is your goal, then any way you get there is acceptable. You will start to do things to be noticed, and it may not be in a good way…but hey, at least you’re well known. Infamous is as good as famous.

When I was a teenager, I went to live on my aunt and uncle’s farm in rural Missouri for a month. Not a Silence of the Lambs thing, just a summer hanging out on the farm. I had been there for two and a half months when we went into town, and this good ol’ boy at the local diner turns to me and my cousin and says, “You’re the new boys living at Ron and Vicki’s, right?” Every body knew us, because nobody new ever came around. We weren’t significant, though; we didn’t matter.

Significance Doesn’t Mean Being Rich

In the same way that being well known isn’t all that it’s meant to be, being “rich” is not a requirement for significance. Being wealthy or having a great number of assets doesn’t mean that you make a difference in the world. Having a positive impact on others is the critical thing, and that doesn’t always have to result in personal enrichment. After leaving the military, getting a job that pays the bills is great, and having less bills to pay is always a good thing. Once that’s in place, though, then what?

I had a veteran ask me the other day, “if you woke up tomorrow and had no obligations, no responsibilities, what would you do?” I considered that for a bit. If I had enough money where I didn’t have to do anything, everything was taken care of, what would happen? Personally, I would create obligations and responsibilities for myself. I’d find someone to talk to, probably about veteran mental health. I would find a problem to solve (or create a problem that needed solving) just so I had something to do. So having money is a measure of success, not significance.

Significance Doesn’t Mean Making a Huge Impact in the World

So if we’re not striving to be well-known or rich after the military, what are we working towards? Making a difference in the world? What does that even mean? We look at the mountaintop from the plains and say, “if only I could get there, I could make a difference.” How often do we miss an opportunity to be meaningful or significant on the way to the top, though? We don’t have to be significant to the world, we can be significant to our world.

I’ve written before about how veterans of today have the ability, and the responsibility, to make an impact on this century the way that the post-WWII generation made an impact on the last century. Yes, they became scientists and lawyers and presidents and CEOs. They also became, like my grandfathers, tailors and mechanics. Veterans who became significant in their own way, in their own lives. My mother has fifteen brothers and sisters, with one more adopted. While my grandfather wasn’t famous, and he sure wasn’t rich, he was certainly significant! He was important to us, our family, our community.

Significance Means Making an Impact Where You Are, How You Can

So make an impact. Do something, or work towards something, that is greater than yourself. It’s what we did when we were in the military, it’s what we can continue to do after we’re out. It’s the key part of the purpose and meaning stuff we always talk about. What are you going to do today to be significant? What is the impact that you’re going to have on your world, in a small way, that is going to make all the difference? Let me know in the comments section, so we can celebrate your significance.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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