“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
One of the things that I’ve noticed when working with veterans, and something I’ve experienced myself, is the tendency to feel like we’re about to be discovered as a fraud or a phony. It’s like we’re the Great Oz, building this image (or brand, if you will) of competent, professional businesspeople; but really, we’re just a regular old schmuck behind the curtain.
I think much of it has to do with the transition from a military mindset to a civilian mindset. My personal experience is that the military is a very self-contained world; it is divided into “on-post” and “off-post”, in which our daily lives in the military are the “real” world, and anything outside the gates was something that we did to get what we needed: entertainment, food, housing even. Even our off-post residence tends to be clustered with others who live on base; in my neighborhood, everyone within five houses of me are either current, former, or retired military.
We are so focused on the mission and the daily requirements of our duties, that we sometimes forget that there is real stuff happening. When I was in the Army, I had no clue where the bus station was, was not aware of any veteran-specific homeless prevention programs, or could find the local soup kitchen on a map. It’s not that we lived in a sheltered la-la-land or that what I was doing had any more or less significance than the societal challenges outside; we were so focused on doing what we needed to do that we didn’t have time to consider these things.
It’s as if I lived with my back to the fence of my military base, focusing on my mission. It was absolutely right and necessary that I did so, because I had a job to do. Upon transition, it’s like an entirely different world opened up, one that played by rules that I was not aware of and whose language I didn’t know. It was if I was blown into an entirely different world by a runaway hot air balloon, like Oz, and had to figure out how best to fit in.
So I focused on deliberately learning the new rules of the professional world. Socks match your pants, not your shoes; who knew? You mean I shouldn’t wear a brown belt with black shoes? Why not? Collared shirts, business cards, watches. Profanity, or a deliberate lack of it. It was strange, and just didn’t feel right. After spending over twenty years in one mindset, I had to shift to an entirely different one, and it was like trying to adjust from one climate to another.
Other veterans I talk to echo the same thing, in private. “I just don’t feel like I fit in.” A friend who works for an outstanding veteran support organization told me, “what we’re doing is so important, a guy like me shouldn’t be anywhere near it!” It’s not that we sell ourselves short, although that is a part of it. Veterans were capable professionals in their military careers, responsible for hundreds or millions of dollars worth of equipment, and more importantly, the safety of those we had responsibility for. We were used to that, though; we grew up in it, mostly, and had it modeled for us with good or bad examples from the leaders that came before us. These were living, breathing individuals that we saw all the time, not people who populated the self-help books, TED talks, or motivational blogs. Our professional self-development consisted of those things that made us better leaders, or better warriors, not better business people.
So the old carnival con man lands in Oz. He has to figure out a way to survive, and the way he arrived, people just assumes he’s a wizard; he arrived like a wizard, says things that are what people would assume a wizard would say, and does wizardy things. It’s a classic example of perception creating reality…if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, people are going to start treating it like a duck. Deep inside, though, there are questions; the carny knows that he can’t keep up the charade forever, so he is more anxious, more uncertain, and builds up the façade even more.
No, I’m not calling veterans fakes or phonies. It’s just that we sometimes feel that way. We keep thinking that someone is going to walk into their office and say, “Ha! Caught you! I know you’re just a grunt at heart! What are you doing here?” I’ve talked to mentors in the mental health counseling field who are extremely successful, that I respect absolutely, and have been working in the industry for decades…and they feel the same way.
I remember when I was promoted from Specialist to Sergeant. I was walking along the sidewalk to the military clothing store, and I sneezed; a lower-ranking Soldier walking the opposite way stopped and said, “Bless You, Sergeant.” I paused for a minute…who was he talking to? Oh, right, me. I had the same experience later in my career, after being promoted to Sergeant First Class; two other NCOs came up to ask me a question and stood at Parade Rest. I had to look behind me to see if there was a Sergeant Major standing there! I can imagine the old circus guy reacting the same way when the people of Oz started treating him like a wizard: “um, are you talking to me?”
The thing is, the wizard actually did solve the problems that Dorothy and her crew laid before him. He was as much of a wizard that was needed when the time came, and he relied on his knowledge, his experience, and his wisdom to take care of what needed to be done. Although we may feel like imposters, the innate problem solving ability of veterans, the values that we learned, the skills that we developed, means that we are exactly the kind of people needed where we are.
Maybe we need to start paying attention to the veteran behind the curtain, because they’re gonna get things done.