When I chose to leave the Royal Marines, I had a very clear new career path in mind; medicine.
The picture I had in my mind was this badass, adventurous doctor whom would flit between Everest base camp, treating climbers suffering the effects of High-altitude cerebral edemathen coming home for long enough to see family and friends, before disappearing off again to treat people in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
Maybe after a few weeks of rest, I’d then do a stint in the British Antarctic Survey (or somewhere else in the Polar regions) keeping the long-term staff stationed there fit and healthy. This adventurous and nomadic life made perfect sense to me and I relished the challenge of turning it into reality. All I had to do was make it happen.
And so I started by making a plan.
First, I’d visit universities, research the different courses available, meet qualified Doctors, go to medicine seminars - the whole nine yards. My dream would drive me to research all avenues to make this possible. After all, it had dragged me through years of military training to make my previous dreams possible.
But then something strange happened that I’ve never experienced before; I started losing interest. And one day - I found that I couldn’t muster the effort to do anything that I had planned. There was so many new factors competing for my attention now that my ‘perfect life vision’ just fell to the bottom of the priority list.
Months and months passed and my planned had not moved forward at all: no universities visited; no science revision started - but I was still in love with this romantic notion of being a badass adventure doctor.
I was stumped.
I’d always been very driven when I had an idea in my head, and now here I was floating through my professional life like a jellyfish at the mercy of the ocean currents.
The golden shackles
And then one day everything came to a head. Working in an advisory role at the BBC in central London; I felt I had the start of a new career in media production.
But I knew it wasn’t me. I felt dead inside. Like I’d given up.
Every day I’d go into the office and work on production risk assessments, commission meets, research new tech, design contingency plans - but none of this fulfilled me. I felt empty – like I was watching the grains of sand slip through the hourglass. Without realising it – It affected every corner of my life: my mood; relationships; health and mental wellbeing.
I had stacked on weight through perennial coffee meetings, relentless commuting, poor late-night diet choices and after work drinks - which only served to make me feel worse that I was not doing what I felt I was put here to do. So with some savings and a drive to design a better lifestyle; I quit. Just like that – on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
It was scary – but I felt alive again.
A new freedom
Feeling free of the ‘golden shackles’ I felt an immediate lift in my spirits. Now instead of fighting my way through a 90-minute commute to Oxford Circus, I could relax and research how I would go into medicine. The more immediate hurdle however, was earning enough to live before I could get myself ready for 6 years of University.
Within a few days and many emails, coffee meets and phone calls; I generated leads in humanitarian security training. Brilliant! I’d get to do something I knew a lot about (conflict and security) and combine it with a value I’d always tried to uphold – that of helping others. Now I could get paid for something I really believed in.
In my continual search for a new ‘why’ after leaving the military, I found the following 5 tools helped:
Roughly translated as ‘your reason for being’; Ikigai is a Japanese concept of reflection to design a lifestyle that meets your needs, instead of ignoring them as I was doing. It purports to help find your reason by combing four factors that affect you: What you love; What you are good at; What the world needs, and what you can be paid for.
Essentially, the more you can equally balance these factors – the more fulfilled you will feel.
Later on from this time, I learnt about a concept in engineering called ‘design thinking’.
Whereas traditional engineering revolves round a very logical approach to ‘big design up front’, design thinking is an investigative approach to figuring out how something works.
In short, before you can do problem solving, you must do problem finding to figure out what you’re trying to fix.
Early into my officer career - I got introduced to Maslow and his model. His ‘hierarchy of needs’ is as ubiquitous now as the Myers Briggs personality test (aka the MBTI).
My understanding of it is that once the ‘base’ (or meta-physical) needs are met – that of security, shelter, food etc – a person is free to pursue other more noble needs; such as he … until they ultimately becoming the thing that they dream of as (self-actualisation).
A SWOT analysis is an incredibly introspective tool that has long been used in personal development circles for as long as I’ve known management theory. The acronym stands for: Strengths; Weaknesses; Opportunities and Threats.
Essentially, you conduct a highly candid self-assessment on yourself and then ask 3-4 trusted friends or mentors to look at it and give you honest feedback. This will feel scary and painful at first – as you’re exposing yourself to criticism (which you’re unconscious brain will feel threatened by). With some reassurance that you’re not actually under attack, the result will help you to get a realistic understanding of where you actually are.
Your strength and weaknesses are internal factors that are totally within your control to change. Whilst you have limited control over the external factors of opportunities and threats , you can certainly increase your likelihood of opportunities arising and limit the damage that threats can do to you.
Kaizen is another Japanese concept that means ‘constant continual improvements’ (like marginal gains theory). The thinking goes that if you can constantly make small incremental improvements – over time – you’ll achieve large-scale change. This idea helped to realise that in order to move up, you sometimes have to move sideways or even downwards.
Why do I feel the need to constantly change my career – when one should be enough?
As a millennial (on the very edge of this age bracket!) I believe my parents’ generation embarked on one career because it was what your parents expected of you. If you left early – you’d be seen as flighty and you’d jeopardise your chances of finding future employment. The safety of having a guaranteed job to allow you to support a family and a mortgage was seen as more important than self-actualisation to this generation (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model).
I wanted to create art through photography and design, inspiration through writing, understanding through challenge and good through through humanitarianism - but not all at the same time. No one career could give me all these things at the times when I wanted them - so I started doing it to find what I enjoyed the most and when.
Finding one vocation that combines all these things – in the quantities and the times when I need them, is as elusive as finding the Holy Grail itself. So I’ll keep searching.