Over the last month, I have spent much time evaluating where I am and where I would like to ultimately go in my professional life. Though the self-evaluation initially focused on the WHAT I want to do with the remainder of my career, something interesting happened. As I discussed my thoughts on my future with my friends, family, and other mentors, I noticed a fairly common thread. I enjoy a cross-section of people in my life that includes fellow service members, small-business owners, government civilians, and those working for large private corporations. Advice from those who proudly wore a military uniform or were otherwise employed by the government was largely focused on helping me explore WHAT I wanted to do or offering opinions as to WHAT I should do. Those in the private sector were very interested in exploring with WHOM I wanted to team, and HOW I wanted to grow in the process.

Throughout my naval career, seniors and peers have been quick to offer guidance as to WHAT I should do next and WHERE I should do it, as they encouraged me to march down the path of career progression “punching tickets” to the next promotion. And though it was not a foreign concept, recent discussion with those in the private sector have helped me to further develop my personal philosophy.

As a child, it was the WHAT that got me to the ball field, but it was the WHO (those on the team) who kept me returning. At the Naval Academy, it was the WHAT that motivated me to show up on Day 1, but it was the WHO (my company and roommates) who prevented me from quitting. I could go on and on with examples of how the WHO proves to be more important to the WHAT in my life, but I will spare you. Though I love WHAT I do, I enjoy WHO I do it with more. So, as long as I enjoy the WHO, I’ll continue to proudly do WHAT the Navy asks.

The truth is, we have less control over WHAT we do than with WHOM we do it. I say this not with specific names in mind, but with specific personal characteristics. In the Navy, we promote specific behavior, areas of expertise, and depth of character with every evaluation we write, every next assignment we enable, and every promotion we facilitate.

For those of us wondering WHAT to do next, our introspective exploration is better spent if we…

– Don’t focus on WHAT we want to do, but WHO we want to become
– Don’t check boxes, but deliberately seek out and accumulate meaningful experiences
– Decide WHO we want on our team and do what it takes to get/keep them on the team

When people ask me if I will stay past or commence my second career at the 20 year milestone (i.e. point at which military personnel earn the opportunity to retire), I tell them that I am staying as long as I am able to surround myself with people who are committed to furthering a culture of character, collaboration, and competence. If not, I will find/create that team elsewhere. As for me, the WHO begets the WHAT, and with the right WHO, there is no limit to WHAT can be accomplished.

  • WHO do you want to become?
  • WHO do you want on your team?
  • How important is WHAt you as compared to WHO you are doing it with?