I came to HBS hoping to find a new career that would extend what I enjoyed most from the previous one, but also allow me to have a greater impact in the world. So far, I have not found anything close. Nothing that could replicate the kind of fulfillment I had training troops and leading them in combat; fighting America’s enemies and bringing home its heroes. Combat captures the greatest and worst in man. To me, it is the ultimate expression of life’s greatest extremes, of both good and of evil. From the ultimate self-sacrifice, to the ugliest, nastiest, and most awful treatment of one’s fellow humans.
Leading in combat challenged me in ways that cannot be duplicated, and only poorly explained. I was using all of my experience, ability, intellect, wits, and courage, leading my men so that mine would come home and that my enemy would not. It was the greatest test of mind, body, spirit, and soul.
In the military I served a purpose infinitely greater than myself. My unit was there before me, and would be there after me. So would my country. But if it weren’t for people like me, neither could exist. My service in the military reflected the highest levels of responsibility and importance. Mistakes could mean your death. Indecisiveness could mean the death of your men. Lack of foresight and planning could lead to total catastrophe. Trust was absolute and unquestionable. Whether somebody in the military was directly in combat or simply supporting the actions of others, the same feelings of responsibility and duty were shared by all.
Now the new career challenges are different. If it's consulting, it's about "servicing the client" and improving incremental profit margins through a variety of tools like product mix or variance analysis. If it's banking, it's about "creating value" through financial engineering, acquisitions, and due diligence (i.e. financial analysis). If it's general management it's about making more widgets with less overhead. I certainly don't mean to belittle any of these careers, indeed, I will probably end up embracing one of them. I also don't mean to place the military on a pedestal, as it's certainly full with more than its fair share of problems and frustrations. If it weren't for private sector industries, there would be nothing worth defending anyway.
Nonetheless, I find myself making a mental transition. Going from a job that is anchored in honor and duty, to one that is measured by salary, bonuses, and "work-life balance."
It is not all gloom and doom though. There are many companies that bring a great deal of joy and value to people's lives, and in that sense, there is plenty of nobility out there. For example, millions of people out there absolutely love their iPhone and the connectivity it gives them to their loved ones. Steve Jobs and Apple are therefore bringing true value and perhaps joy (though quite superficial) to a very large audience. Similarly, the Disney Company has brought joy to generations, and companies like MGM and Paramount entertain millions of people each night. Banks also create a huge deal of value to society. If it wasn't for banks I would never have been able to purchase my home, or buy a car. If it wasn't for many financial services companies, some people wouldn't be able to adequately plan for retirement or their child's education. After all, defending freedom loses a lot of its value if there is nobody out there who can enjoy it.
So perhaps my err was in looking for a job that would replicate the kinds of fulfillment that one finds in the military. Indeed, I think that is an error a lot of military people make. We take our previous set of values and try to poorly force them onto a world which doesn't run by them. While we should never lose our sense of honor, courage, and commitment, we nonetheless have to embrace the values embodied in the private sector as well. We can create products which bring ease and comfort to people's lives. We can grow companies and perhaps create more jobs. We can also create companies and solve an unserviced need in society. There is plenty of work to be done. It's just hard to let go of our previous way of life.