Originally published on LinkedIn

For as long as I can remember, I always had a word to describe myself. From early childhood through graduating college, it was very easy: I was an athlete. After college, I enlisted in the U.S. Army the day after the 9/11 attacks and for the next seven years, I was a soldier. I had a short identity crisis after being medically retired in 2008, but quickly realized I was then a father and a veteran. I spent the next eight years continuing to serve as both a defense contractor and then a federal civilian employee, but I quickly began losing touch with what I was actually passionate about in life.

2013 was a year that changed a lot of things for me. 2013 was the year I deployed to Jalalabad, Afghanistan (deployment number 4) and during a slow day discovered Scott Dinsmore’s amazing Ted talk, “How to Find Work You Love.” That led me to joining Scott’s movement at Live Your Legend, and I enrolled in his online course, “How to Connect With Anyone.” About a month later, my wife told me she wanted a separation. We had been married eleven years and had three beautiful children together. I was gone for work nearly half of those years and when I was home, I was usually pretty distracted or unhappy because I was no longer passionate about my career and didn’t know what to do about it. I returned home from Afghanistan destined to make a change.

2014 was pretty horrendous. I moved into a small apartment and got a roommate. My kids would join me every other weekend and one night a week sleeping on a living room futon and an extra bed in my bedroom. We bonded and spent a lot of quality time together. That was something I definitely wanted. I thought I should try dating again… my first forays were not great, but in one experience, I started to realize I had lost touch with most emotions and needed help. I got that help through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs who diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One piece of advice my therapist gave me was to write down all of the things that triggered anxiety and try to figure out what experiences likely caused it. I wrapped it all up with an intro and made it a book that I wrote mostly in one weekend. The War Writer’s Campaign was generous enough to help me publish the work in 2016 titled Life After Loyalty (FOB Loyalty was the base I deployed to for a year in 2006 in Iraq). By the end of 2014, my therapist essentially fired me saying I had pretty much overcome most of my PTSD symptoms and he didn’t need to see me anymore unless I wanted to.

2015 would be the year to really change everything. I was on deployment number five, this time to Kabul, Afghanistan. The week before boarding the plane, I confided in my girlfriend that I really wanted to make a change but I felt stuck. I believed my skill set was so specific and my tenured job with the Department of Defense was too safe and secure to actually leave. She asked me one simple question that changed everything, “What do you think you could do to change that?” The only thing I could think of was to get more education, perhaps an MBA. I know now it was not the only solution, but it was the only one I could think of at the time. Days later, I was sitting at a GMAT testing center in Richmond, VA, fully unprepared to tackle math I hadn’t seen in nearly 15 years, but I managed to get a median score for my target school, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Weeks later amid the dusty plywood office I occupied in Kabul, I stayed up until 3am writing my essay and completing my application to Darden’s Executive MBA (EMBA) program. The two-year program would allow me to complete the MBA while still going to work, relieving some of the financial burden. I had no clue Darden was a top-ten business program, I never did a class visit, and I had to Google what ‘Case Method’ meant so I could address it in my application essay. A month later, I conducted my admissions interview via Skype from the Task Force Kabul Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) room on a spotty internet connection.

I obviously couldn’t receive phone calls on my regular number, but having Google Voice transcribe and email me voicemails meant that on April 21, 2015, I learned I had been accepted to Darden just as my work day was ending. I was ecstatic… could this be the break I’ve been waiting for? Is my life about to change? Oh my gosh, how am I going to go to school and work full time while being in a new relationship and having three kids? The combination of fear and excitement was very real, but I still had two more months in Afghanistan and it would be another two years before I could truly quit my job and pursue something I was more passionate about, so I tried to remain calm and just take one day at a time.

I could write a book about my Darden experience. The relationships I’ve made, the self-discovery, the life and career exploration, the highs and lows, the risks, the failed experiments, and of course, the top-notch business education. I truly believe that even being a college athlete, a father, and a combat veteran… Darden was the most transformational experience I’ve ever had in my life. I learned more about who I am, what my true skills are in life, and what I value the most in life. I also learned pretty early on in the program that I was not meant to spend the rest of my career as an intelligence officer. I resigned my fully secure and lucrative federal job in early 2016 before even finishing my first year of business school.

I decided I would spend the next year exploring career options through networking, and I would do something I had always wanted to do, get my real estate license. So while my sister (a long-time real estate agent) and I created a real estate team and figured out how to grow it, I spent the rest of my spare time meeting entrepreneurs, visiting some of my classmates’ offices, having coffee with local thought leaders, going to conferences, connecting with Darden alum, and imagining myself in different roles. I also began using LinkedIn more and came across a very neat article written by Michaela Alexis titled “How I Landed my Dream Job in Two Weeks on LinkedIn: #MyLinkedInStory and Tips!” I’ve been following Micaela’s rise to LinkedIn fame and a rapid rise in her own career doing work she absolutely loves. I mention that because Michaela is the impetus for this article today… last week she asked her followers to write her why we could use an act of kindness like the one she received through a LinkedIn connection a year ago. My much shorter write up made her top-three and she announced she and Scott Stratten would be sending me and two others the same box of books she received that started her journey from “penniless to president.”

And yes, I definitely felt I could use an act of kindness. I am now 39 years old and despite spending the two years of self-reflection and exploration, it still took many recent mistakes to realize what I truly am meant to do. Despite knowing I was passionate about connecting with people, innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit, I took the safest post-MBA career route I was offered. I accepted a business analysis manager position with a very large financial institution. Don’t get me wrong, I was very excited for the opportunity and everything I heard about the company’s culture and mission made me believe this was going to be great. With three children, alimony, child support, and student loans coming up, a safe job with a great salary seemed the smartest option. I have nothing but gratitude for my Darden classmates who helped me navigate the company, get my resume to the right person, and get the interview scheduled before I had even applied (networking really does work folks!).

Following my very last physical class at Darden in April, I went to work at my new job. I knew by day two I had made a mistake. While the culture was definitely amazing and the people working there seemed genuinely happy to be working there, the job was essentially the same exact job I had just left a year prior. Not only the type of analysis and data, but also the same bureaucratic layers and separation of leadership, the same limitations on innovation and creativity, and the same overall mood about advancement and employee impact. I told myself to just breathe and give it a chance–and I did. . . for two weeks. The 50-minute commute was taking its toll and while I imagined moving to Richmond for the position, a few things had changed in my personal life that made moving no longer seem like a good option. The combination of a job I knew I wouldn’t be passionate about and having to drive nearly an hour each way to get there became too much for me. So before becoming invested in a new career and allowing my new team to start relying on me for work, I submitted my two-week notice just two weeks into the new position. There wasn’t much fanfare about the decision, my conversation with my new boss lasted less than five minutes before he said ok, took my laptop, cell phone, and badge and escorted me out of the building saying not to worry about the two weeks. And as I was getting gas on my last drive home from Richmond to Charlottesville, I saw Michaela’s post and decided to write her when I got home… because, what now?

I will graduate from Darden on Sunday, May 21, 2017. It’s been a dream of mine since middle school to walk down the UVA Lawn in cap and gown. While I don’t know exactly what I will be doing the next week, I believe I have lined up a job that fits my personality, passion, and experience at a small company whose values align with my own. While I won’t call it a done deal until I actually start, I feel confident it is going to be a perfect fit. I won’t discount what I’ve learned throughout this entire ordeal stretching back to 2013; below is just a small sampling:

#1) Figuring out what you’re passionate about should to be the first step.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get to be paid to do nothing but what you’re passionate about, but knowing what you love can drive so many decisions. For me, I knew my passions were in relationships and connecting with people. I knew I was passionate about my family, friends, writing, leadership, music, and travel. That list got random pretty quickly, but those are the things that make me excited to wake up every day. I may not get to do everything I’m passionate about at my day job, but knowing I have a job that meets some of it and the ability to pursue the others is my ultimate goal.

#2) Truly understand your value and you will raise your expectations.

In my former career, value was created through subject matter expertise and relationships within the Intelligence Community. I worked hard to achieve both and believed that I was stuck because my value was in my expertise. Taking a step back, I realized that my true value was in how I became that expert and that the process could be easily repeated in various industries and functions. Now I measure my potential value in what I am able to learn, create, operate, and lead. I know what motivates me and I know what I’m capable of accomplishing. I’m also confident enough now that if I can’t find the right fit in a company or job, I have the skills and network to create it. I no longer feel trapped, I expect to be able to do work I love.

#3) Never underestimate the value of self-awareness and being vulnerable.

This was a constant struggle for me. I’ve long avoided addressing my shortcomings, and I’ve never been great at sharing my true self with others. I’ve withheld so much of myself in my friendships and relationships and although others have always thought I have so many friends, I have usually felt lonely throughout adulthood. Through a combination of anxiety, therapy, a lot of books, learning to meditate, and taking risks in my friendships and relationships, I’ve learned that we can never truly reach our potential in life if we don’t take the time to be mindful in our practices and to be willing to share ourselves. This comes down to taking care of body and health, knowing our limitations and faults and either embracing them or fixing them, and learning to trust our friends and not be so afraid of what they’ll think of us if we were to truly be vulnerable and share our lives a bit more. My relationships with my friends and my girlfriend and my children have improved exponentially. If you feel like you may also suffer from living a secret life inside your own head that keeps you from connecting with others, please write me and I’ll send you a great book list!

#4) Learn how to network.

This one requires a lot more to be unpacked, but in general, know that networking isn’t acquiring some large Rolodex (if you’re old enough to know what this is) or LinkedIn connection list of random people you barely know. Networking should be synonymous with relationship or friendship, there needs to be connection and a chance for each of you to provide value to one another. I’ve found that a majority of people are willing to connect and learn more about me if I make it clear that I value their time and expertise and truly want to know more about them. In reciprocity, I have to be willing to provide my time and expertise when asked. Am I willing to take on LinkedIn requests from people I do not know? Sure.. but don’t be surprised if I write you soon and try to get to know you better than your LinkedIn profile. Once again, so much more to unpack.

#5) Change isn’t going to happen unless you take risks.

This doesn’t mean quit your job, or maybe it does. Looking back on my former career, I now see many opportunities I could have taken to change my situation if I had been willing to engage with the right people and to just ask. But there are also going to be times when quitting is the best option. I can’t answer that question for you, but I have learned that if you do nothing, don’t be upset when nothing changes. Take a risk… reach out to an influencer you admire and ask questions, apply for that promotion even if you don’t meet all of the requirements, ask that senior leader in your organization if he or she would be willing to be your mentor, start that side project you’re really passionate about and don’t be afraid to ask others who do it how they make money. Take the chance in life or accept the consequences.

This is a very long response to why I felt the need to write Michaela last week, but I hope that my journey is still a long way from being finished and over time I can help add value to the many others looking to pursue work they’re passionate about and to improve their own lives whether in their career, friendships, or relationships.