Bullsh*t, Jobs And Managing Life Transitions

Jon joined professional rugby team Jersey Reds to talk to them about his experience transitioning from an elite performance environment to the real world. He had two themes he focused on. Look backwards, not forwards and know yourself - really know yourself.

I recently spoke to a professional rugby team (The Jersey Reds) about transitioning as an elite athlete into the civilian world and a second career. There are many talking points and learned lessons that others have passed on. I decided to focus on only two, as I feel these two need the most attention.

  1. Look backwards, not forwards
  2. Know yourself – really know yourself

So what experience do I have with transitioning?

When I think about transitioning from an elite performance environment I draw on three key knowledge bases and different perspectives. Covering personal and professional and all will come out within this article.

  • I had a life-changing illness which took me from a 93 KG mountain goat to an 82kg owner of a disabled parking badge who has to manage numerous side effects and relapses yearly.
  • I had to deal with the transition of moving from elite military into the civilian world. So I had a double transition.
  • I’m now co-owner of a business specialising in helping people adapt and thrive through change and I’m a professional coach.

A successful transition is not just a state of mind

When I think of everything I’ve learnt in the last six years about transitioning, the big message I want you to take from this it’s that managing life transitions is tough. The transition from an elite performance environment can be very tough. That doesn’t mean everybody suffers but also that not everybody will thrive. So my point is this. Don’t underestimate it. Give it the time, energy and resources that are required because ultimately. You want to live your best life.

I like to compare the transition to a polar bear living in the Arctic. It’s a barren, cold wasteland. Let’s pick that polar bear up and move it to the Gobi desert, another cold, barren wasteland. Would we expect that polar bear to survive? The answer is no, we wouldn’t. Any transition is akin to that polar bear – they have the same qualities, strengths, and transferable skills. Yet, now they are in a different environment, and that’s the challenge. They are adapting to a new environment.

To thrive, you will have to learn to adapt to that new environment. More precisely, it is adapting your habits, beliefs and behaviours, and that’s ultimately the challenge.

As a special forces soldier, I was expected to adapt to different environments in my previous role. Picked up and plonked down in other parts of the world and expected to perform. Yet a transition is different because, ultimately, we are not trained to adapt to new mental, emotional and social environments. We are prepared to adapt within our own physical environment. And that change of environment is what catches people out.

I had skills instilled in me through training. The problem was that I didn’t know what the skills were. I just did them. I didn’t know how I focused on what I could control or how to be optimistic. I just did it. I couldn’t label or replicate them; therefore, they were limited to that environment.

Dealing with transitions

I thought the transition was going to be easy because I had everything I needed

I thought I was trained to perform through change. As result of that, I figured managing life transitions would be easier. 

I was used to operating under high pressure, change and uncertainty. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, this is not the case. Outside of that, I also thought people would be desperate to employ me. The biggest mistake I made was believing that getting a job was the key to a successful transition. It didn’t matter where that job was or what industry. I was wrong and suffered terribly because of it, as did the people around me.

I thought I’d done everything right when picking my first job. Our values seem to match or what they wrote on the wall matched what I believed were my values. It was an environment where I could develop the technical skills to utilise the skills I developed throughout my military career.

Ultimately, I got it wrong. It was an organisation heavily invested in technical skills. It ignored the other qualities that I possessed, and it was an organisation used to dealing with people straight out of school, not someone from a ten-year career. The values on the wall meant nothing. I was in an environment where my values, strengths, and personality could not come through.

My biggest lesson

And after three weeks, I knew it was time to quit. But I didn’t.

Like everybody in a high-performance world, I kept going and going and going. I got more frustrated and angrier, and I started to look outwards when I needed to look inwards. And ultimately, it culminated in me falling very, very ill again. In some ways, that was lucky because I probably wasn’t too far away from mental ill-health.

There are lots of suggestions to support people during a big life transition. My first suggestion is – if it feels wrong, quit. Don’t just try and fight it out. It’s a different environment. Fighting through and toughing it out will not work if your values, strengths and behaviour don’t fit with their culture. Or if their standards, values, strengths and behaviour don’t fit with you. 

Apart from quitting here are two other suggestions to consider prior to making a big life transition:

1. Look Backwards, not forwards

We have a habit of taking one step at a time when managing life transitions. Focus only on what we can see and what others tell us to look for. I got bogged down looking only at a job I thought I’d like to do, what others in my position had done, and I raced off. Initially, this led me to London. I got offered a job. I got lucky that I fell very ill, and it stopped that move from happening because it was wrong.

London is a city. Crowded. Very little space. Not particularly close to the hills, the mountains, the beaches and the seas where I spent my spare time. It was further away from my family and friends, and it would always involve a fairly lengthy commute.

It comes back to that polar bear when we transition. It’s a new environment that causes us challenges. In this case, I was choosing an environment that I was not used to living and working in. One that did not suit me as a person. I made that environment harsher and more challenging for me. I got a few other things wrong:

A) I was ignoring my stability zones. Stability zones are the people, places, ideas, things and groups that give us a real sense of certainty and security in times of change and stress. Stability zones can provide you with safety and security in an ever-changing world.

B) And I was not looking backwards. When I mean look backwards, I mean start with the end in mind. Think of the date in the future, the day the change happens and describe what you see:

  1. Where are you living?
  2. With whom?
  3. What job are you doing, what’s the pay?
  4. What are you doing in your spare time?
  5. How are you living?

These are all key questions that help build up an idea of what you want. Then you can start to build towards it. Without asking these key questions, you miss the essence of who you are and end up in a job/part of the world that adds to your problems.

Due to my illness, I was receiving treatment at a hospital in Jersey, and it forced my hand. I needed to commit to Jersey for my care. It was perfect because it accidentally meant I was surrounded by the things that mattered to me and an environment that suited me.

Compare that to a very close friend who decided that he would work in Dubai upon leaving the military. It seemed like a sensible decision. He was used to travelling, and his family were used to him travelling. The job role looked similar to his CV, and it looked like an easy fit and easy transition to this new role.

They did not consider the role stability zones play, and they packed up their family home and moved to his wife’s ancestral home in Malta. Moving away from friends and family and away from the green hills, they walked up every weekend. They entered an environment that was away from their stability zones. Plus, he would travel back and forth every week to Dubai to work. That didn’t last too long, and things fell apart, luckily not to the point of disaster but still to a difficult place.

Don’t ignore your stability zones when thinking of making those significant transitions, and start with the end in mind. Start with what matters to you:

What are your Stability zones?

  • Then start to ask yourself:
  • What sort of life do I want to lead?
  • What are my family’s needs/wants?
  • What do I want to/need to earn?

This will help you identify where you want to work/live and get that environment as close to your ideal as possible.

Then worry about what industry you want to work in.

Thinking about these questions and acting according to their answers will reduce the amount of stress you go through during a transition and help you get things right – adapt and thrive.

Tip: Don’t discount any industry until you explore point 2 below.

Managing life transitions

2. Know yourself

One of the biggest challenges anybody faces when they go through a forced career change is that people define themselves by their role. I was John Watkins special forces operator. I wasn’t John Watkins, the person that brought an SF operator to life.

Roles are a part of people’s identity, and people often define themselves through them.

Interestingly, a slight change in responsibility of only 15% can lead a person to see themselves in a new role and ask, “who am I”? Amend a role, and the danger is that people lose purpose and meaning. They lose some of their identity and forget who they are. This creates a significant barrier when people face an enforced transition.

The challenge is to know yourself outside of the role. Think back to the polar bear in their new environment. They may feel lost, but they can start adapting and living with purpose / less stress by knowing themselves, their strengths, and what they value.

I did this part reasonably well. I identified what drove me as a person and what I enjoyed at work outside of my technical skills. This dominated my search in the job market. However, what I didn’t do was go deep enough into myself. It was all very surface-level without any real insight. So I still missed opportunities. I knew, for example, that I wanted to get into the consultancy world. I didn’t dig deep enough to reveal that the direction I wanted to take was in human performance.

I wish I’d delved deeper into myself, not just from a personal perspective but also from a professional one. I wish I had looked for a job, not through recruitment agencies and blind applications online but by talking to people about me, not my technical skills.

The job offers and interviews I got were through recruitment agencies, and blind applications online were a total disaster. In one of the interviews, the first question they asked me was: “do you like working in a team”? A ridiculous question to ask a special forces operator. They didn’t even try to tailor it to my new environment, which would have made sense. It was a question that made me realise these people don’t understand me. They haven’t read my CV, and they don’t know where I will fit into this – what a waste of time.

I’m not saying everybody will get that sort of experience. But if you want to avoid that ******** job. If you’re going to get into that job that gives you that sense of fulfilment and satisfaction, that makes you feel great, just like the job you’re leaving. Your best option is to talk to people and don’t talk about your technical skills. Talk to them about your identity, character, and strengths, and let them get to know you. Talk to them about where you want to be and what you want to do. Where you want to be living, your stability zones etc.

Look beyond your role

    • Why do you do what you do, and what do you love about it?
    • Look into the tasks you perform and ask what you like about that task?
    • What are your Character Strengths?
    • What are your strengths?
    • What are your values?
    • What are your motivators? – what about the job do you enjoy (no technical skills)
    • What are your hobbies/passions?

Managing life transitions - in a nutshell

Look backwards, not forwards and know yourself – really know yourself. Transitions are tough. Elite performers face some of the toughest. It requires more than mental toughness to thrive during them. Don’t underestimate them and give yourself time on both sides of the change. If you can set money aside – seek support from a coach. The hardest lesson I learned was it was I who needed to change my habits, beliefs and behaviours to fit into the new world. Those I have seen struggle the most are the ones who look outward asking why everyone else does not think and behave their way. When transitioning it is you going into a foreign environment and you who may need to change. Not totally but a little and that’s what’s so tough.  


You can hear more from Jon on our podcast where he talks to David in more detail about this blog and his experiences.

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