I get more messages than I ever expected after publishing Bleeding Talent, and I got permission from “Kandace” to post hers below. The question: should she join the Air Force? My answer follows.
Dr. Kane -
I happened upon your recent Palantir Night Live talk about the personnel issues in the military. The talk resonated with me because I’m facing a decision right now about continuing my recruiting process with the Air Force. I want to defend my country and protect national security. The military sounded, to the college version of me, like the best way to do that – especially after sequestration locked down hiring at many of the three-letter agencies.
The process has raised some serious red flags, though:
1. At the officer recruiting talk at a local university, the recruiter only talked about money – how much we would make, how much we would save, what a fancy car he could drive, the marble countertops in his house, how he could buy steaks at the grocery store for $7.50. That was the whole pitch. For a lot of top performers who might enter the military, I think that money is only a small part of the picture. The recruiter wouldn’t directly answer questions about how jobs were chosen once a person entered the military, or why his boss, a top-notch fire rescue strategist, has to spend two years doing human resources before he can get promoted. In fact, he didn’t seem to understand why that even mattered to anyone.
2. I told my high school physics professor (retired Air Force) that I was applying to OTS, thinking he would be all proud and excited. He said I needed to seriously reconsider. I have another four years until I hit the maximum age to apply to OTS, so he recommended that I look for more entrepreneurial opportunities to serve my country – and only apply to OTS if I still hadn’t found a way to do that by age 26.
It also didn’t help that the Air Force’s top guy on sexual assault prevention got arrested for sexual assault this week.
Your talk at Palantir confirmed my misgivings. Given the circumstances, would you discourage someone from entering the Air Force?
I will give you the same advice I would give my daughters. Yes, you should join the military and serve for a few years if you are able, either as an officer or enlistee. I would recommend this kind of service to any young American for any one of many reasons. Just to limit the discussion to your career, and whether accepting an offer will benefit your occupational journey, the answer is still yes.
The lifelong pride you will feel, and the respect that others have for military veterans, are net pluses for your future. Basic Training alone is an invaluable experience that will enhance your life. It will boost your confidence, your awareness of selfless service and orientation towards the team & mission, and your toughness in negotiating hurdles. No bureaucracy or challenge has ever struck me as troublesome after my half decade on active duty.
Are there jerks and toxic leaders in uniform? Yes, but welcome to the real world. Jerks are everywhere in life. My sense is that the ratio of heroes to jerks is much higher in the armed forces — great friends, great commanders, and great subordinates, too. I would not give up my time in the USAF for anything.
It’s too bad your recruiter is a dunce. That happens. Unlike you, a lot of people are worried that military service means less compensation, but maybe your recruiter overemphasized that aspect. But he’s right: the compensation is fine & higher than many realize. Unfortunately, military compensation is not very flexible or merit-based, which will chafe after a few years. And yes, the downsides of inflexible military HR are ridiculous, and there is a terrible to randomness to who gets caught up in its dysfunction. The senior ranks at the Pentagon know it and are working on that. Still, even if you get one or two bad assignments, the net positives outweigh the negatives.
My advice is to do what you can to serve for the initial 4-5 years in the Air Force, Navy, Army, or Marines … and don’t forget the Coast Guard. If another stint at that 5-year point is appealing, proceed, but you should always be thinking about what’s next (true in all careers). There is no dishonor in serving for the basic 4-year commission, then applying yourself elsewhere.
Hope that helps, Kandace. Aim High!
Update: changed “write” to “right”. A righter should know this!