Finding my Version of Success: A Different Approach to Steering Your Career

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This article is part of the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

Do you feel like your military career is beyond your control, laid out in a linear series of postings and promotions decided by others?  Perhaps you feel stagnant, unsure about where you want to take your career? 

A few years ago I felt disillusioned.  My career had started with great promise – I had excelled in basic and initial qualification training.  I was afforded opportunities to qualify with the Royal Air Force, to deploy to Afghanistan, and to work for Air Commander Australia. My postgraduate degree was well underway, and I was learning a second language. My career so far was a dream run.

In parallel to these career achievements, my life had also happily unfolded and I was newly married and starting a family. With my decision to have children, I had also decided to prioritise co-location above employment so that my spouse and I could share (and enjoy) our parenting responsibilities together.  As a consequence, the scope of my professional options narrowed, and I was unable to pursue career-defining courses or nominate for the “right” jobs.  As I saw my peers continue on an upward trajectory, I doubted my decisions and started to take my promotion results personally. I heard myself saying, “This isn’t fair!”

As I sat in that moment of self-pity, I realised that I had a choice.  I could choose to blame the process, or the system, or worse – myself.  Alternatively, I could choose to regain control of my career and start focusing on how I could directly contribute to both my progression and the organisation that had given me so much already.  And so I began a journey to reframe how I viewed my career progression and propel myself forward. 

Here are four lessons I learned on that journey:

1. To be grateful for what I had

“You can have it all, just not all at the same time.” I’m not sure who coined this quote, but I remember hearing it spoken by the former Governor-General of Australia, Dame Quentin Bryce, just when I needed to hear it most.  It was a reminder that my focus on family was the right decision at the right time for me, and I had to trust that the time to prioritise my career would be available to me again.  I had to let go of the fear that I would “miss out” and start to appreciate what I had in the present moment by practicing gratitude. Backed by extensive research, a regular practice of gratitude can lead to enhanced well-being, deeper relationships and satisfaction with life.  Without changing anything tangible, I was able to improve how I perceived my career and it’s priority in my life holistically. 

2. To (re)define success

On first glance, success in the military might equate to the attainment of a certain rank, position, or recognition through an honour or award.  But what if you achieved these only to realise the victories were hollow and came at the expense of relationships or goals that truly mattered to you?  At the time I was reading Dr. Stephen Covey’s highly acclaimed book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which advised starting with the end in mind and visualising who you are and what you want in life. For me, I realised my version of “success” was about a life filled with purpose, enriched by close personal relationships and enjoyed with my happy and healthy family whilst traveling the world. By having clarity around my idea of success, I could then consciously direct my time and energy into physically creating this vision for myself. I now lead global space operations with the United States Space Force at a pivotal moment in history while my family enjoys life in California. The cliché is true:  success and happiness are found in the journey, not the destination.

3. To give back

The problem with my self-pity was exactly that – it was about me.  I just had to look around to know that everyone was on their own journey, many battling far greater challenges than I had ever faced.  I decided to shift focus and be of service to others in ways that aligned with my strengths and values.  For me, that meant finding ways to empower other women in non-traditional gender roles. I volunteered as the coordinator of a women’s networking group, I offered my services as a mentor and I spoke at women’s leadership conferences. Cassandra Dunn, a clinical and coaching psychologist, encourages this approach and suggests stepping out of your own self-absorbed preoccupations and directing your attention outwards to the people and world around you. When you focus on being of value, you become less concerned about success or failure.

4. To control what you can control

Focus on what you can control and let go of the rest. Dr. Covey developed a conceptual tool to assist people with identifying the things that affect them (“circle of concern”) and the things they have control over (“circle of influence”). He argued that highly effective and successful people make conscious choices to live within their circle of influence every day. 

Within the context of the military, there are many tangible steps you can take to operate within your circle of influence. For example, you can take a proactive approach to your self-development by seeking and embracing feedback from your supervisors and your subordinates.  You can identify your short- to long-term goals and engage in career development planning with your supervisor, career managers and mentors.  You can improve your communication by networking, using available career management tools, and developing your personal brand.  

When I sidelined the thought that things “should” be different, I stopped behaving like my success depended on things being different, and started changing the things I had the power to change. I hope that what I learned might be of value to you.

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About the author

Jaimee Maika is an Air Battle Manager and space professional in the Royal Australian Air Force, the wife of an Army Officer, and the mother of three daughters. She is currently embedded in the Combined Space Operations Center working for the United States Space Force alongside other international partners. Jaimee is passionate about empowering women in non-traditional roles and an advocate for gender equality. 

LinkedIn: @jaimee-maika

Photo attribute: NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station.