While I was still in high school, my parents asked a question that is commonly asked of teenagers: what was I planning to do after I graduated high school? When I told them I was going to college like the rest of my peers, they then posed an unexpected question: how was I going to pay for it?
My parents believed that without some “skin in the game,” I wouldn’t be as likely to succeed in college. My grades weren’t all that great in High School, I was more focused on being an athlete than a student, and I was making some 17-year-old knucklehead decisions. If my high school academic performance was any indication, they were wise to think that way.
After further evaluating my post-high school options, I was lucky enough to secure a four year scholarship to the University of Iowa under Army ROTC. This was the beginning of a military career that I originally thought would last only four or five years.
After about 4 years of service I was preparing paperwork to exit the military when I went to watch the movie Saving Private Ryan, and that changed everything about my plan. It made me realize that I hadn’t yet completed what I needed to do in the military. I decided to stay in the Army and stayed for a total of 20 years, four months and three days!
During my military career, I disciplined myself to save aggressively and actively invested in the stock market. The nest egg I built enabled me to truly retire after I separated from active service and gave me time to evaluate what I wanted to do for the next stage of my career. I was often told during my military transition that with my rank and experience, I would have no trouble getting a job after retirement. However, I knew that I no longer wanted to do the kind of work that was my expertise.
I decided to get an MBA and figured that would help define the next professional steps for me. However, since I’m a person that needs to be continuously working and challenged, studying for the MBA didn’t fulfill me. My wife, knowing that I had a fascination with brewing beer since being stationed in Germany, suggested I find a way to fulfill that passion. I approached some local craft breweries and landed a paid entry-level position that allowed me to learn while earning a little bit of money. I loved the work that I did there, and being engaged at the brewery actually helped my MBA studies.
Three years after exiting military service, I secured my MBA and was offered a full-time position in sales. It wasn’t long before I discovered that role at that company was not a good fit for me. I realized that I was looking for a company to define my value, similar to the rank and structure I was accustomed to in the military. I left that job and decided to start my own company.
Today I’m very engaged in doing the kind of work that I want to do. I run two companies; one is coaching and consulting and the other is a private equity firm. But mostly I do a lot of volunteer work, because it allows me to serve the community and is very fulfilling to me. I’m engaged, I’m doing what I want to do the way that I want to do it, and I’m really happy. No one decides what I am worth or what I am capable of - I do.
Our Manager of Military and Community Outreach, April Keating caught up with Bernie to dive a little deeper into his relaunch story and the advice he has for other relaunchers...
What do you think the most frustrating part of relaunching was for you?
The military says you’re responsible for this portfolio, for this many people. This is how much rank you have. They define what your value is. And so I was looking for a company to do that when I got out. No one was telling me what that was, and it was really frustrating. It felt like my value dropped to nothing almost overnight.
What do you think would have been different if you hadn’t taken the 3-year break after exiting military service?
If someone would have told me they see my value and wanted me to be a part of their team, I might have gone to work for them. It reminds me of the mantra about closed doors leading to other, open doors. If I would have gone to work right away, I wouldn’t have learned about brewing beer or earned my MBA, and maybe wouldn’t have started my companies. The break gave me time to reflect and redirect.
What was the most energizing part of your relaunch?
After leaving the sales job because it wasn’t a good fit, I knew what I didn’t want in a job. It was empowering, like a light bulb came on. It was then and there that I decided that I was going to determine my own value. I didn’t want to measure it by company size or ROI or sales or any other metric. It inspired me to start my own business, and now I coach and mentor other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Do you know of any other veterans who decided to do something different after leaving military service?
I know of an officer in the Army who was on track to become a General. But then he decided that he wanted to take a different direction, so he left the military and became a high school teacher. He changed his life completely just so he could make an impact in the way that he wanted to. People do that all the time, like parents who decide to step away from their career to focus on their family. It’s a powerful choice about where you’re going to spend your time and resources and where you want to make the most impact.
What advice do you have for those who have unrealized passions or are contemplating a change in career?
Passion is no substitute for preparation or education. In order to be empowered to achieve your dreams, you should go out and seek education or experience so you can do those things better. You can literally do anything you set your mind to if you make a plan and put in the work. Just be sure to take care of yourself along the way, and that might mean working with a therapist like I do. You can’t take care of yourself or others if you are working too hard and break down, so make your mental health a priority.
Did this story motivate you or inspire you!?
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