Know When to Play Big, Lean In, or Just Give In

Know When to Play Big, Lean In, or Just Give In | Whole Spouse

Despite all the advice we hear, there is no playbook for military spouse careers.  Ultimately we are on our own to sort out the complexity of military life and the ongoing process of reinventing ourselves at every turn in the road.  We can listen to our partners, trusted colleagues and friends, or maybe even hire a coach, but in the end each decision comes down to our own intuition about what’s best for ourselves.

If you’re like me, you like knowing what other people think, and maybe you keep up with some of the latest advice gurus.  Two in particular come to mind when I think about careers:  Tara Mohr and her admonition to “play big,” and Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in.”  In Mohr’s case, she believes women often think too small about their careers and could accomplish much more if we had the courage and the vision to play a bigger game.  And most of you are probably familiar with Sandberg’s idea of leaning in when faced with challenges.  Don’t assume you aren’t up for the task or talk yourself out of it, but lean into the challenge and embrace it.

I agree with the spirit of both “playing big” and “leaning in,” but I also worry that this kind of thinking can be damaging to military spouses if taken too literally. 

I talk to way too many spouses who feel ashamed and guilty about not being successful enough in their careers.  Could it be that I just didn’t lean in hard enough or wasn’t smart enough to play a bigger game?

Coupled with the current narrative that military spouses are resilient amazing human beings who can do anything, this advice sets many of us up for unrealistic expectations.  If Tara Mohr can play big why can’t I?  What is wrong with me?  Well, maybe you just PCS’d to a location with few jobs and you are single-handedly running a household while your partner prepares to deploy.  In the short-run you may just be coping with surviving, and truly not have the capacity to play big.

On the other hand, military life can become an easy excuse for spouses who say they want a career but can’t seem to find a path forward. 

Maybe you’ve been in one location for a while and have a stable routine at home, but can’t seem to muster the motivation to get out on the job market or you just don’t know where to begin.  Then it’s time to just lean in, find the support you need and get it done.

So how can you tell the difference? When is it right to push yourself, even when it feels hard?  And when is it okay to give in and admit this is not the right time to reach for your next career milestone?

Only you know the answer for what is right for you, but here are some questions you may want to ask yourself the next time you’re faced with such a dilemma:

  1. How would I feel about this decision if my partner was not in the military?
  2. Is there a real obstacle holding me back or am I just afraid?
  3.  What will the consequences be if I wait or don’t take this opportunity now?

This is where your support network is more important than ever.  Utilize your inner circle of close friends and colleagues to give you honest feedback, or consider working with a coach to help you sort out your options.  Whoever you turn to for help, remember that each decision is yours to make, own, and live with, regardless of which path you choose.

Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses.  Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.

The Downside of Over-Volunteering

The Downside of Over-Volunteering | Whole Spouse

Volunteers are the heart and soul of our communities, and we all know that military spouses are often the first to step up and serve.  Volunteering gives us a unique opportunity to share our gifts with those in need, and reminds us how blessed we are to have these talents to offer.  It can also give us valuable work experience.

At the same time, I worry when I see military spouses using volunteering as a crutch, especially when it comes to re-entering the workforce.  I’m not worried about the professional volunteer who loves playing that role.  If that’s your calling, fantastic!  I am worried about the spouses who say they want a career and want to be paid for what they do, but can’t seem to get off the chronic volunteer track.  They are giving away too much.

Sometimes volunteering can become the path of least resistance that is safe and comfortable, without risking failure that seeking a job might entail.  To borrow the words of Sheryl Sandberg, I think volunteering is sometimes an excuse that keeps us from “leaning in” to our careers.

If you find yourself feeling this way, ask yourself these few questions before you take on a new volunteer commitment:

  1. If you knew you could be paid a market rate for this work rather than volunteering, would you prefer to be employed?
  2. Are you qualified to work in this field and be compensated for the work you do?
  3. Are there paid opportunities in your career field? (And don’t limit yourself to your current location, especially if you are in Podunk, USA!  Think creatively about opportunities for virtual work.)

If the answer to these questions is yes, then ask yourself if you have thoroughly put yourself out into the job market.  What is holding you back, or rather what is keeping you from leaning in?  If having a career is important to you, then don’t sell yourself short.  Knowing that you have value and declaring your worthiness to be paid for your work is the first step.


Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses.  Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.