Old Soldier, New Tricks: Why you’re never too old to think like a rookie

When I left the military after 24 years, making the transition to civilian life was not entirely easy. OK, I’ll be honest: Switching from a combat-ready mindset to commuting and pushing papers every day was not easy at all. It took me almost a year to feel comfortable at my desk. 

The subsequent move to retirement was a little less rough, although it still brought up plenty of confusion. After years of knowing exactly what I was supposed to do with every minute, suddenly it was all up to me: What would I do each day? How would I spend this next phase of my life?

After a period of wandering and wondering, I made a decision: Retirement was my golden opportunity to follow my curiosity about all kinds of things in this huge world, to try all the things I’d never tried, to keep learning and changing and challenging myself, to find unconventional ways to spend my golden years. And ironically, I think all of that has been keeping me young! 

From this whole experience thus far, what I’ve learned is that you’re never too old to think like a rookie — and that if you keep this in mind, you’ll find life a lot more interesting and fulfilling. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful:

Stay curious and be willing to ask questions

You might think at your ripe old age you’ve seen it all. You most definitely have not. Don’t fall into that jaded, counterproductive mindset! If you allow yourself instead to tap into your natural curiosity, you can avoid getting stuck in the same old grooves of narrow thinking. When you stay curious, you open yourself up to all sorts of exciting possibilities in life.

Let go of preconceived notions

Rookies aren’t tied to preconceived notions because they don’t have any! Everything seems new, and they’re constantly adjusting their knowledge base to accommodate what they learn. And even if you feel like you’ve seen plenty, it’s a receptive state of mind you can cultivate. Keep yourself out of the limiting “veteran mindset,” and you’ll find yourself far more willing and able to adapt to changes or the unexpected. This will do wonders for your mental well-being.

Don’t worry about sounding clueless

Retired soldiers tend to care about their image. Decades of obeying rules associated with hair, facial hair, and clothing (right down to our socks!) have accustomed us to focusing on specifics — and this often spills over into other aspects of our lives. As a result, we can tend to become increasingly regimented and unwilling to ask questions, even if we don’t know the answer. 

Rookies, on the other hand, know they have nothing to lose. They’re willing to ask the questions, even if doing so makes them sound clueless. As a result, they find out things they never knew before. And they do so without worrying about how it looks; they only focus on getting the knowledge.

Soldiers (and humans in general) learn to conquer our fears in the interest of moving forward. And if you’ve been out of the civilian world for a long time, like I was, you definitely have plenty to learn from others. So try to free yourself from the fear of looking uninformed and focus instead on the new knowledge you seek. If you’re willing to reach out and risk a little by soliciting advice or information from other people, you’ll be surprised at the new things you can learn. 

Believe in the possible

Rookies typically don’t have any conceptions of “impossible” because they’re young and inexperienced, with only a dim idea about the limits of any situation. Everything seems possible! The world is a blank canvas to them. Remember when you were young, how you were pretty sure there was nothing you couldn’t do? 

Try shifting yourself back into this mindset as you approach each day. You’ll find the results can be amazing. Studies have found that in the workplace, rookies outpace veterans in many ways, so don’t be afraid to dial yourself back a few decades and remember your earlier, open-minded, hopeful self. While you’re at it, rip out a page from that time in your life and apply it to the present.

Keep a ‘young’ mindset

The sentiment has been printed on so many coffee cups and greeting cards that it may have lost its punch for you, but I’ve come to live by it: You’re only as old as you believe you are.

When I finally quit working, this one was a biggie for me. I’d spent most of my life getting results (and respect) in the physically demanding, performance-driven culture of the military. Now that I was past my prime both physically and professionally, what did I have left to contribute to the world? 

After some soul-searching (and, OK, a little fishing), I came to a few realizations: Besides my creaking knees and a fondness for the occasional nap, inside I still felt like a guy in his 30s. My mind was just as sharp as ever — except now I had the time, money, and energy to figure out what I wanted to pursue and contribute from here on out. Understanding those facts liberated me to stop worrying about my physical limitations and start figuring out my capabilities and goals for the future.

What I didn’t expect was that in the process, I began to feel younger again. I was looking forward, not back. I began framing my thoughts by the things I was itching to do, instead of reasons I couldn’t do other things from my past. That mindset has gone a long way toward keeping my activity levels up — at nearly the same pace as my younger self.

Plenty of studies show that keeping a youthful self-image can help keep you young and vital. So continue doing the activities you enjoy and don’t stop to think about your age as you’re doing it. That other old saying, “mind over matter,” definitely applies here.

Be willing to stretch 

Obliquely related to my previous points, this one bears further exploration, especially as it relates to aging and viability: To stay sharp, it’s important to try unfamiliar things. Taking the opportunity to confront mentally and physically challenging tasks helps keep you sharp and capable. If it’s a skill you have to practice to get good at, it can help strengthen your cognitive functioning and keep your memory intact. Give these suggestions a shot:

  • Learn a new word every day
  • Tackle learning a new language
  • Learn to play an instrument or sing
  • Try your hand at making art
  • Work out regularly
  • Start a new movement practice
  • Take up a YouTube challenge!

Exercising your brain and body is good for your overall health, and engaging in unfamiliar activities keeps you elastic and competent. So dig into all the things you can do to stretch yourself, and then do them. Just because you aren’t active duty anymore doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active!

Don’t stop at retirement

Once your military career concludes, you’ll go through a big transition. It’s often hard to adjust because civilian life can feel pretty foreign compared to living on-post within the camaraderie of the military community. Still, there’s no need to freeze like a deer in the headlights — keep moving! Instead of stressing out over the part of your life that’s just ended, focus on the future. 

Things don’t end; they just transition into the next phase. So take some time to look inside yourself and figure out what kind of life you want from here on out. Get out into the world, travel, meet people, pick up a new hobby, go back to school, pursue whatever your heart and mind want to pursue. Embrace each lesson that comes your way during the journey, and value the growth and opportunities gained with every experience. Even old soldiers can learn new tricks, if they’re willing.