It WILL get better… maybe

grass is greenerSources of JO dissatisfaction are plentiful. Exhaustion, unrealistic expectations, administrative absurdity, and a higher Navy preoccupied with political distractions have been a part of the job for decades. Some of us will have incompetent bosses, and wonder how we could ever aspire to their position. Some of us will go through the living hell of an extended shipyard period or a dysfunctional command climate. A few will experience the crushing defeat of a collision or grounding.

It wouldn’t be an authentic Navy experience without a stretch of bitterness and despair. Every one of your superiors swore they would get out at some point. If you’re not there yet, you will go through it. The “I hate this” phase is part of the package. Some of us never come out of it, and that’s OK too—not everyone has the necessary psychological disorders to continue doing this job.

A common trait among the terminally dissatisfied is a sense of betrayal. As unqualified young Padawans we are encouraged through our quals with promises of respect, authority, and ample free time for Madden and Call of Duty. All we have to do is get that warfare pin, then its all pole dancers and Dom Perignon. It will get better when we leave the shipyard. It will get better when the CO turns over. It will get better when we’re on a real mission. It will get better when…

Eventually we discover that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The more intensely we bought in to visions of future glory, the more sorely we are disappointed when we arrive. In what you’ll probably observe as a recurring theme in the Navy, success is largely a matter of managing expectations.



Qualification is just the start. Being pinned does not make you an expert any more than losing your virginity makes you Casanova. Expertise proceeds from experience, which proceeds from qualification. Respect and authority then proceed from expertise. Getting pinned isn’t the last step, it is the first step.

The workload does not go away. Once you’re fully qualified, other demands for your time and attention are going to ramp up to fill the gap. This isn’t just because your evil bosses want to deprive you of your long-awaited Xbox time, its because things need doing and now you’re the guy. If you are so bold as to demonstrate competence, you can expect even more tasking to come your way.

the consequences of your failures will grow, as will the expectations of perfection

Bad bosses are a fact of life. Micromanagers, screamers, slave-drivers and buffoons find their way into every echelon of every organization. You don’t have to tolerate genuine abuse (that is what the IG is for), but poor leadership is something we’ll all encounter at some point. The ability to stand tall and do the job in spite of a bad boss is a valuable skill, so try to take solace in that. Learn everything you can from them about how not to act, and eventually they’ll go away.

Your accountability will grow. With responsibility comes accountability; as one grows so does the other. Sweet platitude, but what does that actually mean? It means that as you gain seniority you’ll probably get yelled at more. While the number of people who can yell at you may decrease, the consequences of your failures will grow, as will the expectations of perfection. Pay attention to how your CO and XO treat the department heads. This business requires a thick skin.

It will never be like it is on TV. I was going to say that the job doesn’t get more interesting or cool, but that’s not true. While some missions are more exciting than others, real world ops of any stripe beat the snot out of training or maintenance any day. The thing about naval operations, though, is that they’re generally very slow, and they’re also labor intensive. Nothing looks that cool when you’re standing in the middle of it, especially when observed through the haze of stress and exhaustion. If you sail off for a mission expecting it to have a Godsmack soundtrack, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.


You become more influential. Knowledge is power. As your expertise develops, the command will increasingly rely on you for recommendations and courses of action. You’ll write procedures, instructions, drill packages and operational plans that set the whole ship into motion. Your input will determine the course of investigations and captains masts, and your write-ups will produce awards and promotions for your sailors. Just remember that the world is run by those who show up—influence takes effort.

You get promoted. At least in the submarine world, we take great pride in a cultural deference to competence over rank. This doesn’t mean rank is meaningless, though—not by any means. The marks on your collar communicate a baseline set of assumptions to everyone you interact with, such as how much experience you’ve got or how much BS you’re likely to put up with. Being an Ensign is kinda like paying your way through engineering school by working at McDonalds– people are just going to assume you’re clueless until your uniform changes. It does eventually end, and the extra pay doesn’t hurt either.

Quals end. Sure, there is always more learning to pursue, and the work load does ramp up. What goes away though is the pressure; the persistent subtle reminders that you are useless, oxygen-consuming vermin. The Senior Watch Officer stops having to justify your inadequacy to the CO, and the senior JOs stop expecting you to genuflect with gratuitous displays of effort and self-loathing. You will transition from liability to asset, from waterboy to starting linebacker, and feel the awesome rush of essentiality to the team.

Your current bosses leave. Love them or hate them, they will go away, and with them the collective memory of the dumbass mistakes you’ve made. Their leaving is one of the reasons your influence grows—part of them will always see you as the clueless Ensign, but their reliefs will only know you as a front-line watch officer and a go-to problem solver. Each new boss is a clean slate.  

You will get better. Whether we admit it or not, a huge component of job satisfaction is self-image. With enough experience you can’t help but get good at this stuff. You will become intimately familiar with your programs and systems. You will learn to work with your chief and your division. You will become comfortable driving the ship. You’ll deftly handle navigation and contact management problems, save the day in complex casualties, and see your orders and plans brilliantly executed. You will kick ass.


Reading back over this post, I can see that I’ve painted a rather unenthusiastic picture of the Navy experience. Let me say again that my objective here is to help new JOs manage their expectations. Some will love it and some will hate it, but I want to make sure that for those that hate it, its not because someone promised them a rose garden.

I won’t try to capture here all the things I enjoy about this job or my reasons for continuing to serve—I could never do it justice. I will just say that it is ultimately about service, and that maintaining perspective is critical. The machines we operate are incredible, and the sailors who man them can achieve anything. Those are the signals I find in the moments of clarity; everything else is just noise.

2 thoughts on “It WILL get better… maybe

  1. I’ve always enjoyed this quote from one of Ward Carroll’s books (I’m pretty sure it was ‘Punks War’ ):

    ” I’ve come to understand the Navy is like a cloud across the sky. At a glance it looks like it’s a certain shape, but glance again and it’s something different. Now at some point you may look up and say ‘That’s an ugly cloud,’ but if you give it a few minutes its shape changes to something that appeals to you. People join the Navy; people leave the Navy. Maybe, as you look at the Navy right now, you see an ugly cloud. That’s fine. As long as you realize the Navy is the lofty ideals and mottoes it claims to be. But, the Navy is also people — everyday human beings with all the faults and foibles that man has possessed since the dawn of time. However, the faults of people do not bring down the nobility and accomplishments of the institution…‘the bar lives here.’ And that bar was placed by the achievements and sacrifices of great men. I was apathetic once, but I grew up. You can judge a cloud, but don’t hate the sky.”

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