A wise woman once said: “PFC, money and titles don’t mean shit to me. My heroes have always worn combat boots.” A curious statement, given she was a civilian addressing me by rank and not by name. But I’ve come to view this slogan—this attitude, this ethos—as a subtle reminder to value a person not for what they have achieved but for who they are and (perhaps) who they aspire to become.
Private First Class is an entry-level rank earned by just showing up. I guess I’ve always been an entry-level guy. Jack of all trades, master of one: starting over. I’ve reinvented myself enough times to achieve moksha within a single lifetime. Spiritual transcendence jokes aside, each new rebirth seems to amplify the whispering voice in the back of my head that I am getting nowhere. In my teens I wanted to be a warrior but wound up nearly dying. GPS recalculating. In my twenties I wanted a government gig but started writing stories. GPS recalculating. Now in my thirties, having just landed a cushy office job and with my first book launching this year, I finally feel like I’m . . . still 100% lost. GPS recalculating.
For those of you paying attention (thanks, Mom!), why I write is no longer important. The real question is why have I persisted? Having been a private investigator, a personal trainer, a college teaching assistant—it seems the only constant interest of mine has been reading books. Lots of books. Which might be like saying: “I love everything.” Which might not be such a curse, because If I learned anything from my homeboy The Little Prince: having a child-like curiosity keeps you young at heart. And starter jobs often lack the stress and responsibility that ages most salaried folk. There have been numerous other writers with eclectic work history, most notable is Robert Greene, of 48 Laws of Power fame, whose estimated 65 jobs make me look like an amateur at being an amateur. But it’s quite possible those 65 jobs gave Greene source material for his infamous bestseller by allowing him to observe human behavior under disparate power structures.
Now for the bad. Not having a fixed career path can cause anxiety. There are financial woes, but there’s also frequent exposure to situations where you have no roadmap. Situations requiring you to adapt, react, use your best judgment, or learn as you go. You get super comfortable with being uncomfortable, though imposter syndrome is never far, giving rise to occasional bouts of envy over careers that offer an instant-identity. “I’ve been a [blank] for 25 years, it comes with a guild, a retirement, a legacy, and I’ve known who I am since the age of 18.” I guess I’ve always grappled with how much your work should define you. Here in the D.C. area, it seems to matter a great deal, with every off-the-cuff introduction asking: “So what do you do?” Who are you with? How can I better leverage this meet-and-greet to advance my own self-interests . . . Not hatin’ the player, just the game, I suppose.
Perhaps one of the few jobs that indelibly affected my sense of self was soldier. Not just for the thrill of deploying as a teenager but for the label of veteran that followed discharge. A label less than 10% of the U.S. population has earned. Maybe this is why I married my writing with my service—they are both aspects of myself that seem permanent and inalienable. Yet even these designators—veteran, writer, veteran-writer (?)—come with insecurities. I only served three years and was only in Afghanistan six months. Some guys I know logged almost half a decade overseas. Do I really have enough street cred to write a book about war? What have I left out, misunderstood, or taken for granted regarding my connection to the veteran community? It’s also hard not to catastrophize the book failing and my writing career ending before it’s even begun; a double whammy to two things I hold dear about myself. Yet life is not without its risks. I’m humbled to have the opportunity to publish my stories with Double Dagger books. Stories that further dissect the military experience. And in times of doubt, I’m grateful for people who value you for who you are, even if you’re not where you want to be just yet. Even if you never get there.
This article was contributed by Double Dagger author Benjamin Inks.