What is your Third Thing?

A Third Thing is a biopsychosocial construct in our lives that defines us outside of our family (“first thing”) and work (“second thing”). A Third Thing can be a hobby (surfing), a place (club), or an activity (gardening) and is commonly associated with habitat and or communitas. It is something that contributes to one’s identity or sense of self, away from home and work. For operators in the military, whose identities are inextricably entwined in their role and title, this can be a useful concept to explore — A place to recover during service and a bridge to transition when you are finished. 

Last year, I spoke at the Mission Critical Team Summit in Melbourne about the concept of the Third Thing. As a recently transitioned soldier, now psychologist, I understand it has the power to inform multiple domains including sports and business as well, a theme that percolates through Preston Cline’s excellent paper Residue: Processing Extreme Experiences. And so, I have been encouraged to share the concept more broadly here. It is indeed a salient time to be asking “What’s your third thing?”

Transition is too late.

I have long spruiked “transition is too late” in the context of discharging from the military. This sentiment was behind why I created the Wanderers Education Program in 2012. It was my, and some might say irritating, habit to ensure that new soldiers were exposed to this concept upon arrival in the teams. Often in conflict with the hard-man paradigm, things such as education were often dismissed as external distractions, even “soft”. However, I am more convinced than ever that my advice was sound. 

“One day you will leave this place, hopefully on your own terms. So, while you are here buy a bomb (car), you won’t be around enough to drive it. Buy a house ASAP, any house, anywhere. Place a high price on your relationship. Your partner is your most precious asset. Get educated, there is plenty of time to do so. And, get a third thing, cricket, crochet, I don’t care, just don’t let this place be all you are.”

It seems obvious. For most of us, our first and most important ‘thing’ is our family – our home and close community. Our second ‘thing’ is our work – our competence and reputation. Unavoidably these two are often in a contest. The Third Thing, however, is about you! Your passion, the thing that gives your identity depth and character, that makes you happy and passionate. The thing that reminds you that you are more than just your job and, dare I say it, more than your family. For people in mission-critical teams, it can be the thing that keeps them connected to the outside world because eventually, inevitably, they need to return to it.

Our current approach to transition, it seems, places the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Placing the ambulance at the top speaks to commencing transition much earlier in a person’s career or life cycle. Of course, this is in direct competition to current approaches which, though necessary for the most part, drive people to become increasingly skilled in a limited domain of their life, towards mastery of the thing that they might seek to be or achieve. In mission-critical teams, this may be exacerbated by traumatic and extreme experiences, and in cases “the way we have always done it” cultures. The risk is an increasingly narrow focus and potentially even a narrower world view.

It makes sense then that we might attempt to broaden the operator’s exposure in life, an exercise in futureproofing perhaps. If you accept this position, the question becomes ‘how do we balance the operator’s journey so that she can achieve both the narrow mastery required to be excellent at her craft as well as prepare her for the inevitable return to the world?’

Eventually. Inevitably. You must return to the world.

For the past 30 years, I have written songs, sung and played the guitar for arguably the only Spec-Ops original rock band in the world; The Externals. The band has been a tonic, allowing me to tell stories about my experience.

But it is my cricket club that has availed me the Third Thing and habitat that gave me an identity and a community outside of the military. Cricket awarded me a whole other habitat full of trusted and lifelong mates who are entirely different, but exactly the same as my operator mates. Somewhere I could explore recent experiences and forge new ones. It unknowingly futureproofed me and underwrote my smooth transition. 

My commentary focusses on those habitually exposed to trauma, suffering, and moral injury. However, the concept has utility in other domains as well; for example, sportspeople are equally shaped and defined by their identity, which predictably impacts their transition ‘back to the world’.

I contend that a Third Thing provides a new perspective for transition, indeed, transformation. It starts a conversation about reinventing and re-imagining ourselves. In a military context, I am not as convinced that the considerable skills learned in service are as transferrable as some might think. Therefore, a Third Thing allows us to explore and experiment with those skills before the transition. And thus, we are committed to finding better ways to put the ambulance at the top of the cliff. The Wanderers Education Program, for example, provides soldier scholars such opportunities much earlier in their careers. For some, education truly becomes their Third Thing.

Transition is too late. The conversations need to start much earlier. I humbly offer that the conversation should begin by asking “What’s your third thing?”

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