ANAHEIM, Calif. — Outgoing Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Robert McDonald said he looks forward to being able to "go to the pool and drink pina coladas" once his time leading the department comes to an end.

But before the incoming Trump administration takes over, McDonald offered attendees of the Student Veterans of America National Conference some advice and perspective.

"In my mind, there is no single human endeavor that leads to greater transformation than education," McDonald said.

The secretary also recommended that the student veterans look for careers that continue the service that they began in uniform.

"What more important blessing could there be than to be able to have a positive impact on the life of another person? What a positive impact you can have."

McDonald said he became the VA secretary to do just that. But he expressed frustration with the politics inherent in the role.

"When I listen to the political dialogue, I sometimes get incensed," he said. "Should we privatize the VA, you know, so the healthcare companies of America can make more money? Should we ask veterans to go to private sector doctors who may not know anything about post traumatic stress?"

McDonald dedicated a large section of his speech to giving veterans four pieces of advice:

  1. Consider your life's purpose: "Please think about what your purpose is in life, and you will find that if you do that, it will animate the rest of your life," McDonald said. He added that it's OK to change your mind a few times. "But you're living your life every single day, wouldn't it be good to lead it in a certain direction, toward purpose?"
  2. Set big goals: "As you think about your purpose, think about your goal and make sure your goal is big enough to overcome all your fears," he said. McDonald recalled how he was unable to become an Eagle Scout because he was afraid to swim. But he passed several much more difficult swimming tests while attending West Point. "Why? Because I had a goal that was bigger than my fear."
  3. Work for an organization that shares your values and purpose: "Find a company that has a purpose congruent with your own," McDonald said. "That's where you're going to be spending the majority of your waking hours, and you want to make sure you're achieving your personal purpose, while also achieving the corporate purpose."
  4. Never stop learning: "I'll tell you a secret, but you've got to promise me you'll keep it secret: What differentiates those who succeed in business ... is maintaining that ability to learn. You've got to learn new things all the time," McDonald said. The most important things students learn in school aren't any particular facts or equations. It's how to learn. And learning should not stop once you graduate, he added. "Things are going to change and you need to change too, and the only way to do that is to continue learning."