Earlier in my career, I was a cop. People generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to the police: They’re monsters, or they’re saints. The truth is that all cops fall somewhere in a spectrum between those two extremes. Regardless of what you think about law enforcement, most people agree that doing the job requires (or should require) a certain degree of integrity.
In the police academy, groups of related topics are organized into modules called learning domains. To pass the academy, you have to pass all the learning domains. In the State of California, Learning Domain #1 is Ethics. The chief of my agency came to our academy to teach that course himself. Among the first words he said to us were:
“Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.”
That’s a very impactful statement, and generally speaking, it’s true. Under most circumstances, integrity is a struggle within oneself. Taking the easy path, or the path that will benefit you at the expense of someone vulnerable, especially when nobody is watching, is tempting.
In the years since, however, my thoughts on the idea of integrity have changed a bit. If I had to define integrity now, here’s how I’d put it:
Integrity is doing the right thing even when you know it will cost you something.
Though I prefer not to get into details, my leaving police work had to do with an exercise of this kind of integrity. I knew that my job was in jeopardy, and had opportunities to salvage my ability to get a job elsewhere. I passed them up, reasoning, “if I claim that my actions were a mistake when I believe that what I did was morally and ethically right, then I compromise my integrity forever.” Those decisions have led to some bittersweet and introspective moments since then, but I’ve never regretted the things I did or said.
It Takes Courage to FIRE
What does all of this have to do with personal finance?
Seeking financial independence or early retirement should be part of a larger goal to live as the most courageous version of yourself. Integrity is one of the most rewarding– and potentially costly– expressions of courage.
On the path to FIRE, you’ll confuse people, annoy them, and maybe even inspire some envy. The whole world is shouting, “Conform! Conform!” In response, you have to really, truly, honestly believe that what you’re doing is right, even when others try to make you feel wrong. You have to be courageous. You have to show integrity. Your honest commitment to being authentically you will cost you sometimes.
When you seek financial independence as your number one goal, you automatically make integrity your defining characteristic.
Find Your Why, and Live It Every Day
The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield highlights the struggle of all men and women to be the hero of their own story.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Think– really think— about why you’re seeking financial independence. Maybe you want to spend more time with your kids. Maybe you want to travel the world. Maybe you want to have more time to devote to charitable work. You want to care for your aging parents. You want to plant a community garden or mentor neighborhood kids. I’ve always said you’ve got to retire to something.
One of the coolest parts about the FIRE community is the variety of selfless motives for aspiring to get there. Sure, there are lots of selfish-sounding motives too. I don’t particularly like having to go to work every day, and I want to eat all the delicious foods of the world. The fundamental reason I want to achieve financial independence, though, is to spend time with my future wife, our dogs, and our future kids. I want to raise kind and compassionate people from the day they’re born. I want to take on tasks like opening an animal rescue in a country where animals lead bleak and grim lives with people that I love.
No Need For a Time Machine
After I lost my job as a cop, I spent a fair amount of time trying (and failing) to get hired by other law enforcement agencies. I remember at one panel interview, I was asked whether the experience at my former agency had changed me. Would I do things differently if I had a time machine? Here’s what I remember saying (possibly in a more eloquent manner than I originally said it):
Probably the right way to answer that question is to say, “Yes. I learned my lesson. I’ll never do it again.” The problem I have is that the first lesson I was taught as a cop is that integrity is the one thing that, once you give it up, you never get back. If I say that I’d act differently because I know it’s the best answer for my career, then I’m saying that getting this job means more than doing what I think is right.
No. I’d do it again. I’d do it again, and the reason I would is because I believed, and still believe, that the choices I made were the just choices and the honest choices. They can take away your badge, and your gun, and your permission to go and help people who need help.
They can take away your car.
They can take away your uniform.
But nobody can stop you from being the person who stood inside of it.
I didn’t get the job.
Still, integrity isn’t always a drag. The choices that cost me that job also made it possible for me to meet my future wife, adopt my dogs, get multiple excellent and well-paid jobs, accumulate a ton of money, and start down the path towards financial independence. I can trace everything I have back to everything I’ve lost.
So yeah. I’m still trying to live with integrity– or courage– or even stubbornness, because it has worked out pretty well so far despite the bumps and bruises. Extraordinary people (and their extraordinary lives) don’t appear out of nowhere. Somewhere along the way, they all chose to make integrity their defining characteristic.
If you approach your journey to financial independence with integrity, I sincerely believe that you will always– always— turn out to be the hero of your own life.