Make Integrity Your Defining Characteristic

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.

8 thoughts on “Make Integrity Your Defining Characteristic

  1. Brian - Rental Mindset

    Wow, that’s a crazy way to bring that career to an end. There are definitely a lot of gray areas for police and BS they have to deal with. Way to stick to your guns – I’m not sure if guns were involved, but I thought this saying appropriate!

    Financially, I think you likely came out ahead.

  2. Income Surfer

    Integrity is always the best policy. You can never escape your self worth…..and sense of self. If you were ashamed of something you’d done, it would just eat at you day and night. Self worth filters through to every aspect of your life.

    Besides, don’t we all know people who have taken shortcuts…..only to loose it all later anyway… a direct result some fake aspect of their lives. Better to be real and honest 🙂

    I hope you guys have a great weekend!

  3. Mrs Groovy

    Mr G pointed out this post to me. I love it. It takes a lot of courage and integrity to do the right thing in a situation like this. Even though you didn’t give details I can only imagine. No job is worth it if you have to sell your soul and yet that’s what many people do. This kind of thing elevates the significance of the road to FIRE and not needing to answer to anyone.

  4. ZJ Thorne

    Integrity in the face of adversity is far more impressive than integrity that is never challenged. I’m glad that you can look to yourself and be proud. I’m sorry that it cost you so much, but losing your integrity would have been a far higher cost.

    It is a damn shame when great LEO can no longer perform that role. As a citizen, I’m sorry we don’t have you on the force.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thanks, ZJ. You’re totally right– getting to keep the job wasn’t worth what would have been lost. I miss it all the time, but I’m grateful for all that has come since, too.

  5. Daisy

    It’s a choice we all have to make, and kudos on you for making the right one even with the cost that came with it. In my own life, I’ve found the inner peace is often worth choosing the choice of integrity.

  6. allen @ freedomJarFIRE

    For a 5yo post this resonated *hard* after the 2020 we had in the US.

    “Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.”
    …word for word what we learned in the Air Force

    “Integrity is doing the right thing even when you know it will cost you something.”
    20 years later I’ve never heard this phrase but I want to go back and have them use this instead.

    Obviously I have no idea what happened in your previous career, but I know that a lot of LEOs want respect but don’t want to make the choices that would earn it, so I commend you acting with integrity even though it cost you what probably felt at the time like everything. Obviously a lot has happened since then and you definitely seem to have bounced back, and you did so with your conscience clear, so cheers!

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