Pulling the pin: 7 keys to retiring happy from your law enforcement career
Planning your retirement is like working a case, you should have a plan
In the FBI, retirement is a big deal – even becoming eligible to retire is a big deal. Retiring agents usually could be broken down into one of three groups:
- Those who stayed until the last possible minute and had to be pushed out the door (agents are required to retire by their 57th birthday);
- Those who left angry and bitter;
- Those who left happy and on their own terms.
I always knew I wanted to be in the third category.
I think most in the first category (forced to retire based on age limitations), were usually great agents who devoted their lives to the Bureau but had no plans about what they would do once they retired.
I was on the SWAT team with a super guy who was actively working a bank robbery investigation on his last day as an FBI agent. He was running down leads and conducting interviews well into the night. Suddenly, his partner realized it was eight o’clock at night and said to him, “What are you doing? Do you realize at five o’clock today you were no longer an agent? You can’t be doing this! You no longer have any authority!”
The second category (the bitter) has too many members, and it seemed as if the number of angry retirees grew each year.
Many of those in the third category (those who left happy) had been my mentors and I continue to seek their wisdom. I knew I wanted to retire happy; to be grateful for the career I had, but also look forward to the next adventure in life. Although it was touch-and-go at times, I succeeded in my goal to leave on a good note. Here’s what I learned about how to retire happily from a law enforcement career:
1. Have a plan
Like working a case, good investigators always seem to have a plan. Know what you want to do before you retire.
Most happy retirees started planning two years out from their expected retirement date. Sitting around all day watching soap operas probably shouldn’t be part of your plan.
I’m lucky. The thing I enjoyed most about my job with the FBI was providing training for other law enforcement agencies, meeting great officers, and learning how different agencies approach things. Once I started Survival Sciences, I was able to continue to do these things without the administrative hassles I disliked.
I still get to meet with officers throughout the country, I still get to train, and I still get to learn.
2. Have interests not related to your law enforcement job
If your whole life is wrapped around your job, the job becomes all you are. Have another identity. Don’t let go of your hobbies.
Fish, hunt, work out, play tennis, get a job you find interesting, volunteer. Continue to be useful.
Kevin Gilmartin talks about the “useta's” or activities you used to enjoy but don’t anymore. He stresses the need to maintain these interests for your well-being as well as your friends and family.
Be a great warrior, but don’t forget to be great at something else. Be a great parent, a great spouse and a great friend. Have friends outside of law enforcement. It’s interesting to hear other perspectives.
3. Don’t take on a victim mentality.
This is a big one. Some people like to play the victim. Everyone I knew in the angry category had convinced themselves they had been victimized in some way, and some may have been right. But it does no good to be angry and bitter about issues you don’t control. Once people adopt the victim mentality, they can justify all sorts of bad behavior. Everyone you ever arrested believes they are a victim.
When I was new to the job, I loved to listen to the old-timers talk about the Hoover years. One of the stories was that on graduation day, all new agents were told two things. The first was the FBI doesn’t owe you anything other than the two-weeks pay you just earned. The second is it’s not your FBI and it never will be your FBI. It belongs to the American people and that’s who we serve.
It seems as if we sometimes start thinking our organization owes us. It’s natural to do so. You sacrifice so much that it only seems right to expect much in return. We can’t forget we represent the citizens we serve. It’s an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege.
4. Never love anything that can’t love you back
A Special Agent-in-Charge told me that a few years back. I know the FBI can’t love me, so I shouldn’t expect it to. You shouldn’t expect your agency to love you. But you can, and should, love your organization’s mission – to protect and serve.
We decided to have a career in law enforcement because we believe in the necessity and righteousness of our mission. If you are angry at your department, it’s not the department you’re mad at. You’re mad at an individual. If there is a problem, something that needs to be fixed, then fix it. Make your department better. If you can’t, then decide whether to work within the system or leave. But don’t be a victim. Don’t allow yourself to be placed in the role of the weak. Remember you control you. You control your emotions. You control your attitude.
5. It’s OK to miss the people, but don’t miss the job
Almost every retired FBI employee I know has said, “I don’t miss the job, but I do miss the people.” That’s how it should be. You are working with highly dedicated and professional people. You’ve shared some great times and some tragic times with them. Treasure those moments and those people.
6. Recognize the privilege of being a warrior
You could have had a career in which your focus was on making money, but you didn’t. Instead, you decided to be a protector of your community, to serve others, and to accomplish something much greater than yourself, and that’s pretty cool. If you’ve worked in law enforcement long enough, I’d bet you’ve had days when you’ve thought, “If I should die right now, my time on earth has been well spent.”
For me, it included a SWAT operation in which we rescued several teenage girls who were being forced into prostitution, returned a kidnapped child to his parents, put child molesters in prison, protected firefighters during the LA riots, and were part of a team that put lots of evil people away for a long time.
How many times have you thought, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this stuff!”
7. Don’t forget you’re a sheepdog and a warrior
You may retire, but you never stop being a protector. Always carry. Keep working out. Keep training. Continue to keep a watchful eye. Being a warrior is a life-long ambition...and a noble one.
This article, originally published 12/07/2011, has been updated.