Ever since he was old enough to crawl, a boy we know has proven to be very excitable. He’s usually moving at high speed generally, but can reach supersonic levels in no time. For example, when his mother plays certain parts of his favorite songs on the piano, he hits top speed. Top speed happens during the moments of crescendo in the song. He feels the buildup and can hardly contain himself when the music reaches its maximum volume and intensity. Life is simply bursting out of him because he wants to match the power of the crescendo.
Several years ago, Stephen R. Covey, author of the massive bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote: “I am now 76 years old and could easily retire. But I’m not retired and I don’t plan to retire. I don’t believe in retirement. Why, people ask me? Simply, I have a life motto. It is: Live life in crescendo.”
We love this philosophy and suggest that living a life in crescendo includes living a career in crescendo. In music, a crescendo occurs when the composer desires to communicate an increase in intensity, volume and power. This generally happens gradually. In contrast, consider the decrescendo, when the music gradually decreases in intensity, volume and power. The idea of crescendo is an inspiring way to think about our lives and careers. Both should increase in intensity, abundance, and fullness the older we get–not the other way around.
We’ve seen many colleagues retire over the last few years and often talk with many more who are contemplating retirement in the near future. As we’ve seen many noble careers come to an end, we have been encouraged by the optimism and purpose yet to come. Unfortunately, we have also been disappointed by another, somewhat common, theme of apparent career decrescendos. At a time when we are full of knowledge and experience that can be usefully passed on to the next generation of police officers or used in otherwise productive ways, we see some officers withdraw into smallness, pettiness, and destructive behavior.
Instead, we should strive to live our careers in crescendo, going out “on top” as they say. By the way, this does not mean necessarily going out on top of the organizational chart. Success in policing does not equal lots of promotions. It does equal doing things the right way and increasing in goodness and righteousness.
We believe that success in policing can be boiled down to living true to the purpose for which we became police officers in the first place. With few exceptions, most of us became police officers to serve and protect others with justice and righteousness. Somewhere along the way of a career in decrescendo, the perspective is turned inward, and we are only concerned about serving ourselves. By contrast, a career in crescendo in increasingly outward-looking. How can we help and serve and bless the lives of others? If we are always on the lookout for these kinds of opportunities, there is no doubt we will find them.
We should seek growth and expansion, crescendo-like, for our entire careers. A key component of a career in crescendo is a focus on the things that matter most. The things that matter most are those that last the longest. Uppermost must be the development and maintenance of a character that matches the nobility of our chosen profession.
Consider the following ways we can create careers of crescendo.
1. Embrace failure as part of the learning curve of success.
All of us have experienced and will yet experience mistakes and setbacks in our careers; that is part of being human. What is more important, however, is the overall career trajectory. Though there are certainly plateaus, and even deep valleys in our timelines, those who retire in crescendo have an overall upward trend. When we make mistakes, we must own them and display depth of character by learning from them. We must not seek to blame others for what we alone bear responsibility.
Many officers whose careers seem to diminish the longer they work often display a victim mentality. We must shun the victim mentality by being fully responsible for our actions. Neither is it useful to become disciples of the theory of relative filth, which holds that though we messed up, we rationalize our mistakes and fail to learn from them by comparing our actions to what others have done that, from our perspective, is worse.
2. Have a plan for post-retirement that includes continued contributions to good and productive causes.
Twenty-plus years of law enforcement experience should not go to waste simply because we don’t carry a badge and gun anymore. This is not to say that a post-retirement plan must include continued work in the profession, but there are myriad opportunities to contribute our expertise in meaningful ways. Possessors of crescendoed careers do not allow that institutional knowledge and experience go to waste. They remember their initial motivations for pursuing a career in policing, re-ignite or maintain them, and repurpose them to other worthwhile endeavors. Retirement shouldn’t mean extinction.
3. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
The Duke of Wellington, famous for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, was a decorated military man. Near the end of his life, he was asked what he would have changed about the way he lived. He didn’t mention different war strategies or more medals. Instead, he simply remarked, “I should have given more praise.”
Living a career in crescendo involves an increased awareness of our debt to others for the good things in our lives. Living a career in crescendo involves increased, genuine expressions of gratitude. No one is an island. Let us express gratitude for all those who’ve helped us succeed. Let us show our gratitude by giving back.
4. Focus time and energy within the circle of influence.
One of the biggest pitfalls of a career in decrescendo involves spending time and energy on things about which we have little or no control. Instead, a career in crescendo seeks to expand its circle of influence wider and wider into its circle of concern. This requires deliberately spending time and energy in those areas where we can truly make a difference. We should seek to expand our circle of influence as we increase in knowledge, experience and professional associations. Let us be unafraid to try new things, share ideas, and benefit those with whom we have influence.
Our careers are in danger of taking on a match-like quality. We can get a spark out of the academy, flare up for a few glorious years, and then diminish and disappear in a wisp of smoke, never to be lighted again. This is akin to a decrescendo and cannot be the trajectory of our careers if we seek true success. Instead, remember the crescendo! Play the right notes for the full measure, gradually but consistently increasing in power and intensity to the end of your career, and beyond.