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Make the Most of Disappointment

“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy - the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” - Eric Hoffer

Imagine a world where disappointment did not exist.  A place where all of our dreams come true and all our expectations are met.  There would be no cynicism, regrets, anger, jealousy, or betrayal.  Coworkers would cheer one another on, be excited when someone succeeds, and celebrate each other’s victories without the bitter aftertaste of “Why not me?  I deserve it as much as him!”  In relationships no one would lie, cheat, or sleep with a badge bunny.  There would be no divorce; everyone’s first spouse would be their only spouse, forever and ever “till death do we part,” because not only would all the hopes of the wedding day come true but we’d remain eternally as sexy, caring, and selfless toward each other as in the early days of courting.  Our kids would all be exceptional – full ride scholarships in academics, athletics, and music, never a wrecked car or 0300 call for bail (“I told the officer you were a cop, too, and she didn’t care at all… it’s just not fair!”).  Your pension would be flush and outside investments soaring; you could retire at 20 years and live the next forty without a care but why would you ever do that because going to this job is a daily delight! 

However, disappointment does exist.  Everyone knows what it is like to set a goal whether it is losing weight, being financially set, or for advancement in their career and to watch the dream just slip away.  It can be as easy as an unexpected bill coming in the mail that eats away all the overtime being put away for a long overdue vacation or watching a coveted assignment you’ve worked diligently for become out of reach when your best friend and mentor, who commanded the unit and was grooming you for the job, is replaced by Lt Grudge, who has hated you since your academy days.  

But disappointment also has an upside, if used correctly; it can also be a motivator for growth and a recalibration of expectations to meet reality.  To be disappointed is to be sad or displeased because someone or something has failed to fulfill your hopes or expectations.  Sometimes that someone is you.

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I have been in law enforcement for the past 18 years and there has been one theme I’ve seen that has been remarkably consistent.  I noticed it first among colleagues in my own agency but would especially encounter the same theme as Althea & I later began writing for law enforcement publications and started traveling the country as trainers.  We got to correspond, meet, and talk with some incredibly intelligent and talented peace officers with hearts as big as Texas.  They would tell us stories of their careers and of the excitement of being hired and getting to fulfill their dream of “being the police.”  They would also talk about the frustrations they never expected when they were young and idealistic and the disappointments that began to chip away at not only their idealism but also hope and self-esteem.  Across most (not all.  To be fair, we have met many LEOs who love their agencies, bosses, and communities and manage to roll with the punches with little or no cynicism) agencies, whether federal, municipal, state, or county, the theme of disappointment was common. 

Rarely are they disappointed in those they arrest and protect their communities from.  We all knew what we were signing up for and, although we may be a little shocked at first how widespread ignorance is, or that the line between the good and bad is often quite blurred, we come to grips with the realities of serving an often ungrateful public.  Most often the disappointment is centered on one of two common complaints, the first of which is systemic and focused on a slow, frustrating judicial system, detached, hubris-filled police and political administrations, or both.  Do this job long enough and you’ll know firsthand the frustration of crime and (non)punishment, felonies denied, good cases (built with exhausting effort) dropped or charges reduced with little or no coherent explanation, and politically motivated decision-making.  It really does deal idealism a vicious blow.

The second common complaint is more personal.  LEOs tend to identify with their work very closely, so much so that COP becomes absolutely central to who they are.  It’s often how we find our niche in, and identify with, the larger society.  It sets us apart.  But then small disappointments cause us to question that very identity:  specialty assignments are applied for – sometimes repeatedly – but never won; promotions are aspired to but remain out of reach; expectations for preferred shifts, perks, or qualifications are raised and then dashed.  Opportunities we assumed would be ours are missed or lost, or never really present, in the first place.  The bright career trajectory we dreamt of early in our careers never materializes or, if it does, is claimed by others leaving no room for you to climb aboard.  These personal disappointments are especially painful since they strike us at our core.  Failure (or worse, multiple failures) to attain job-related goals calls into question our very competence at the role and profession (that of COP) so central to our whole identity, and the resultant disappointment and self-doubt can be devastating.

Disappointment is a universal human experience.  All of us are doomed to feel disappointment, even those appearing most successful or accomplished to outsiders (Heck, even all the brownnosing lickspittles who get all those cool assignments and promotions at work probably feel disappointment now and again!  We can hope…).  The trick is to never let disappointment crush your spirit, self-esteem, or drive.  Disappointment hurts, but it also fades, and what follows are five practices you can incorporate to overcome its sting and get back on track.

Keep sight of the “Big Picture” to maintain perspective

In theory, ours is the finest judicial system ever conceived, and it serves as a model around the civilized world.  In reality, despite (or because of) its high ideals it is a complicated, lumbering giant designed to not only hold law enforcement to the highest standards but to sometimes frustrate even the most upright, high-minded cops best efforts.  And sometimes, its processes can just truly suck.  Weeks of diligent investigation and carefully (and legally) gathered evidence might be left unprotected by a prosecutor in one 15 minute defense motion and cast aside by a judge, never to be see the light of trial.  Infuriating, but what can you do? 

What you can do is maintain perspective.  A different prosecutor (or even this prosecutor but on a better day) might fight harder, or argue more persuasively, and make mincemeat of the defense’s motion.  A different judge (or even this judge but on a better day) might rule in your favor, and your hard work will be the piece that convinces the jury of guilt.  Ours is a messy, cumbersome system, but for a reason.  By putting such a heavy burden on police and prosecutors to prove guilt we can better ensure it is a true justice system.

I earlier used the example of unsuccessfully applying for specialty positions and the disappointment that engenders because it’s something to which I can relate.  Several years ago when I first applied for an opening in our investigations division I was one of about a dozen officers aspiring to a single open spot.  Most of us had several years’ experience, solid investigative skills, and glowing performance reviews.  As I sat for my interview in the Division Commander’s office I could see the empty desk we were all vying to fill through the office window… and the “candidate” who had been (ummm, sorry, would eventually be) selected bringing boxes of files, family photos, personal memorabilia, and a frickin’ houseplant to personalize his space!  When I finally had to laugh and asked if the decision had already been made, and my interview was merely an exercise, as Jeff was clearly making himself very much at home in the open cubicle, I was told with a straight face, “Well, nothing’s ever carved in stone…” 

Sure.

But here was the Big Picture:  Jeff was always the front runner and we all knew it.  He had spent several years in the auto theft task force, had the best résumé, and was perfectly fitted for the job.  No problem, and I walked away with a humorous memory. (*there were several subsequent, and equally unsuccessful, attempts – more on that fun later!)

Part of seeing the Big Picture is that it gives a more realistic outlook.  When we get stuck in the world directly under our nose we have a skewed perspective of what is realistic.

Find insight in disappointment

That wouldn’t be the last time I applied for an investigations position, nor would it be the last time I was disappointed when someone else was chosen.  The typical reason given for why I wasn’t chosen had less to do with any personal shortcomings I possessed but rather why someone else was a better fit.  My own performance reviews as a patrol officer remained strong, I always maintained a caseload of investigations I initiated and followed up on with great success, and I over the years I have been selected for ancillary assignments on my own merits.  I was, and remain, confident in my abilities as a cop and know I do my job well.  There were detectives who’d had to apply multiple times before finally being selected, including one who spoke of his own eleven tries before finally leaving patrol; he eventually climbed to lead the very division he’d struggled to enter.  But in time I began to question if there might be something about myself getting in the way of personal advancement.

Seeking personal insight when it means taking a hard look at where you might fall short is not always fun.  In fact, it’s almost never all that much fun.  It is important.  By gaining insight, with the help of a few whose assessment and opinion I trust as well as my own critical eye, I was able to make a number of important decisions about I might best fit my personality and style into my department.  Doing so allowed me to reevaluate what I really wanted out of being a cop, and why.  From disappointment came discovery, and what I discovered about myself surprised me.

Diversify your life

This is a theme we repeatedly stress:  Become well-rounded!  If you are one of those cops who so closely identifies your job with your identity, take a step back.  Remain invested in work but invest in other activities, as well.  Being too deeply invested in any one facet of life promises deep disappointment when things aren’t going as well as you wish they would yet have few other outlets where you can experience pleasure or success. 

Investing in family or home life, volunteer activities, a side job, hobbies or other interests can soften the blow of professional disappointment and frustration and ward off cynicism.  Take a cue from professional disappointments to explore other, more personal strengths.

or… Become more involved at work!

This might seem counterintuitive in light of the previous category but there is logic to it.  If you find yourself growing bitter over nonsense and letdowns at work refuse to be a passive victim.  Get involved in your union or association, volunteer for employee advisory committees, or find ways to constructively rally likeminded colleagues to push for change. 

Too often we complain mightily about the adversities we face, but actually struggle against them?  Fight the good fight?  Well, why not?  What’s wrong with walking into a supervisor’s office and simply saying, “Hey!  _________ is a problem and something needs to be done about it.  Can I have some leeway to do something?” 

You might fail but at least you tried.  The best case scenario is that you begin making fresh contacts who can see your work, hear your ideas, and understand what makes you tick and how you think, and open up future opportunities in other avenues.

And never forget… Love your job, but don’t love your agency.  It cannot love you back!

You should love being a cop, and what it stands for, and all the good you can do with the authority it gives you.  You will love some of the people you work with and for, and certain members of the public you’ll get to know over the a career.  But be careful not to “love” your department, or you’ll only get your heart broken! 

A law enforcement agency is inanimate and has an agenda bigger than your happiness or satisfaction.  We are all just cogs in the machine and nothing more, so be the best cog you can be.  Enjoy being a cog, and take pride that your little corner of cog-dome is well-protected and served, but know that cogs are replaceable and tend to all look alike to the machine’s handlers.  The machine will keep chugging along somehow even when there is a brand new cog in your place. 

Not to be depressing, it just is what it is.  But keep it in mind and your heart won’t be broken, and you’ll be able to keep on being the best cop (not simply a cog) you can be – and loving it – no matter how otherwise disappointing the situation might be.

 

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