If you’ve read this site with a keen eye, you’ve probably caught the fact that I spent a handful of years as a police officer. During that period, I had the opportunity to meet Frank Scalise, a sergeant who became a friend and writing partner. While on the department together, we shared and edited each other’s work while encouraging each other to keep putting words to paper.
Sometimes life gets in the way and people go different directions. Frank and I lost contact for extended periods of time, but would occasionally meet to catch up on where we were. Frank was always forging ahead with his writing career, while mine had stalled, due to my own self-doubt and loss of vision. After a recent move, Frank and I reconnected via email and have corresponded more in the past several months than we have in years. It’s a friendship I’m glad that’s been rekindled.
Frank, writing under the pseudonym Frank Zafiro, released several books in his River City series before we collaborated on Some Degree of Murder, a tale set in his fictional world. This isn’t a tale about how our book came about, but rather how Frank left the police department to pursue his passion.
He’s got a great story about reaching for your dream that I’ve asked him to share. I believe it dovetails nicely into what we’re all trying to accomplish in the pursuit of financial independence, lifestyle design and/or early retirement.
- Colin / Building-Income
Twenty and a Day
Dreams are funny. I don’t mean the weird movies that play in your head every night. That’s a dream of night. I mean a dream of life. What you want to do with your life. What you would do if you could.
I assume everyone has one. Some generations, your dream was what you day-dreamt about while working at a job you hated, or brooded about over a beer at the end of the day, after finishing that job. Actually, not some generations. Most. Definitely my father’s generation, and probably mine, too. I was born in 1968, so I’m firmly Gen-X. I speak sarcasm as a second language. See, for many of our parents, the Baby Boomers, life was about chasing money in order to find happiness. And for us, chasing your dream was still usually about money somehow. But it shouldn’t be. Your dream of life should be…your dream, your life.
But money has a role to play, doesn’t it? Until we can all magically eat and live for free, money is a tool we have to use to keep bread on the table and the rain off our heads. I’ve always understood that, and I’m sure you have, too. But listen…that’s all money is. A tool. Your dream? That’s everything.
I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I also knew that you don’t just hang out a sign saying, “I’m a writer,” and someone starts mailing you checks. I came from a family that spent time financially fluctuating between lower middle class and occasionally poor. So when I turned 18, I went into the Army. The military is a good half-step into adulthood, but after one enlistment, I realized it wasn’t for me. I was proud to serve. I just knew that I couldn’t spend another 15 years doing things the Army way. The ‘smart’ choice at the time would have been to re-enlist. I had a wife and we’d just discovered we were about to be parents. They offered me $20,000 and choice of assignment, plus a long-term training gig.
But a career in the military wasn’t my dream. So I didn’t let it become my life.
I got out of the service, and I did what we all do at one time or another in our lives – I scratched out a meager living working shit jobs. The first one wasn’t bad, actually. I worked for IBM, but that wasn’t for me, either, for different reasons than the Army but actually kinda the same ones. So I took a stint as a hotel clerk, auto parts delivery guy, even a tree limber. All the while, I was waiting for the testing cycle to come around so I could become a police officer.
Being a cop wasn’t my dream in the same way being a writer was, but it was something I’d always aspired to. And when I was hired and pinned on that badge, it was one of my proudest days. So was the day I took it off.
I spent twenty years in a variety of roles as a cop – patrol officer, detective, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major. That’s the nice thing about that career. Whether you move laterally or promote, you can find yourself in a new-ish job pretty frequently. Or you can pick a spot and stay there for the most part. Whatever works for you.
Even after a couple of years on the job, I started thinking about doing twenty and getting out to write full time. It started as a sort of stretch/backup plan, a wouldn’t-it-be-nice plan. But I was fortunate in that there was deferred compensation option as part of our contract and even more fortunate in that the city matched up to 4% a year if you put into it. So I started socking money away. It wasn’t always a lot. I had two kids by then, and I got divorced, so money was sometimes tight. But I managed to at least put enough away to get the matching funds, and as the years passed, I raised my deductions until I was putting in the max allowed.
My career went well. I was happy about it much of the time, usually still satisfied even when I wasn’t happy, and occasionally angry. But I was also writing again, this time more seriously. I started publishing short stories, and then my first novel in 2006. A second followed in 2007, and by 2010, I had a bona fide series out there. I was that emotionally needy looking author at the table near the front door of the bookstore, peddling my latest. I was being interviewed by the newspaper. Writing was still something between a hobby and a dream, though. See, I was making well over six figures a year as a police leader and my position demanded a lot of my time. Writing ended up taking second or third place, and I struggled to fit it into the cracks of my life instead of it being what it had always been. A dream of life. And that’s still what I wanted it to be.
Things around my department became pretty chaotic in the final few years of my career. At the end, I was working for a tyrant leader and some bad bosses, and once they decided to move to a position where I could no longer bring any benefit to the men and women I led (because the position was strictly administrative), I took a hard look at where I was. I had zero upward influence with this chief. Now I would have zero downward influence. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my principles to join the in-group. So why was I sticking around and eating shit every day?
Can’t think of a good reason? Neither could I. Despite the large salary, despite the job benefits, the prestige, all of it, I put in my resignation the next day. I had some vacation time on the books, so I used it up as a form of terminal leave. At 45 years old, I retired from the police department at twenty years and a day.
Everyone I’ve talked to who has retired, particularly from a very secure job, has said that they went through a time of abject fear right before or right after. Fear of the unknown, the what now? The what’s next? I didn’t experience that fear. Because I knew what was next.
I started writing full time.
My wife and I downsized what we could where we lived, and then a couple of years later, we downsized even more by moving into a home a third the size of the ‘mansion on the hill’ we’d purchased when I was a police major. I didn’t care, and neither did she. The things we gave up were just things. Between her salary as a teacher and the money I drew from my deferred compensation fund, we had sufficient income. When we needed some more, I did some consulting for a leadership program. It wasn’t as drastic as the Travis McGee retirement-in-chunks approach, but I’ll tell you what it was…it was pursuing my dream. With my life.
When I left the job, a lot of people were surprised. Some couldn’t get their heads wrapped around the fact that I would leave a position with that kind of pay and benefits and the security of civil service. That is a prevailing attitude. Most leave civil service in one of three ways: Fired, retired, or dead. I can think of less than a handful of us that left my old agency in another way. Colin is one. He left to fulfill his dreams in real estate. I know another named Tony who left to return to the family farm after sixteen years on the job. And me.
Some might ask, why not hunker down in my emotional bomb shelter and hang on for another year, or two, or five. After all, the tyrant leader in question only lasted about three more years. Would there have been a benefit to staying longer? If so, how much of one?
Let’s look at that question from three different perspectives. First, the financial. In my retirement system, I gained 2% per year (it’s actually calculated down to the day, but let’s keep it simple). So at 20 years, I sat at 40%. Of what? My highest average salary over a five year span. For round numbers, let’s use $100,000. At twenty years, I get 40%. That’s 40K a year in retirement at age 53 (I’ll be drawing at age 50 with the penalty, but the reasons for that might make another interesting guest blog post. - stay tuned folks, it's already scheduled - Colin). If I stayed another year, I’m at 21 years or 42%, which equal $42,000/yr. Five years, and I’m at 50% and that’s $50,000 a year in retirement. So does it make a difference? Yes. How much of one? Well, for every extra year, it’s $2000/yr higher in retirement. Can that add up? Sure. So all things being equal, staying longer nets you a positive return.
But there’s another perspective, one that examines other, personal considerations. These were certainly present in my situation (as with anyone who has ever been faced with an unsavory work situation, a tyrant boss, or something similar). These other considerations are just as straightforward as the financials. How much are your principles worth? How important is it to remain true to yourself? How important is it not to feel miserable at work and know that no good is coming of that misery for you or anyone else…except two percent a year? It’s a yes/no proposition. Is the additional amount worth it? For me, that two percent didn’t stack up against losing who I was as a person.
The third perspective is this: is that extra amount, whatever it is, enough to keep you from pursuing your dream now? Is an extra $167/month you’ll get in retirement for staying a year longer a fair price to keep you away from that dream of life for one more year? Hey, it’s an honest question, and everyone should do the math and then ask themselves that question. If it’s not worth it, then your decision is clear—make the move. If it is worth it, then stay on. But when you get ready to answer this question, I would ask you to keep one thing in mind. See, I frequently hear from people in emails or social occasions or at bookstore appearances who say that their dream is to be a writer. But some of them never actually do anything about it. They are enamored with the dream, and as long as they don’t try and fail, the dream is safe. Taking actual steps toward it can lead to failure and the death of the dream. And so, excuses abound. Too focused on work, on family, on fixing things around the house, or watching TV. So when you’re faced with the math and asking yourself if it’s worth it to stay, make sure the numbers are true, and it isn’t your fear talking. Remember all those retired folks I mentioned earlier? None of them regret not staying longer, at least not the ones I know. Most say they wish they’d gone sooner.
Being out of law enforcement, and out of the security of a job like that, opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. It changed my perception of what I want versus what I need. Thanks to some downsizing, I’m fortunate in that we don’t need to live a pauper’s life. I budgeted my deferred compensation to last a little longer than it will take for me to be eligible to draw my retirement at age 50 (again, early and with penalty). My wife continues to work as a teacher. I do some consulting. And I write.
After years of knowing what day I’d get paid and almost exactly how much it would be, the vagaries of royalties (and the reading public) were a definite change. Over the course of my writing career, I’ve had months where I’ve sold hundreds of books and there are months where breaking a hundred is a close call. There were even three magical months where I sold between eight and eleven thousand copies a month. It was a nice taste of what could be, might be, may well still be.
See, the money isn’t the point. It is only a tool. Yes, I had to be pay attention and be smart with it so we’d have enough to live and not scratch by, but it isn’t the focus. In fact, once you stop considering money as anything except a tool, things open up. You can spend your days writing, for example.
I’m proud to have served five years in the Army. I’m proud to have served twenty years and a day on the police force. But I think I’m proudest that I wasn’t afraid to walk away from either one simply because I was afraid about money. In the end, my duty done, I saw a chance to take my dream and make it my life, and I took it.
I’m still taking it.
To find more about Frank Scalise / Zafiro, please visit his website at www.frankzafiro.com
He’s also on Twitter at @Frank_Zafiro and Facebook at facebook.com/frank.zafiro
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about how our book, Some Degree of Murder, came about, keep your ears open. Frank is launching a podcast related to crime fiction writers and that subject will be in one of the early episodes.