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Columns : In My Sights

Blind Ambition

Are you sure that making the next rank will make you happy?

May 01, 2008  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

"If a man aspires to the highest place, it is no dishonor to him to halt at the second, or even at the third."

—Marcus Tullius Cicero

One of the early impressions I had upon graduating from the academy was the need to start studying for the sergeant's exam that I would be eligible to take in three years. Tucson was a fast growing city and its constant growth was making it a great agency for promotion.

My peer group was one sharp, educated, adventurous, and competitive gang of rookies fresh out of the academy. JW, my roommate, had trophies from wrestling and shooting championships his college team had won. Charlie was a brilliant bagpipe-playing fellow with a degree in Astronomy, which I judged useless as I discussed it with him sitting there with my political science degree sitting safely in my résumé. Sam was fluent in several languages and would eventually end up doing HALO jumps as an officer in the U.S. Army since police work didn't satisfy his high "risk thermostat."

Youth brings a certain ambition and idealism that only time and experience can shape into what becomes our lives. The problem is, things don't become clear until we have already lived much of that life…and "aye," to quote poor Hamlet, "there's the rub."

We would often sit window to window in our patrol units opining that once we were in charge this or that would happen. We were working in a city plagued with crime, but we envisioned a day when our wisdom would guide the department and peace would reign.

Of course, to be able to take over and rule our world we would have to beat our good friends and cohorts sitting just a few feet away in the other vehicle. The pyramid only has one point. Oddly, this unspoken truth didn't interfere with our coordinating a study group, constantly preparing for the upcoming sergeant's exam.

I left Tucson to join the Department of Public Safety before that first exam was given, but my amigos did well. Sam took off for OCS and I took off for the State. My career with DPS also had that same promotion ambition at first, but then I began to reflect more and more on the cost of rank and what I was really ambitious for. I made agent my first try and sergeant my second, but in failing the first time to make sergeant I began to actually look at what promotion was about.

My personal ambition was something I had kept projecting onto all of the really great officers and investigators I kept trying to make take the promotional exam with me. I often begged these folks to join my study group, as they would certainly be great sergeants or great lieutenants.

One day it hit me, I mean really hit me, epiphany style. While I kept studying and driving and looking toward the next rank, these men and women were living the adventure of their lives right this second. They were great agents and investigators and their lives were rich, happy, and full.

All of my friends have followed their own paths. Most of my friends and companions found that the true ambition for them wasn't rank, but various trails law enforcement opens for each of us…it's just up to you to choose the one for you.

Rank has its own rewards, but becoming a great sergeant or officer or investigator is a great legacy in its own right. And those who come up to me at seminars all over this country and say, "You know, Buck Savage helped me get through the academy," remind me that some of the most important things I have done in life were not as a lieutenant, but as an officer, a father, a husband, or a friend…Think about it.

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