I’m not one to dwell on my past much. On the contrary, I’ve sometimes been described as barely living in the present and mostly thinking of the future, which likely reflects my training as a financial planner and investment advisor. In this profession, it’s mostly about the future.
Even though I don’t engage much in past-based thinking, I’ve learned from my personal coach, Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach, Inc.(1), that it is helpful to do what Dan calls Gratitude Focus(1), which is an exercise that asks, What am I grateful about? The way it works is very simple: You give yourself about three minutes to write down everything you are grateful for in life. It’s a great exercise if you’re feeling down because it helps to create a positive attitude as soon as you do it.
Since I’ve been doing the Gratitude Focus exercise for about eight years now, I’ve come to examine things about my past that I really have grown to appreciate. I’ve been intrigued by the choices I’ve made during my lifetime. These choices are responsible for where I am today.
Forks in the Road
The word “decide” can be thought of as being related to the word homicide. It basically means to cut off, eliminate or kill off the alternative. So when you come to a fork in the road you have to decide which road to take. Consider, for example, my decision to join the U.S. Naval Air Reserves rather than being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. I tried to persuade my two friends, Gary and Billy, to do the same. Our birthdays were two months apart, so at age 18 we were called for our pre-induction physicals on the same day. That meant we were about to be drafted into the Army and sent to the jungles of South Vietnam.
Instead of just being a foot solder in the Army, it occurred to me that perhaps I could acquire a marketable skill in the Navy before they sent me into harm’s way. If I survived, I would at least have practical training as a pilot or navigator or some other useful skill-set that I could parlay into a job following my stint in the armed forces.
I tried to convince Gary and Billy to go with me to be tested for the Naval Air Reserve, but they choose not to do so because, as I recall, it was too much effort. I remember them saying they would just let the Army draft them and serve two years and get it over with. I even remember where that conversation took place – as if it were yesterday – because their response seemed so odd to me.
So I ended up in the U.S. Naval Air Reserves and was lucky enough to serve my active duty stateside during the Vietnam War. Both Gary and Billy were drafted into the Army, went to boot camp together and were sent to Vietnam together, but served in different units.
Gary was severely wounded about a month before he was expected to come home. His physical and mental wounds were so bad that he has not been able to work since returning from Vietnam.
Billy was killed in action two weeks before his tour of duty was scheduled to end. I remember it took about two weeks for his body to be returned home. Billy’s name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., along with 60,000 other military personnel who gave their lives in service to their country. To this day, 40 years later, I still cry when I visit the Vietnam Memorial.
So our past is clearly defined by the choices we have made along the way. It reminds me of the quote by Woody Allen: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Growing Up Inside the Family Model
Having choices is good for most people, if not for Woody Allen. However, because we grow up inside the model that our family creates for us, we sometimes aren’t aware of the alternatives because we never look outside that model.
That was the case with me. No one in my family ever went to college. College was not a word in my vocabulary. At least not until I met Mr. Siracusa. Frank Siracusa at the time was a 25-year-old Columbia University graduate who in 1963 was teaching chemistry at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, New York. One day he asked me to stay after class. He took me aside and said, “Ron, you seem to like chemistry. What are your plans after you graduate from high school?” Up to this point in my life no one had ever asked me that question. Quite frankly, I had never thought about it. I just didn’t realize I could choose what future I wanted for myself.
Mr. Siracusa suggested that I think about going to college. “Do you think you might like to work as a chemist?” he asked me. I said yes. After all, I liked chemistry. He not only pointed me towards chemistry, but he also sensed I would need some active guidance to help me get into college. This is an important point, because he took the time to call a friend of his at Bronx Community College who was then head of the school’s Chemistry Department and told him he was sending me along to be interviewed for admission.
I took the “A” train to the Bronx, application in hand. At the interview Mr. David Gorman said, “I see you live in Brooklyn. New York City Community College in downtown Brooklyn has the same program. That would be a much shorter commute for you.” He then called the head of the Chemistry Department at New York City Community College and said he was sending me over for an interview. The rest is history. Today, I have my associate’s degree in chemistry from New York City Community College, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Long Island University and a master of science degree from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. I even began work on a doctorate in economics at Stony Brook University, but did not complete it due to family obligations.
The lessons I learned from this reexamination of the past and the choices I made are:
1. That it doesn’t take much effort or time to make decisions that can have a dramatic impact on someone’s life. It’s also very gratifying to help other people realize their objectives and making a meaningful difference in their lives.
2. When you suggest to someone that they have a choice – which they may not know they have – recognize that you may have to show them how to do what you are suggesting.
3. Don’t dwell on past decisions you regret, move forward by creating your own future. You can’t do anything about the past. Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach says that “Forgiveness is when you give up hope of having a better past.”
The Choices We Make Today Create Our Future
Are you working every day to achieve the kind of future you have in mind? We can’t do anything about the past, but we can work towards the future we want by knowing the choices we have in life. Acting on those choices is what leads us in the desired direction. Dan Sullivan also likes to say, “The future is your property.”
Our Unique Wealth Management Experience® clients have spent time with us discussing and visualizing the future they want. When we start the conversation they usually don’t know how to get to where they want to be because of one or more of the following:
1. They have too much information and are confused about their options.
2. They may not be aware of the choices they have because they are too close to the situation.
3. They don’t know how the numbers play out concerning the plan they are contemplating.
4. They not sure how to handle the uncertainties and risks that are always present in planning for the future.
Mr. Siracusa taught me well, not just chemistry, but about life, the choices we have and how to move forward and achieve long-term goals.
Our entire staff has dedicated their careers to working with clients and addressing the issues connected with meeting their goals. We not only suggest a path to the future they want, but like Mr. Siracusa, we become their active partners in helping them get there.
So thank you, Mr. Siracusa, for caring and making me aware that I had a choice and that I could be the architect of my own future. And thank you for showing me how to get to there too.
P.S. Last month I managed to contact Mr. Siracusa after 43 years to thank him personally for the impact he had on my life. He and I, along with my good friend from high school, Jack Muhlstein, who also had Mr. Siracusa for chemistry, had a delightful lunch that lasted more than four hours. Yesterday, Sept. 30, 2007, Mr. Siracusa and his wife Fran visited Rosanne and me at our home.
Notes: (1) The Strategic Coach and Gratitude Focus are service marks of The Strategic Coach, Inc. For more information about The Strategic Coach program and its publications, visit their Web site at.