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Standing on the Shoulders of Experts

"Most people work from the bottom up. You’re the only one I know who works from the top down." I wasn’t sure it was a compliment or a criticism until he followed up with, "When I said my door was always open, you really didn’t think I meant it, did you?" I did - but he didn’t. And since I never changed my ways, I was always in trouble. What that former employer’s CEO thought was a bad habit, I believe was a good skill - one that I learned from watching my Dad.

When Dad was trying to figure out how to fight forest fires from the air, he got the help of the best experts he could find. For Dad, the best expert was Floyd Nolta, a local Willows, California pilot who had pioneered the process of sowing rice from airplanes. Dad wasn’t alone in his assessment of the man known as "Speed." According to a 2003 Colusa County Sun Herald article, in his final preparation for the attack on Tokyo, then Lt. Col. James "Jimmie" Doolittle turned to his close friend, Floyd Nolta, "…for the final rehearsals of the famous B-25 raid." Under the watchful eye of Nolta, "[Doolittle] and the other ‘raiders’ practiced takeoffs...over and over on an area of the [Willows] runway marked off to replicate the U.S.S. Hornet’s flight deck."

Nolta’s opinion was valued by men like Doolittle and my Dad because they recognized his knowledge. They saw that he was so intimately connected to the fundamentals of aviation that you could almost say he "knew" flying in a biblical sense. True experts (like Nolta) rise to the top because of skills that catapult them off the deck of mediocrity and passions that fuel their ascent to the pinnacle of their professions. Or, as a friend observed, "Most people are content to move with the crowd, but there are those rare few ones who take the time to stick their heads above the crowd to see what is actually going on."

Throughout my career I have sought out such rare individuals in the fields of estate law, accounting, actuarial science, economics, fiduciary practices, and academics. Through their eyes I have been able to see things that the crowd is missing. With their guidance and lots of hard work, I have been able to excel as a retirement distribution planner and prudent fiduciary investor. The accolades I have received for my software on retirement distributions and my book on the Prudent Investor Act are proof of those accomplishments. But it was not fame or fortune that motivated me, it was simply the desire to be the best financial advisor I could be. And that meant not only trying to do things better, but also to do things that no one else was doing.

About twenty years ago I was sitting in a café in the financial district of San Francisco with W. Scott Simon, the second recipient of the Tamar Frankel Fiduciary of the Year Award, and a leading expert on the Uniform Prudent Investor Act and the Restatement (Third) of Trusts. Almost to himself he muttered, "Think of all the people in all those buildings, and no one is doing what we are doing." It still amazes me today what two ordinary guys were able to accomplish with extraordinary motivation and the help of extraordinary people.

My old boss was wrong. Dad showed me that what you know is related to whom you know. By working from the top down, Dad was able to develop a completely new way of fighting fires and Doolittle was able to change the course of the war in the Pacific. My Dad and Doolittle stuck out from the crowd on their own, but their egos did not keep them from seeking out the help of other experts. I, on the other hand, to paraphrase Isaac Newton’s famous quote, have only been able to stick out from the crowd because I am standing on the shoulders of giant experts.