“We’re lost in a cloud with too much rain
We’re trapped in a world that’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly”
Today is my 55th birthday. Of the people I most admired alive during my lifetime, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Elvis, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zant, Pete Maravich and John Lennon didn’t make it this far. Steve Jobs made it one year past 55, Tim Russert three, and my dad four.
I’ve completely lapped Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison.
“Feeling all of 45, going on 15”
My mindset and worldview has always been “45 going on 15.” I embrace change, I love new ideas and technology and I feel young. But hitting 55 is one of the moments when you realize the clock is ticking.
A milestone birthday is a time to contemplate where you’ve been, where you are going next and how much time you have to get it completed.
Who you are starts with your parents. My mother gave me blue eyes and beautiful blond hair. (The hair left a couple of decades ago, but I still have the eyes.) My father was tall and had a high IQ. He passed those down to me. I got my mother’s temper but missed on her propensity to cuss like a sailor.
“If I die young, bury me in satin”
–The Band Perry
No one in my family has lived to an old age. My grandfather and sister died young in accidents. Cancer took my dad and grandmother before ages 60 and 65. My mom had a sudden aneurysm at 67. I’ve studied actuarial science and know how family history is a huge predictor of how long we will live. I try to ignore it, but to quote Jackson Browne, “it’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear that I can’t sing, but I can’t help listening.”
“Even the president needs passion
Everybody I know needs some passion
Some people die and kill for passion
Nobody admits they need passion
Some people are scared of passion”
The gift I got from my parents is passion. When I am focused on a goal, my passion and determination go full throttle.
I love competitive situations like sports, political campaigns or beating out a business rival because few people can want it as badly as I do.
I have the confidence, built on 55 years of history, that I am probably going to win.
My mother was a single mother with two children when she decided to make a midlife move from factory worker to nursing. My father was a self-employed gambler whose life was a daily struggle of wins and losses. No matter what happened, you had to come back tomorrow.
Being obese with obsessive work habits, I wonder what it would be like to be more “balanced,” but I learned long before age 55 that I’m never going to be looking for a rocking chair. I’m driven by passion. It’s who I am.
I chased my wife like a starving hunter in the woods until I got her to date me. Then I kicked into another gear to get her to date me a second time (it took a couple of months and football tickets to get date number two) and ultimately marry me.
I knew it was the right decision and I presented my case with my best foot forward.
I started my structured settlement business at age 23. People told me I would never make it. Call 1-800-Mr-McNay right now and you will see that we are still here. Ten years ago, I became a syndicated columnist and bestselling author when everyone told me I was crazy to try.
Few people doubt me anymore and I would be better if more did. Like many of my heroes, I am at my best when popular opinion is totally in the other direction.
Steve Jobs looked to Bob Dylan as a role model. Both were willing to give up a comfortable perch and go in a different direction. They made lots of people mad, but also made history.
“Tell her no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no”
One of the problems for people who get sudden money is that no one in their lives ever says no.
Having a few naysayers can keep us grounded, real or inspire us to prove them wrong.
For my entire adult life, I’ve watched, studied or helped people who have received many millions of dollars. Statistics show about 70 percent of them will run through the money in about five years. I view working with people with big money like an alcohol or drug counselor. We focus on successes as the odds are against us.
Far more than investment savvy, passion and perspective are a key reason why people hang on to their money or run through it quickly.
Walter Isaacson wrote a terrific biography of Steve Jobs and had previously written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. He noted that all had the combination of a creative side, a scientific side and a strong-willed personality.
Money was a byproduct of their pursuit of ideals and endless curiosity. However, all three were good with their money. They understood that financial security allowed them the freedom to keep going after the ideas that drove them.
A strong-willed personality occurs when passion is challenged by people who don’t see the vision. It is a byproduct of self-belief and self-confidence. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “to be great is to be misunderstood.”
When I am excited about an idea, I can tune out all the negative voices and doubt. When I am not truly excited, I hear them all.
The same thing happens to people who get money suddenly. The odds are strong that they never planned on winning the lottery or getting an injury settlement and don’t have passion about hanging onto it. It’s too easy to hand it to others or not spend it wisely.
Many of my injured clients, especially widows, widowers and people who inherit money, have a “blood money” guilt complex because the money came from the death of a loved one. Injured people think that spending money quickly can help them forget their terrible pain.
Several people who lost a loved one think they will die young, too. Those who are severely injured have an honest reason to believe that they will never see themselves celebrating their 100th birthday on a morning show.
Thus, it is easy for them to get off the path of financial security. It was not on their bucket list to begin with. The same holds true with lottery winners, professional entertainers or athletes who get a lot of money at once.
“There’s one more kid that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool”
After the sudden death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cameron Crowe posted a clip from Almost Famous that has literally haunted me since I saw it. You can watch it here.
Hoffman plays the character of Lester Bangs, an early rock and roll critic. Hoffman’s soliloquy on being “uncool” is touching and gripping.
As Hoffman’s character pointed out, “cool” people never produce great art or long-lasting accomplishments. They are popular during their time and then replaced by another group of “cooler” people.
In the war of fame versus accomplishment, fame is a lot easier to make happen quickly, especially when the “rich and famous” are rewarded with the moniker of being “cool.”
I’ve spent decades watching people with sudden money who were “looking for love in all the wrong places,” but until I saw the Almost Famous piece, I never realized what the true connection was.
People blow through their money trying to be cool.
The words “rich and famous” are often used in conjunction. The rich and famous are supposed to be cool. Thus, when someone gets a large sum of money, they think it’s an automatic ticket to total coolness.
It doesn’t really work that way. There is another phrase, “a fool and his money go separate ways,” that prevails within a short period of time.
“Say, when this is all over
You’ll be in clover
We’ll go out and spend
All of your blue money, blue money”
There are entire industries, especially the casino business, that figured out that people will pay all the money they can beg, borrow or steal for the chance to be a big shot or “cool” for a little while.
It’s amazing how many people will tell you that you are smart, beautiful and funny when they think they can get some of your money.
The passion for coolness can overwhelm the desire for financial security. Benjamin Franklin once said that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
To paraphrase Franklin, people who want to trade rock solid financial security for a chance at being cool deserve neither security nor coolness.
As I turn 55, I’ve had enough fame and fortune to know that my desire to be cool has left the building. I’ve always flocked towards uncool people and unpopular causes and as I get older, I recognize that has been a blessing not a curse.
I suspect that one of the reasons that people with large sums of money listen to me is that I have never really cared about the trappings of wealth. I can talk to billionaires without sucking up. Not many people do that well.
I’m not intimidated by big money because of how it is weighed in my world. Your big house and big car are far less important to me than your big contribution to society. If you are not giving back in some way, nothing about you is cool.
I never met Philip Seymour Hoffman, but his clip about being uncool was an unusual birthday present for me. Hoffman, like many of the characters he played in movies, was able to embrace his “uncoolness” with a passion and intensity that will allow his art to live on through the ages. The statement about how “uncool” people have more pain, but ultimately more accomplishment, is profound, true and inspiring.
Embracing the uncool side of your personality gives you a big step over those value systems that are totally screwed up.
“And now I’m in my second circle
And I’m heading for the top
I’ve learned a lot of things along the way”
Many of my heroes didn’t get to celebrate the birthday that I celebrate today. Then I realize that like the poet Vachel Lindsay once said, “to live in mankind is far more than to live in a name.”
Lindsay died at age 52, but his poetry lives on 100 years later.
Fame is fleeting, but accomplishments live forever.
As I plot out my next 55 years, that is a pretty cool thing to remember.
Don McNay (www.donmcnay.com) is a bestselling author, chairman of the board of the McNay Settlement Group (www.mcnay.com), owner of the Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC (www.kentuckyguardianship.com), chairman of RRP International Publishing (www.rrpinternational.org) and the father of two daughters and three grandchildren. He is married to Karen Thomas McNay, the president of the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, and splits his time between central Kentucky and New Orleans. He is also an honorary Duke of Hazard.