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Milestones

The Zero Milestone, seen from a mid distance
The Zero Milestone, Washington, D.C. Photo by Flickr user ilya_ktsn.

Just south of the White House and not far from the Washington Monument, the Zero Milestone has stood for nearly a century to help Americans gauge their distance from the seat of national government.

Except it doesn’t actually help anyone do much of anything. Most Americans do not even know it exists. Also, although it was intended to be the base point for measuring distance on the national highway system, nobody outside the District of Columbia bothers to use it for that purpose. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, the mile markers on Interstate 95 measure the distance not from the Zero Milestone, but from where the highway enters the other end of the state at the North Carolina border.

Milestones – physical objects, originally in the shape of obelisks – have been with us since the days of ancient Rome. At certain times and in certain places, they told travelers the distance to significant towns farther down the road. These days our milestones are not stones at all; they are metal markers placed on the side of the highway. They seldom tell you where you are going, except when counting down to the next state line. But a lot of travelers, myself included, notice them anyway. It is human nature to look back periodically at how far we have come.

I suppose this is why we count our birthdays and anniversaries. It would be more useful to know how many years remain rather than how many we have already experienced. But we can’t get that information from a calendar, so we celebrate or at least reflect on what has already passed.

We also love round numbers. Psychologists, social scientists and marketers labor to tell us why we make a big deal out of a new decade or new century. But there is no doubt that we fixate on figures ending in zero, or sometimes five.

I turned 60 this month, and tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of when I left Arthur Andersen to start my own financial planning firm. They are just numbers, but they are the sort of numbers that inspire a look back.

I knew 25 years ago that I wanted to build something that could eventually exist independently of me. But it wasn’t until I started hiring and training young associates that I came to understand how many lives a business like Palisades Hudson can affect. There are the several hundred families we serve, of course. There are the 28 of us who currently work in the firm, plus dozens of spouses and children, along with former employees who worked here while they were in school or just launching their working careers before moving on to other things. There are also the parents who expended enormous energy and money raising the smart, caring, motivated young people who came to work for me. I always felt gratitude toward those parents and an obligation to treat their daughters and sons the way I would want my own children to be treated in the workplace. There were the many clients who became close personal friends to me and to my colleagues, and who celebrated our achievements and sang our praises to their friends and family, contributing a great deal to our success.

Through it all, there was my wife Linda. She supported the idea of launching the business when we had a young family and mine was our only income. She then came to work here, and recruited and mentored many of the staff who will form the next generation or two behind me.

As for turning 60, I know quite a few people who have trouble celebrating that particular milestone. I think it comes from viewing this age as the end of something – youth, or middle age, or just “the 50s.” Around the time I turned 50 there were a lot of people declaring “50 is the new 40.” It seems 60 is just … 60. What comes after 60 is 70 because, again thanks to human nature, we overlook all those odd-ending numbers in between.

I am having an easier time being 60. When Linda asked what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for an elaborate laser-tag game (I discovered it when one of my friends appeared in this promotional video) and a drone I can use for aerial photography. To paraphrase a recent president, if you don’t like your age, don’t act your age. Whatever your age currently happens to be, I promise that when you look back at it a dozen years from now, it is going to seem young. So you are young; you just don’t realize it yet.

When I was a new financial planner, I was trained to give retirement planning seminars to audiences who were about the age that I have now reached. I used to teach that it is important to retire “to” something rather than “from” something. In other words, life is always more rewarding when we get up in the morning with a purpose for the day.

I do not intend to retire any time soon, but that does not mean I must keep doing the same things I have done for the past 25 years. Until now, my job has been to build a successful business and to give our clients the best possible service. That is still important, but my colleagues can do most of that now.

I am beginning to lay the groundwork for an eventual transition of the business to the next generation of owners and leaders. The first meeting of our new management board will take place in Florida next month. If all goes according to plan, the board will prepare my daughters – who have their own careers – to be effective stewards of Palisades Hudson’s principles and values, and to work well with the nonfamily managers and executives, who grew up here and helped build the company. I expect it to be a 10- or 15-year process because, of course, we all like to work in round numbers.

And what then? Well, I’ll retire to something else. Traveling and spending more time with Linda, I presume. Time with my daughters and their families too. There will be drones to fly and laser tag battles to fight.

It is fine to look back for a bit when we reach one of these milestones, but I believe contentment comes more often from looking forward to a future we can share with the people closest to us. I am very fortunate to be able to do just that.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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