015: Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

In This Episode: Do you have a big, overriding goal in life? Most really haven’t thought about it. Those who did often gave up after awhile, and maybe led a fine life, but never reached their big goal, their dream, their aspiration. But every few months, I hear of some humble person who kept their focus on their goal, and succeeded so well, their story goes viral. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this episode is about charity: I already covered that. No, this is the story of achieving a big goal — and how Uncommon Sense played a role.

015: Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

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Do you have a big, overriding goal in life? Most really haven’t thought about it. Those who did often gave up after awhile, and maybe led a fine life, but never reached their big goal, their dream, their aspiration. But every few months, I hear of some humble person who kept their focus on their goal, and succeeded so well, their story goes viral. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this episode is about charity: I already covered that. No, this is the story of achieving a big goal — and how Uncommon Sense played a role.

Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

You may have seen in the news at the end of the year a story about Alan Naiman of Seattle, Washington. He died about a year before, but recently portions of his Last Will and Testament were made public, because he funded some charities he loved.

For instance, the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent, Washington. PICC is the nation’s first “interim care nursery.” They take in about 200 newborn babies every year who were exposed to drugs before they were born. They don’t really need hospital care anymore, but aren’t quite ready to go home to their family yet — so, interim care. If the baby is addicted to drugs that the mother took during pregnancy, once stabilized in a hospital, PICC is available to provide the medical care they need before going home. That benefits society not just because they help babies improve their start in life, but the kind of care they provide is a lot cheaper than hospital stays, saving taxpayers significant amounts of money. It’s something health insurance should cover, just because it is so much cheaper — but they probably don’t.

And PICC doesn’t just help the babies and be done. They train the families to do continuing care to, as they say, “help ensure long-term success.” And Naiman gave PICC … the biggest donation they have ever received. I’ll tell you how much in a moment.

There were other children’s charities in his will, such as the Make-A-Wish foundation, which helps grant the wishes of children diagnosed with critical illnesses. And Boys Town in Nebraska, founded 100 years ago as an orphanage for boys. Today it not only cares for girls, too, but their parenting and child behavior experts publish material online to help parents … be better parents. What a nice way to leverage their hard-won knowledge to help the world.

He donated to Treehouse, which works to ensure Seattle area foster children get an education, with the goal that they graduate from high school at the same rate that other kids do, and have a chance to go to college, which is a true investment in the future.

Now, his bequests weren’t all for children: Naiman provided for Disabled American Veterans. Their mission sounds pretty obvious, but a big part of what they do is to help disabled veterans get through the maze of bureaucracy to get the benefits they’re entitled to, but aren’t getting. So far, they’ve helped veterans receive $4.3 billion in retroactive benefits, one at a time …but they help more than a million veterans a year — that’s a big need. And Naiman’s parents’ Catholic church also got a bequest.

So enough mystery: the specific amount Naiman gave to every charity wasn’t reported, but a few were. That first one, the interim care place for drug-addicted newborns, they got $2-1/2 million. Treehouse got $900,000. In all, he gave away $11 million.

“OK, that’s nice, but so what?” you might ask. Sure, it’s great that a millionaire gave his fortune away when he died, just like I was talking about in Episode 12.

Except for the fact that no one knew Naiman was a rich guy. Let me back up a little bit. Susan Madsen, one of Naiman’s friends, said that, “Growing up as a kid, with an older disabled brother, kind of colored the way he looked at things.” Naiman’s brother had a developmental disability. When their parents died, it fell to Naiman to take care of his brother. There aren’t any other details about the brother, but their parents saved their money carefully and, when his mother died and, later, his father, their estate went to Naiman, probably to help make sure he could take care of his older brother.

And this is supposition, since a lot of the personal details are being kept private: Naiman, who adored his big brother, probably realized that the money his parents left for their eldest son’s care might not last him his whole life. Or worse, what if his older brother outlived him? So Naiman saved too, just like his parents did. He had a good job, at the state of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, working nights to handle calls for emergency assistance. His salary, toward the end, was $67,234 a year. Pretty good wages indeed, but certainly not enough to make him rich.

Naiman, at work at Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services in 2013. (Photo: Susan Madsen)

Or was it? Since Naiman worked nights, that left him free during the day — once he got some sleep! He wasn’t married, and didn’t have kids, so he took other jobs on the side. And he saved and saved, just like his parents did. Friends say he drove an old car, patched his shoes with duct tape until they were really worn out, and was always on the lookout for bargains. Don’t worry: he wasn’t a cheap bastard! He would take friends out to lunch, for instance, but they wouldn’t go to a fancy place. The usual word they use to describe him is “frugal.” And there’s nothing terribly unusual about that: they certainly knew that a social worker’s salary isn’t a lot in a place like Seattle, the sixth-most-expensive city to live in, in the United States.

Before he worked for the state, Naiman was a banker, so he did understand money. After seeing to his brother’s needs, and his own living arrangements, he invested the rest.

He had another friend from his banking days. Shashi Karan was apparently the only one who knew how much Naiman was worth, because Naiman asked him to be the executor of his will — to make sure the money he had saved would go to the charities he chose.

Karan said Naiman didn’t feel like it was a sacrifice to be frugal and save. “Saving money was sort of a game to him,” Karan said. “He would brag about how he had a whole day out and didn’t have to spend a single cent.”

So, if the personal details were kept private, how do I know that he was doing all of this for his brother? Because when his brother died, in 2013, Naiman splurged a little. He bought some new shoes! OK, and a new car: Karan took a picture of him with it since it was so unusual for him to actually spend money on himself.

Naiman, sporting new shoes (and, behind him, his new Scion FR-S). (Photo: Shashi Karan)

But when his brother died, Naiman didn’t just go and blow the money, now that he didn’t need the cash for his brother. He stayed at his job, kept being “frugal,” and kept saving, and investing, with a new goal in mind: supporting organizations that he saw were making a difference in the world.

But then he got bad news: he was diagnosed with cancer. That’s why he recruited Karan to be his executor, and drew up a will, and, Karan says, researched what specific charities he wanted to give to. By the time he died a year ago, at 63, he had quite a nest egg, and that’s what he gave to all of those children’s charities, and the veterans, and the family church.

In all, it was about $11 million — on a salary of $67,000 a year, for 20 years, working for the state. Even if you assume he made that salary for all 20 years, and he certainly didn’t, 20 times $67,000 is a pretty good chunk of change: that’s $1.34 million. Minus food, rent, taxes, utilities, and everything else normal people have to figure out how to pay. So to end up with $11 million at age 63 shows what being “frugal” can do — when combined with careful investments.

Would you agree that, to pull off a long-term plan like this, and then to refocus it to a new plan when the first wasn’t needed, Naiman pretty much had to have had Uncommon Sense?

Why he chose some of those charities is interesting. PICC, the interim care organization, came to Naiman’s attention on the job. He got a call late at night asking for help with a newborn, and he called PICC to see if they could help. Their founder got out of bed, in the middle of the night, to come out and pick up the baby. Naiman noticed that dedication. For Treehouse, Naiman chose them because years ago, he had been a foster parent, and used their services.

He didn’t go around making speeches, or become a professional fundraiser or something. That probably wasn’t his style. Being frugal was his style. Saving and investing for a really specific purpose, like taking care of his brother? That was his style. And when his brother died and he was released from that responsibility, Naiman wasn’t going to change his style. He was going to come up with another specific purpose. And he pulled it off, big time. $11 million big.

And most of the places he left his money to didn’t even know who he was. He was just working anonymously for his purpose, and when he wasn’t around to invest the money anymore? Well, it was ready to fund organizations doing work he cared about: helping babies, orphans, veterans and more. He saw organizations like PICC and Treehouse that sound to me like they are operated with Uncommon Sense too — they do a lot of good with probably very limited money. People with Uncommon Sense notice when they see others that have it, and are putting it to work, so no wonder Naiman chose them.

So no, you don’t have to be a billionaire like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet — or win the lottery! — to make a difference. A social worker from the night shift named Alan Naiman did, and he did it with style. His own style to leave a mark after he was gone.

But really, this isn’t about giving away your fortune to the seemingly infinite good causes out there. It’s not about charity at all. It’s about how you can, if you choose, focus your attention on a goal, even a huge one, and make major strides toward making it happen — even something that makes the news and inspires millions of others …which is a good goal in itself. It’s just a matter of carefully and purposefully cultivating Uncommon Sense, even if you’re already as old now as Naiman was when he died. If you are listening to this, there’s still time to make a positive impact on the world.

You can comment on this, see a couple of photos of Naiman, or read the transcript, on the Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast15

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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1 Comment on “015: Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

  1. A group called PICC that provides emergency care for infants and no PICC line for babies reference? Surely it occurred to you. Some of us would have cracked up.

    I don’t tend to make jokes in the podcast (or the Honorary Unsubscribe); they’re both more serious. (For those who don’t know, in medicine a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter is a type of I.V. line, often used to deliver drugs over time.) -rc


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