Hanging with High Achievers

03/13/2015 11:42 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015


"You're simply the best
Better than all the rest"

-- Tina Turner

Louisville attorney Nick King, who was considered one of the best trial attorneys in the 1980s in Kentucky, told me that he never really wanted to be "the best" trial attorney in the state.

He said that, "If you are considered 'the absolute best,' you spend too much time thinking about your ranking and not enough about the skills that got you there. What I want to be is 'one of the best.'"

A great philosophy.

I have not seen Nick in many years and I doubt he would remember that casual conversation. He had a defective rifle blow up in his hand and received a multimillion dollar verdict. Nick didn't use the money on a fancy house or a new Rolls Royce; he set up a charity designed to help young people in disadvantaged communities. He served on the Kentucky Supreme Court and got away from trial.

But he gave me a thought that has dominated my thinking for the past 30 years. What makes a high achiever different from someone who plods through life?

Being the Friend of a High Achiever


"When you know that you've got a real friend somewhere
Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear"

-- Jackson Browne

Almost all of my closest friends are high achievers in some aspect of their life. My father had the same dynamic. My father was a Cincinnati area bookie with a 10th grade education, but when he died, the church was filled with super successful, and many locally famous, people. Some did business with him. Some did not.

There is an excitement and energy of being with people who are confident about who they are and enthused about what they do. It is fun. They take you to the next level with them.

The first thing high achievers understand is that time is their most valuable asset, and they are not willing to waste it. It's tough to get them to give their time to someone. It's even tougher to be someone they give that time to.

I am Chairman of RRP International Publishing, which is releasing Dr. Jim Roach's book, God's House Calls: Finding God Through My Patients, on March 31. Jim is universally considered "one of the best" Integrative Medicine physicians in the world.

He manages every minute of his day well.

Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, said about Dr. Jim: "You are the most encyclopedic man I have ever met. They should take your brain and put it in the Smithsonian if and when you ever die."

As we finish the book, I interact with Dr. Jim multiple times a day. He has become a very close friend. I've lost 75 pounds since November and I no longer have diabetes or take medicine for it. During my daily interactions, Jim has given me terrific advice and oversees my path to health.

I also can pinpoint exactly at what time of the day Dr. Jim is going to contact me. I can tell you when he is spending time with patients, when he is on one of his (twice a day) walks, when he is doing research, when he is at a church activity and when he blocks off time for his family. He rarely deviates and plots his schedule carefully. Actually, he doesn't really plot the schedule. His habits are so ingrained that they just happen.

He's lived in the small city of Midway, Kentucky, where he literally knows everyone, for most of his life. He's been happily married to Dee Dee since 1976. They work together and they do their walk together every night.

Dr. Jim seems to literally know everyone, but his true inner circle is tight and dominated by his family. His closest, lifelong friend is a janitor. They know everything about each other and have the kind of deep friendship and trust that takes a lifetime to build.

As I look at high achievers in every field, the concept of a tight circle of friends comes up over and over again.

Johnny Bench and his Inner Circle


My father was a friend of baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Bench was not "one of the best." He is without question the greatest baseball catcher who ever lived.

Bench had all the potential "friends" that you could ever dream of, but I suspect that the reason that Bench has had such a successful post-baseball life is that he kept his inner circle very small.

Life Lessons from the Lottery, a book I wrote in 2012, cites a number of reasons why sports stars run through their money within five years after retirement. Not Johnny Bench. He never acquired "the posse" that caused people like Allen Iverson or Lenny Dykstra to run through millions of dollars. Bench did not play at a time when players received $100 million contracts, but seems to be doing just fine. He had perspective and balance. He stayed very close to his parents, who I got to know, and his mom and dad were not shy about helping their superstar son keep his ego in check.

I saw Johnny's dad every month. Every time, Mr. Bench would get on me about the junk food I ate. If I had listened to him then, I might not have needed Dr. Jim 40 years later.

Also, the guys that Bench befriended were top achievers themselves. They were local versions of Johnny Bench in their respective professions. Roger Kahn captured many of their personalities in his great book, A Season in the Sun.

The dapper "Cadillac" Charlie Shanks was a high powered engineer with General Motors. "The Music Professor" Jim LaBarbara was a Hall of Fame radio personality. Jim "Squirrel" Stadtmiller was the top broadcasting sales guy in Cincinnati. Jeff Ruby became a Cincinnati legend in the restaurant business, and Burch Riber was a genius at bringing big time LPGA and PGA golf tournaments to Cincinnati. Dr. Luis Gonzalez was a world famous surgeon who operated on Johnny when he had a spot on his lung. Princes of the city.

They were not economically dependent on Bench, and Bench was not dependent on them. The connection was true friendship.

Bench showed that friendship and loyalty were badges of honor to him. Also, he had a sign of a strong sense of survival. Pete Rose is one of the most accessible superstars you will ever meet. His inner circle was more like a baseball arena. It got filled with bad people with bad motives, who became part of the reason that Pete lost everything. Go back to when Pete got in trouble with gambling and the users, suck ups and rats had a lot to do with it. Add in the enablers. The group of "friends" who kept encouraging him to lie rather than coming clean.

Pete has repented now and understood that he really screwed up. It's time for baseball to grant forgiveness, but I suspect that if Pete had a small and solid core like Johnny did, he would have avoided all trouble to begin with.

The rap on Johnny was that he was aloof and hard to get to know. The men in his inner circle would say just the opposite. He was shy, but careful.

"Big Joe" McNay befriended Johnny when Johnny was 18 and just made it to Cincinnati. Dad seemed to be the father figure, or at least the big brother, to guys like Bench, Squirrel and Jeff Ruby, who were about 15 years younger. It would have been easy, and in fact practical, for a guy like Bench to ditch Dad and "trade up" to a different group of friends once Johnny became famous. It never happened.

Johnny was a friend, not a client of Dad's, but having a professional gambler in an athlete's inner circle would be impossible in the Facebook and YouTube era. Even 40 years ago, it would have been simpler for Johnny to move on.

Instead, I credit him for giving Dad his last month of life.

In January 1993, I thought Dad had reached his last day. His prostate cancer had spread all over his body and he was in unbearable pain. You could literally hear the tumors breaking the bones in his ribs on about an hourly basis.

Suddenly, Dad got a call from Johnny Bench. Bench found out about Dad's cancer while playing in the Bob Hope Desert Classic, a big PGA golf tournament in Palm Springs, CA. When he got the news, Bench borrowed his playing partner Donald Trump's cell phone (cell phones were not common in 1992) and called Dad from right in the middle of the golf course in the middle of a PGA event.

I have not seen Johnny since Dad died, but when I do I am going to thank him for giving Dad another month of life. The call from Bench literally brought Dad back from the dead. He was so psyched that a guy like Johnny Bench would make that tremendous gesture of friendship. It really pumped him up.

Dad lived another month. We got another month of his love and wisdom. He talked about the call from Johnny every day until he died.

Maybe that is why Bench was the highest of achievers. God gave him values and perspective to go along with his incredible athletic talents. He understood that good friends are far more valuable than any other riches.

Where do you find those high achievers?


"They say just once in life
You find someone that's right
But the world looks so confused
I can't tell false from true"

-Karla Bonoff

"My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest and unmerciful."
-Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing the writer Lester Bangs in the movie Almost Famous

I don't know what motivates someone to be a high achiever, but I know one when I see one. I usually have an intense desire to have them in my life.

My wife, Karen Thomas McNay, is president of the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, the oldest all girls school in the United States. People think it is her great beauty that first attracted me to her (let's be honest, that did not hurt), but it was really her intellect and desire for excellence that made me chase her for months to get my first date and for another stretch to get a second one.


The first major attorney to use my structured settlement services was one of the best trial attorneys in the world, Peter Perlman. I've made a lot of money over the past 33 years from the clients and attorneys that Pete has referred to me, but what I really value is his friendship. He is a neat guy. He pushes me to work at his level of perfection that has benefited his clients and all my clients after that, but the trait you notice about Pete is his fantastic loyalty. He gives back. He wins a boatload of awards for helping other lawyers, but does just as much that never gets recognized. Pete is being named to the Hall of Distinguished Alumni at the University of Kentucky for his achievements in his career, but they really need to have students emulate his heart and loyalty.

When I had surgery in December, Pete called and checked in on a regular basis. I heard from him yesterday. He drove for hours in the snow to be at my father's funeral. Like a Johnny Bench or Dr. Jim, his true circle is small even though he knows everyone and has universal respect.

Pete has some interesting hobbies. Like my grandson, daughters and step daughter, he is an avid comic book collector. ComicCon is in Lexington, Kentucky this weekend and I won't be surprised if Pete is there. There's a lot more to Pete than practicing law.

I pinpoint the concept of keeping a small inner circle. Probably because most of the world follows the Will Rogers quote of "spending money they don't have to impress people they don't know." I personally wound up with a group of loyal, successful and high achieving friends, but it was nothing that I planned.

Pete Mahurin, who is sometimes called "The Warren Buffet of Kentucky," is fascinated with high achievers and put up a million dollars of his money to his alma mater Western Kentucky University for a Center for Gifted Studies. Pete has a theory that gifted people inspire other gifted people when they have a community. They bounce ideas off each other. They give honest feedback and bring each other to a higher level.

With modern communications, the community does not have to be based on geography but by common interest and connection.


My daughter Gena Bigler is a fundraising and personal finance guru and RRP International is publishing her book Frugal Spending for Rich Living: A Holistic Approach to Money this spring. She watches non-profits make the same mistake over and over again. They ask "big money" people for donations without taking the time to develop a relationship. They pitch ideas they are interested in instead of asking the potential donor as to how to spend their money.

High achievers have small circles for a practical reason. Too many people want to have a "drive by" relationship with them with the hopes of getting a piece of their money or success. It's easier not to trust than it is to "trust and verify."

Gena runs into the same thing I see over and over again. Non-profits spend a lot of time hoping that some huge donor, with no connection to the cause, will drop out of nowhere and fund one of their pet projects.

They would have a better chance if they bought lottery tickets. The odds are 171 million to one.

Are High Achievers Born or Made?


"But there never seems to be enough time to do to the things
You want to do once you find them"

-Jim Croce

"And my only boss was the clock on the wall
And my only friend never really was a friend at all"

-Jim Croce

Is it possible for external factors to motivate someone to be a high achiever? If you were not born with some incredible intellect or talent, are you out of luck? Can you make it as a high achiever by hard work and determination? What makes it happen?

There can be that "instant attraction" when two high achievers meet each other. My first, and really only friend, in New Orleans is a high powered investment analyst who commutes from New York to New Orleans. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met, speaks several languages, can tell you where the world economy will be a year from now and plays the bagpipes. He is a truly fascinating guy and the first time we met, we sat and talked for hours. I went to his house the next night (dressed in a golf shirt, not knowing he was hosting a formal dinner) and we talked for hours again. He got me a wonderful DVD called Ivory Tower that examines the high cost of college.

You see how complicated developing friendships gets in middle age. Both of us are intensely busy, live in different cities and travel frequently for work. When we both are in New Orleans at the same time, we both want to spend our precious time with our families, and our families don't want to give up the small amount of time they get with us.

Thus, you reach an age where you have fascinating people in your life and know you can call them 24/7, but may go a year or so without talking to them. On the other hand, the sign of a true friendship is knowing you can go for a year, or decade, without communication and pick up the bond as though there was no sign of interruption.

Maybe that ability to bond is the key to really high achievement. Having an intuitive sense of trust, which is knowing who is in your life just because you enjoy each other's company. Once you have been burned a few times you err on the side of caution, but the high achievers get the balance of relationships right. Most people don't. My true expertise is helping people like injury victims and lottery winners with wealth transitions. They go from poor to rich very quickly and find that a lot of new (and old) "friends" are only interested in their checkbook.

Pulitzer Prize winning historian James MacGregor Burns discussed the concept of transactional versus transformational leadership in his book Leadership. Transactional is trading favor for favor and transformational are those, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, whose leadership transforms the people around them.

Maybe the great gift that high achievers have is a micro level ability to take those around them to a higher level. People like Dr. Jim Roach and Peter Perlman get me to want to take my mind to a level that I have never been to before. A guy like Johnny Bench could lead his team to world championships, but I am most impressed that he literally bought another month of life for my father with a well-timed phone call.

I don't think it is overt, but high achievers have a sixth sense of who is worthy of their most precious commodity, time, and who is looking for instant gratification.

The ability to manage that time is what makes a high achiever a high achiever.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC of Lexington Kentucky is a best-selling author, Chairman of McNay Settlement Group Inc, McNay Consulting LLC, Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC and RRP International Publishing. He has Masters Degrees from Vanderbilt University and the American College and is in the Hall of Distinguished Alumni for Eastern Kentucky University, where he is on the Board of Directors for the Eastern Kentucky University Foundation.