It was 1977, and I was visiting Europe for the first time, spending most of a summer in Italy, Austria, and even driving across the Iron Curtain into Budapest for a day. I was in graduate school, spoke French and German badly, but had minored in European and Russian history, and had great respect for the Old World–no ugly American was I. On a train from Venice to Vienna, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Italian man, a schoolteacher whose English was much better than my fractured Italian, and he told me a story that changed my perspective forever.
He had been a child during World War II, but his most persistent memory was not of the war itself, but of the American soldiers who came to his village as the war wore down. These GIs were outsized warriors with big laughs, cowboys for whom no task was too daunting, and who always had chocolate bars for little boys. What had happened to that American way, that supremely self-confident attitude that all those soldiers had in abundance, this middle-aged man wondered, as I shrunk in my seat, knowing I could never measure up to his childhood vision of what a young American should be like.
But upon reflection, that can-do attitude, the propensity to take chances, and to do so with boundless optimism, is what has made Americans unique. Sure, we should pay more attention to history, and our lack of respect for tradition and “foreign ways” can make us shallow and insular and sometimes even dangerous to ourselves and others. Turning our back on the past and building something new, something untried, brought us through the country’s founding and its first couple of centuries. Immigrants like my father paid scant attention to the “old country” from which they came, since it was this new country that offered opportunities and freedom and hope that had faded like the institutions and buildings in those places.
That same can-do spirit, that optimism, the belief that you can make something new, is also a marker of the independent advisory profession.