I have never subscribed to the notion that one should revere the past to the extent that there is no place for change in a person’s life. But I also believe it is important not to ignore one’s history as we face new challenges and opportunities, or, as the philosopher George Santayana put it, “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” And so we look back in search of lessons learned that will help assure a better future.

Fifty-one years ago this month, I made my way into the insurance business as an apprentice agent with New York Life. I started with a draw of $220 per month and the knowledge that it would last only if I produced enough to support it. The $10,000 whole life policy, which was modeled after the G.I. insurance of World War II, was king, and most purchases were in that increment. A few years later, I acquired my CLU designation and qualified for the Million Dollar Round Table. At the time, there were about 3,200 MDRT members nationally, and 6 in Arizona. Today, there are more than 200 in Arizona and close to 30,000 worldwide.

My great fortune was that I was recruited and trained by a general manager who believed fervently in the life underwriters association. After signing my NYLIC contract, the next paper I signed was a membership application to the National Association of Life Underwriters (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors). Dues were $6 ($2 local, $4 national; there was no state association).

On the day of the local association meeting, the general manager made a sweep of the office to be certain we attended the meeting. If you were a new agent, you better have had a good excuse if you missed a meeting. Our manager was a self-confident person; he did not worry that his people might be exposed to other companies that might proselytize them. He also understood that as good as our company was, we did not own all the good ideas, and these local meetings afforded the only opportunity for cross-pollination. At such meetings, we mingled with mentors and competitors alike and developed a healthy respect for both.

As we listened to the experiences of others, we developed our most important asset: a conviction about our business, its products and the service we provide. One can gain knowledge and facts from computer-generated programs, but salesmanship and the conviction that makes it effective can only come from personal contact.

My manager also encouraged me to become involved in association activities. He instilled in me the concept that one receives more value in serving than being served. He was dead right, and I believe those experiences helped me mature as a person and as a businessman. It was also those early experiences that helped me add value to other boards on which I served in subsequent years. I have served on school boards, corporate boards, association boards, Better Business Bureau boards, church boards and many others–but the journey started with service on our local association board.

In February 1956, NALU had 80,000 members and was growing. The goal at that time was to achieve a membership of 100,000. My first NALU convention was in 1961, and the hot issue at the meeting was whether the association should hire a second lawyer for its law department. The measure passed and Jim Douds, who later became general counsel, was hired. Shortly afterward, NALU crossed the 100,000 mark.

I am puzzled today by the suggestion that members are customers. In 51 years, I have never viewed my relationship to the association as that of a customer. I have always understood that implicit in membership is an ownership component. NAIFA is “my” association–not some anonymous third party waiting to “serve me.” To me, it is somewhat analogous to church membership, which involves serving as well as being served.

I am reminded of the story of the itinerant preacher who was invited to deliver the Sunday sermon at a church in a neighboring village. On the appointed Sunday, he took his young son by the hand and walked to the other village. As he entered the church, he deposited a quarter in the collection box. He delivered a fine sermon, and afterward one of the local deacons thanked him for the message and said that in appreciation, he could have whatever was in the collection box. As he left the church, he opened the box. But all that was in it was his quarter. Later, as they were walking home, his son looked up at his father and said, “You know, dad, if you had put more in, you could have taken more out.”

A customer culture caters to those who would rather harvest than plant. Strong associations are built by the planters of this world, for they know that you receive more value by serving than being served. But critics say that is not the world of today; people are different now. I am inclined to agree, except that the noted historian Will Durant maintains, “Human nature changes with glacial leisureness.” Perhaps the problem with people today lies more with the notion that we have forgotten to teach them how to plant.