Distance and Time

Dylan Potter, CFA, CFP®, VICE PRESIDENT, WEALTH MANAGER​

Land navigation, in Army jargon, is the act of navigating from one point to another over long distances in varied terrain using a map, protractor, and compass. Every major selection event in the Army (Ranger School, Special Forces selection, etc.) has a graded land navigation component as part of the larger selection event.

map with compass

This usually consisted of something like this: as a prospective candidate, you’d receive a large map sheet and a series of random points spread out over several square miles. After plotting your points on your map sheet (hopefully correctly), you’d design what you believed to be an optimal route. Beginning at night and culminating during the day after the sun came up, your goal was to locate the minimum number of points needed and return to the grading desk within the prescribed time frame. Each point was usually marked by a picket pole in the middle of the woods with a unique hole puncher hanging from it. When you found your point, you’d punch your grade sheet with the hole puncher and move on to the next. This was done with other added constraints: you were generally carrying your loaded ruck sack and gear, were not allowed to speak to other students, and could not walk on roads or trails. In other words, you had to “break bush.” During the night portions, you were not allowed to use your red lens flashlight unless you were laying in the prone position conducting a “map check” or actively punching a point. Put simply, you were walking by the light of the moon.

Successful land navigation requires a combination of “dead reckoning” (i.e. shooting a straight-line azimuth with your compass and sticking to that imaginary line), terrain association (i.e. the ability to identify terrain features on the ground by the contour intervals depicted on the map), good route planning (i.e. if you can get on the high ground and walk the ridges instead of going up and down mountains continuously), and keeping an accurate “pace count.” Depending on your walking style or run, everyone has a unique pace count. For me, I knew that 65 steps were generally 100 meters (your pace count changes if you are carrying a heavy load or running). This was the way to determine the distance you had travelled between points.

What makes land navigation so intense, and the reason it is used in every special operations selection course, is the event is completed alone. You are tired, hungry, and sore. You break through the bush into a clearing, sure that your point should be there waiting. Instead, it’s nowhere to be found. Was your pace count off? Did you go too far? Did you not travel far enough? Were you supposed to turn east when you hit the edge of that ridge? You start doing concentric circles trying to locate the point. Maybe you see another student in the distance…is he after the same point?  How much time do I have left? Did it really take me two hours to get here? How far to my next point if I can’t locate this one? You grow more tired, the clock keeps ticking, you’ve got miles more to cover and then the panic sets in…this is why land navigation is usually the biggest single attritor in most of the premier selection courses in the military.

It’s maddening and humbling. After doing enough land navigation, one thing becomes completely certain: tiny deviations from the optimal course are amplified by distance and time. A small miss now creates a very large miss later. If you are off by a few degrees or miss a key terrain feature, over many miles, that miss turns into a catastrophic, usually unrecoverable outcome.

It’s compounding. Tiny deviations from the optimal course are amplified by distance and time. A seemingly inconsequential decision today can have consequences that are many magnitudes greater in the future.

A sound financial plan executed and adhered to today is far better than one executed too late. It’s simply too hard to recover that lost time or make up for the tasks that should have been done years ago. The same applies to estate planning. Most people hate the thought of contemplating their own mortality let alone forking over a few thousand bucks to an estate attorney to ensure their estate is in good order. Yet those “pennies” today are very real “dollars” in the future when considering the orderly and tax efficient distribution of your estate to your chosen heirs in what is always an extremely emotionally fraught time. Yet the number of wealthy families and individuals we encounter with no plan is staggering. As we used to say in the Army, “A 70% plan executed now is better than a 100% plan executed too late.” There are always going to be uncertainties and small details that need to be fleshed out, but don’t let perfect become the enemy of good enough.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” In reality, most plans will change after they are put in motion, financial or otherwise. But there is so much value in planning itself. It defines the goal or the outcome we desire. And that’s the most important part of the original plan—that the destination is clear; that the reason you’re on the journey in the first place is understood.

It’s powerful to be able to map out various courses of financial action with strikingly different outcomes in simple dollar terms. Over time, these present-day decisions can have dramatic long-term effects. 

“What happens if I pay off my mortgage in 2030 versus 2040?”

“What happens if I convert my traditional IRA to a Roth IRA before I enter into a higher tax bracket?”

“Can I afford college for my 5-year-old daughter if I invest $100 a month in a 529 Plan?”

“Should I retire in 2025 or 2028?”

“Will my estate owe taxes if I pass away suddenly?”

“When should I start collecting Social Security?”

In land navigation, we used to identify “backstops” and “attack points” during the route planning. A backstop refers to a prominent terrain feature or landmark that helps the student ensure their navigation is on course. “If I hit this creek, I’ve gone too far.”  An attack point is a distinctive feature in the terrain that a navigator uses as a way point for their approach to the objective or destination. “When I see the power lines at the intersection of this logging road, I’ve got to head east at a 94-degree azimuth for another 800 meters.” The act of financial planning does the same for an individual’s financial life as well. Are we generally on pace with the plan? Do we need to course correct? Has there been a shift in goals or objectives as life changes? Are we doing everything in our power now to meet your goals in a tax efficient manner?

Everything worthwhile in investing and financial planning (and life!) comes from compounding, which takes time and is emotionally hard. “I’ll just get my estate documents updated next year” or “I’ll think about doing a Roth conversion, but it seems like a lot of work.” As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1825, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.” 

Dylan Potter

Dylan is a partner, Vice President and Wealth Manager at Howe & Rusling.

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