Advisors are tilling and reaping in the garden of knowledge.
"Learned Profession": One of the three professions traditionally believed to require advanced learning and high principles.
"Profession": An occupation requiring special education (especially in the liberal arts or sciences).
It was at a bar association Christmas party some 20 years ago. I liked hanging out with lawyers from time to time, and I was fairly active in the local group.
As sometimes happens around me, the conversation turned to the concept of "profession." When I made a comment about the three classic "learned professions," somebody asked me what they were. I responded earnestly, with feigned authority, "Law, medicine and ... " They looked at me expectantly. I hesitated, but could not resist the opportunity. With an impish sense of incongruity, I concluded, "financial planning."
My companions laughed uproariously. I laughed along with them, of course, though pains shot through my innards as I did so. My companions knew that I was president of the local IAFP chapter, that I had recently earned the rights to use the CFP marks and that I took this emerging profession seriously. Nonetheless, the thought of financial planning as a learned profession simply pushed their credulity past its breaking point.
As they laughed, I felt a heat of embarrassment come to my face and move to my ears. Beneath the red, I was further warmed by the belief that financial planning would develop the vitality and importance required to elevate it to the functional equivalence of the classic three.
Frankly, I thought I was right then, and still do. Neither have I ever forgotten that moment. The visceral feelings lingered through years of enjoyably watching our profession grow. We have accomplished so much; we deserve to be so proud. Nonetheless, as much as we have achieved, I believe we have not pushed our boundaries diligently or wisely-especially as regards our education and work to push our expertise with money. It is time.
The thing is that the implications of our work impact everything about American life circa 2007. Clients take their relationships with money with them wherever they go and whatever they do, causing infinite ripples throughout our communities and our planet. These, in turn, are amplified within our most pressing community and cultural concerns.
In some fashion, every fiber of our collective being is touched by money. Whether we are talking about immigration, children, aging, health care, education, global warming, peak oil or pro basketball, we find our work interlacing with modern life. Individual money relationships seep into everything, for better or for worse. Exploring their implications seems like an appropriate next frontier.
Before proceeding, it is important to get our terms straight. The "advanced learning" piece of learned profession is not effete intellectualism. It means someone who is knowledgeable about much, not narrowly confined to the box of a defined skill set. It means we have a capacity to integrate wisdom and information with our core craft.
The notion that financial planning might explore its potentialities does not mean that every financial planner must become a scholar any more than every doctor must become a research scientist or every pastor a biblical scholar. Being a part of a profession means every member must master its basic craft. Being an ultimate authority on everything is not part of the job description.
But a professional definitely ought to dedicate a chunk of his knowledge garden to the arts, humanities and social sciences along with advanced techniques. All would benefit.
The question is: Should financial planners aspire to be a part of a learned profession? Should we hold the ambition as worthy and work to earn the rights? I think so. But what would it take?
And why should we bother? Several reasons. First, we implicitly promise such a role to our clients, who are seeking insight, wisdom, understanding and relationship in addition to a decent rate of return. Second, effectively dealing with money requires the huge span of knowledge embedded within the concept of being "learned." If we are to do more than work in the "rate of return" business, we need to understand the role money plays within modern life.
By this standard, we fall short. As a group, financial planners can be justly accused of having been narrow in our views of our work, our roles and our possibilities. For the most part, we have not closely examined our presuppositions, often settling for bland aphorisms rather than critically examining our assumptions.
Dangerous? You bet. Though our traditional CFP craft has served us well in our formative years, it behooves us to understand that craft mastery can be done by computers and commoditized. This is not, ultimately, a winning strategy for individuals, businesses or professions. If we were a single company, it would put us in the position of settling for old product even as we gut the R&D budget. Successful companies keep it lively. So do successful professions.
As craft increasingly commoditizes and money issues spread into the nooks and crannies of everyday existence, I suggest our next sets of challenges will require the skills enabled by the liberal arts and their interface with the money forces.
We have work to do. It includes some brutal self-examination and self-directed reflection. The parameters of the financial planning craft seem more to reflect financial products circa 1974 than the intellectual adventuring implicit in a learned profession.
If you doubt the problem exists, look at CFP exam subjects on the CFP Board's Web site. They are mostly the same as the original CFP curriculum. The tested subject matters of the first CFP exams were functionally similar to those tested topics of today, for example, general financial planning principles, insurance planning and risk management, employee benefits planning, investment planning, estate planning, income tax planning and retirement planning.
While all professions have their journeymen, learned professions develop a theory and comprise people whose talents lie in the application of that theory to the work. The best educated among any of these professionals delve into history, contexts, languages, customs, literature, psychology, sociology, science, functions, heresies, belief systems and so on-namely the entirety of a solid liberal arts curriculum. Moreover, these professions have specialized schools, funded research, devoted scholars, dedicated think tanks and the like. Ideally, from there, they develop the knowledge, theory and techniques that enable their colleagues to deliver better work more effectively with less cost.
We just do not have those right now. Neither have we sought to use the resources that could be rather easily found among our financial service industry friends, or interfaced with different kinds of departments at colleges and universities and the miscellaneous think tanks working directly with many of the issues we are facing daily with our clients. We knew the perils of subprime loans. Why did they not ask? We know money does not buy happiness. Perhaps they could have structured the happiness studies around topics with greater potency. It is all rather a shame, really.
Personally, I believe that financial planning is the ultimate liberal arts profession. Our work takes in everything. From global economics to the most intimate personal details of an individual's life-these are all discussed in our offices. Why are we not tapping experts more aggressively? Why is their work not part of our training and continuing education?
The initial stab at our garden of knowledge was good-but it was not that good, especially when we look at how the world has changed.
Please, do not mistake my meaning. I see nothing wrong with the subjects covered. These basics are essential to a thorough job. Nonetheless, they are not great and they do not constitute a garden of knowledge appropriate to a learned profession.
Of course, we had to begin there-and we did. Obviously, the mastery and skillful applications of these subjects are critical to financial planning done right. However, they are not sufficient to meet the challenges that most folks face with money or discuss its implications for their lives. Since this is what folks most desperately need from us, those are areas where we could so greatly benefit by seeding, tilling and expanding our gardens of knowledge and the scope of our personal and collective wisdom.
If we consider financial planning to be a liberal-arts-based profession, we need to know a lot about a lot, and then we need to know how it all fits together. Our client relationships and professional undertakings require us to engage in work and conversation encompassing geopolitical realities, the ever-unfolding miracles of the physical sciences, the anticipated tragedies of global warming, potential pandemics and peak oil as well as the mysteries of the spirit and multiculturalism. They take us all the way into the most intimate details of an individual's personal aspirations. To work effectively with their money, we must grasp their most cherished family relationships and personal relationship with the divine. Our work requires us to see into the future even as we understand and appreciate the past. It forces to us to understand how intangible forces influence the survival of six and a half billion souls on a vulnerable planet. Face it, this work calls for wisdom and understanding on a par with any other profession or sensitive undertaking. No other profession needs more depth and breadth as essential aspects of its training and daily work.
What might we include with "advanced learning" or "special education" in the liberal arts or sciences per our definition of learned profession? The curricula of prestigious liberal arts colleges are instructive. They take individuals from the arts to the sciences. Each subject has, or could have, a substantial money component. Could we purposefully introduce money issues into them?
Personally, I believe money and finance are waiting for this level of thought and study. In this vein, I can see work in subject areas ranging from athletics to zoology, with sociology, history, literature, economics, psychology, religion, science and philosophy seeming particularly ripe.
These are ideal areas for collaborations between financial services companies and university systems. Indeed, this would be in keeping with the sorts of relationships we see between pharmaceutical companies and physicians. This could also begin the development of discrete specialties within financial planning. Life planners are evolving. What about other specialties?
Another path could entail special relationships with various think tanks. The Santa Fe Institute leaps to mind as a place where work in economics has met the world of physics to generate economic theories that shattered long-held suppositions. Financial planners are clearly among those who could most benefit by understanding its work. In some respects, we are its most vital end users. Where else are financial planners going to discover these sorts of conversations? Where else are we going to find that physicists have helped independent economists turn the world of economic theory on its ear?
There are the incentives. As we embrace the idea of being a learned profession, we embrace becoming the most important profession of the 21st century. Learned professions have the tools of innovation. Innovation leads to new work and new importance. In the process, we will better serve our clients and make more money. These are not bad combinations.
Financial planning should aspire to rise to such a stature. We should be about the business of making it thus.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the editor and founder of insidemoney.org, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.