Everybody is talking about it: life planning. The next big thing. The trend. The niche. The mission. Or not?

The inquiry is fair. While the possibilities for life planning are extraordinary and the ramifications enormous for both individuals and society, the question remains whether life planning can evolve with its own structure. To do so, it must come into its own identity with integrity and cohesiveness.

Question: Can life planning become a profession in its own right?

This may not even be the right question to ask. Yet it may just be so tantalizingly close that it obscures its own shortcomings. But an answer may remain so elusive that a search might ultimately parallel those for the legendary Holy Grail.

Anecdotally, we can observe as follows:

Item: We are witnessing the mounting popularity of the so-called "soft" disciplines. From our periodicals to our conventions, financial advisors are presented with an array of vehicles and choices for learning more about the relationships between money and the range of liberal arts disciplines.

Item: We are increasingly exposed to values-based financial planning. Various works integrating money with psychology, spirituality and social structures abound as quality improves.

Item: We are beginning to build links between money issues and the practitioners of the miscellaneous liberal arts disciplines.

Item: It is starting to dawn on our pundits that money issues and social issues are inextricably intertwined.

Item: Other professions show growing interest in the human aspects of matters financial.

Item: In turn, an expanding number of financial-planning practitioners are engaging in productive dialogues with skilled practitioners from these other disciplines.

Item: The very nature of financial planning is changing constantly and dramatically. Tools and perspectives are being popularized. Among much else, computer software and the Internet place powerful tools in the hands of ordinary folks (formerly known as clients). Markets that are becoming more normal dampen asset-management enthusiasm. Dozens, if not hundreds, of magazines address some aspect of personal financial management. Accordingly, notions of value and actual needs mutate relentlessly. (And these are aside from the general "industrial revolution" in financial services.)

Item: Consumers are beginning to prize wisdom and perspective as part of their financial-advisory relationships.

For all that, it is plainly observable that life planning has not captured our collective imagination as financial planning has done during the past 30 years. Without a doubt, life planning has engaged the profession's imagination in various manners and continues to do so. But equally clearly, life planning is not taking off as a separate profession.

What's up?

Aspects of this discussion have consumed considerable energy within the financial-planning profession and our respective professional significant others during the past several years. From hallways to list serves to study-group exchanges, we are conversing and exploring. It has been fascinating.

However, for a purely academic undertaking, nothing has intrigued me like a recent gathering convened by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) for the purpose of addressing both the theoretical and practical realities of life planning.

It was an extraordinary event. Folks gathered in St. Louis from around the country to spend the day, share perspectives and attempt to bring breadth and depth to the topic.

Many of us had known each other from other venues. Designated communities were represented, together with academia, human-resources departments and a collection of NEFE staff. The Nazrudin Project was mentioned frequently.

NEFE President William Anthes' charge was twofold. First, could we define life planning? In so doing, could we address the issue of whether life planning was simply a "keen" (his word) idea or did it have sustainable potential? Acknowledging that the life-planning proposition has generated considerable discussion, he challenged: "Could it be taken further?" If so, "Was there something that NEFE could or should be doing to nurture it?"

Second, anticipating that the first discussion would generate a supportive consensus, how might we formalize life-planning disciplines in manners that could generate commonly acceptable definitions, yield appropriate bodies of knowledge and begin to establish a communicable and replicable discipline and rigor? Clearly, this proposition cut to the chase.

Bear in mind that this discussion was not merely academic. These people know how to get it done. Not only does NEFE have considerable skills and resources, it has a track record of vision and success. Remember that NEFE's roots are in the College for Financial Planning, and Anthes brought the college from a cottage industry to an educational force. In the process, he was key among those who established the CFP marks, began the Board of Standards and substantially participated in the work that has brought the financial-planning profession from nothing to something special in less than 35 years. They have made it happen before. They could participate in making something happen again. Their query: What would such a something be?

As expected, the group was clearly predisposed to think kindly of the marketability of life planning. Although such affirmation was preordained, I believe Anthes' challenge was on point. We can sell these concepts to ourselves, but do they have legs? If legs indeed exist, how would we discern them and what would we make of such discernment?

We began with an attempt to reach a definition upon which all could agree. Though this happened in principle, we clearly could not go to a level of specificity that would serve as foundational support for a professional edifice in the same manner as financial planning's "Six-Step Process." We began with the following from Steven Shagrin, JD, CFP and president of the International Society for Retirement & Life Planning:

Life planning is the process of (1) helping people focus on the true values and motivations in their lives, (2) determining the goals and objectives they have as they see their lives develop and (3) using these values, motivations, goals and objectives to guide the planning process and provide a framework for making choices and decisions in life that have financial and nonfinancial implications or consequences.

Although this was a great starting place, both its remarkable vision and operational deficiencies were quickly apparent. We could instantly see the weights of culture and cultural norms, human capacity, life's vagaries, personal biases, changing paradigms and contexts, etc., etc. and so forth. Whew!

We then looked at logical breakdowns into life patterns under the theme "Life Happens." The ensuing discussions brought out a wealth of observations as to life segments, demographic differences, perspectives and distinctions between survival issues and life thriving. And yes, we talked about the difficulties of selling such intangibles. How could life planning provide adequate and predictable compensation to personal advisors?

At the end of the day, I believe we uncovered considerable commonalities. Bonds were forged. Particularly, we acknowledged the force and importance of life-planning issues even as we came to grips with the extent of the issues. Moreover, with the communication came mutual respect and appreciation. Yet, this work is clearly in progress. Equally clearly, it does not yet lend itself to simplistic reduction.

Professions require unifying themes. Look at the big three: physicians, lawyers and theologians. Doctors have a generic devotion to health and the Hippocratic oath. Lawyers are committed to law and the client. Theologians are bound by their common devotion to the divine and pursuit of meaning. Although none of those avoids dispute, the themes of each start their dialogues and birth their particularities.

The devil may be in the details, but the angels are in the visions. We found common visions for life planning, including shared ideals that can stand as rallying points for understanding clients and the implications of money issues in their lives. The details were more elusive.

On the other hand, perhaps we need to actively consider that the river of life planning cannot stand as a separate profession apart from its tributaries. Perhaps life planning most appropriately consists of cross-professional skills and relationships that enable dialogue, networking and mutual appreciation. Perhaps its practitioners are those bringing big hearts along with their knowledge and skills together with the wisdom to appreciate limitations. Maybe "life" is simply too big for any one of us to "plan" for in ways that can be replicated and regulated. Could the conceptual vastness of its very notion pose insurmountable barriers to generating one profession practiced one client at a time?

It is one thing to integrate certain concepts around values-based themes. It is another to attempt to build an entire profession around them or create ascertainable standards, rules and so forth, like the ones that characterize financial planning and its conduct. We can probably build niche businesses and create specialties that will be attractive to some of us, but that does not require a formal infrastructure paralleling other professions.

Personally, I believe we can create commercially viable enterprises around these sorts of concepts. I know many people who are doing just that. Yet, in fairness, these are both anecdotal and particular to us as individuals. I don't think they provide a legitimate answer to Bill Anthes' challenge for creating a profession. On the other hand, I would like to believe we, as a group, can create operational businesses that follow some guiding principles.

Accordingly, I think it is time we began devoting some serious dialogue to the matter of doing so. For example, can we successfully turn these life-planning, psycho-spiritual, soulful approaches into replicable profit centers? Are there disciplines, as are included in Sudden Money, Financial Recovery, Psychology of Money or the Seven Stages of Money Maturity, that we can begin transforming into robust bodies of work? With whom must we be networking? Can we start to create structures and customs? Can we ever "all just get along?"

How are we integrating these disciplines into our practices? What works? What does not? What are some problems? What could rectify the problems? How have they helped make money? How have they changed lives? How must we integrate collateral skill sets?

Lest I forget, NEFE has a substantial endowment. It is looking for projects to fund, including ones in this area. I believe it sees its role as a facilitator, catalyst and collaborator. To me, it is fundamentally remarkable that NEFE bothered to arrange an event of this magnitude. It was a worthy inquiry. It was terrific for NEFE to bring such power and resources to it. There is good stuff happening here.

For many reasons, I believe this time is historic. Financial-planning practitioners are sitting atop some powerful demographic waves and pulling at some compelling levers. Time to revitalize. Time for discussions grounded in reality.

Money is here to serve life, not vice versa. Financial advisors are here to serve lives, not orthodoxies. What this means, where it goes, what it demands remain undefined. The paths are discernible. The dialogues are critical. The visions are compelling.

I believe it is up to those of us involved with financial advice to continue to flesh this out.

Your thoughts?