Seeding the Garden of Knowledge

By Wagner Richard | Garden of Knowledge

Aug 14

My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while
learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.

~H. Fred Dale

Financial planning’s inception and growth is no accident.  It has been the product of historic necessity, fair winds and the demands of our times.  Folks need friends in the finance business.  Money is a sufficiently intrinsic part of modern society that we need educated professionals addressing it from the social cellular perspective.  In these times, we are so immersed in money, money issues and the money forces that most folks literally cannot see obvious connections between money and the forces that drive their most important life issues.

As the saying goes, “What do fish know of water?”  Financial planning has come in to being in large part to help people see their financial issues and make appropriate decisions within the contexts of their life’s conditions.

Still, we must recognize that this profession did not arrive fully grown and matured.  Rather, it has been slowly growing its garden of knowledge from seed.  Frankly, this garden remains immature.  Not only has it lacked the vital root structure of more established gardens, it has had to endure resistance from hostile forces and harsh conditions from its beginning. These include lack of nourishment of a thoughtful, incentivizing and fertile vocabulary.

I have an aspirational view of the financial planning profession.  I believe this profession is special.  Indeed, I am becoming ever more convinced that this profession, or a logical, functional successor, will likely be the most important authentic profession of the 21st century.  Accordingly, in my last Financial Advisor article, I called for the profession to purposefully develop and use new words for addressing issues from financial planning’s unique perspective.  I had just come to the astonishing realization that there is no English word for describing the relationship between an individual and money.  Since it is my belief that financial planning’s mission, meaning and purpose is grounded in that very relationship, I was shocked.  Yet, I finally understood why financial planning issues generated so many disconnects in so many dimensions.

For me, it was one of those “flat rock” discoveries.  As a curious boy I enjoyed turning over rocks and stones to reveal the earth beneath teeming with bugs, worms and sundry creepy-crawlies.  That absent word was just such a rock.  When I turned it over, those human/money relational issues became abundantly and powerfully present, but, as yet, unnamed.  I recognized with startling clarity that we just do not have the words to do our work as effectively as we might.

In that article, I queried whether we could build an authentic financial planning profession with an insufficient vocabulary.  To a critic’s consternation, I did not offer a path or a cure.  Neither did I suggest any particular words that would do the job.  Frankly, I did not know of any.  I had just recognized the issue.

That was then.  This is now.  In the meantime, I have given the generated issues considerable thought.  I conclude that this issue is a big damn deal, worthy of considerable attention.

First, let’s center and ponder just what sorts of words actually convey relationships between humans and various sorts of nouns?  Once you start looking, it turns out there are hundreds, if not thousands.  Words like “family” do the job of showing a special relationship between individuals in the context of a common social institution.  Likewise, consider “patient,” “teacher,” “teammate” or “client.”  All of these indicate authority, activity, function, timeliness and so forth as pertaining to a particular function, event or association.  Each generates meaningful distinctions.  “Friend” and “enemy” communicate relationship and feeling.  “Clerk,” “salesman,” “athlete” and “student” speak to humans and human activities.  We share such difficult and nuanced concepts as “love” through words like “marriage” and “parent.”  In other words, words of relationship are not rare.  Granted, none of these are quite like money.  But, then, nothing is quite like money.  (That is part of the problem.)

These words hint at what could be.  Appropriate words ought to have several particular qualities.  There must be general agreement on meaning, i.e., we should have a good notion of its implications within every day conversation.  Useful words should be simple, even if they convey complex concepts.  Consider the words of the preceding paragraph.  None are more than two syllables.  They are all easy to say.  Some focus on their subject matter, using related root words.  Others are based on long-forgotten etymologies but have achieved common meaning.  Finally, they invite us to explore.  Good new words take us to other good new words.  Turning again to “family” we can seek significant variations such as “untraditional family,” “family of origin,” “extended family” and the like.  “Family man” quickly fixes a relevant demographic to a married man with children.  “Family atmosphere” sets dining expectations.  The concepts tend to catch on quickly.  Typically, they fill an unmet communications needs within social units.  Or they generate new conversations.  In their turn, they spawn other new words and enable exploratory exchange.

The provoking questions ask: How do such words come into being?  In particular, how do words come into being to enable us to discuss what was hitherto unexplored?

For one, we can look to other languages.  It may be that some of the words we could use have functional synonyms in other languages. For example, I am told that Asian languages are more relational in nature.  Similarly, I hear that Native American languages have the capacity for relational precision.  Unfortunately, my efforts to locate English/Asian/Native American bilinguals have not yet been rewarded.  (A little help, please?)

For another, we can look at the construction tools of other languages.  I know enough about German to suspect that we might be well-served by gluing existing words together.  Unattractive but illustrative examples might include such linguistic mutations as: “collmon” for issues involved with the financial aspects of higher education.  Or using “kidfin” to describe the wide-ranging financial implications of rearing children.  From such a concept as “kidfin,” we could develop shades of specificity to deal with childcare, work/home conflicts, childhood financial education, money saving tips and so forth.  Americans have generally been resourceful at putting these kinds of words together.

Creative acronyms or imaginative shortening are other useful tools for word creation.  Most financial planners know that “IP” means “Investment Policy.”  When I was its president, the mouthful of words in the name “Institute of Certified Financial Planners” was often shortened to the more easily articulated “’Tute.”  In college, I could tell an individual’s fraternity affiliation by his slang.

Perhaps more meaningfully, words can be created by using words from other sources.  For example, both Shakespeare and the Bible have been fertile word sources.  Since money is the second most addressed topic in the Bible and frequently appears in Shakespeare’s works, they could be especially productive.  New Testament parables seem particularly potent. “Eye of the needle issues”  might describe the problems generated by financial abundance.

Other words can be generated by grafting appropriate language onto an established prefix or suffix.  For example, “-logy” from the Latin “logia,” is a catch-all combining with words indicating the names of aspirational “sciences,” e.g. “psychology,” “theology” and “sociology.”  For example, if we combine this technique with a Merriam-Webster template for “psychology,” we get


  1. the science of money and behavior
  1. the study of mind and behavior in relation to money and the money forces
  1. theory or system of finology
Related Forms fin ·o·lo·gist

Would this word work for describing financial planning’s garden of knowledge?  Could it hold the complexities of money and all of its manifestations within subject matters ranging from literature to theology to science to political science?  Could it contain the complexities of modern life and issues grounded in money including systemic instability, job unpredictability and notions of work, children, spouses, parents, education, risk management, investments, CFP Board’s famous “Appendix A,” health, happiness and the meaning of life? Maybe.

Then we must ask: Why bother?

Many reasons.

Simply put, our profession’s progress is dramatically limited by the absence of words that can both communicate and enable distinction.  It is hard to claim the domain of personal finance as our own without them.  Consider what has come from attempts to coin words for addressing emotional issues grounded in money.  Twenty years ago, we had no words.  “We do what we do” was about as good as it got.  Conversations were impossible.

Sensitive types could see the connections but we were told they had nothing to do with financial planning.  We could use terms from psychology or religion but we always needed to define them and explain our intent.  Every time.  Then someone would say that it wasn’t really financial planning.  Also, every time.  When George Kinder, CFP ® added the term “life planning” to the concepts engaged by his “Seven Stages of Money Maturity” in the ‘90’s, he simultaneously opened vistas of creativity and expansion.  We were able to develop concepts and applications.  This was a very big deal.  Today, the term “life planning” communicates something meaningful to almost everyone in financial planning.

Unfortunately, “life planning” contains a few terminological disconnects that have made it less than perfect.  However, its shortcomings and the process for overcoming them are instructive to language development.  For one, it did not confine its scope to the human/money relationship.  Rather, it was a huge land grab of a term.  Obviously, “life planning” does not naturally limit itself to money but logically extends to all matters involving “life.”  What were its limits, if any?  Some people resented the term’s implicit arrogance.

Soon, adventurous colleagues developed the antidote by coining the term “financial life planning.”  At least, this confined the activity to something that engaged money. It enabled evocative conversations about the expansive aspects of the Kinder term together with meaningful discussions about the word “financial” and what it added.  Or not.  Some thought that the term “financial planning” was enough.  This generated intense conversations.  “Life planning” and “financial life planning” were charged with being “nothing more than ‘financial planning done right’.” And, then, we argued with passionate circularity about what is meant by the term “financial planning.”

For me, none of these terms captured the issues generated by looking at money “from the inside out” using psychological, sociological or spiritual perspectives.  For many, their money journey had to do with self-exploration and spiritual fulfillment.  For others, their relationships with money were highly toxic with severe repercussions for their own financial security as well as their abilities to function healthfully in their families.  For yet others, money was intimately connected to their most important life decisions.  In my mind, the issues clarified when I began to study Ken Wilber and his integral theories.  The word “interior” especially captured the range of personal and cultural issues—those that did not yield to numerical analysis, objectification or quantification.  For me, the term “interior” describes a type of money issue not susceptible to direct observation or quantification.  However, it is not a prescriptive term but a container.  It does not take positions on how to deal with interior issues but contains and encourages a variety of approaches.  As such it can recognize a school of thought, like George Kinder’s “life planning” without requiring that it apply to financial neuroses and self-destructive behaviors.  It can also circumscribe the terrain being addressed by increasingly sophisticated financial therapists.   Now we can talk about “innocent beliefs,” “money scripts,” “shopaholics” with exploration and understanding.

There are dozens, possibly hundreds of terms that should arise from the financial planning perspective.  Remember, financial planners are the world’s foremost authorities on the manners in which macroeconomic realities affect individuals and their lives on Planet Earth.  The main thing is that financial planners have “feet on the ground” as they say in the military.   Mixing real world experience with testable craft, we know things no one else knows.

This gives us a unique perspective that is not available to the ivory tower folks looking at statistics and reading filtered data.  Literally no one else has our perspectives.  Neither do they have our concerns.  For Warren Buffet, derivatives may be weapons of mass destruction.  For individuals, they were “financial kryptonite” with severe implications for long-range plans.  By “financial kryptonite,” I mean macro policies and products (like derivatives) that weaken purchasing power, exacerbate inflation, weaken local economies, cause currency fluctuations, cost jobs or otherwise add even more uncertainties to money and the economy.  These should all have special words.

We should have words for the sorts of things that expose clients to predictably substantial risks that their financial resources will not be able to do the jobs we anticipated when we made financial planning decisions?  We are asking people to make decisions that will impact their lives forty and fifty years from now.  We need words for those sorts of decisions.

The stakes are high.  Right now, financial planners are mostly using terms generated by the field of macroeconomics.  This could be compared to developing the field of psychology primarily using only the words of sociology and political science.  As with psychology work, clients come to us one at a time.  We need words with “one at a time” perspectives on money and its relationship to individuals.

We need specialized words to help us personalize major money issues in our decision making processes.  It would also help us recognize where and how we touch money daily. This, in turn, would help us understand interrelationships.

These issues are there, under the rock.  It is one thing for an eight year old to call mysterious under-the-rock life forms “bugs, worms and creepy-crawlies.” It is another for a profession to do it.  Without articulate distinctions, we cannot isolate issues, compare responses, graft upon the gardens of other disciplines or otherwise advance those parts of the financial planning profession that look at the world through the eyes of individuals.  We need our words.

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