The father of life planning, George Kinder, has been influencing the planning profession through his teachings and writings for more than two decades. And he’s not slowing down anytime soon. He’s finishing his latest book (available later this year) and will give a keynote address at FPA Retreat in April.
Kinder and I spoke via phone from his part-time home in Hawaii about life planning, his teachers, and where he finds inspiration.
1. Finish this sentence: Life planning is….
…financial planning done right. That’s the simplest way of putting it. It’s really putting the client first, which is what we’re supposed to do in financial planning.
2. What role does life planning play in the future of the financial planning profession?
I think it is the future. Traditionally, when financial planning started, we thought that to be professionals, we just needed to deliver these money skills, this money knowledge, and the tricks of the trade so to speak. But in fact, right at the heart of financial planning from the very beginning of the CFP® profession was the principle that we put the clients first. And putting the clients first really means putting life planning first. It means we would even sacrifice our financial plan and our understanding of what financial planning is to what we think is best for the client.
3. Through the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, you have taught thousands of financial planners the life planning process and client relationship skills. Who do you learn from?
Old-timers, and I mean really old-timers. If I were to think of five people who have influenced me most in the last 10 or 15 years, one of them would be Ryokan. He was one of the most brilliant poets, Zen masters, and calligraphers in Japanese history; a man who lived as poor as a church mouse.
The second might be Confucius. The third might be Marcus Aurelius, who was, of course, the great Roman Emperor, the philosopher king who was—in contrast with Ryokan—the richest man on the planet at that time. The fourth would be William Blake, also a man of poverty and real extraordinary genius. And the fifth would be Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote music that articulates our stress, our suffering, and how we transform it into wisdom. That is the key listening skill in life planning as well.
I will add that my 13-year-old daughters teach me all the time with great delight, and I also learn a tremendous amount from life planners and from life planning trainers all over the world.
4. You are also a mindfulness teacher. Is there an intersection of mindfulness and life planning?
It’s the root of life planning. Life planning is fundamentally a listening skill. The great listeners are those who’ve learned first to really listen inside themselves. And that’s what mindfulness does. Not to our thoughts so much as to everything else, to sensations, to feelings, to the subtlest nuances of life.
5. Your life planning training involves three questions designed to help clients discover deeper value and meaning in their lives. These questions have been described as one of the most valued tools in a financial planning practice. Do you think you’ll ever need to update the three questions for future planners and clients?
Life planning is much more about listening than it is about having a series of questions that work, because finding your way to be in an authentic relationship with a client is deeper than where a series of questions can take you.
I think our ability to be in a relationship with both ourselves and the clients, and to listen profoundly both to ourselves and to clients, our ability to really be authentic in a way that is immediately trustworthy and brings ease into a relationship—those are the things where more subtlety will gather over time.
One of the things we say in life planning is that you can’t be a life planner unless you’re living your life plan. So another element of this is knowing not only our own authenticity, but what it is that brings us to freedom inside ourselves, and challenging ourselves not to put it off, not to compromise it, not to choose something else and say well, tomorrow I’ll do it. I think those are more the areas where there will be ongoing development.
6. Can you be a fiduciary without doing life planning?
No, you can’t. You simply can’t put the client’s interests first if you don’t know what they are.
7. What is the biggest misconception about life planning?
Life planning is sometimes considered “soft skills.” I think it’s much more appropriate to say it’s the human side and the human skills. If those are soft, well, I’m not sure what’s hard. They are really the substantial skills.
The other piece people miss is that life planning is meant to deliver us into freedom. And it does. It delivers people into a passionate engagement with the world. The economic term for that is entrepreneurial spirit. People become engaged, they create businesses, they become community leaders, they become very creative. This aspect of life planning is about what we believe in as a culture, which is freedom for people. And life planning delivers it.
What that means economically is underplayed and not understood. When we talk about how you deliver growth into an economy, it’s always large institutions that become responsible for that, the Treasury and large corporations—let’s create jobs.
But in fact, what we really want is freedom everywhere and entrepreneurial spirit in everyone. And life planning does that better than adjusting interest rates. It does it better than fiscal policy. It does it better than monetary policy. Life planning is going to be seen, I believe, as a tremendous benefit to economic activity because it fine tunes the economy for what it is that people really want. And that’s not understood.
The other piece of this is that life planning is a much more efficient way to do financial planning, because it delivers to the client exactly what they want. You get clients for life. You get referrals. The economics of it are fantastic for a financial planner. It might take a little bit more time in the first year, but it’s much more efficient in following years.
8. Some financial planners feel life planning is not for them, because they don’t want to be a therapist. What do you say to this?
I’ve heard this question often since I started my work in the financial planning world some 25 years ago. At this point in the development of financial planning, I’m completely stunned by the question, because the person asking it either doesn’t know what life planning is, or doesn’t know what therapy is, and almost certainly doesn’t know what financial planning is.
If they’re asking that kind of question 25 years after the founding of the life planning movement, there must be something wrong in our education of financial planners.
Many professors I know teach the basics of life planning, but I suspect many don’t. It’s certainly not a requirement, and it’s not tested much to become a Certified Financial Planner. I think that’s a real fault in the pedagogy, and unfortunately, it keeps us from being a profession. The people asking that question are almost bound to be more sales oriented or analytic oriented as opposed to really being dedicated to their clients, which is what a life planner is.
9. You’re talking to me today from Hawaii, where you are finishing your latest book. Tell us about it.
It’s by far the broadest book I’ve written, and I suspect it will be the book that I’m remembered by. It’s called A Golden Civilization. The premise is, we take a stance 1,000 years from now or even 1,000 generations from now and assume that humanity has grown into what it’s meant to be; that we live in a golden civilization. Then we look back at these early days of the 21st Century—at the chaos politically, environmentally, and economically, and we ask ourselves: what needs to shift now in order for us to find our way to move, not chaotically but straightforwardly, into this golden civilization? That question is one that I think we all need to be asking right now.
I look at economics. I look at democracy. I look at media. I look at leadership. I look at financial advice and financial products. I look at entrepreneurial spirit. And there’s a certain amount on mindfulness as well.
One of the things I’m proposing in the book is that we shift from a principle of economics that focuses on transactions to one that focuses on moments of freedom, and that what economists should be looking at is how we deliver that. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing for us in the financial planning world, because it’s exactly what life planners deliver.
Another is that the driver of the economy needs to move from self-interest to self-knowledge, which is also a major deliverable in life planning. Self-interest is part of self-knowledge, but has significantly more negative externalities, when it is the self interest of large organizations rather than individuals.
10. Where do you find inspiration?
I find it in every moment of life. Life itself and acts of kindness inspire me.
Carly Schulaka is editor of the Journal. Contact her HERE.