For our regular readers, you’ll notice that this came out much later in the day than usual. To get you up to speed, I’ve been at XY Planning Network’s “XYPN Live” conference, where we spend time on continuing education, community building, and updating ourselves on technology and other solutions. The conference was let out this afternoon, and in a change of pace from the usual educational material, I thought I’d share some perspectives, insights, and critiques that came up throughout the experience. I want to emphasize one thing before we jump into it: An important message during the conference was to be kind. I heard the message and I do value it. A message that also came up was an appreciation of thoughtful criticism. I hope I can accomplish it where appropriate here, but if anyone reading is looking for a take that is all sunshine and rainbows, I will, unfortunately, let you down. With that disclaimer said, in no particular order, here we go.
The Conversation is Always Good
In financial planning conference land, I always like to say that the content and sessions are just there to give us an excuse to get together. Despite imagery from Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, financial planning conferences don’t really tend towards any sort of extravagant debauchery. There’s always a happy hour or outing, but the typical experience is miles from the drugs-and-sex-workers sort of things that you see in a Martin Scorsese film. Fundamentally, the greatest value in these conferences is an opportunity to level-set, take the temperature of how we’re serving our clients, and ensure we’re all caught up to the gold standards of the current time. This conference was no exception, with many reunions, new friendships, and opportunities to get back to the roots of financial planning.
An Uncomfortable Shift of Perspective
I’ve been going to financial planning conferences for about six years now. For the first many years, I was among the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newcomers, eager to learn from others. Even through the digital conferences of COVID, I had an opportunity to continue educating myself from a position of relative anonymity. Today, while I’d like to say I’m still very much in the same place, I found myself in an odd position: that of being “sought out.” I’ve been fairly prolific in sharing my thoughts and opinions on financial planning issues (both technical and in the community) over the past several years. At this conference uniquely, almost two dozen people I’ve never met (and in many cases, never heard of) popped out to say they appreciated what I talk about in digital financial planning spaces. This was interesting to me because aside from helping with the technical issues and topics here or there, I have a bit of a challenging personality. Carl Richards, one of the keynote speakers and someone who I’ve directly laid criticism at before, went out of his way to say he appreciated my thoughtful criticism. Later in the conference during his keynote, he also made a broader note of saying the same to a larger audience, so perhaps he kindly went around and politely shared that thought with all of the loudmouths and jerks (which I am you can decide for yourself,) but it was a kindness on his part regardless. A similar remark or comment was made on about six other occasions. For better or worse, it seems I’m channeling Roger Ebert within the financial planning world.
Good News: Dragons Were Slain (but let’s not be jerks)
Though Carl Richards was clear that you probably can’t slay dragons, I do have to disagree. The financial planning community has many dragons of many varieties, but for the good of the order, I’ll highlight that one individual met the classic characteristics of a bad dragon. Obsessed with wealth and amassing fortune, egomaniacal, vindictive and bullying of those perceived as lesser, unable to separate their natural inherited gifts from their own achievements, and ultimately surrounded by those who worship the same, a dragon stuck its neck out before the conference and saw its proverbial head lopped off in the public square. While the XYPN team was careful not to publicly shame or denounce this person openly, the vox populi did give rise during the AMA session both to decry the slaying and celebrate it. Meg Bartelt was good to call out that we shouldn’t so publicly or callously celebrate such things (I have no doubt that the dragon et al were quite personally hurt by the occasion). However, there was no shortage of cause to be glad someone was being held accountable for their actions.
The Sessions Get Mixed Reviews
In contrast to the value of community between the sessions, the sessions were mixed in their results. I will be the first to say that I apply that critique even to my own discussion facilitation. While I wanted to engage in a discussion about how we make safe starting spaces for people to enter the profession, the discussion simply never quite got there; given another 30-60 minutes we might have gotten it, but I simply didn’t manage the time well.
Yet, in viewing both the options for sessions and attending sessions, I have to come to the realization that I might just be hard to please. I struggled with a good deal of both the catalog of options and many of the sessions I went to. Without wanting to be critical of the speakers themselves (I know how hard it is to prepare for a session, give a session, and keep all the pieces together), and without wanting to be critical of the organizers (for whom the task is doubly difficult), I found that the content this year simply lacked. There were a handful of great sessions, several mediocre sessions, and a collection that I’m simply confused about why they were sessions at all. I’m also open to the possibility that I just went to the wrong sessions and would feel differently had I just gone to the right ones. The commentary I’ll pass below is not meant to offend or insult, and I’ll gladly point the finger at myself for lacking content first and foremost, but there are simply some standout thoughts I had along the way. Hopefully, I’m being restrained enough to obey the commandment to be thoughtful in my criticism, but please someone tell me if I’ve overstepped.
The Best Sessions
- Adding Tax Prep to Your Solo Practice – An Honest Conversation: The simple message of this presentation was a very earnest “Don’t, but if you must, please go in with your eyes wide open. Here are some important tips.” This was a refreshing cautionary message in a landscape where many financial planners are hyping themselves up to take on taxes or buy a tax practice “for the potential,” only to find that tax work is an enormous amount of grind and struggle.
- Getting to “Yes”: It’s little surprise that both Adam and Stephanie did a good job (they’re both wildly successful at what they do, and this is part of it), but the session was a refreshing reminder to be clear in the value proposition, clear in setting expectations, avoid overcommitting or feeling guilty for not overcommitting, and to ultimately do your best to ensure the quality of what you offer to those who decide to work with you.
- Carl Richard’s Keynote: I made the quip months before the conference that seeing Carl Richards alone was worth the price of admission. I stick to that claim, despite the fact that the presentation was completely different than the last time I saw Carl speak. The last time I saw Carl, he related his story, discussed the value of simplicity, and we all had a good laugh along the way. This time, Carl came from a very emotional and personal place. He spoke about the meaning of why we became financial planners, discussed the importance of meaning, avoiding being oversold by simplicity or certainty, and asked us to compound kindness as an investment when meanness is an expense.
Sessions that Could Have Been Better
- For the second year in a row there was a “growing to a bigger firm size/scaling” presentation given in the form of a “firm story” that never got to the point of articulating actionable insights, cautions, or best practices that could be used by others at any other time or in any other context. For want of this topic in earnest, I can only hope that next year’s version will be given by someone who knows it’s not just an hour-long platform to verbalize their biography.
- A firm building panel that simply wasn’t a fit for me; I think it had great insight for the right members of the audience, but I wasn’t one of them, being either bigger than some of the panelists or on a different path than those ahead of me.
- A keynote by an Olympian of… dubious character? Succinctly, I’m not inspired by someone failing and pivoting to something easier in an attempt at fame and glory. Then again, I’m never inspired by athletes, so perhaps I’m just particularly hard to please with this speaker demographic.
- A 401(k) presentation by a speaker with less 401(k) experience than I have; again, quite possibly very valuable for someone in the audience, but just not for me. (And full disclosure, they might have more experience, I just didn’t see that in the presentation or hear anything new to me.)
- A keynote academic presentation on financial wellness that committed some research presentation faux pas; note that I’m not calling out any flaws in the research, just the presentation thereof. Succinctly put, social science researchers “see evidence of/that,” but the presentation was very firm in its prescriptions for how planners should act and serve their clients, without any modesty about findings from a limited block of research.
- An intro-level CE session on reviewing tax returns; I’m forever hoping that a tax expert is going to point something out to me that I don’t think about or know to look for, but it never seems to happen in these sessions. Perhaps an offering of intro/intermediate/advanced in the future would help?
Sessions I Didn’t Understand (It’s Me, Not You)
If you gave a session I haven’t talked about specifically already, and you’re worried that I’m about to talk about you, I promise it’s not you. Simply put, there were a handful of sessions that I just didn’t really get the point of. I wasn’t sure what someone could learn from them, or in other cases who was asking for that particular piece of content. Some of these sessions have well-known and excellent people leading them or on the panels therein, so it isn’t a question of qualification or even quality; I simply didn’t see why someone would want some of the sessions on offer. Clearly, I’m wrong, because I didn’t hear of any sessions that were empty or crowdless, but I simply found some of the offerings this year to be odd as options in lieu of some sessions I heard about that didn’t make the cut. As I said, it’s not you, it’s me, and I’m definitely not talking about you or your session (it was great, I promise.)
Finally, there are also plenty of sessions I’m not talking about. I simply didn’t attend everything (you couldn’t if you tried) and despite all appearances to the contrary, I don’t have an opinion about everything. I’ll simply plead the Carl Richards disclaimer: “1. I’m wrong.”
I suppose I should close on my thoughts by saying I won’t be going to XYPN Live next year. It’s not personal, mind you, nor a lack of desire to go. I’ll simply be getting married two days following and I don’t think anyone would ever see me again if I went to a conference right before the wedding! That said, I hope in 2024 that the conference will be a bit clearer in outlining its content, but I know I look forward to the next round of conversations between sessions, and the community of financial planners we call friends.