top of page

Birds and Frogs - finding the right industry and academic partnership

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

I have been in ongoing discussions with a major university about becoming an adjunct professor. We are discussing 2 questions:

  1. How can I be most helpful to my students?

  2. How can I be most helpful to my professor colleagues?

This short article describes our dialogue and my thinking, in case helpful to others. For me, it is helpful writing it down.

Our discussion about teaching and helping students has been relatively straightforward. I have a passion for personal finance and have already written enough articles and curricula to fill multiple books. I believe that financial literacy in our country is abysmal. As our information economy adapts and grows, personal finance education is more important than ever. But it seems like we are moving in reverse. U.S. savings rates are lagging behind past generations. Compared to the 1950s, Americans today have more income but less in savings!

My approach is to write self-contained articles, focused on particular life events. My experience is that people best learn when instructional content is coupled with real-life situations. My focus is to prepare content for "teachable moments" when the students are most open to being provided effective instruction. When the moment is right, I want to ensure the appropriate content is ready to be "pulled off the shelf" and deployed to help them make the best decisions. The curriculum may be found here:

My company, Definitive, has smartphone apps I plan to provide the students. So not only will I teach them about personal finance, I will leave them with super helpful tools for use beyond college. Next is an email sent to the department head and a good friend. We are discussing the personal finance curriculum focus ....

My thoughts are to focus upon:

  1. Big post-college life event-related personal finance decisions like Auto, Homebuying / Mortgage, Retirement, RoboAdvisors, Weddings, etc.

  2. Good habits like savings habits, budgeting habits, appropriate use of consumer lending products, decision-making abilities, etc.

  3. Providing a mindset and psychological awareness of how their brain operates to make decisions. Plus, provide them with awareness of the many cognitive biases that may reduce personal finance decision accuracy.

I believe habits and mindset, the “psychology” of personal finance, as often more important than the “financial tools” of PF. That is, if they get the mindset right, learning the tools will come. Without the right mindset, the tools may become weapons they could use against themselves! Also, the primary teaching tools I find helpful are specific to good decision-making. That is, while the context may be financial, the success tools are from the decision sciences and psychology disciplines. My company provides the decision smartphone app Definitive Choice. If ok with you, I anticipate using it as a way to teach good financial decision-making. Plus provide a useful tool for after the class ends.

By the way, I dig into the PF mindset in my article: Budgeting like a stoic

Thanks – I appreciate the helpful email dialogue!

Another, less clear question is about how I should help the other professors. Especially tenure-hungry assistant professors or other faculty that may benefit from having a colleague with deep industry experience. As a 50-something-year-old adjunct, tenure does not have personal career meaning to me.... but I certainly want to help my colleagues reach their career goals however I can. Next is another email sent to the same department head after a healthy and honest exchange ....

For me, I think part of this is being honest about who I am and what I have to offer in partnership with academia. Yes, I have 30+ years in the financial services industry, financial consulting, risk management, data science, and decision science. I do have a strong industry network. All pluses, I hope 😊.

But from a personality and motivation standpoint, I am much more a “bird” than a “frog.” I am referring to the late, great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson and his Birds and Frogs essay. It is a fabulous essay about two distinct and necessary types of academic partners. My take is:

  • The Frog: In my experience, academics are more likely to be frogs. Going narrow and deep. Exploring details with their academic tools. Frogs tend to use an "induction-first" reasoning approach. A good day includes finding a good data set!

  • The Bird: I am more like a bird. Birds fly high and push the boundaries of our understanding. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems. Birds tend to use a "deduction-first" reasoning approach. A bird is more likely to find comfort in the counterfactual.

My “birdy-ness” can be found in my desire to connect multiple disciplines at the systems level. Perhaps this is why I have embraced personal finance, because of its multi-disciplinary nature. I am likely to learn about a discipline to understand how it connects and inter-operates with the whole and then look to optimize the system by fine-tuning or changing its parts. Certainly, this could be useful to a finance frog, that would value a broader context to guide their research. Who knows, perhaps we could partner together to write a book!

I believe Freeman’s point is - our society’s disciplines, whether mathematics, physics, or finance, need both birds and frogs. Also, the good news is, I consider myself a “diving bird.” I am certainly not afraid to get dirty with the frogs. I am a huge fan of and experienced with RCT, statistical analysis, and experimental design…. I just need a skilled frog to help guide our partnership 😊.

This is an exciting time.

bottom of page