Educator FI: Creativity at Work Interviews


Principal FI

As a teacher navigating the financial independence space, Principal FI's insightful Twitter presence stood out to me when I first became active in the community.

He has put together an incredibly resourceful site for educators and FI seekers alike.  

We’ve all been educated in some way or another throughout our lives (and some of us may currently have children in educational institutions), so his statistics, facts, insightful compassion, and all-out stellar professionalism are a much-needed force in the world of personal finance.

This powerful interview delivers on topics such as useful money systems, surrounding yourself with creative people that push you, and humility in leadership. 

As a bonus, did you know he is into woodworking?  Did you know his wife was a theater major? Did you know he loves music and is striving for eventual location independence?

Take it away Principal FI!

Do you consider yourself creative?

This question should be easier to answer for me than it is!  So, I guess the answer is “no” because I don’t naturally think of myself as creative.

BUT, when I think of someone else with the same traits/activities I have, then I would consider them creative.  I explore lots of different pursuits and opportunities. I’m an avid reader and writer of both fiction and non-fiction.  I draw to manage my attention issues. (Lots of meetings requires lots of sketches…) I love music, though I don’t produce it.  I innovate constantly at work, and have a core group of young professionals I mentor.

I think the reason the “no” comes so quickly to me is because I’ve always surrounded myself with fabulously creative people.  They stand out for their creativity and energy. Performers, musicians, creative coders, and talented writers.

Me, I’m the quiet one in the back just moving ever forward. My creativity comes in connections among things and in identifying and using patterns, not in producing great works.  My greatest creativity probably shows up in an area that seems completely uncreative: data and spreadsheets.

It seems natural to me, but others tell me I’m able to connect information and illuminate it through data in a simple way.  I missed my calling as a data analyst. If I were earlier in my career or really hated my job, I might pursue that more. Instead, I just tinker as an amateur.

What role has creativity played in your working life? Private life? Finances?  

After struggling with that first question, the neurons are really firing!

I think my desire to understand and DO new things has been a huge benefit to me professionally.  For my working life, it’s led me to try so many different things. I’ve worked in custom woodworking, tried out small business management, government policy, teaching, and now large systems management.  That variety of experience and perspective is invaluable. It’s also allowed me to take pieces of each job and connect it to the new context.

As a teacher, this was valuable because I was the one who was willing to change assignments every year.  For many teachers, this causes anxiety so I’d gladly step up. I never taught the same grade two years in a row.  I loved the challenge of figuring out the curriculum each year, and then seeing what made students of that age tick.

One of the things I love most about education is the creativity required to connect with each student.  Every kid has a different lever that needs to be pulled to get them to engage and access education. It’s so important to be able to experiment and connect until you find what they need - and then make sure they get it.

All my life I’ve been very driven.  Those who are being kind call me “intense.”  Many have called me impossible or obsessive. And that’s true both in work and private life.  If I’m working towards something, it becomes consuming so I push towards it. I’ve balanced that out with creativity in two ways:

Personal creativity is a huge break for me.  Especially in recent years when my work involves managing people and all the unpredictability that comes with that, the simple act of making something tangible is important. For me, this is typically some sort of woodworking or a writing piece.  I started partly as a way to give myself an outlet for some of my analysis and writing.

The second way I mentioned earlier: being with creative people. It’s no accident that my significant others have always been more traditionally creatives: actress, singer, theater designers.  My wife is a former theater major who plays two instruments at a high-level and is one of the most spontaneous and outgoing people I know. Quite the contrast to me!

I love when we go out and listen to music, see a play, or just try something new that I haven’t done before. And, I’m grateful that she puts up with the social anxiety grumpiness that usually precedes those experiences.  Being immersed in performances helps me disconnect from my work intensity.

Financially, I think creativity comes first simply in the act of pursuing financial independence.  For those of us who immerse ourselves in the community, it seems like a standard thing. It’s not! The vast majority of the world still doesn’t think and live this way!  I’m now trying to understand and be more creative with my asset options.

Are there any areas of living you approach in an especially innovative way?

I don’t consider anything we do right now as especially innovative.  We plan to largely pursue location independence once we reach early retirement.  We’ll eventually keep a small place in our current area simply because of family and friends, but plan to explore the world and experiences the vast majority of our time.  We’ll let the flow take us where it may. Having lived a fairly straightforward life in the area where we grew up, the idea of roaming and exploring the world on our own terms and time is a huge part of our pursuit of financial independence.

Do you have a system for keeping track of ideas?  For example, do you use a series of notebooks or certain apps?

This is something I’m currently working on figuring out now!  One of my strengths has always been a near-total recall of ideas and connections.  Recently (probably due to age) I’ve felt things starting to slip. I’m currently using a combination of Evernote (to capture in the moment thoughts) and a google sheet to keep track of writing ideas.  I regularly update my ideas list in the sheet constantly and keep a calendar for posts I’m going to write.

It’s still not systemized though because sometimes I’ll need to go back and adjust the calendar to correct three weeks back because I got a different idea instead.  Then, I move whatever post was planned then until later. It’s been a nice balance of giving me a system to work with, but flexibility to roll with what I feel like doing in the moment.

I love physically writing in a notebook and will do it when I’m struggling to generate ideas.  Just sitting down with a notebook and writing will often get me unstuck. But, I’ve found it impossible to carry around a notebook - I leave it behind or forget to pick it up.  Unfortunately, my phone is always with me…

What systems do you have in place for mastering and tackling your finances?

Yes!  This is the most systematized area of our life.   We are fortunate enough to be in our accumulation phase and debt-free except for the mortgage (which is on accelerated paydown).  So, it’s mostly about tracking our spending to maximize our investments. We also keep track our net worth.

Everything is done through a series of google sheets. We do use Personal Capital as a tool to provide an outside look and a quick and easy overview.  I still find value in doing my own total review each month, though.

We automate our investments with monthly contributions to multiple accounts to achieve our annual goals.  These include 4 pre-tax withdrawals (our 403b / 457 for each of us) and an auto-withdrawal to an additional international fund.  Each month we take any extra savings we’ve managed to create and put them into a taxable brokerage account.

More important than the tools are our systems of joint review to stay on the same page. In this post, I  talk about the process to get there and how we handle it now.  It really has been a game-changer for us. More than the spreadsheet updates, each type of conversation matters:

  • Monthly walk and discussion of financial independence plans and reality (no numbers!)
  • Monthly spending review and savings transfer
  • Quarterly update on net worth
  • Annual review of the past year
    • Dinner/wine and free discussion
    • Annual spreadsheet goals review
  • Building an annual budget
  • Setting goals for the next year - Here is our 2019 example.

We are currently recording every dollar we spend each day on a sheet that hangs in the kitchen.  That’s a short term “old school” system!

Do you mind sharing if you were formally identified as gifted in school? (Keep in mind, many extraordinary individuals are missed).  Do you have any positive or negative thoughts about gifted education or gifted psychology?

I was formally identified as gifted in school.  I think the identification was mostly based on intelligence and enrichment, as is too often the case.  However, the work illuminated that my real gift is the ability to make connections among various concepts and memories.  This makes me good at Jeopardy and amazing at standardized tests. I typically show near the top in any standardized test even if I have a base-level knowledge of the subject.  (This is actually one reason I distrust standardized testing as an accurate assessment.)

Standardized testing isn’t a practical skill.  But, that ability serves me well when I’m leading systems change and can quickly understand and integrate challenges from different contexts into a single cohesive solution.

I loved my gifted education options.  They pulled me out of traditional learning approaches into areas that trusted my ability and allowed for exploration.  That said, this should be the default approach for all of education! High expectations and a flexible framework that values explorations and knowledge connection.

I have negative thoughts about gifted identification.  The biases inherent in our current systems are awful. I had a close friend who was a first-generation Mexican immigrant.  We’d spend all our time out of school together exploring and discussing the same things. In school, he was shuffled into base-level worksheet or rote memory type classes while I went into advanced classes.  The system was broken.

In my current role, I work hard to push back on identification systems that show bias and push for classroom instruction and curriculum that allows all students to reach their potential.

Do you mind sharing if you’ve had any mental health struggles?  If so, did those struggles impact your finances in any way?

No personal mental health issues.  Both my parents now work in mental health, so I’m very careful not to casually claim or assume mental health issues.

My family has a history of addictive behavior and substance abuse.  Growing up, I witnessed the destructive results on relationships and finances.

This instilled in me a drive to make sure I never let those around me down and is why I’ve always been driven to be financially secure.  It also led me to be very restrained on “just trying” things that I feared I’d like a bit too much! The obsessive tendencies can still get me into trouble though.

What is your favorite DIY hack?  Did you come up with it on your own?

I don’t have a specific hack.  I do engage in a lot of general household DIY.  I’m fortunate that through my high-school job in woodworking and some military training that I acquired some decent construction skills.  As a result, I generally do any household improvement or update (minus electrical or complex plumbing) on my own. Even better, I enjoy it!  This has saved us thousands of dollars over the years and means we can generally customize our house as we see fit.

On a rambling note - this is one of the challenges I have with rent v. buy optimization.  I understand the numbers mostly say renting is better, but there is something about being able to customize the space you live in that isn’t generally acceptable in most rentals.

What role (if any) has art and music played in your life?  Can you tell us some favorite bands?

I love music.  My life has always been full of music from a very young age.  My parents were original children of the 60s, bay-area hippy types so I grew up surrounded by that music.

It’s not very growth mindset of me, but I consider it one of the tragedies of my life that I’m completely unable to produce music. (Intentionally overdramatic - nothing about my life is tragic.)  I briefly played clarinet, I’ve dinked around with piano, and I sing badly. It’s a combination of my perfectionism and respect for music that I haven’t invested the time I’d need to reach the level I’d consider worthy.

Instead, I enjoy music all around me.  I love listening to live music and actually have problems being productive in silence.  (Even now I have some random dance music from South America playing in the background.)

The favorite bands question is always a tough one for me because I really do enjoy listening to just about anything.  My music library is confusing to most people as it really is an eclectic mix. In the spirit of answering the question, I can list some artists that I always enjoy when I hear them - mostly linked to childhood or specific experiences:  The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Tom Petty, Zeppelin, Joss Stone, Gorillaz. Yes, I realize it’s a sadly typical middle-aged white man list. I try to balance that out with the randomness of everything else.

I also use music to manage my emotions.  I have a list of angry, mostly outright bad, songs that I play when I’m frustrated or need to work out hard and it calms me right down.

Are You an Extreme Systemizer?

I think so and am often told so.  The test you gave me told me I was just high-average, though! I do definitely lean heavily towards systems though.  Even a lot of my emotional recognition is based on systems I’ve built to try and analyze social situations and manage my social anxieties.

My current obsession both personally and professionally is from James Clear’s Atomic Habits:  “We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”

I’ve always focused on systems-change professionally.  Working in education, I see all the breaks in the system that fail far too many kids and one of my life missions is to fix as many of those as I can before I burn out or die.  Or, to break the system entirely if that’s what it takes to rebuild it.

Personally, I’m recognizing how I’ve just used a force of will to make up for some of my systems deficits and have started to intentionally change.  TFI will tell you that my systems-obsession is aggravating, while at the same time admitting that it’s led to some life improvements for us.

I’m probably going higher on the Type S scale by the day.

Michelle Again…..

I hope you enjoyed learning about the systemizing mind behind Principal FI as much as I did.  I find him to be a very creative writer and synthesizer of interesting information. From his interview, blog, and respect for James Clear, it appears he is a systemizing machine with a huge heart for educators and students alike.

As an avid and active member in the FI community, he was one of the first people to vocally support me in a pseudo-study I am conducting about systemizing.  I want to thank him for taking the time to participate!

How about you? 

Here is a link to a test that can help you learn about yourself as a systemizer. This is a legitimate peer-reviewed psychological tool.  It does take some time to complete (about 20 minutes or more). You can take it for your own insight, but if you could please send me a screenshot of your results, you can help me gather some anonymous data for an independent study.

Please send your results in a screenshot (or your interest in being interviewed) to

5 Replies to “Educator FI: Creativity at Work Interviews”

  1. Thanks so much for letting me participate. I’m really looking forward to reading future installments!

    1. Thank you for going first and offering so many thoughtful responses. You set a high standard and I appreciate it!

  2. This was a really interesting interview. I feel like I learned a lot about both of you! PFI, I feel like we have A LOT in common. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m destined for administration though! Great job Michelle!

    1. Principal FI’s answers are fantastic and thought-provoking! Thanks for stopping by the blog Dave. If administration is your destiny, go for it!

    2. Whoops, I missed this original reply!

      No one is destined for administration. I kind of just ended up in it, and then kept getting pushed farther.

      Don’t do it unless you really want to have that larger impact. Although, I will say…the best admin I know all feel constantly feel the pull of the classroom. 😉

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