Adapting to Change: Learning to Teach by Learning to Learn

Adapting to change_1

About the Author:

Thomas Philips received his PhD in Electrical Engineering in 1986 and retired in 2017 as the Global Head of Front Office Risk for the Institutional Division of BNP Paribas Asset Management. He has since taught Portfolio Management and Valuation Theory in the Department of Finance and Risk Engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. A number of Indian startups have participated in Thomas’ class, and he recently celebrated the 47th anniversary of his bicycle ride from Varanasi to Mumbai with two friends and Rs. 300 in his pocket.

I left India in 1980 to study semiconductor physics in the U.S., but my dream rapidly dissipated: while my classmates could answer questions about quantum mechanics while they still hung in the air, I struggled to understand the answers even after they were fully revealed. Luckily, I found I had a nose for probability and used it well enough to get my PhD in Electrical Engineering, and spent my next five years at IBM Research, plunging into one area of research after another. In spite of my earlier defeat, a nascent thought took seed: it increasingly seemed to me that an individual could enter and contribute meaningfully to almost any field with the right mixture of open-mindedness, curiosity, and hard work.

This thought served me well when I spent a sabbatical year at IBM’s Pension Fund exploring new and unfamiliar horizons. My father was aghast at this change, so I quickly cobbled together an argument, animated by three simple principles, for why I (or most anyone) could succeed in finance (or most any field) with only modest risk of failure:

  1. A robust work ethic will put you in the top half of people in any field.
  2. A willingness to ask questions without embarrassment will put you in the top half of those who work hard. At this point, you are in the top quarter of the people in a field.
  3. An innate curiosity, along with a willingness to dream, explore, hypothesize, synthesize, and, most importantly, to test your ideas against reality with uncompromising integrity, will put you in the top half of the group of hard-working people who are not embarrassed to confess their ignorance. Now you lie in the top eighth, or the top tenth with a little rounding.

Even though the argument fell flat with my father (my mother was far more sympathetic!), thirty-three years in the industry and seven post-retirement years in academia give me the confidence to say that my argument sits on firm foundations, even though it was created in haste.

A young friend paraphrased my argument along different lines. He, too, thought it was possible to do well in almost any field that did not require a rare skill (e.g., rock-steady hands in neurosurgery or extreme mathematical abilities in theoretical physics) and posited a three-year timeline to transition from one field to another.

  1. In the first year, you learn the foundations of a new field.
  2. In the second year, you bring yourself to par with your colleagues in the field.
  3. In the third year, you begin to contribute to the field.

This is good advice and not at variance with my earlier argument, and I put it into practice when, following my retirement in 2017, I was asked to quickly get up to speed and teach a graduate-level course on Valuation Theory in the Department of Finance and Risk Engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Never having studied accounting, which is fundamental to Corporate Valuation, I took an outstanding course on accounting taught by Professor Dhananjay Gode in our business school. For an entire year, I attended Professor Gode’s lectures on Friday, did all his homework assignments alongside his students on Saturday, integrated my newfound knowledge into my own lectures on Sunday, and, on Monday, delivered a better lecture than I could ever have without the benefit of his insights. We are now good friends, and while I can occasionally offer him an insight or two, the balance of accounting expertise continues to be skewed strongly in his favour.

Following a suggestion from another friend, I further sped up my learning by giving my students a simple two-question quiz each week that constituted 5% of their homework grade:

  1. Is there anything you did not understand in the last lecture, and why?
  2. Based on your advanced reading of the material, what do you want me to focus on in the following lecture?

Their answers were candid, and the difficulties they identified were surprisingly uniform, suggesting that I had failed to convey my thoughts clearly in class. I used their feedback to rethink my approach to the material I had just covered and made a simple enhancement to my pedagogy: I used the first quarter of each lecture to address their questions and the remaining three-quarters to cover new material. I was now learning alongside my students!

My final enhancement was to ask my students for an anonymous review of my course at the end of the semester, keeping future students in mind. I asked them to tell me everything they disliked about the course and committed to addressing their concerns the following semester. One of the comments I received was transformative: my students wanted me to focus on young firms and startups with the same rigour that I brought to mature firms.

The six months I spend each year in Bangalore taking care of my father proved to be an ideal way to make this happen. I met several entrepreneurs and helped them think through the trajectory of their startups, and they, in turn, interacted with my students, mainly via Zoom but sometimes in person. My students vetted their businesses, identified potential competitors, suggested expansion plans, and gave them independent valuations of their startups. The experience has been invigorating for both students and entrepreneurs, though this year’s evaluations brought a fresh complaint – doing all the homework and preparing for the meetings was exhausting!

As technology evolves and life expectancy expands (particularly for women, who live approximately five years longer than men), and as many more of us become members of the Wisdom Generation, we are faced with an avalanche of ways in which to contribute to our own upkeep and the maintenance of the world. No longer does it seem adequate to retire and fade away gracefully at 58 – for many of us, a new life is just starting and will continue well into our nineties.

We need to re-orient ourselves to this new reality by firmly grasping the many opportunities we are presented and to encourage the emergence of many more. I advocate for young people to mentor older colleagues just as they, in turn, must be mentored by their seniors; for the emergence of short education programs that allow rapid reskilling and transitions to sunrise industries, and for jobs that allow part-time employment without taint or stigma. Increasing participation by the Wisdom Generation in civic and economic life is one of the great challenges of our time, and successfully addressing it will surely transform our world for the better.

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