The career advice I would have given my 22 year old self

Actuary out of the Box
12 min readMar 27, 2019

It has been 32 years since I attained Associateship of the Society of Actuaries (ASA) at the age of 22 .

After my ASA, I went on to receive my Fellowships both from the UK and USA Actuarial Professions and qualified as a Chartered Financial Analyst working in 7 countries and 9 cities.

So for whatever it might be worth, here is some advice I’ve learned from my 32 years as an actuary that I wish someone had given me when I was 22.

Being a successful actuary requires a lot more than passing actuarial exams

The Actuarial profession is consistently ranked as one of the best jobs in America. All actuaries have one thing in common: they passed their actuarial exams. By definition, that is what makes them an actuary. The most important advice I can give an actuarial student that`s thinking about seeking an international qualification is that your number one priority should be passing the exams. The intention of this article is to shed light of some of the other factors that are involved to add that sparkle that will take you from being good to being great. Why some actuaries make the C-suite…and others don’t.

Failure is always an option

Success Is Going from Failure to Failure without Losing Your Enthusiasm ..Winston Churchill

If you are studying to be a UK or USA actuary, get used to failure. I don’t care if you got straight A’s and were the captain of your school’s Math Olympics team and Chess Team . Everyone taking actuarial exams is really smart and yet the passing rates are less than 50%.. So do the math, you are extremely likely to fail multiple exams. And every time you do fail you will be angry, heartbroken and want to give up. I learned this the hard way. When I took the Fellowship Pensions exam, I failed 3 times. This brings to to my next piece of advice…

Developing a Growth Mind Set

An elite ballet company selects its dancers the following way. It first looks at the eager ballerinas perform their solos, then the ballet master offers critique and asks them to perform again — only those that have shown the most improvement are selected to join the corps de ballet, and these may not necessarily be the best dancers. The ballet master is looking for the dancers who respond best to feedback, those who have a growth mindset.

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. Developing a growth mind set might be the most important trait to being a successful actuary.

When I qualified in the UK, Fellowship exams were offered only once a year, so you had a whole depressing year to ponder your poor effort. And of course the Actuarial profession is known to continuous change the reading/syllabus/exam structure on a regular basis so failed actuarial students could not assume that all they needed was a `refresher` to pass next year`s exam; the test material could be completely different meaning that you had to study a lot of new material; fixed mind sets may groan knowing that they have to study new topics whereas growth mind sets see the new material as a challenge.

The really great news is that one can change from being a fixed mindset kind of person to a growth mindset individual. Perseverance is the key!

You are always being interviewed..

Most people think that the interview process has stopped once they receive their job offer.. wrong! Yes do enjoy the moment and go out and celebrate.. but be aware that this is only the beginning.

You are going to be evaluated continuously by your boss, by the boss of your boss, HR director, Marketing Director, IT Director, Compliance Director etc.. in the work place, at the office party and of course you will be judged on your on-line activities.

Career competition is both tough and subjective. In order to stand out positively, you need to demonstrate that you have qualities that make you unique from the rest of colleagues (both actuarial and non-actuarial) . Stuff that makes you stand out include but are not limited to…

· communication skills — we need people who can speak with confidence in front of a room full of people and can make complicated concepts accessible to non-technical audiences.

· leadership — we need people who can lead themselves and show the potential to lead others.

· diversity of thought — we need a collection of people who think differently with unique life experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.

· A sense of urgency — we need people who are personally driven to get stuff done because that is an innate trait that is impossible to teach.

· Punctuality. Always arrive 5 minutes early for internal & external meetings. Just by doing this consistently you will already be `standing out from the crowd`

My advice to develop soft skills is to hang out with people who inspire you, join the toastmasters international, sign up for a Dale Carnegie leadership course, pick up a book you might not otherwise be interested in. Basically open yourself up to new experiences

Most decisions don`t really matter

This probably sounds like terrible advice (and perhaps it is). Of course decisions matter — but they rarely matter as much as you think they do. Actuaries and data folks in general tend to want lots of data and analysis upon which to base their decisions. The more we know, the more informed the decision will be. But at some point, you end up with a “paralysis of analysis” that leads you to making no decision, and the only thing worse than making a bad decision is making no decision at all.

Think back on your life/career to date. Unless you are sleeping on the street or are in jail for having participated in a white collar crime you probably have not really made a decision that has led to a terrible outcome. So why should you now start making terrible decisions. No matter how daunting and life-changing something seems, just get the best information you can and make the best decision you can. Life will go on. Stop trying to be so perfect

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had,If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.” .. Jeff Bezos

Go for the bronze

Bronze medalists are world class — among the best of the best at their chosen disciplines. Few people will work harder for anything in their lives than bronze medalists have. Imagine the 100 meter dash final at the Olympics. Eight of the world’s greatest sprinters running 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. The gap between the gold and the bronze could be hundredths of a second — a snap of your fingers. Now imagine the emotions of the medalists. The gold medalist feels — relief. He was probably expected to win and anything short of the gold would have been a great disappointment. The silver medalist feels — misery. He was so close to being able to say for the rest of his life that he was a gold medalist and to enjoy the adulation that is bestowed upon the fastest man in the world. The bronze medalists feels — unbridled joy. He won a medal! He probably wasn’t expected to win at all and was very close to finishing off the medal stand altogether. But for the rest of his life, he will be known as an Olympic medalist. Realize that there will always be someone better, and that is ok. Don’t get so obsessed with being the best that you are unable to enjoy being great.

Find something to be an expert in

Yes, it hard to be the absolute best at anything and being well rounded is very, very important… but along the path to life-long learning you might just find a topic where you can gain deep enough knowledge to become known as an expert. At some point I accidentally stumbled into becoming an expert in Incurred but not reported reserves (IBNRs) . At some point I realized that I had uncovered some insights in short tail health IBNRs that weren’t being discussed in the public domain. Professionally, this is huge because people start seeking you out for that expertise which can open doors for all sorts of career-defining opportunities. So find a topic to go deep and become an expert — no matter how niche or narrow your field of expertise might seem.

Declaring yourself as an expert is the first step. No one is going to know that you are an expert unless you contribute to articles, speak at seminars, promptly help colleagues with their inquiries etc. Don`t be shy about marketing your secret powers!

Career paths are not ladders, they are jungle gyms

This is especially true for actuaries because our careers seem to be laid out so nicely for us based on passing exams and reaching years-of-experience milestones. Actuarial Intern, Actuarial Assistant, Senior Actuarial Assistant, Assistant Actuary, Associate Actuary, Actuary, Senior Actuary, and so on, … or whatever your company calls these various titles. This is tantalizing, especially for someone who likes to play it safe and doesn’t like to make big life decisions. Just pass exams, put in the time, and do good work and you should keep progressing up the ladder. The problem is that you may not get the well-rounded background that you really need. You may end up advancing to a role that requires you to manage people but it turns out you are terrible at managing people. Or the reverse, perhaps you are great at managing people but you don’t advance far enough along the narrow “actuarial” path to get the opportunity to be a manager. The bottom line is that you have to take control of your own career because no one else will do it for you.

I have had lots of diverse roles as consultant, chief actuary, CFO, CRO, head of product development, pricing, reserving, opening offices in new countries. I worked with Life companies and Reinsurance carriers. I was once simultaneously both head of Actuarial and Marketing at a health company.

I learned what I was good at, what I needed to work on, what I really enjoyed, and what I didn’t. Some of the steps I took along the way people might view as “backwards”, but not me. To me it is like a jungle gym — there is no forward or backward, you have the freedom to climb around wherever, and you can have a lot of fun along the way.

Seek out mentors

Mentors teach us stuff and help us avoid making the same mistakes that they made. And it is amazing how willing most people are to be mentors. It is an honor when someone asks me for advice because it makes me feel like I must have something worth sharing. I have been very fortunate to have a lot of great mentors and bosses over the years who have, perhaps unconsciously, steered my career to where it is today by telling me anecdotes of their personal career journeys which invariably impact the decisions I make. What do I look for in a mentor? I want someone who has achieved at least a modicum of success in their career but who has also overcome their share of adversity. I want people who are different from me who challenge the way I think. I want people who are accessible, willing and available because it doesn’t do any good to have a mentor you can’t actually approach or talk to. And I want someone who is a good storyteller because in the end it is the stories we remember.

Make sure you are always running toward something

In other words, make sure that you are so excited about the opportunity in front of you that you can’t wait to get there, regardless of what you are leaving behind. Don’t leave your job because you think things are crappy here (salary lower than the market , annoying boss or colleagues, responsibilities that include things you don`t like ), because no matter where you are things will occasionally be crappy. Basically you need to have defined goals in life.. that does not mean that you can`t change your goals.. but the ability to project yourself is very important and stay the course!

It`s better to be fast and wrong rather than slow and wrong

Almost everything we deliver is wrong. What I mean by wrong here is that your first delivery always `needs to be revised/changed` before it`s considered final. The actuary that delivers the perfect product the first time to marketing, the perfect year end reserve the first time to the chief actuary or the perfect estimated underwriting results for the next quarter to the CFO has not been born as yet. When you deliver a project for the first time, there is going to be lots of calibrations, so the quicker you deliver your `wrong` work, the `quicker` you will receive feedback to produce version 2.0.

How long did it take to build the Empire State Building in 1930?

Answer. The building was finished one year and 45 days later.

I found out this interesting bit of trivia at the start of the NYC Marathon chatting with a total stranger (the wait at the start of major marathons are very long). He was at Fidelity, a large investment fund, and when he found out I was an actuary, he started to vent his frustration about how long actuaries took to deliver anything! He used the example of the empire state building to make his point. Actuaries can take ages to deliver seemingly mundane and routine projects without having a sense of urgency.

Bottom line. When you see that your estimated time line to deliver a new product, revised pricing basis or proposal to adapt to new accounting standard is going to take longer than the time it took to build the empire state building… give yourself a reality check, is your project really that complicated ?

Complementary talent is far more valuable than conformist talent

Find one or two things your boss is rubbish at and be quite good at them.

Be an active Volunteer

I am an active volunteer for the SOA and wholeheartedly encourage my friends to also get involved. Volunteering promotes personal growth and self esteem, increases your personal network, lets you learn how to work with diverse teams of other non-remunerated volunteers, allows you to assume roles that are out of your daily job.

Volunteering can also put money in perspective.. Actuarial volunteers are truly happy even with the lack of salary and this can be a check-point that the pursuit of fulfillment and happiness does not depend on a pay check at the end of the month… we quickly forget how happy we were in high school solving complex math problems, delivering term projects `for free` etc..

Volunteering is one of the few things in life where there is no downside and only upside.

Closing comments

I have been asked to speak at a conference which celebrates Brazilian Actuaries Day. Usually I speak about the challenges to achieve an international actuarial qualification. However this year I decided to take a different path for this seminar. I have borrowed very liberally (basically copied) from other actuaries` input and career advice columns posted on LinkedIn to produce this piece which is in essence my `talking points`for my presentation.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider clapping. It means the world to the author.

Picture of author at 22 years. London, UK.