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50 Years of Lessons

50 Years of Lessons

By Sam Gutterman

Fifty years!

Has it really been 50 years since my first day as a summer actuarial intern at New York Life? Back then, I didn’t know what an actuary did, although the math and business angles sounded neat. My, how work—and life—have gone by fast (although I admit that some days and projects never seemed to end).

As I look back, there have been a lot of life lessons experienced, and even some learned. Here are a few of the big ones:

  • Do what interests you. Of course, I wasn’t passionate about all of my activities (like some staff meetings, expense reports, and time sheets), but mostly I enjoyed what I did—one way or another.
  • Get to know your colleagues. Especially for the people I worked with extensively, I would like to have been and be in better touch with those I valued most.
  • Figure out your weaknesses and how to overcome or avoid as many as you can. I have always tried to realistically assess my strengths—they are there, although they may be hard to find.
  • When it came to career, long-term planning just didn’t work for me—I had to take it one step at a time.
  • Give back to your profession or community. Don’t wait till tomorrow! The actuarial profession provided me with tons of opportunities. (Bonus: This can help with your networking and friendships.)
  • Asking the “why” question is important. I always liked being challenged with contrary views and considerations I hadn’t thought of. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”—John M. Keynes.
  • Be curious and observe. Many of my best creative and useful thoughts came while running—too bad I didn’t run with my Notes app in pre-iPhone days. Not everyone is creative, but by asking the “why” question rather than just the “what” or “how,” I have tried to learn from mistakes, small and large.
  • Keep learning—it is a process. How often did I use the stuff I learned at school or through exams—not often, but I admit I was quite proud when I applied geometry to a mortgage guarantee insurance problem. The importance of facts is often overstated; understanding basic concepts and processes is far more important than regurgitating the memorized details that are soon forgotten.
  • Remember fundamental actuarial principles, such as the risk management process and pervasiveness of uncertainty, and think before you extrapolate.
  • Be a generalist and be flexible. Otherwise, you risk becoming cubbyholed (although these days this is not easy). Organizations have historically not been kind to specialists—being a manager or in charge of a team may be much more rewarding over the long term.
  • Speak up, but not only to self-promote or market—not everything has to be earth-shattering.
  • Work should support your personal life, not vice versa. Family is all-important, although sometimes this can be overlooked if not careful. I got my actuarial exams out of the way before I got married and had children. I don’t know how I could have had children and still passed any professional exams—I admire those who have.
  • Keep physically active. Everyone should do something, supported by your family, though many such activities can be time-demanding. In my case it has been running, Do your best to have a well-rounded life.
  • Give yourself honest personal appraisals—at work and in your personal life. You may not be comfortable with setting long-term goals; one step at a time may be just as successful. But do everything you do as well as you can—of course, that doesn’t imply you need to be a perfectionist. I have had a tendency to seek comprehensive solutions, which can interfere with timely and useful deliverables.
  • Check your work, whether in an email or super-important report. It’s worth the time.
  • Personal integrity is way too important to compromise. If in doubt, talk it over with someone you respect. Your name is your brand—don’t screw around with it.

As we all travel different paths, our trajectories differ, usually dramatically. I hope some of my thoughts end up benefiting others, as well as serving as a reminder to myself.

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