President's Message

Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

By D. Joeff Williams

As you read this message, the Academy will be getting ready for its Annual Meeting and Public Policy Forum, where I will hand the presidential gavel to Tom Campbell. (It’s still hard to imagine that we will not be gathering in D.C. to interact and network face to face.) As such, this will be my final message in Contingencies.

There are so many directions I could go with this last message. I could highlight the amazing accomplishments the Academy was able to do this year amid the added challenges of a new work environment for both staff and volunteers and the increased element of uncertainty. I could share some of my personal highlights from the past year and the opportunities I had to interact with individuals from other organizations and volunteers in the Academy.

But instead I would like to revisit a question I posed to the Academy’s Executive Committee back at our in-person meeting last December, which seems so far away. I asked that they think about what changes we could imagine in the next 20 years—either within the actuarial profession or just in the world around us.

So, what could 2040 look like? It was intended as just a conversation-starter to break the ice. I had framed the question around the idea that 20 years ago we were getting ready to start a new millennium. Many were anxious about whether all the computers would crash because they were not programmed to handle the year 2000; would stock markets grind to a halt and subways stop working? Well, as we know, many of those dire predictions did not come true.

I could talk about so many changes during the past 20 years, but one recent story interested me because it related to an interest I have shared this year. It highlights how change can occur not just with a new invention or different approach to doing business, but in the culture and everyday of what we enjoy.

As I have shared, I have a casual interest in art—both in the art itself and also in the business aspect of the field. Who could predict that “blue chip” art would perform better than the S&P 500 from 2000 to 2018? A portrait by Italian artist Sandro Botticelli titled Young Man Holding a Roundel may reach the rare nine figures when it goes up for auction next year. And just a few years ago a painting by Leonardo da Vinci called Salvator Mundi sold for over $450 million—the most ever for a work of art at auction.

So how does this relate to this being my last message? The one responsibility I saw as central to my role this past year was to help facilitate strategic thinking—posing the questions that keep the Academy looking into the future. We can celebrate the past work that has helped the Academy get to where it is today, which I have done on many occasions; I am very thankful for that diligent work. We can get consumed by the everyday challenges that need to be dealt with today, which are certainly important to even move forward. But I believe it’s vital to keep asking the forward-thinking questions and focusing on strategic opportunities that can position the Academy to be the U.S. actuarial organization that is ready for the future when it comes—regardless of what it may look like.

Whether I was successful in that, I hope to be around in 20 years to see. Whether an artwork in that period will reach a billion dollars, who knows. But what I can say is that the core values that have guided the Academy for the past 55 years of objectivity, independence, and effectiveness will definitely be central to that mission.

Faithful readers of this column will know that in addition to the visual art world, another passion of mine is classic rock. Questions abound in classic rock—“Who Are You?” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” “Isn’t Life Strange?” The one that got me thinking was actually the song by David Bowie called “Life on Mars?” Without getting too deep into the lyrics, Bowie asks plaintively, “Is there life on Mars?” In 1971, the question would have been very abstract. But in 2012, the rover Curiosity landed on Mars, unlocking some of the secrets of the red planet. And with the launch this past summer of Perseverance—expected to land on Mars on February 18, 2021—does this question still hold that kind of abstractness as it may have 50 years ago? What questions should we be asking ourselves to think strategically for the next 50 years?

I want to thank the many volunteers, my fellow leaders in the other actuarial organizations, and the Academy staff for all the support and encouragement over the past year. Who could have imagined just a year ago the world we would be seeing today? No one. But those best prepared were already tackling the strategic questions.

I look forward to seeing what is in store for the Academy for the next 20 years.       

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