An actuary looks back … and forward
By Jason Sears
I am fully aware of the irony of writing an article about work-life balance when I have three children under the age of 4. Sometimes I will wake up and wonder how it is 2017 when just yesterday it was 2013. I guess it’s true—time flies when you’re having fun.
I recently bought a hammock from REI. I brought it home, set it up between two trees and read some of our favorite books to Warren (3) and Marlow (2); Delano (1 month) was with mom. The experience was idyllic. It was everything I ever wanted fatherhood to be: Reading Little Blue Truck and Harold and the Purple Crayon, sandwiched between two adoring kids while swaying in a gentle, cool breeze in the warm evening sunlight, not a cloud in the sky.
It’s not always fun, of course. Sometimes it’s a whirlwind of whining, screaming, banging, hitting, and biting. Asking big brother for perhaps the 10,000th time to not sit on his sister’s head.
But all in all, I love being a dad. My first son was born at home and I caught him in my arms. I was instantly in love. Pretty soon thereafter I felt a new feeling—I had an overwhelming urge to put every ounce of my energy into raising my children. I miss them while I’m working. Anything that threatens to reduce my time with them is an enemy. This naturally brought up the topic of balance.
At some point years ago, the concept of balance—or more typically, “work-life balance”—entered the lexicon of working people. It was spoken of as an ideal to be sought after. This appealed to me at first glance. After all, at my first job after university, pulling in an admirable salary, working 60+ hours a week before spending time studying for exams, all while expecting exam success, was held up as the ideal actuarial employment. Just before I left that job after two years, I mentioned that I would be taking a month off before starting my new position and that two weeks of that time would be spent in Mexico City visiting an old high school friend who had been living there for a couple years. This revelation was met with quizzical looks, and after an awkward silence, I got comments like, “Well, enjoy that chance while you have it—you won’t get another one until retirement.” That comment didn’t seem to embody balance to me.
But what exactly is meant by “work-life balance”? I can easily imagine that the people I left at my first job would say that balance simply means that one puts equal energy into career, social life, and maybe a hobby, but continuously falls short at all of them. Is that the natural consequence of not focusing all of one’s energy in just one of those areas? I can see their point. I can say with confidence that I did not have balance while studying for actuarial exams—or at least balance was defined differently. I did not have balance on a given day, but I balanced a given year by drawing a line after the exam day, leaving the books behind and focusing on leisure when I had the chance.
What about when the days of taking exams are long in the past? Take my career as an example. One metric for success is compensation. If I go to any of the recruiting sites and look at compensation data, I am getting paid below the average for those with my years of experience and credentials. This stings, but only a little. In the past four years I have turned down many job offers. Clearly for me—and I assume for other actuaries—there is more to employment than salary and bonus. In my current position I am often given new challenges that require collaboration across teams and hierarchies, perseverance, technical expertise, and leadership. I love this kind of work.
For the sake of introspection, maybe there is a right way and a wrong way to have balance. If I were extremely successful at my career, with my family, and in my hobby, maybe then I could say I have balance. Perhaps because I don’t have that success, I’m just not doing it right. This theory disintegrates easily upon closer inspection. I agree that I may not be “successful” in any number of pursuits, but one thing stands out: I feel fulfilled, and often happy. So what is going on here?
Perhaps it’s useful to ask whether having balance is an “end” or a “means to an end.” If we take that further, does having balance mean I should experience a fulfilling life? Or does having balance simply make a fulfilling life more attainable?
If I think back, much of my fulfillment comes from knowing myself. Specifically, I have spent a significant investment of time thinking about what I value, and honoring my values is an important aspect of balance. One of my values is adventure.
Several years ago I was working for a company in the actuarial development program and I got the chance of a lifetime for my career. I had the chance to work as part of a two-person team leading the enterprise risk management (ERM) department of one of the biggest health insurers in the country. I spent about five years working in enterprise risk management all told, but those were years I wasn’t spending on valuation, forecasting, and pricing—actuarial bread-and-butter as they say. It was a very demanding job, and I wasn’t able to keep up with a typical exam schedule during that time. I fell out of touch with the actuarial community.
On the other hand, I met with the members of the C-suite frequently. I accompanied the director of ERM to New York to present our version of ERM to rating agencies, and after a couple years took charge of the conversation. I managed the entire incentive compensation program for the company, from creating scorecards for the subsidiaries to tracking performance to reporting results. I worked on enterprise-wide teams and managed enterprise-wide projects, often requiring me to compel people to do work for me, none of whom had a direct reporting relationship with me and some of whom were executives of the subsidiary companies. The interpersonal skills I learned were priceless. My ability to convey confidence increased. My communication skills improved tremendously as did my business acumen. I found that I had a natural skill for customer service, critical thinking, and creative innovation that I nurtured in this environment, and I found that these skills were highly valued by my clients. (And if my wife ever suffers from insomnia, I can start talking about economic capital modeling and she passes out. I wish it worked on my kids.)
Eventually, I left the position to pursue another ERM opportunity in Hawaii. I spent the next three years living, working, and surfing on Oahu. I accepted a position as an analyst at a company in Hawaii with the verbal promise that I was being groomed for the director of ERM position and that the promotion would happen within six months. Very soon after I started, though, my manager (the director at the time) was passed over for a promotion. It turned out that my manager’s promotion was not already set in stone, which was how it was portrayed to me during the negotiation process. I felt misled and left the company after six months. It seems obvious in retrospect that simply having a job in the name of balance wasn’t enough. I needed to work with people I could trust.
Ironically, it seemed I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I left my original Hawaiian employer to work at a professional employer organization (PEO). PEOs basically sell administrative services like payroll and collectively bargain on behalf of their clients for things like lower health insurance premiums. On paper it sounded like a wonderful adventure. It was a fairly young company with huge growth prospects. It needed someone to manage its insurance portfolio. Again, in retrospect I saw red flags but didn’t examine them closely enough. In the negotiation process, my manager (the president of the company) said that the company didn’t offer a specific amount of vacation time: Salaried employees could take as much time off as they needed as long as the work got done. “Interesting!” I thought to myself. During the interview process, I made it clear that my first son would be born in couple months and that I would be taking time off for that. I wanted it to be understood because it was so soon after starting the position.
It was a glorious job … for about two months. I left home early in the mornings so I could surf for an hour before starting work. I stashed my surfboard in the office. However, the workload started large and increased quickly. It crept further and further into my non-work life. Eventually, the president asked me to promise that I would take no more than two weeks of vacation for the birth of my son. I balked. We discussed it and eventually I agreed, but soon thereafter the president told me he wanted me to stay out for just a week. After some tense exchanges, he went further—he said that he needed me in the office and didn’t want me to take a single day for the birth of my son. I said this was unacceptable. He said to me, “Look Jason, I’m telling you from experience”—he had three sons of his own—“that it will be a waste of time. You will realize after two weeks at home that your son just doesn’t need you.” My eyes got big. I said, “That may be true, but on the day of the birth, surely you’ll agree that my wife will need me?” He answered, “You’re just going to have to tell her to man up.” I asked for a day to consider. The next day I returned with my resignation.
I spent the next five months or so unemployed. I got to spend much more time with my new son than I had planned on, and it was all wonderful.
Eventually, I was able to secure a position with Anthem. I still work there four years later. I love my job. I have been working as a full-time remote actuary from the start. The independence of location is priceless to me. It may not pay as much as what salary surveys suggest it “should,” but I can’t think of something I would rather do, despite offers of employment elsewhere. I work with people who I consider consummate professionals, but they are also very intelligent and interesting. For example, my former manager majored in music performance before getting a master’s degree in economics and then becoming an actuary. I am often handed challenging projects that require me to work with people throughout the company, solving new problems with innovative approaches. I also like wearing shorts to work. The people I work with respect my boundaries. I value ethical and professional people. Working at Anthem has been a great experience.
We eventually left Oahu for Bellingham, Wash., to be closer to Grandma. In addition to challenge and creativity, other values for me are location and family. To feel content, I need to live in a certain place. I love the Great Northwest like I was born here. I never felt at home in Hawaii—Hawaii is a good place to visit, but I would never want to live there permanently. Friends and family didn’t visit nearly as often as we expected, and we felt our children were missing out on the chance to build relationships with family. Now, looking back after living in Washington for just over a year, I have no regrets about leaving Hawaii. I still wear shorts every day.
Maybe balance is the ability to draw a sharp line between work and everything else. If I weren’t able to do this, I wouldn’t enjoy spending time with my family as much. I wouldn’t enjoy my hobbies as much, either. Recently I was able to achieve a lifelong dream. I recorded a hip-hop track with my kids. It’s amateur, but I had so much fun doing it—and I have so much fun listening to it—that I’ll be making music with them until I can’t pick up a mic any more. You can find our songs on SoundCloud—search for “Mad Daddy”—or on my LinkedIn profile.
Furthermore, balance isn’t constant. I value flexibility. My work colleagues place a high value on this as well, and I assume that is why so many of them work remotely. I currently feel that I have the time and flexibility to spend on the things that are important to me. Working remotely is priceless in that regard.
In retrospect, if one wants fulfillment, there are probably infinite ways to get it. I don’t have many tips to give. I don’t have things figured out. And I like it that way. I prefer to be a lifelong learner, to continually change. In fact, I take the stance that I am pretty much always wrong, but slowly get less and less wrong through experience. That’s life. Being a parent reminds me of this on a daily basis.
I recall something that one of my mentors said: “Being uncertain about things is uncomfortable, but being 100 percent certain about anything is absurd.”
I love my job. Having said that, being the most successful at my career is not what will define my life. It won’t give me comfort when I’m facing the big sleep. I want to give all of my time and energy and life force living my values. For me, part of that means having and enforcing boundaries, being flexible and working with people who can adapt, and spending time learning what is important to me—and then doing that thing.
In the end, I think the concept of “work-life balance” can sometimes be a euphemism. It can mean, “How does one justify spending too much time and energy on work?” To me, balance is only a good idea in service of fulfillment.
JASON SEARS, MAAA, FSA, CERA, is an associate actuary with expertise in the Affordable Care Act and risk adjustment at Anthem Inc. based in Bellingham, Wash.