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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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About Schmidt

About Schmidt about actuaries? – well, certainly not me, of course! The fact that the film was based upon an actuary was not, in my view, of particular importance. Any number of other professions could have been chosen and the same story told. However, it would have been nice to see us in a better light!

For those yet to see the film, I don’t want to give too much away, but basically Warren Schmidt is portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson as an actuary who was successful at wonderfully achieving nothing. This was not just in his career, but in everything he did (or perhaps didn’t do) in his life. The film itself I found gripping, with every scene making its point, and including very effective black humour.

Schmidt believed that he should be dedicated, loyal, put his work before his family and be very proud of his profession. He had been at the same company for over 30 years and was the kind of man who waits until 5pm before leaving work to go to his own retirement party. He proudly tells of his ability, with incredible precision and with the required statistics, to calculate the age at which a person will die. Indeed he even understands the limitations of his work when he estimates how long he will live after the death of his wife… providing he were not to remarry, of course.

At the end of the day, what legacy did Warren Schmidt leave? None. He is a self-confessed failure who, despite thinking he had led a busy and important life, slowly began to realise how empty the whole thing was. Schmidt claimed his life had been so busy that he had forgotten large sections. In reality it was the tedium of his life that had resulted in his apparent lack of memory.

Despite being more about middle-class attitudes than the apparently dysfunctional personalities of actuaries, every viewer will go away with a perception of what actuaries are like. There is little we can do about that in the short term, apart from getting rid of the ‘comb-overs’, selling the camper vans, learning to run properly, and becoming more socially competent.

However, I think it does show that the content of the 2002 Institute presidential address was absolutely spot-on. Jeremy Goford recognised that we need to improve the public’s perception of our profession (which hasn’t been made easier by this film), become much more focused on the bigger picture, and make sure all our work is understood in the business context. This film totally reiterates this and should give us the impetus to make sure it happens. Yes, I’m sure we can all analyse data to six decimal places and give detailed explanation of all kinds of legislation, practice, and guidance notes, but can we all honestly say that we have the customer and client focus that we should have?

One particularly poignant part of the film showed a somewhat dismayed Schmidt seeing all his beautifully packed files just waiting to go in the incinerator. If that ends up being the total sum of your work, you might as well pack it in now. There is little point in working hard to leave no mark. There is every point in working hard to make a difference.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop being prudent; indeed, our clients have an awful lot of respect for that trait of the profession, and these things do set us apart from our peers. What I am saying is that we should be broadening our horizons and making sure we add value in everything we do. Most importantly, our clients need to be able to recognise that we are adding value.

For the younger members, there was one saving grace in the film. Schmidt’s replacement, described by Schmidt as a ‘cocky bastard’, certainly had more entrepreneurial and business sense. His life was brighter and his enthusiasm greater (although Schmidt did believe that somebody 30 years his junior could not possibly know as much as he did about risk management!). However, it shouldn’t just be the youngsters that carry this responsibility forward. We all need to work together to do so and, in particular, employers and managers of actuaries should strongly encourage us to diversify, in both our careers and our home lives.

Quoting from the Institute presidential address, ‘decisions are easy, it is living with the consequences that is not’. That was the problem with Schmidt. He had made, more than likely, an unconscious decision to just plug away at work. He knew he had wasted his life and just couldn’t cope with it. If you come away from the film feeling demoralised by it, then maybe you have already fallen into the Schmidt way of life and need to focus on what, as both a person and an actuary, you really want to achieve. Fortunately I didn’t feel like that, but maybe that’s because I am a ‘cocky bastard’.

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To purchase this film on DVD, click on the cover image. To purchase it on video, click here