Richard Lewis reflects on the unexpected creativity that can be found within the actuarial profession
When you think of artists, you probably think of painters, poets and musicians… but anyone can be an artist. All you have to do is choose.
Actuaries are used to choosing – expert judgment is our currency. However, we’re also used to not choosing. Most days we go to the same places, see the same people and think the same things. We understand risks for a living, but how often do we take them?
I was so afraid of making music that I became an actuary, but it turns out actuaries make things as well. Most people think we make numbers, but really, we turn numbers into decisions. We make stories.
Hiding behind technology
Technology only turns data into more data, so computers aren’t great at making stories. In our data-driven world we need technology to evolve – but we need to evolve, too.
Sometimes it feels easier to let technology do the evolving for us. Computers put people on the moon and food on our doorsteps, so we think we can automate our way out of anything. Yet we still have bookshops, we still don’t have enough meeting rooms, and sometimes we still need the back of an envelope.
To evolve, we need to learn, and in return for relying on automation we can learn from it. It’s no coincidence that the only way to make anything foolproof is to fool around with it, because the best way to learn is to play.
Jazz pianist Bill Evans viewed learning to play the piano as an automation process. He obsessively focused on each level of playing until it became automatic. This might seem too rational a way to make inspired music – but coupled with commitment, hard work and love, this strategy led him to make some of the most beautiful music of the past hundred years. Think what happens when we hold on too tightly to our automations, when we stop playing with them. Repeating the same thing over and over may be how computers work, but it’s not how we work.
Being an actuary could be the most constrained job in the world. Our work is heavily regulated, we have a reputation for relying on obscure technical knowledge, and we all know that garbage in equals garbage out. Surely there must be no space left for creativity? Being an artist, in contrast, could be the least constrained job. Where could you possibly start? But that’s it – you have tostart and find a way to finish. Once you have a plot for your novel, any subplots have to fit. Very soon, you might not like the box you’ve found yourself in.
Actuaries have a different kind of freedom. While artists feel personal responsibility for their constraints, actuaries work to rules set by the profession – so we can focus our time and energy on creating solutions.
The knowledge barrier can get in the way of communicating our work, but it gives us the freedom to play with models and assumptions, which is how we create our best work.
Dealing with bad data is probably our most common challenge. The only way forward is to be creative – find other data, change the model or change the story we’re telling.
The process is the work
We’re often told that the result is the work. Goal-driven culture is great for proposals, decision-making and management, but does it really get you to do your best work?
Look back on work you’ve already done. Notice when you’ve been motivated and when you’ve been bored, when you learned something and when you forgot something. Instead of focusing on your results, focus on how you responded and how you changed.
No one else can give you permission to do this work. Crafting your process is completely down to you, but it’s such a rewarding thing to work on. I’m still afraid of becoming a full-time musician and all the uncertainty that goes with it, but letting go of the stories other people have for me helps me see my creative process as work and gets me moving.
As actuaries we have so many opportunities to build processes, leveraging technology and the trust we’ve earned. Choosing to work this way is not going to be easy, and it’s not for everyone. If you’re curious, you can start right now and move towards your art – the work that you love.
See what happens when you play more with technology. Those stories aren’t going to write themselves.
Richard Lewis is a senior consultant at RPC Consulting