Psychologist Wendy Johnson recalls how qualifying as an actuary and running her own consultancy in the US allowed her to overcome shyness and gave her essential skills for life
From an early age, my mother had figured I’d become a scientist. Not just any scientist, either, but one worthy of a Nobel Prize. With that came expectations of A-grades all the way – but also constant scoldings, my behaviour always wrong, wrong, wrong. In my second undergraduate year reading maths at Occidental College in Los Angeles, I got a B in my organic chemistry module. “Wendy,” my mother said, “you have ruined your average!”
It hit me like a cold, dirty rag across the face:
- I realised I’d grown up under ridiculously high standards, and dumped them there and then.
- I didn’t quit school, get into drugs or take off hitchhiking – but I did disengage, spending hours staring at my dorm room wall, my mind a jumble. B-grades accumulated.
Gradually, though, I pieced together my life story, helped by my mother’s chest of mementoes, which included letters from her family and former beaus. She’d always said I was like my father, not her, but two things became clear: she and I were more alike than she claimed, and she’d been similarly wrong, wrong, wrong, according to her father.
I realised that I had my own life to lead and that it didn’t matter what she thought. Driven by curiosity, I resumed active study, but I knew that my next step would be the workplace, not academia.
Wanted: maths job
When I graduated in the late 1970s, the US economy was wretched: high inflation, high unemployment and jobs scarce as hen’s teeth. Especially the kind of job I wanted: challenging, interesting, using my degree in pure maths. No one was looking for people to do abstract maths with no practical use.
Lowering my horizons, I managed to get two offers: one as a trainee design engineer and one as an insurance underwriter. I took the latter because
I liked the people better, despite it paying much less. While fun at first, it became boring as soon as I’d mastered it. Now what?
I ran into a friend who said the pension consulting group he worked for was hiring. I’d always known that the actuarial profession was an option for mathematical types, but had never pursued it because it didn’t involve the pure maths I loved. But, I thought, why not for now? I applied.
They took me on. Later, they told me that I’d appeared shy and uncertain in the interview, but so determined that they’d hired me anyway. That was me then – painfully socially hesitant but dogged when pursuing something.
I quickly rose up the ranks, first in pensions and then in casualty work, mostly for public agencies that had formed self-insurance pools – all of which had been cancelled by the global insurance industry in the late 1970s. The demands to convey myself with ‘executive presence’ increased. It isn’t something I can do, but I figured out my own way – to the point where my husband (also an actuary) and I set up and ran our own consultancy for a decade in the 1990s.
The abilities to come across as competent and to help others are some of the primary skills I gained while working in the profession. It also showed me that my insistence on conceptual understandings makes me creative in addressing problems and coming up with insights. Both are valuable in life.
What makes us tick?
I had two children and, boy, were they different, despite their shared home and genetics. Psychology had always interested me, and now I was dying to know how genes and environments intertwine to make us who we are. I did background courses and swapped actuarial work for a PhD at the University of Minnesota, studying behaviour genetics and individual differences. When I finished, a post opened at the University of Edinburgh, where I have been a professor since 2015.
Now, when I come to understand all that can be done in one area, I move to another, expanding on theories, so there’s always a new challenge. I have found that my experience in actuarial business and with clients has enriched my interpretations of psychological and practical realities.
What have I learned? I believe our genes are ‘toolboxes’ that we’re born with, blunt instruments but highly flexible, like Lego bricks that can be put together in any number of ways, to create anything from wasps to spaceships. And that’s how we live – constantly cobbling our tools together to meet what is thrown our way.
If you can slog through the actuarial exams, you’ve got wide horizons. Put your genetic toolbox to work and explore them!
Wendy Johnson is a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh