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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Balancing act

Stooges, Musketeers, talented Beatles. It’s true what they say, all great things come in threes. Lately I’ve been thinking about another great trinity – work, life, and study. Apparently it’s of monumental importance that we balance the three sides of this triangle in a sort of zero-sum game. But it takes a Jedi Master to balance the Force, and there’s only two sides to that (apathetic you have become, the neutral side I sense in you).Maybe that’s why I know so few people who manage to get the balance right.Most of us working students face a conflict on a daily basis. We drag our weary behinds home at the end of the day to either stare at exam notes until the wee hours, or collapse in front of Beauty and the Geek with a bag of Doritos. It would be nice to bounce home from the office at 5pm, ready to study – but that’s not often an option. And if it were I don’t think it would help much in the long term.In some ways, the exams are merely a necessary evil when viewed in terms of career progression. Perhaps three-quarters of the exams I will sit have no direct bearing on the work I do every day in the office. Perhaps this is why I have forgotten everything about exams I passed only a year ago. Moving in the other direction, with the exception perhaps of the fellowship paper, it is difficult to bring any direct experience I have in my career to bear in the exam hall without risking the mortal sin of making points which are too ‘UK-specific’.Personally, I see the exams not as an extension of my training, but as a series of hoops to jump through. I certainly don’t think they are helping me to become a better actuary, which is a shame considering the time invested in them. Perhaps things may change following the Morris review – the new education proposals do seem to be coming from a more ‘vocational’ angle. But at the moment, exam progression isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I consider my career development.I’m more concerned about how I can improve the skills I use every day to serve my clients better and catch the eye of my superiors. Surely that’s the way to climb the greasy career pole?

Bad attitudeExcept it’s not that simple. No employer is going to be happy with a student simply going through the motions of studying with no real view to qualifying, no matter how good they may be at their job. So while the ‘work’ side of the triangle is the fixed point, woe on us if we let ‘study’ come up too short against it.But ‘life’ seems to be the short side of this isosceles triangle. The bit that just sorts itself by making up the difference of the other two. And that’s a shame – we’re young, with a bit of money in our pockets, and these should be some great years. Yet when I’m not hunched over a spreadsheet, I’m wading through a thousand pages of material from ActEd that I’ll never actually need.

Heaven can waitI used to think I still had a pretty good deal when compared to investment bankers or management consultants but as I get to know more, I realise the gap isn’t as wide as we think. You can’t swing a bottle in a London bar without glassing a dozen of them. And yet I was so surprised to run into an actuary in a bar recently that I had to buy him a very expensive drink. I’d like to extend the offer to any self-identifying actuarial student I meet – don’t be shy!The students I know who I think get the balance right probably don’t work or study any less than the rest of us. It’s just that whatever free time they get, they spend it falling down a mountain with a piece of fibreglass strapped to their legs, or jumping out of a plane. That’s not to say that life is only worthwhile when you are in imminent danger of losing it, but it’s one way of making it count more.So personally I’m going to worry a little less about slavishly working through the exams and a little more about how I can do my job better and where my next Cosmopolitan is coming from. I dare say I’m not going to be able to balance the triangle perfectly a lot of the time, but I take some solace in the words of Meatloaf – ‘Don’t be sad, ‘cos two out of three ain’t bad’.