Benefits to Long-term Thinking Actuaries

Dave_May 4thLast Saturday, I had the opportunity to run the Drake 1/2 marathon. One benefit of long distance running is “undistracted” thinking. I’m 52, so my peak running days are in the distant past. But,this run was one of my most rewarding runs. Ironically, I wasn’t well prepared for the run. For me, running in the Iowa winter is more miss than hit. So, my mileage going into the race was pretty low. Despite that, I finished 11 minutes faster than my goal (which was still slow!).

Here are some reasons why I think the race went well:

  • For the spectators, the weather was lousy. It was rainy, windy, and temperatures were in the mid 40’s. But, for long distance running, it was nearly ideal.
  • I started slow because of the slow temperatures. I also stopped and drank water at every water station for the first 10 miles. This slow start allowed me to run faster as the race progressed. I felt better and ran faster the last half of the race.
  • I have been running for a long time, so I have a built up endurance.
  • I was pretty well-rested, as I had a low mileage week before the race.
  • I was relaxed and enjoyed the run. I usually have enough competitive juice to push me. But, there is danger in pushing too much, which I think I avoided. Running relaxed is always better.

As I was running, I thought about the parallels between long distance running and actuaries. It’s critical that actuaries have a long-term perspective. The long-term perspective is necessary to successfully pass exams, as well as to be successful at work. Sprinting should be done sparingly and with caution, as sprinting leads to injuries and burn out.

Ironically, conditions that many prefer (warm and sunny) are good for spectators and sprinters, but not for long distance running. Actuaries don’t need to go fast, but they do need to go deep. That means having focused, quiet, uninterrupted time to think. It also means taking breaks. Just like training for a long distance race requires a plan, actuaries need to have a study plan to prepare for their exams. Even though my mileage for this race was lower than normal, I did try to train smart. As actuaries develop good habits and discipline, it becomes easier to prepare. I know I was significantly more efficient studying for my last actuarial exam compared to my first. Through trial and error (yes, failing an exam!), I was able to identify what worked and what didn’t work for me.

Most problems actuaries solve are long term. Actuaries must ensure products are priced correctly and adequate reserves are established to protect the company for 30+ years. This requires long-term thinking. It also requires distinguishing between important drivers and “noise”. “Noise” for studying can be surfing the internet when you should be taking a practice test.

Last Friday, one of our staff actuaries, Zi Jian (Larry) Saw, shared research on the benefits for taking breaks during an actuarial exam. He will summarize his research in a blog. The key take-away is to stay fresh for the long term. We are all wired differently. Some remain sharp longer than others. It’s important to understand your limits and take breaks when you need them. Don’t get overwhelmed by the “noise” of short-term thinking. Allocate your time to optimize long-term goals.

Many may struggle living with a long-term focus. It certainly isn’t common in our noise-filled culture. Perhaps you know someone who lives focused on the long term. Connect with them to find ideas that work for you. Where do you want your career to be in 5, 10, and 15 years? What problems do you want to solve? Find the right target and take a balanced, strategic approach to get there. And, of course, enjoy the journey!