Category Archives: Personal

Fatherhood, Present Value and How to Raise a Book

This post as well as the expanded and refreshed pages of the rest of this site is being published on Father’s Day and instead of the long and somewhat technical post I was planning on Personal Rates of Discount, I have decided to talk instead about Fatherhood and how it and Present Value are intimately connected. Specifically, it seems to me that one of the essential aspects of fatherhood is the need to advise and guide children in making good life choices affecting their future and in many cases having to make those decisions for our sons and daughters before they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

And if we use Present Value to make those decisions, all that we are really doing is making decisions in a way that takes into account not just the present moment, but all the possible future moments that might exist as well. We all agree that taking the Now into account is something that is best done holistically, completely and deeply. Well, my view is that you should have the same respect for those future moments as well, and Present Value is simply a really good technique and approach to help you be as complete, deep and thorough as possible in the consideration of those future moments.

Obviously, what I am saying can be equally said of motherhood, but I would suggest that genetics, culture and maybe even biology means that different decisions will be guided or made by fathers versus those made by mothers. I will leave it to others to debate whether one set of choices is more or less concerned about the future and therefore more amenable to Present Value thinking

While today is a day for me to honor my father and the difficult Present Value decisions he made that are still benefiting me, I also want to discuss fatherhood in a much more generalized way and acknowledge all the other “fathers” in my life.

Almost all of us have people in our lives, maybe a favorite teacher in school or a mentor at work, from whom we have received the kind of guidance, support, protection, advice and role modeling that one hopes to get from a father. I am no different, and many of the actuaries who I worked for and whose stories I tell in “What’s Your Future Worth?” were very much father figures for me. These days I am also probably viewed as kind of a “father” to some of the younger people who I work with and/or interact with in other contexts. For quite a while I have gradually been losing my own “fathers” to retirement and worse while at the same time picking up more “sons” and “daughters” along the way. This is the natural way of things I guess, but every once in a while you get surprised

It’s been a long time since I acquired a new “father”, but a little over a year ago, that’s just what happened, though in this case it was more than a single person, rather it was a whole company that adopted me. If authors “give birth” to their books, then the question naturally arises “who is the baby’s father?” For my book the answer is very clear – it was my publisher, Berrett-Kohler.

Berrett-Koehler is a unique publishing company and its mission and values reflect this. They are driven by a desire to publish books that will “help create a world that works for all”. They take that mission seriously and I was surprised and grateful when the Company decided that my ideas and the manuscript that eventually became “What’s Your Future Worth?” could be part of that mission. Part of my surprise was due to the fact that I didn’t even know in any explicit way how my ideas could actually improve the world. Rather I just thought it a shame that the powerful concept of Present Value was understood and being used by such a small group of people (i.e. actuaries) and in such a narrow way. To BK’s credit, my editor Steve saw beyond that and throughout the editing process kept encouraging me to keep paring down and focusing the message in a way so that in the end people could actually use the concept to improve their lives as well as that of the companies they work for and the communities in which they live.

Beyond helping me produce a better and more useful book than I had originally written, I am also grateful to have been taken in by BK because they have a unique philosophy when it comes to relating to the authors that they publish. Specifically they not only treat their authors more as partners and collaborators (vs vendors from whom they are purchasing “content” or worse as customers to whom they are selling “publishing services”), but they actively seek to tap into their authors’ knowledge and expertise, to learn from them, and to incorporate that knowledge into their own company. It no longer surprises me when someone from BK asks me how I would suggest incorporating Present Value into a specific decision that they or BK itself is facing. I have seen them do the same with the ideas of many other of their authors and I truly believe that is one of the key aspects of their business model that allows them to stay ahead of their competition and thrive in an incredibly difficult business that is undergoing dramatic and lightening fast change.

The irony is that while BK may have decided to publish my book because they saw the value of incorporating Present Value thinking into their business model, the fact is that they had been using Present Value well before they ever read my manuscript; manifested in how they choose and relate to their authors, in how they manage and reward their employees and in how the company sets its overall course and strategy. In the end, I expect that I have learned far more from my association with BK than they have from me.

So for all you authors out there hoping and dreaming that one day your book will help make the world a better place, seriously consider Berrett-Koehler as a potential father for your baby (www.bkconnection.com). They will provide great pre-natal care, make sure that the birth is natural and will feed and clothe your child well until he or she is ready to walk, run and maybe fly on their own.

Relearning to Love Math – How I Became an Actuary

“You can do ANYTHING with Math.”

-Deborah Hughes Hallet to a 1st year calculus class for non math majors

Math is hard and math is scary. This is particularly true when your father is a theoretical mathematician who viewed every report card A as an opportunity to describe how what you just learned is a special case of an even more beautiful and abstract area of mathematics that is waiting just beyond your current level of comprehension. So for me, learning math as a kid resembled nothing more than being on an arduous hike in the mountains with an overly enthusiastic trail guide who rarely let you stop and enjoy the view, but instead kept pushing you to scramble up more and more challenging screes and rock faces, all with the promise of “just wait until you see what’s up ahead!”. I stuck with it through most of high school and then simply walked away. It was not until my junior year in college that I decided that Math was something I could do, would serve me well, and with my father 300 miles away, it was safe to try again.

Sometimes you get lucky, and with my reintroduction to the subject I got the best possible teacher I could have hoped for. Deborah Hughes Hallet was one of the only female professors in Harvard’s Math department, and that fact alone should have clued me in that she was something special. Originally from England with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, she was anything but your typical tweedy academic. She was full of kinetic energy and looked like she would be much more comfortable climbing Half Dome than lecturing to a classroom full of students. She was an extraordinary teacher, whose passion was communicating her love of the subject to her students. Her explanations were clear and direct, and she gave us all the feeling that Math was not only accessible, but fun as well. Beyond that she had the uncanny knack of knowing just where the difficulty lay in each particular subject and she would take pains to address it even before the questions were asked. For the first few weeks of the class, it was smooth sailing and I wondered why I had ever abandoned the subject.

But then I hit the wall. Calculus has some deep and apparently paradoxical concepts (like instantaneous change, infinitesimal differences etc) and when I hit my first, I just froze. Needing help, I visited Professor Hallet during her office hours and within 30 seconds she cleared my conceptual block. I think we were both taken aback at how easy it was and when I showed her some willingness to hear more (something I rarely had given my father), she spent the next half hour showing me all kinds of fascinating applications and extensions of the concepts. Unlike my father, she seemed to know exactly what questions I would find interesting, and what answers I would find exciting. I left the room with a renewed enthusiasm for math that has rarely wavered in the almost 40 years since.

I went on to take one more year of calculus and a couple of other math courses in areas of interest (Geometry, Probability etc), but then faced the prospect of graduating college with no idea of what I was going to do next. I had applied to law school, but hated the prospect of more classes and no real world exposure. It was already April and I began to panic as almost everyone that I knew had a plan in place. Needing help once again, I visited with Professor Hallet and told her I was stuck and didn’t know what to do. This time she seemed a bit disappointed in me and just a little amused. She laughed a little and chided me for not paying as much attention in her class as I should have. Then she told me to simply go to the Career Services office and look up all the jobs that used math. She said there were plenty and that as math was something I loved and was good at, any job that used it, would almost by definition, be a good fit for me. It was simple but good advice. Before I even got out of the “A’s” I found listings for entry level jobs as an actuarial student. This was a job that not only used math, but would pay me to take more math tests, something that I had become particularly good at. I quickly signed up to take the first exam in May, and within weeks was hired for my first actuarial position at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (“CG”) in Bloomfield Connecticut.

In the 35 years since I started at CG I have never once regretted my decision. It is an unusual profession that has given me unique perspective to look at the financial world and Life in general. In future blog posts I will explore the actuarial viewpoint more deeply and share how that perspective can be applied to a variety of issues ranging from the mundane and individual to the most global and societal.

 I would love to get any and all feedback on what I have to say, so please feel free to comment or e-mail me. I look forward to our conversation.