November 2014

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.