actuarial lessons - wood carving
Actuarial Study, Learning, Misc, Productivity, Psychology

5 Actuarial Lessons From Carving Wood

My biggest goal in life right now is bringing my 3 kids up to be well rounded, healthy and happy adults.

It's the most important responsibility I'll ever have. 

As a parent, I want them to take onboard some hard earned wisdom and lessons from my 44 years of experience and to learn from my many mistakes.

Of course they will have to eventually find their own way, but I still think it's important for me to, where possible, soften the road ahead.

One of my greatest joys is family time spent together down in what we now call "ProActuary HQ."

It's a little secluded cabin set deep in the Northern Irish countryside. 

actuarial lessons - path

We go there to generally chill out.

To get away from the hustle and bustle and to spend lots of time outside, away from digital distractions (unless I'm there to work on ProActuary!).

This means doing random things. A stochastic approach to life. No set agenda. No timescales. No goals. Just whatever takes our fancy.

Usually this involves activities such as building huts, a stone BBQ or forest paths. Another day it could be painting rocks, planting trees or tending to our vegetable patch. 

proactuary cabin

The common theme is doing physical stuff that makes us feel grounded again. A perfect antidote to too many hours during the week spent indoors and staring at screens.

There’s something very satisfying about making physical things.

I think we don't do enough of it these days.

Wood is my favourite material.

Chopping, sawing and carving.

It’s very therapeutic.

Instead, most of us nowadays move numbers and words around on a screen, pressing buttons on a keyboard and solving problems using binary bits and pixels.

As actuaries, we are so used to computers, smartphones, technology and working with these tools day in day out. I sometimes wonder what the blacksmith, carpenter, or weaver from 200 years ago would think if they time travelled forward to 2022.

It seems we increasingly live in a life of crazy technology and immediate everything - always being on, with an expected tempo of doing things as fast as possible.

actuarial lessons - wood carving

I find doing real physical things like building and carving with wood, with slowness and deliberation, brings me balance.

Last weekend, my son Joshua and I opted to do some more wood carving.

Crafting a wooden spoon was the challenge of the day.

Josh, was keen to see the spoon making process from start to finish. This wasn't just an opportunity for some quality father-son bonding. It was also a chance for some of that 'fatherly wisdom' to be passed along! It turns out the lessons we learnt in our little afternoon of spoon carving, were applicable to life in general.

And even pertinent to actuaries....

Actuarial Lesson #1: Start With a Clear Vision

actuarial lessons - log split

Wooden spoon carving, step 1: Selecting your piece of wood. 

It's important to get this right.

Poisonous is clearly not good. Neither is too soft, too hard, too long or short.

As I explained to little Josh, you need to see the finished spoon in the branch before you even begin. It's all about being able to envision in your mind what you cannot yet see with your eyes.

There's magic in carving wood. I've found it calms the 'monkey mind' and enriches the soul through mindfulness, creativity and connection.

In fact carving wood is a lot like sculpting stone.

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

- Michelangelo

But, how does all this apply to actuaries?

Well, let's consider the actuarial student embarking on actuarial exams with an end goal of becoming a qualified actuary.

The trainee actuary is starting a long difficult journey that will likely test his/her mental fortitude to the extreme.

Beginning with the end in mind (passing all actuarial exams to become a qualified actuary), with a clear vision at the outset, is like creating a mental map to follow in the same way a builder follows a blueprint.

I like how Dr Stephen R. Covey thinks about this.

Things tend to go through two stages of creation. 

First there is the mental creation, then there is the second creation - the physical one. 

Having a clear vision puts the goal into focus and smoothens the road towards the physical creation through motivation, resilience and setting a strong foundation to begin with.

People are working harder than ever, but because they lack clarity and vision, they aren't getting very far. They, in essence, are pushing a rope with all their might."

- Dr Stephen R. Covey

Actuarial Lesson #2: Leverage

Give me a lever long enough and I shall move the world"

- Archimedes

Leverage is all about achieving more with less. We all have limited time and resources, so generally the more we can apply leverage to help us in our life, the better.

Tools are one of the best leverages available to us and, as I explained to my son, it was important that we began our little project with the right tools at hand. 

For us, this included a saw, an axe, a straight knife, a hook knife and some sand paper to finish off the spoon.

In the actuarial world we tend to think of leverage in terms of financial borrowing or gearing. But there are many different ways for actuaries to achieve leverage in life besides increased debt (which of course also increases risk).

Some leverages available to actuarial students include things such as:

  • Study tools such as a study calendar and the pomodoro technique.
  • Study techniques such as mind mapping and spaced repetition.
  • Technology to help (e.g. apps or software for mind mapping and flashcards).
  • The best actuarial study books and tutorials.
  • A supportive family, friends and employer.
  • A mentor to go to for advice.
  • A clear vision for motivation and focus.

At the very start of your actuarial study, or other actuarial and non-actuarial endeavours, I truly recommend you ask yourself what ways you can work smarter and achieve large impacts via small focused changes.

As a famous insurance tycoon once said:

Big doors swing on little hinges"

- Clement Stone

Actuarial Lesson #3: Learning Through Failure

Things were going well.

We were both very happy with the general shape, the handle proportions and how the carving was progressing. 

But then, just like life has a habit of doing to us, disaster struck!

As I carved carefully with my hook knife into the bowl, I didn't realise how deep I had gone and ended up going through the bottom creating a hole.

Owning a spoon with a hole is like having a motorbike with an ashtray - not ideal!

Josh was devastated. His vision of eating his cornflakes later that evening via a proudly carved new utensil had taken a major blow.

"Can't we fix it?" he asked.

"Unfortunately not, son," I replied.

"But it's okay. This spoon, with it's unfortunate hole, can be kept as a constant reminder of a very important lesson for life."

"What's that?" he wanted to know.

"I'm glad you asked"....

...Back to actuaries:

I'd love to say the road to actuarial qualification is paved with gold.

But it's not.

Instead, the road is typically paved with a lot of frustration, tears and probably some failure.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

- Mike Tyson

But failure is often a gift in disguise. It teaches us lots of valuable lessons.

For example:

  • Failure builds character, particularly resilience.
  • Failure builds creativity. When we fail we intuitively analyse the situation in terms of what went wrong and why. This forces us to creatively evaluate how we can improve and hence builds our creative problem solving abilities. As actuaries are problem solvers at heart, this is an important attribute to develop.
  • Failure makes us wiser and stronger and ready to face the future, often with more compassion.

I also believe that experiencing failure not only reminds us that we are human (despite the actuary robot jokes!), but helps us to be able to take more appropriate risks in our lives and career.

I'm definitely not saying we should be reckless, but thinking about the risk and return relationship, if we are overly cautious, and afraid of risk, we can miss out on some big opportunities in life.

Failing and learning to be okay with it, teaches us to accept risk and failure as part of the journey and to be okay with undertaking "smart risks" where appropriate.

I agree with JK Rowling that one of the greatest risks in life can be not taking any risks at all:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."

- JK Rowling

Actuarial Lesson #4: Margins of Safety

Carving wood, using a hook knife, is quite addictive in a strange way.

It's difficult work, but as you peel away the layers of wood and start to see the mental image emerge into the physical realm, it's difficult to stop.  

I succumbed to this addiction which ultimately led to the aforementioned tragedy of the unintended hole. Basically I wanted to get a nice deep spoon and I erred too close to the bottom edge as I feverishly scraped and carved.

As I explained to Joshua, what I should have done was given myself a better margin of safety.

Actuaries, of course, are well versed in margins. We operate in a world of comparing assets to liabilities and calculating the margin available under different sets of assumptions.

But margins of safety extend to other parts of an actuary's life. We need them to absorb errors and soak up the inevitable strokes of bad luck.

Some more actuarial examples:

  • When quoting a budget for a client, make some allowance for unexpected expenses.
  • When relaying a timescale for a senior actuarial manager, factor in a buffer. It's better to under promise and over deliver than over promising and under delivering.
  • When studying for an actuarial exam, aim to get through your notes a few days in advance.

Actuarial Lesson #5: Don't Forget to Celebrate!

So many people forget this part, but it's super important.

Celebrating and rewarding yourself for all your hard work is not only fun, but also key to building good habits, which are foundational to success in life.

BJ Fogg is a habit expert. Through his book, Tiny Habits, he teaches what he refers to as the ABC of habit formation.

Good habits, Fogg tells us, incorporate 3 important components: Anchor + Behavior + Celebration

He describes these as follows:

1. ANCHOR MOMENT
An existing routine (like brushing your teeth) or an event that happens (like a phone ringing). The Anchor Moment reminds you to do the new Tiny Behavior.

2. NEW TINY BEHAVIOR
A simple version of the new habit you want, such as flossing one tooth or doing two push-ups. You do the Tiny Behavior immediately after the Anchor Moment.

3. INSTANT CELEBRATION
Something you do to create positive emotions, such as saying, ‘I did a good job!’ You celebrate immediately after doing the new Tiny Behavior.”

Fogg goes on to emphasise the importance of the celebration aspect:

Celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being. If you learn just one thing from my entire book, I hope it’s this: Celebrate your tiny successes. This one small shift in your life can have a massive impact even when you feel there is no way up or out of your situation. Celebration can be your lifeline.”

So as you move through your actuarial career, passing actuarial exams, qualifying as an actuary or getting an actuarial promotion, make sure to remember the importance of celebration.

For me, that was the satisfaction of seeing the finished (second!) spoon and a cold beer by the evening fire. For Joshua, it was the most satisfying bowl of cornflakes he had ever had! 

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bts_digital_actuary_virtual_summit
Productivity, Psychology

An Actuary’s Guide to Overcoming Resistance (Behind the Scenes of the ProActuary Digital Actuary Conference)

The Digital Actuary Conference (Virtual Summit)

4,257 actuaries from across the world recently attended the Digital Actuary Conference (Virtual Summit). Truth be told, the numbers scared the heck out of me! Reputations can be ruined in the online world in one quick swoop. 

The event had so many moving pieces. Numerous things to single-handedly take care of and potential things to go wrong. Risk management and contingency plans rarely eliminate all risks. 

But to achieve anything worthwhile, there has to be some risk-taking involved. As actuaries, we all know that, right? Risk Vs return and all that good stuff.

And, like many actuarial related principles, the theory can be applied beyond the corporate world to our own personal lives.

Of course the event successfully went ahead and having come out the other end, I'm pleased and proud with how it went. Perfect? No. Good enough to make me feel proud and that it was worthwhile? Heck, yes!

But let me take you behind the scenes and reveal the back story:

I actually first thought about doing this nearly 3 years ago. 3 freakin' years ago. How embarrassing. 

It obviously never happened. 

Why? 

Because of an invisible force, I've started to notice more and more in life...

...Resistance

It's a clever foe that comes in many forms. Fear, self-doubt, and the background anxiety of failing at something in front of others. Most of us can probably relate at some level:

Imaginary relics from a self-preservation motivated ancient brain?

Excuses and cleverly designed procrastination that protect us from getting hurt?

I'm not entirely sure.

But what I do know is that it's a fraud. It's not real. An imaginary enemy that must be slayed. Not just once, but continually, as we travel through this journey called life.

Even now typing these words, I can hear it raise its ugly head:

Don't publish it. It's not good enough. Who cares.

He/she never completely goes away, always lurking in the background for a chance to "keep us grounded" and stop us from going out of our comfort zone and moving forward.

Seeing this resistance for what it was, a few months ago, I asked myself what could I do to overcome it. I strongly believe knowing how to ask ourselves the right questions, at the right time, in the right way, can be one of the most powerful levers we can pull in our lives. Recognising this resistance towards the digital actuary conference idea, the simple question I asked myself was: 

"How can I overcome the resistance and make this happen?"

Here are 3 answers I came up with, that helped me win this particular 'resistance battle'.

Hopefully, you'll find a few of the ideas useful to help you overcome your own particular resistance, where ever you may find it in your own actuarial journey:

1. Taking an agile, lean iteration approach.

One of the summit speakers was a US Chief Actuary called Tim Fleming. You may have seen Tim's talk on "The Modern Actuary". Tim done a stellar job diving into how we have to think differently about the role of the actuary in the changing world and what it takes to be successful. He offered a thought-provoking perspective on how actuaries should work in a modern context, and the importance of learning in our field. Very relevant to those of us looking to embrace the new digital world we are increasingly moving into.

One powerful idea Tim discussed was that of taking an agile approach to projects. The agile approach has its roots in software development and a key part of of the agile approach is getting started and iterating incrementally as you go along. This approach has many benefits. Here are two key benefits:

  1. You take small steps (experiments), get feedback on what's working and then iterate. This accelerates the time-to-market.
  2. You avoid the procrastination trap, where you feel you need all your ducks to be perfectly lined up before you begin.

The first point was important for me, since I knew I wanted to bring this idea to market quickly and get rapid feedback to do it all again, only better (2022 update: this did happen with the 2021 Growth Actuary Conference).

The second benefit was also crucial to my project and this visual sums it up perfectly:

Visualize value - proactuary

Source: https://www.visualizevalue.com

How many times in life have you fallen into the trap of waiting and waiting for everything to be right?

Perhaps you are going to start your actuarial study plan, or learn a new skill, but you think you need to wait until you feel more motivated, have more energy or maybe more time.

And on and on it goes.

Waiting and waiting.

I know this mindset and thinking has stopped me umpteen times. The harsh truth is, there is rarely a perfect moment to get started with anything in life. A much better tactic, therefore, is to simply start.

Start and then iterate as you go along. This is the thinking I applied to the Digital Actuary Conference event. And it worked. I figured the stuff out as I went along. If I'd waited for the right moment, I'd probably still be cautiously waiting and stalling. Sad, but true.


2. Setting Realistic Expectations.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world, during his reign from 161 to 180 AD. He was also one of the most reflective, philosophical and intelligent men to have ever lived. I highly recommend Meditations - one of the most genuinely life changing books I have ever read. And, trust me, I don't say things like that lightly. 

Marcus had an unusual morning ritual. Upon wakening each morning he would remind himself of the following:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.

Marcus Aurelius


But why is this worthy of mention? 

Well, Marcus was aligning his thoughts for the day ahead so as not to fall prey to unrealistic expectations.

From my experience, our expectations about life can truly determine our resilience in the face of adversity. Worthwhile endeavours are rarely easy. Hard things are hard (another highly recommended book). They take time, patience, grit, determination and resolve.

Unforeseen obstacles appear, things take longer than expected, and people don't behave the way we think they should. Expecting things to go smoothly and expecting people to act in the way we think they "should" can be a recipe for frustration and disappointment. 

Aurelius was smart. He knew this particular expectation was an impediment to progress and happiness. And, thus, he created an effective habitual routine to avoid the pothole.

Again and again, throughout my own life, I have found that misaligned expectations can not only be a perfect recipe for frustration in life but also a significant hurdle to making progress. When we expect things to be easier than they are, we set ourselves up for disappointment and lower our resilience and resolve. 

Again, let's take actuarial exams, as an example:

Who is more likely to succeed?

  1. The actuarial student embarking on his exam journey, expecting to blitz his/her way through exams with minimal effort and commitment, or
  2. The trainee actuary who expects the journey to be full of obstacles to overcome - foreseeing there will be big sacrifices and probably a need to overcome failure, difficulties and resistance on his/her actuarial exam odyssey?

My money is on student actuary #2.

And again, I applied this same thinking when pulling together The Digital Actuary Conference Virtual Summit. 

On the face of it, running a virtual conference doesn't seem so hard. Come up with an idea, approach some speakers, put it all on a website, tell people there's an actuarial conference event happening and voila! 

However, like most things in life, the reality is very different. There were a lot of moving parts and disparate things to think about. A nice playground for someone who prefers to play in the realm of being an actuarial generalist, rather than a specialist.

Digital Actuary Virtual Summit - Proactuary

Now, I can't begin to tell you how many unforeseen obstacles arose:

  • Speakers that had committed but then mysteriously disappeared off the face of the planet (my final 22 committed speakers were all amazing).
  • Videos that weren't playing correctly after editing.
  • Technology that wasn't working the way it should and fixes that ended up costing much more than I had budgeted for.
  • Friends that doubted the effort was worthwhile.
  • Family emergencies that needed taken care of.
  • The list goes on... and on... and on. 

But this was all okay. Even though I didn't know in advance what issues would crop up, I knew and expected there to be obstacles and that things wouldn't always go my way. This expectation allowed me to both consciously and subconsciously factor in margins of safety via appropriate resources (e.g. time and expense buffers) and stay calm in the face of arising challenges. To stay motivated when things weren't going my way. To see things through to the end. 

Seriously, it reminds me of studying for actuarial exams, or any big challenge we face in our actuarial careers and even more generally in life.

Proactuary - The actuarial career journey

From my experience, so much unseen effort, below the iceberg surface, goes into "big efforts" in life.

I'm skeptical of a lot of self help advice out there, but I do think the self-help gurus are right about one thing they sometimes spout: "there is no growth on easy street." As cliché as it sounds, my 42 years of experience on planet earth tells me it's true.

I, therefore, believe that if (before embarking on a significant undertaking) we apply Aurelius' idea of thinking through the challenges in advance, and setting our expectations appropriately, we can mentally prepare ourselves to deal more optimally with navigating the road ahead. 


3. Creating Accountability.

In many ways, life is a game of continually shifting the odds in our favour. Trying to create a probability edge in as many ways as possible. Then leaving the law of large numbers to work its magic, allowing our edges to hopefully bring us out ahead. A simple probability shift hack to nudge the odds of following through with any goal in life is to make yourself accountable

Accountability is the ninth wonder of the world. Think about your work:

Have you ever made a promise to someone (e.g. your boss or a client) that you would have a report or piece of work finished by a certain date? Chances are you damn well made sure you got it done. And it all comes back to the power of social accountability.  According to a study undertaken by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), accountability can increase your chance of success by up to 95%

I would laugh and turn my nose up at this statistic if I hadn't experienced it myself.

Going back to my Digital Actuary Conference as a case study, I knew that if I asked speakers to present, there was no going back. Once I'd told them of the date and the fact it was happening, I had, like Hernán Cortés in 1519, effectively burnt my ships and reached a point of no return via multiple accountability partners. 

This accountability was magnified further when I started writing about it on an IFoA blog post and eventually social media. That ASTD statistic seems a lot more believable now.

So there you have it. Three ways I used psychology and mindset to help me create a large scale Digital Actuary Conference and some ideas for you to try in your own life. 

Of course, like anything in life, the key is to actually use the information.

Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile." 

ABU BAKR


If you are interested in hearing more about how mindset applies to actuaries, here's a snippet of the interview I done with the IFoA president, Tan Suee Chieh, as part of the Digital Actuary Conference.


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actuarial lessons
Learning, Misc, Psychology

37 Lessons Actuarial Science Has Taught Me About Life

  1. Compound interest is powerful. Start saving early.
  2. Life is a series of likelihoods. Thinking in a probabilistic way will serve you well. 
  3. Risk is unavoidable. To succeed, you must learn to embrace it.
  4. Much of life is random. But thanks to the law of large numbers, doing something enough times can help you create your own luck.
  5. Salary is important, but meaningful work trumps your wage. 
  6. Focus on the things you can control. Let go of the things you can’t. 
  7. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. A stochastic life is full of colour. 
  8. The self-help gurus that preach you can have it all in life are wrong. There’s an opportunity cost with every venture we embark on. 
  9. Be careful what advice you follow. Question everything. 
  10. The biggest risk in life is playing it too safe. 
  11. Take active control of your life. The proactive stallion beats the reactive rocking horse. 
  12. There are an infinite number of ways to perceive events. Don’t attach 100% probability to your initial interpretation.
  13. Don’t burn bridges. It’s better, in the long term, to stay cool and bite your tongue. 
  14. Don’t be tempted to chase money to the detriment of character. It nearly always turns out bad.
  15. Move. Sitting at a desk all day is bad.
  16. Health, family and friends come first. Work and study are important but not what life is about. 
  17. Beating procrastination is a daily battle. Nike’s mantra of “Just Do It” is a great antidote. 
  18. Things like smoking, being male, poor diet, lack of exercise and and stress equates to a lower expected lifetime. But that’s on average.
  19. Vilfredo Pareto was right. 80% of your success tends to come from 20% of your efforts.
  20. Not all “experts” are created equal. Letters and credentials doesn’t equate to omniscience. 
  21. Learn to say no, when appropriate. Everyone has an agenda. What’s best for you may not be on it.
  22. 90% right and done beats 100% right but unfinished.
  23. Lower your expectations. Happiness = Outcome/Expectations.
  24. Think long term. Particularly with regard to spending and health. The 1973 Stanford study kid who ate the marshmallow is now broke and obese.
  25. What looks like overnight success usually takes years of work.
  26. Consider your circle of friends as a state in a Markov chain. Guard transitions into the “circle of influence” state carefully.
  27. Thinking optimally and rationally, without bias, is a valuable skill. But surprisingly difficult to master.
  28. Failure in life is inevitable (e.g. actuarial exams!). But that’s not what counts. Getting up and readjusting your path is what is important.
  29. Never stop learning. For a successful actuarial career, exams are only the beginning.
  30. Never take the lift when there are stairs to climb. Small habits make a difference.
  31. Be careful with technology, especially addictive smartphones and social media. We are living in a grand-scale social experiment. 
  32. Challenge your comfort zone. But don’t forget to rest.
  33. Time spent with family, especially your kids, is much more important than achieving any work accolades.
  34. Always question the assumptions you make in life. We make faulty assumptions more often than we realise.
  35. Mistakes happen. Ask yourself “will this matter/will anyone care in 5 years time?”
  36. It’s better to choose the pain of discipline (e.g. studying) over the pain of regret (e.g. failing exams).
  37. As a 41-year-old I probably have about 500 months of my life left to live. Stay conscious of that every day.
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#15 Please add this blog post as a draft post on ProActuary
Networking & Communication, Psychology

An Actuarial LinkedIn Odyssey (to 1 million views in 6 months)

Why would an actuary bother writing on LinkedIn? It’s a fair question given the time investment and hence the opportunity cost.

I began using LinkedIn just over two years ago. Witnessing an increasing number of my colleagues and friends using social media for business purposes piqued my interest. However, as a non social media user it all seemed a bit weird to me. Posting thoughts, comments and videos on a computer or smartphone for all the world to see. What the heck was this strange world all about?

But I didn't want to get left behind. So I reluctantly dug in and joined the social media party. Twitter didn’t appeal to me. Too much craziness. So I opted for LinkedIn and setting up this blog on my ProActuary website instead.

After 20 months of occasional sporadic posting, in August 2019 I decided to trial LinkedIn properly. I wasn’t sure what value consistent LinkedIn posting would bring, but I felt a 4 month sustained effort would be enough to allow me to make a judgement.

THE CHALLENGE

So in late August 2019, I set myself both a commitment and a fun goal for the rest of 2019.

Commitment:
Post content, mainly applicable to actuaries, at least once per week for the rest of 2019.

This was a ‘process’ goal I had full control over so I took it seriously after committing and posted every Saturday morning whether or not I felt like it.

Fun Geek Goal: Achieve >1 million LinkedIn views over the last 6 months of 2019.

This was an ‘outcome’ goal I had much less control over, so it was more for fun and to help maintain my interest. My potential reach is quite limited, as there are - I'm guessing - only about 20K actuaries active on LinkedIn (?). Also views don’t necessarily mean anything, on their own, so I wasn’t overly focused on the outcome of this goal.

THE WHY

1) Giving Back

The actuarial profession has treated me well over the last 20 years. Like most actuaries, there’s a part of me that wants to give back. The older I get, the more I realise not everything in business is about money.

Many actuaries volunteer or mentor students or give their time in other ways. I felt that writing content on LinkedIn could be one small way I might give a little back. With almost 20 years in the profession, surely I had something meaningful to contribute that might help educate or provoke thought among other actuaries.

2) Personal Goals

Altruistic notions aside, I also had some personal motivations:

i). To drive traffic to my ProActuary blog.

LinkedIn has become an important source of lead generation. I started my own blog website (ProActuary) a couple of years ago. It's not a revenue generating venture, but I was interested to find out the potential that LinkedIn offered to drive traffic towards it.

ii). To improve my writing skills.

I believe that writing is a very important business skill. Yes, even for number loving actuaries! Good writing promotes clear thinking, enhances communication and increases credibility. It's a useful skill to develop.

I wanted to improve from a technical point of view. To better understand the nuances of passive versus active, split infinitives and adverbs. I also wanted to learn how to use words for marketing purposes. To be able to tap my keyboard and get eyeballs reading the output. Like magic. 21st century sorcery.

iii). To network with others in my professional field (actuaries).

It’s interesting how business networking has changed in recent years, especially with the increasing popularity of LinkedIn. Technology has eroded the barriers to meeting people and allows us to efficiently and quickly build a meaningful network.

As we live in a world of relationships, I felt this would be a worthwhile pursuit. A strong network can open up new opportunities and provide you with a resource library to tap into for thoughts, feedback, or advice.

iv). To learn about new topics and clarify my thinking.

Writing, especially when put under public scrutiny, is one of the best ways I know to help clarify thinking. If I write about a topic, especially when I know thousands of people might view it, I will make an extra effort to critically consider my line of thought and question my assumptions. And, of course, when done on a social platform it provides an opportunity to gain valuable insight from the wisdom of the crowds.

v). To challenge my comfort zone.

One of my core beliefs is that we should always be growing. Constantly learning and challenging ourselves. Moving ever closer to Kaizen warrior status.

Honestly, putting ‘content’ out there in the public domain can be a little daunting. You are opening yourself to potential ridicule and snide remarks. It’s much easier to not bother. But that’s where the challenge lay. I wanted to force myself to post content. To not care as much about what other people thought. Or at the very least, to still care but to do it anyway.

vi). I enjoy writing.

Numbers are great. But playing with words can also be fun. Writing is a gateway to clear thinking, awareness and discovery.

THE RESULTS

I stuck to my commitment to post on LinkedIn at least once per week. In fact, as the project gained momentum, I ended up posting usually 2-3 times per week. Some of my posts were simply sharing news articles or other people's posts. Some were well thought out articulations. Some were a 2 minute thought dump during a rushed morning coffee.

Most of the time, I enjoyed the content writing process. At other times, I couldn’t be bothered. But I had made a short-term commitment to post, so I did it anyway.

LinkedIn became like a conscious streaming of my random thoughts. A place to help me clarify what I was thinking about. If I found myself wondering about the impact of blockchain, data science, wearables, marketing, personal development or general life, the LinkedIn platform provided the outlet. The ensuing comments, from my growing network, also motivated further thought and output. I had truly entered the strange world of social media and started to finally "get it."

LinkedIn Content Statistics (30th June-31st Dec, 2019)

An Actuarial LinkedIn Odyssey - Proactuary

*Data from Shield Analytics.

As per the screenshot above, I also achieved my goal of >1 million LinkedIn views over the last 6 months of 2019.

However, as any LinkedIn pro will tell you, views are a bit of a vanity metric. They don’t reveal whether anyone got any tangible value from the content. The likes, comments and shares are more revealing. I was, therefore, also pleased to see that the content generated a reasonable level of engagement and at times some interesting discussion.

THE BENEFITS

So what tangible benefits has this little fun experiment brought me? Here are 10 benefits I've experienced:

1). I’ve met and had conversations with many amazing people across the world, increasing my "connection lifetime value."

I now have a much wider network to call upon should I need help, advice or a friendly ear for feedback. Opportunities have already arisen directly from people getting in touch with me via my content. For example consulting and research opportunities.

On a quantitative level each and every connection has a small probability of also being useful to me at some unknown future point. In my actuarial brain, the discounted sum of all these potential values (over my working lifetime) can almost be thought of as an annuity calculation. A probability contingent connection lifetime present value.

2). It has improved my writing.

I'm slowly learning this valuable art. Not just how to improve my grammar, spelling and writing prose, but also how to create sentences and paragraphs that flow. How to draw a reader in and move them from beginning to end. I've found it to be both an art and a science. An activity that will provide a lifetime of learning.

3). The process of LinkedIn content generation has helped me formulate ideas and think things through.

I now know more about things like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, marketing, habit formation, networking and many others things, than I did 6 months ago. All thanks to the power of LinkedIn,

I've found that writing doesn't just communicate ideas. It also generates and clarifies them.

4). Getting feedback, opinions and comments on my content has helped me understand things better.

There are so many smart people on the LinkedIn platform to learn things from. It's a resource I believe nearly every professional should be tapping into.

5). It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

6). It’s helped improve my marketing skills (figuring out what does/doesn’t work).

7). I quite enjoy the numbers.

Experimenting and geeking out on engagement rates and website traffic generation is actually kinda fun.

8). It’s improved my creativity.

Content generation makes you curious. A curious nature improves creativity. A creative mind helps you connect random dots and see things in a different way.

9). LinkedIn has brought a significant amount of traffic to my ProActuary website (discussed below).

10). Writing content has motivated me to look more closely at life.

Reading and learning about cryptocurrency motivates an article on the impact of blockchain on actuaries. Experimenting with my Oura ring wearable device results in a thought post on wearable usage potential for insurance. A chess match with my son becomes a post on valuable business lessons. A morning spent building a flowerbed becomes a reflection on the consequences of our overuse of technology.

THE DOWNSIDES

1). Time is the biggest cost.

If you want results you have to put in the work. A cardinal rule of life. I probably averaged about 15 to 20 minutes per day on this platform, over the 4 months. Engaging with others and drafting/posting content (posts and articles). The actuary in me tells me this is a significant % of my weekly free time. And time spent on this platform is time not spent with my kids, walking on the beach, cycling, being with friends etc. In other words there is an opportunity cost. Something I take very seriously.

2). Phone checking.

Generally, I try to limit my smartphone use in life. However, I have found LinkedIn posting encourages a habit of constant phone checking. The addictive lure of checking how well a post has performed is quite strong. It sometimes feels like Jeff Weiner & Co have hijacked my brain and are desperately pushing it towards the checking of a screen. My smartphone became like an IV tool providing constant dopamine drips to my hungry nervous system.

In 2020 I plan to discipline myself to checking and responding to comments if I'm already online and only within the first hour of a post (for traction reasons - see below) and then only intermittently checking LinkedIn once or at most twice a day after that (e.g., after lunch or at the end of the day).

3). Time spent dealing with/being exposed to "takers."

I mentioned one of the big benefits being the many great people I have met. Unfortunately I've also encountered a few duds. Some have asked me for advice, which I willingly gave, and then never to hear from them again. Some fill my inbox with unreasonable requests. Others want something and can't be bothered to use appropriate etiquette. They are in the minority and it's a small point, but still worth mentioning.

4). It’s uncomfortable.

I’m not a social media person. Generally, I prefer anonymity and privacy. Posting on here, even after a sustained period, can sometimes feel a little strange and uncomfortable. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. In some sense it also feels slightly ego-centric.

5). All my poor grammar, spelling mistakes and cringe-worthy posts are there for my network to see.

THE LESSONS

So what have I learnt from posting regular content on LinkedIn over the last few months?

Writing Lessons

The way to learn to write better is by writing. Strange that! Below are a few things I've learnt about writing:

1). For longer content, the efficient approach is to just write.

Get a bad first draft down as quickly as possible, then edit and rewrite. The essence of writing is rewriting. Over and over.

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” - Mark Twain

2). Clean and strip your writing as far as possible.

When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done. - Stephen King

Examine every word. Is it really necessary? As many veteran writers advise, you must learn to “kill your darlings.” Like a house you have lived in for a while, the more you clean and tidy, the more you realise just how much unnecessary clutter you have added.

3). Clear thinking brings about clear writing.

4). Break up walls of text.

5). Don’t try to make a single sentence do too much work. Shorter sentences generally work better.

6). Read and emulate good writers.

7). Simple is usually better.

Don’t try to impress the reader with your plethora of imposing words, added for ostentatious reasons like you are an impressive sesquipedalian writer. Less is more.

8). People like stories.

The more specific and the more they can relate, the better. Quite often we make sense of the world by turning what happens into stories. Stories are memorable. They facilitate emotional engagement and help us understand and remember the message. It's an art worth learning. Yes, even in the serious business world.

9). Writers are part educators, part entertainers, part thought provokers.

Constantly ask yourself, would I invest my limited time to read what I have written?

10). Writing is like going fishing.

First you need a good bait (headline) and hook (opening sentence) to avoid the fish (potential readers) swimming (scrolling) by. Then once the catch (reader) is on the line (you have his/her attention) your job is to reel them in (avoid losing their interest), all the way to the shore (the end of the article/post). One or two sharp tugs on the line (weak sentences) and they are gone (off the hook). Possibly forever (don't connect/follow). Swimming (scrolling) towards some tastier bait (better reading material).

Part of the job of every sentence is, therefore, to induce the reader to the next one. Cajole, excite, entertain or educate them. All the way to the end.

LinkedIn Lessons

1). Above all else seek to add value

Don't post rubbish. Your reader has invested in you. They've given you a small piece of their limited time on planet earth. Be respectful of that and at least try to reward them with an insight or perhaps even a smile. Something of value. Keep the double tapping Xmas tree and photo of the wolf pack away their doorstep (feed). The challenge, however, is that it's almost impossible to appeal to everyone. It's true what they say - if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. So don't be lukewarm. Instead take a stance and take any collateral damage hits on the chin.

A good acronym to remember, as highlighted by B2B copywriting guru John Espirian, is to put your content through the CHAIR test. Is it Challenging, Helpful, Amusing, Interesting or Relevant.

CHAIR test - Proactuary

2). Early engagement matters most.

To improve your chances of succeeding with LinkedIn post generation, you need to get traction in the first hour. Let's examine this in a little more detail. Firstly, my understanding as to how the LinkedIn algorithm works is as follows:

When you post content on LinkedIn, the platform then tests it by showing it to a small percentage of your network. If the early engagement is high (from my experience, more than 2% of views resulting in a like, comment or share) the algorithm will spread it further among your network.

Hence, it's helpful to:

  • Reply to comments on your content within the first hour of posting.

  • Like your own posts, which helps to get initial traction. Side note: Personally I can't bring myself to do this (it feels a bit desperate - but maybe I just have issues!), but it seems to work for others.

  • Tag lots of people. Again I don't do this (unless there is a very good natural reason).

  • Use hashtags (sparingly). 3 maximum.

  • Have a well defined niche network so that your content naturally appeals to most of them (improves the chances of the algorithm sharing further, via an enhanced engagement rate). 90% of my connections are actuaries.

3). If you are chasing views, posts provide much better bang for your buck than articles.

In my opinion, it's unfortunate the LinkedIn algorithm no longer promotes articles as much as posts. Posts are naturally short and often superficial, whereas articles typically provide depth and thoroughness. However, it is what it is and if you are measuring ROI of your efforts via views, then posts are the way to go (or perhaps video, if you are brave enough!).

The platform does, however, change over time and posting may eventually become less important.

4). Like all good hosts, LinkedIn prefers to keep the party in their own house.

Don't post links to external websites in your posts or the algorithm will punish you by restricting who sees it.

5). Quality content, unfortunately, does not correlate perfectly with performance metrics.

Average Post Performance (30th June-31st Dec, 2019)

Average Post Performance (30th June-31st Dec, 2019)

*Data from Shield Analytics.

I've had posts that took very little thought or effort that performed much better than my average figures, shown here. In contrast, some content, that I put a lot of thought and effort into, performed below my average figures. Posts where I have shared articles performed the worst (most likely due to the point I made in #3 above). Some day I must regress perceived value against performance to see what this relationship really looks like.

6). Experiment and iterate your way to success.

Just like in real life, if you fail fast on LinkedIn, you learn fast. The best way to learn is by doing it and not reading about how to do it. Timing of posts, content format and content type provide opportunities to discover what works for you and your network. If getting views on your LinkedIn content is your primary goal then experimenting and iterating, just like a lean start-up, is a good approach to take.

7). LinkedIn rewards consistency.

If you want LinkedIn views, you can increase your chances of success by posting consistently. It's not just the extra content that generates views, but also the fact the algorithm seems to reward consistent posting.

8). Consider why you are posting.

What is the desired outcome? Are you hoping to raise your individual profile? Give something back? Establish your credibility? Drive traffic to a website? Is it worth the effort and time commitment?

Do a cost-benefit analysis and if it's positive then commit to regular posting and trial it for a few months. Then reevaluate.

9). LinkedIn provides a direct opportunity to increase revenue.

As mentioned above, LinkedIn has driven traffic towards my ProActuary blog website. The blog isn't designed to provide an income, but if it was, it's easy to see how a scaled version of my efforts could possibly be financially worthwhile. A couple of good examples of this are provided by LinkedIn posters, Asim Qureshi and James d'Apice.

Asim Qureshi: Asim is a prolific LinkedIn poster with 80K LinkedIn followers. He's a former investment banker, turned entrepreneur as the CEO of a company that owns a location-based attendance app called Jibble.

He's smart, insightful and articulate. He's also controversial, outspoken and not afraid to self-publicise/promote. Whilst there is certainly a big downside to being controversial and outspoken (e.g. you tend to attract a lot of abuse from trolls, haters and keyboard warriors), I'm guessing Asim is happy to make the trade. He knows that controversy and outspoken opinions generate views and momentum for his content, which results in more awareness and followers etc. He then carefully places occasional content referring to Jibble which likely leads to brand awareness and ultimately revenue. With typically over 1,300 likes per post, I would hazard a guess that his LinkedIn efforts are paying off.

James d'Apice: James is a charismatic commercial and litigation lawyer from Sydney. He posts "case note" videos of various legal situations aimed at accountants.

His LinkedIn goal: "to generate one substantial piece of commercial litigation that will run to final hearing per year, every year, for 35 years."

bit by bit, I aim to help accountants understand more about the law as it applies to their clients. I do so generously, without expectation of anything in return.

I hope to contribute to the success of others, even though I might never know about it. That’s the 999 in 1,000.

But the sharp, commercial edge of that “generosity” model is: the more generous I am, and the more value I bring, the closer I get to being considered for that 1 in a 1,000 phone call.

Has James succeeded? Has he got any work from his efforts? You can read his article here.

So as you can see, I believe there is potential for LinkedIn to provide a financial ROI for some individuals. If I was a freelancer or self-employed consultant and had a greater reach then I think I could eventually justify the time on this benefit alone.

10). LinkedIn posting is a virtuous cycle.

The more value you give the more you get out of the platform. Cliché, but true (from my experience).

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

As a non social media user I’ve found posting on LinkedIn to be an interesting learning experience. For sure, it has taken up some of my time and required some "work" but a retrospective cost-benefit analysis has revealed that it has had many personal benefits and has been worth the effort. Furthermore, I have had many comments and messages that make me feel at least a few people have received value from some of my content.

I plan to continue posting on LinkedIn for the foreseeable future and I’d encourage other actuaries on the LinkedIn platform to also start posting and see what happens.

*(Disclaimer: affiliate link above) 

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