Shortly after I received my FSA, a friend approached me about volunteering to work on the Society of Actuaries (SOA) exams. The memories of the grueling exam experience were too fresh in my mind, so I declined for several months. I was also admittedly a little peeved with the SOA, as I was on the wrong end of one of the redesigns in the examination system. But after thinking about it more, I reconsidered and decided to join one of the exam committees. There were two primary reasons for my change in heart:
- The SOA volunteers I knew were friends and people I greatly respected.
- I was curious about the inner workings of the examination system and wanted to be a part of it rather than sit around and complain about it.
It has been roughly two decades since I made the decision to volunteer with the SOA, and I have been fortunate to work in a variety of roles. I have written a few articles, given a couple of presentations and worked on a couple of project oversight groups (POGs). However, the bulk of my volunteer work has been with the exams and education.
I started my volunteer journey writing exam questions. It was exciting when I saw one of my questions on an exam. I eventually became chair of an exam, Examination General Officer of the Group and Health track, and ultimately general chairperson of the Education Executive Group. I benefitted from all of the important advantages of volunteering, such as earning continuing education credits, developing existing skills and knowledge, and staying active and up-to-date on important topics in my area of practice. However, the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience has been the people.
Working with groups of people who have different experiences and points of view helps us get out of our own heads, so to speak. Additionally, others may have different ideas that can be combined with yours to create breakthrough ideas. Let’s explore these ideas a little further.
Get Out of Your Own Head
Most of my SOA volunteer experiences have been as a member of a committee such as an exam or research POG. Members of these committees came from different backgrounds, so there was a healthy diversity of thought. This diversity was sometimes a source of friction and forced the group members to defend their individual opinions and try and understand the positions of others—to “get out of our heads,” so to speak. In the case of developing exams, these positions sometimes took the point of view of the candidate or the grader, for example. Heated discussions took place as we determined what was fair yet discriminating enough to demonstrate who had sufficient knowledge and who did not. Similarly, in the case of a research project, discussions were had regarding why the researcher went down one path and not another. While these discussions were sometimes uncomfortable, they were rewarding because we all came away with a broader understanding. Ultimately, the groups came up with a more robust and complete solution than any of the positions each of us held individually.
In short, volunteering for the SOA helps grow our knowledge. The British politician Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own.” In an odd way, this gets at what I am trying to convey here.
Unusual Combinations Lead to Breakthrough Ideas
An example of the power of combining ideas is one of the contenders for the greatest invention of all time: the printing press. Before the printing press, writing and drawing were completed by hand, usually in a scriptorium. Scribes would measure the page layout and then copy the texts from another book. An illuminator would follow by adding designs. As a result, books were expensive and usually owned by the wealthy, universities or monasteries.
In the 1300s and 1400s, people had developed the basics of printing by cutting letters and designs into blocks of wood that would then be dipped in ink and pressed on paper. In the mid-1400s, along came Johann Gutenberg. He had experience at a mint and recognized that printing could become more efficient by combining the blocks within a machine. He then built the press that would come to bear his name. This “movable type machine” had metal block letters that could be moved around to create new words and sentences. The invention created relatively unrestricted circulation of information and ideas, resulted in a sharp increase in literacy, threatened the power of political and religious authorities, and ushered in the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment.
Another example of a powerful combination is when the opera singer Pavarotti collaborated with the Irish rock band U2 on the rock song “Sarajevo Girl” in 1995. These seemingly disparate forms of music combined to create something quite beautiful.
The volunteer committees I’ve been on have not come up with anything quite like the printing press or a hit song, but my collaborations with people with disparate backgrounds to produce either an exam or research paper have been some of the most gratifying parts of my volunteer career.
Volunteer in the Future
Soon I will be rolling off the Education Executive Group. As I look back on my experiences, the most rewarding have been working with some really great people. Each of them, in their own way, has had a positive impact on the training of future actuaries and in making the SOA a strong and robust organization.
This, however, is not the end of my volunteering with the SOA. I will continue to write questions for the exams, help with research projects and work with other groups in my practice area. The value of volunteering and serving others cannot be understated. As Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
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