Five Tips for Fostering Cats (and Careers)

Lessons from unexpected places Jing Lang

I was in bed reading when Chai dashed into the room howling, her foxy tail erect. “Hi, pretty. Come here,” I said as I patted next to me on the bed. As if on cue, she made eye contact with me, sat down on her bum and proceeded to drag herself forward. “No, no, no!” I leapt off the bed to grab her, but she ran in anticipation, leaving a dark brown streak in her wake.

Chai was our newest foster, a five-month-old dilute calico surrendered to the local animal rescue group where I volunteer. I signed up as a foster parent in August 2021, and by October, Chai was our fourth. This was also a time of upheaval in my career. In September, I took on a new challenge leading a team at a property and casualty (P&C) insurer after 14 years of working in the life and health (L&H) industry. As I navigated my new roles—cat foster parent and leader responsible for my team’s performance—I couldn’t help but draw parallels. It turns out there are more similarities than one may think.

Attention Is the Most Sacred Resource

Our first foster cat, Sugar, was a 9-year-old Siamese surrendered by her late owner’s family. Sugar was completely disengaged from life when she came into our care. She would plant herself under the bed, and no amount of cajoling could entice her to come out. Our next two fosters were 12-week-old siblings found scavenging in someone’s backyard. They were near feral when they arrived—two black kittens cramped into one ball of fur and shaking like leaves in the face of human contact.

Regardless of how each cat arrived at foster care, my only job as a foster parent is to prepare them for good permanent homes. To do that, I need to bring each animal out of its shell and let its personality shine, so we can find it the best permanent match possible. Each cat has unique needs and requires individualized attention. In a world where the ability to effectively multitask is considered desirable, paying undivided, individualized attention has become a sacred and extremely limited resource.

We get better at what we intentionally pay attention to, whether it is work, life, a person, task or challenge. We build better connections with our parents, spouse, children and pets when we give them undivided attention. We become better at our jobs when we do deep work. We can overcome greater challenges when we spend time strategizing and seeking solutions rather than reacting to them. Since we cannot give undivided attention to more than one thing at a time, what or who we choose to spend that attention on determines the quality of our lives.

Every Kitten Wants a Challenge

Every cat parent knows an engaged kitten wants a challenge. Obstacles are good because they make life more interesting. A crinkle ball is fine, but it’s more fun to swat at it from behind a coffee table leg. A feather wand is dull when held steady two inches above a kitten’s head, but irresistible when the feather moves from the kitchen island to the top of the sofa. Cats need to hunt; dead meat is for dogs.

Watching my foster kittens play made me think of myself when I am not looking forward to a new challenge at work. Is it because I am afraid of the new challenge? Do I think I won’t succeed? Or am I not interested? Whatever the reason, it tells me something about my mindset. Many companies have been going through business transformations and modernizations, and change has been the only constant. But new challenges and changes are the opportunities to reset a playing field. The people who are most adaptable to the imposed changes are more resilient, and the business unit is better off because of it.

As I build my team, I am aware that this openness to new challenges manifests in attitudes. People who are open and willing to embrace change also are more likely to succeed. One of my mentors used to say, “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” Obviously, someone still needs to have basic technical competence, but after that, it’s their attitude and adaptability that make all the difference.

Changing Positions Leads to Changing Perspectives

Prior to my foster experience, I only had owned cats. Jinny and Isobel, who are pushing 16 and 14 years, respectively, have been with me since they were kittens. I’ve made many mistakes as a cat parent, but I always had a sense of comfort and security that I could right my wrongs and make things up to them. Fostering is the opposite: Its impermanence contrasts with the permanence of ownership. I know I am only going to be a temporary, albeit important, presence in a foster cat’s life. My job is to help them transition and maximize their chances for adoption to good permanent homes. I must get it right consistently.

Similarly, I was always an individual contributor in my past career—I did not have the leadership responsibility of my new role. If being an individual contributor was like paddling my own canoe, being accountable to a team is like being the captain of a dragon boat. Not only do I need to determine the direction of the boat, but also its speed and the team composition. I cannot have 12 paddlers with four moving forward at full speed, four paddling half-heartedly, a couple gazing idly off into the distance no doubt thinking about dinner, and the last two paddling backward. It means having courageous conversations and making difficult decisions when necessary.

Even though I read tons of books on leadership when I was unsatisfied with my own leaders, no amount of theoretical knowledge could prepare me for the real deal. Now in the management seat, I recognize how much I appreciate someone who can follow instructions and take direction well. All the things I thought my former leaders could have done better, I find myself trying hard to do right by my team.

Timing Is Not Everything

I decided to volunteer at the least opportune time. My husband and I had just returned to Toronto after four years in the United States, and our plan was to pack up our home and fly to Vancouver by the end of the summer. Being a foster parent meant jeopardizing timelines. But it felt right.

For the previous 16 years as a cat owner, I never felt compelled to foster cats, but that summer, I found myself restless and aching to do more. One lengthy application, two rounds of interviews and three reference checks later, I was approved. We received Sugar five days later. Sugar was with us for eight weeks, and after the initial adjustment, she was pawing my face each morning for chow time and revealed her chatter-box self (a signature trait of Siamese). “Boy and Girl” were with me for six weeks, and they became fully adjusted to an indoor life. Chai arrived the night before Sugar went to her new home, and she required no transition time. After she got out of the carrier, she jumped right into my lap, parked herself nose to tail and peered at me with her amber-green eyes, like she had always been with us. Yes, they delayed our travel for two months, but I could not imagine not having had these cats in my life.

As for my career change, most friends and family were puzzled. Why throw away a 14-year experience as an L&H actuary to lead a pricing team at a P&C insurer? I was on a perfectly fine trajectory, and making this move meant starting fresh in many ways, not unlike a cardiologist switching gears to manage a team of brain surgeons. Why did I bring this on myself? The answer is that although I wasn’t actively looking for a change this drastic, when the opportunity presented itself, it excited me because of how out of reach it felt. There will never be a good time to change careers like this, and I was willing to put my money where my mouth was.

Listen to Your Gut

Fostering cats was extremely challenging but also tremendously rewarding. I did it because I felt the calling. Making this career change was the same. Although it wasn’t a decision guided by logic or reason, it just felt right.

Now that I am on the path, navigating this journey for six months and counting, the scenery changes daily. As author James Clear put it: “Many situations in life are similar to going on a hike—the view changes once you start walking. You don’t need all the answers right now. New paths will reveal themselves if you have the courage to get started.”

Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is director of pricing at Manitoba Public Insurance. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2022 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.