Thriving in a Technical Field

How work and creativity can drive meaningful outcomes Mitchell Stephenson

In comedy, traits like being quick on one’s feet, the willingness to stay up to date on current affairs and impeccable timing can make someone successful. American actor and comedian Steve Martin certainly has exhibited those traits, accomplishing exceptional feats throughout his career. This includes starring in movies that grossed $75 million or more in each of the last five decades, holding the one-time record for most times hosting Saturday Night Live and winning three Grammy awards as a self-taught banjo player. When reflecting about his remarkable time and success in the film, television and music industries, he gave a highly memorable piece of advice: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

In a technical field like actuarial work, being so good that our employers, customers or clients can’t ignore us is often a result of the intersection of our technical and soft skills. Soft skills include—among others—leadership, communication and teamwork. According to a 2019 Metropolitan Policy Program report called “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Are Affecting People and Places,” one of the future job types that is least vulnerable to automation is called “management analyst.” This job type combines a technical skill set—like actuarial work—with strong soft skills. My previous article, “Upskill Those Soft Skills,” published in the August 2021 edition of The Actuary, describes ways to develop and hone soft skills. The tactics explored in that article include using free time to learn, learning from others and practicing public speaking.

The other aspect of being so good they can’t ignore us is strength in our technical field. This certainly involves training, education and knowledge, but it also involves our ability to be innovative, impactful and creative with that skill set. Examples in the actuarial field include developing innovative products that meet the customer and company’s needs alike; implementing ways to automate, simplify or streamline processes; and implementing creative solutions for capital management.

When our technical skills are successfully married to a strong soft skills set, they will help us thrive, not just survive, in the future. Here are some tips to encourage innovation, impact and creativity by using our technical skills.

Set Aside Time to Perform Deep Work

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,1 Cal Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” He describes the process of getting into a state of “flow” to reach maximum brain power, and it involves getting at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time by focusing on a single topic. Doing this then yields a state of productivity where, according to a 10-year McKinsey study, people are five times more productive.

The challenge in achieving a state of flow is finding the 15 minutes of uninterrupted time, and then working without distraction to obtain maximum productivity and creativity. A study cited in Deep Work showed that the average knowledge worker—a person whose job involves handling or using information—spends 60% of their work week engaged in electronic communication and internet searching. Close to 30% of their total time is dedicated to reading and answering email alone. That volume of electronic communication represents a continuous opportunity for distraction.

Finding time to perform deep work requires intention and strategy. This means blocking off calendar time to complete tasks and turning off all distractions, including cellphones, instant messages and emails. It also may mean finding a place where no one can interrupt you or training yourself to ignore all distractions—like a buzzing cellphone—that could break your state of flow. Finding even one hour a day of uninterrupted work and reaching that state of increased productivity can make a significant difference in our ability to be creative and drive meaningful outcomes for customers, clients and employers.

Find an Area of Specialization to Increase Satisfaction

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Newport gives puzzling advice: “Don’t follow your passion.”2 He goes on to explain that mastery in a field of practice is what truly drives job satisfaction and passion—not the other way around. He cites self-determination theory, which is that “in most jobs, the longer you do it and the better you get, the more competent you feel and the more you are rewarded with more independence and more responsibilities.” It is this additional independence and responsibility that provide us with the biggest opportunities to be creative and drive meaningful outcomes.

According to the “Job Satisfaction: 2021” report by The Conference Board, job satisfaction—defined as “the extent to which employees are satisfied or content with their overall job”—steadily declined over several decades starting with the 1980s, and only within the last five years did it cross back over 50%. In other words, almost 1 out of every 2 Americans is not satisfied with their current job. In addition, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a record number of Americans have resigned from their jobs due to factors like burnout, new remote work possibilities and work/life balance.

This “Great Resignation” is leading more people to try new things. That can be good when those new things align with our skills and experience. However, when those new things do not align with our training, background and skill sets, we are unlikely to find mastery, passion and motivation. The lack of these important factors will damper our ability to make meaningful contributions and will stifle creativity.

For actuaries, specializing may mean learning various functions that support a particular product line or area of expertise, like pricing, modeling and valuation. But it also may mean that changing jobs to “learn new things” may work against us in terms of building strength in a specific, specialized area. Changing jobs and learning new things will benefit us the most when we build off each previous job in our area of specialization, as that will help us accomplish mastery. This then will lead to the traits we need to be happiest—and therefore most successful—in our roles.

Learn From People Who Are Different Than You

In his TEDx talk entitled “How to be a More Creative Person,” Bill Stainton tells the story of how, as a television producer, a star guest once cancelled on his show. While rushing to find a replacement guest, one of his junior writers suggested doing “something with liquid nitrogen” instead. Stainton decided to give this writer—who thought differently about the problem than everyone else in the room—an opportunity. That night, Bill Nye the Science Guy, who went on to become a nationally syndicated television host and New York Times best-selling author, made his first television appearance.

To enable creativity, Stainton describes the need to “crack your cocoon” and gain exposure to those who are different than you to find creative and mutually beneficial solutions to problems. One way to do this is to find a mentor and/or mentee who is not like you. In her 2018 article, “8 Tips for an Amazing Mentor Relationship,” Laurence Bradford echoes this advice: “The best mentors are the ones who can fill gaps in your skill set. Don’t seek a mentor who’s your clone.”

Similarly, mentoring someone who has a different skill set, has a unique way of thinking about or approaching problems, or is of a different background will provide the mentee with a distinct perspective. It also will challenge the mentor to see things from a different point of view. In his 2017 article, “Mentor People Who Aren’t Like You,” Richard Farnell points out, “Even those who believe that diversity improves creativity, problem-solving and decision-making naturally invest in and support the development of the subordinates who are most like them.” Like performing deep work and specializing in a particular area, being willing to challenge ourselves to listen and learn from those who are different than us requires intentionality and, when applied, will enable creativity.

Bringing It All Together

Almost 60 years after he got his start in show business, Steve Martin is still performing in front of live audiences and making hit comedies. His current show, Only Murders in the Building, features him as a washed-up television actor who wants to solve murders, but he does not want to venture out into New York City; therefore, he focuses only on solving a crime that occurred in his building. True to form, the show was nominated for three Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2022.

When he gave that memorable advice to “be so good they can’t ignore you,” Martin also said, “Nobody ever takes note of [the advice] because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear.” If we focus on developing the intersection of soft skills and technical skills and leveraging the technical skill set to do what will help us be most innovative, impactful and creative, we will be taking note of Martin’s advice. We will be preparing ourselves for a future where we thrive, not just survive, and where we can be so good they can’t ignore us.

Mitchell Stephenson, FSA, MAAA, is the head of actuarial model management and controls at Prudential Financial. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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.

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