Work and Creativity

Actuaries should take risks to embrace their creative side Interview by Jing Lang

For the longest time, I avoided the word “creativity” like it was the plague. I was studying to become an actuary, a profession dictated by logic, reason and sophisticated math—a stark contrast to people I perceived to be “creative.” I thought creatives were loose, unpredictable and hence, unreliable. I could not have been more wrong.

With time and wisdom, I realized creativity is not limited to doing artistic work. One doesn’t need to be a painter, dancer or architect to be creative. One simply needs to take risks. A creative existence, as author Elizabeth Gilbert put it, is any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

Today, I no longer avoid being identified as creative. I am a contributing editor of two publications; I script comic strips; I produce and record podcasts; and I currently am in the process of putting together my first essay collection while also working on a novel. As for my work, I lead a pricing team at a property and casualty (P&C) insurer and am constantly exploring ways to do things better, smarter and more efficiently while lifting up my team in the process.

I had the opportunity to sit down with two other contributing editors of The Actuary magazine—Elizabeth Walsh, FSA, MAAA, and Rolande S. Mbatchou Odeniyi, FSA, MAAA—to discuss how actuaries can apply creativity in their work.

What does creativity mean to you?

Mbatchou Odeniyi: Creativity means painting life in its best and most enhanced form. It makes things more beautiful and easier to process. Creativity also enables people to combine visions and disrupt existing systems for the better.

Walsh: My view on creativity has changed over the past decade. I used to have a negative association with the word “creativity,” especially earlier in my career. I had a manager in a pricing department whose catchphrase was “don’t re-invent the wheel.” When it came to profitability analysis and report writing, he was reluctant to make even the slightest change to the status quo. While I wasn’t proposing risky, irrelevant or eccentric ideas to unimportant problems, I disliked resigning myself to repeating something the same way each time—especially when the design and competition of the products differed and the modeling capabilities and valuation requirements varied.

Now, I find immense satisfaction in nurturing creativity in my work. I encourage and trust my team to be innovative and embrace curiosity to help form new ideas. Combining creativity and technical skills to solve a difficult problem is both exciting and satisfying. We may not perform arithmetical backflips like Nathan Chen at the 2022 Winter Olympics, but we strive to go above and beyond the requirements of our internal and external clients.

Why is creativity important in our professional lives and actuarial work?

Walsh: On a personal level, the privilege to be creative while doing my job makes me happy. Those who attend in-person meetings or Zoom calls with me know that I frequently ask questions and am not shy to suggest ideas. I also create opportunities for my actuarial staff to speak up confidently and share what they plan to try in hopes that it will filter down to their staff—one should not dive directly into databases and spreadsheets.

At a broader level, actuaries who are curious and constantly learning will emerge as future leaders, especially in today’s competitive business world with rapidly emerging technologies. There appears to be an unconscious bias against creativity and discomfort with it in our risk-averse actuarial profession due to fear of getting something wrong when we try something new. Creativity helps actuaries stay relevant and prepares them for the future. For example, creativity is needed in designing responsive and flexible solutions for International Financial Reporting Standard 17 (IRFS 17) and Long-Duration Targeted Improvements (LDTI).

Mbatchou Odeniyi: As the dynamic of actuarial work continues to evolve with emerging technologies, regulations, processes, leadership, work environments and projects, it is important that we remain open to these changes. Creativity enables us to adapt to changes, and it also brings enhancements to how things work.

I was privileged to work on a data science team in my former role, and we built new models that revolutionized how our organization approaches problems. We pushed barriers by creating solutions that did not exist yet, and this put us on leadership’s radar (in a good way). Being creative can set us apart in our careers and enable us to adapt more easily to unexpected changes.

What are some examples of how you apply creativity to your work? Any surprises?

Walsh: The issues I tackle in my consulting job are rarely by the book. While not by choice, intense and high-pressure situations with tight timelines have gotten my creative juices flowing the most. These often are times when there is no model for solving my problem, and I must conjure up a brand-new solution that invariably surprises even me.

For example, when I am involved in a company’s mergers and acquisitions (M&A) due diligence process, my analytic and intellectual abilities are continuously stretched and tested along with constantly shifting priorities. The blocks of insurance business are unique with limited data, so I must be creative and think of original ideas to manipulate our model to produce useful results. Current economic conditions, technological limitations, legislation and judicial decisions, and valuation and risk capital requirements also influence my work.

Mbatchou Odeniyi: As a former tech entrepreneur, I am accustomed to building solutions from scratch. Most times, it starts with a simple idea.

At Newbble, we built a social network for entrepreneurs based on an idea that existed in our heads. We gathered feedback from a wide range of people (investors, entrepreneurs, service providers, professors, tech enthusiasts) and participated in competitions to challenge and validate our ideas. We had hundreds of whiteboard sessions where we tried to map our ideas and visions together. Fast-forward two years, and we launched a social networking platform that changed the way entrepreneurs could turn their ideas into reality.

In my former actuarial role, I leveraged my startup experience to launch novel clinical models using the creative thinking I cultivated during my time at the startup. My team had multiple whiteboard sessions where we mapped out ideas and designed a new creative pathway to arrive at a solution. We argued and agreed, which is all part of the creative process. Creativity must be met with both value and validation to be useful at work. We also met with various stakeholders to gather more knowledge and validate our work, which enabled us to design a creative solution that was comprehensive and innovative.

Additionally, I have applied creativity at work by finding ways to automate work processes. I have used Python to automate repetitive tasks, and I even learned how to generate emails from Python whenever a set of code was done running. This reduced my time spent on certain projects by hours.

How can you identify challenges you face at work and use your creativity—or your team’s creativity—to come up with solutions? Creativity sometimes requires us to pick up a new skill, so we must be open to learning. I have found that people tend not to be as creative at work for fear of rejection, especially when working in an environment that is not open to change. If that is you, I encourage you to create appealing pitches of your ideas and present them to leaders within your organization who are open to change.

Where do you apply creativity outside of your professional life?

Walsh: I play a lot of board games. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I played with a group of actuaries in person, and there always was an incredible display of creativity and personality when we played.

Each game is a unique situation depending on the players involved and my past knowledge of each player’s style. I adapt my strategy in real time and respond to my opponents’ styles of play. While there is not a huge impact when I make a single decision early in the game, the next steps affect the outcome as the game unfolds.

Business is a lot like board games. When I approach a problem in a different way from my competitors, my team is more likely to get ahead. Like in business, when I try a new strategy playing board games, it  doesn’t always work, so I continue to search and discover innovative ways to get to my desired outcome.

Mbatchou Odeniyi: I love to decorate my home. If I weren’t an actuary, I would most likely be an interior designer. I find it fascinating how we can decorate empty spaces and fill them with beauty to make them appealing.

I recently built an office space, and I used a lot of creativity in how I decorated and furnished it to make it efficient and relaxing. Other fun projects were designing my daughter’s bedroom before she was born and remodeling my living room. I spent countless hours on Amazon, at HomeGoods and on YouTube watching home improvement videos. I feel so fulfilled every time I create something in my mind and see it come to fruition in real life.

Elizabeth Walsh, FSA, MAAA, is an actuary for Deloitte Consulting LLP in New York, culture lead of Deloitte’s Actuarial and Insurance Solutions group, and a contributing editor for The Actuary.
Rolande S. Mbatchou Odeniyi, FSA, MAAA, is a director, Actuarial & Integrated Care Analytics, at DaVita. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is director, 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, Schaumburg, Illinois.