Lee Faulkner is a non-traditional actuary, born in Britain, who has lived and worked in a wide range of other countries including Spain, Mexico, Argentina, and now Hong Kong. He describes himself as ‘Latin, Asian and British’ and knows all about being an expat! As you’ll see below, Lee has a delightful sense of humour, is strongly mission-driven, and isn’t afraid of pushing beyond his comfort zone (and encouraging all of us to do the same). He’s been an English language teacher during his career too, and has started a business ‘taking on the big boys’. Here are Lee’s reflections:
“Age - the Stuff of Excuses
I’m approaching 60 so, according to the world I’ve grown up in, I should now be thinking about winding down my career and focusing on best-buy slippers and pipes. But that feels wrong - if a life well-lived means anything it has to be sharing what you’ve learned and using your experience to help out those around you. I can’t wind down - every year I find still more ways of ratcheting up; yes, I need the cash (and yes - all those warnings about not contributing enough to a pension scheme have come home to roost!) but more importantly I have an overwhelming feeling of “not having finished”. There’s more to do. I don’t have kids, so I won’t have a biological legacy, but I have a brain and a mouth that I’m not afraid to use so they’ll be the tools of my legacy instead.
I don’t think I could ever rest until I see professionals doing what I’ve always thought we should do - using our skills to help those that really need us, not the companies that pay us. We’ve been hiding ourselves away for too long, and now’s the time for a professional coming out!
I never made an active choice to be an actuary - I fell into it. And I bet a substantial minority of us did exactly the same. I was a dreadful student at uni - lazy, tedious, self-entitled and frequently drunken, perhaps not the best attributes of a budding professional! But, I learned more about myself then than at any other time of my life, and have the same best friends then as I have now, so it wasn’t all wasted. An actuarial life was suggested to me by the husband of a woman I worked with - he was an actuary, and did his best to dissuade me, but the lack of any other sensible career suggestions forced my hand. I started off by failing exams, but then stubbornness kicked in and I made it through...
But I’ve never felt “at home” being an actuary. I’ve always thought I was a bit of a fraud, never as smart as the people around me, never having skills that were as useful as theirs, never seeming to see what they see. I still have nightmares, 30 years on, that I really didn’t pass General Insurance at the fourth attempt and that our Institute made a terrible mistake they’ve been covering up all these years. One day their error will be exposed. Am I the only one that thinks like this? Maybe if we all fessed up we’d feel better about ourselves?
It’s only recently that I’ve stopped feeling like an imposter, and why was that? Because I stood for Council [the actuarial profession’s governing body], got elected, and met some of the best, smartest and most dedicated of our profession and felt, well, “normal”. We talked and listened to each other - no airs or graces, just other “normal” people. Phew!
Mobile - but don’t follow me
One of the things that did appeal to me about being an actuary was that we’re a globally mobile profession - portable to and through anywhere in the world. We still are, and we’re getting better at it. Good.
So as mobility was on offer, I got mobile. With a bit of a talent for languages I tried my luck at living in Spain. It was a great experience and a huge insight into how other people do things. Us Brits have a built-in superiority complex about some things - with justification (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) - but we’re blind to the benefits of other ways of doing things. Latinos don’t start meetings on time (annoying) but when they eventually get going they spend the first 20 minutes talking about football, their families, their social lives, food, wine, God, and so on - so much more fun and so aligned with real human nature. Who’s to say that isn’t a better way of working?
I then moved to Mexico and Argentina. Crises seemed to follow me around - in Mexico “Tequila”, in Argentina the currency crash and default. And now, many years later on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong “Occupy Central, protests and national security laws”. I daren’t move again for fear of bringing economic and political pox to the country I move to! With each country a new experience - social, political and, yes, actuarial: with each place a different view about what actuaries do and could do and how they got involved.
If you’ve got itchy feet then go - you might lose out on a traditional career path and in-house promotions, but what you’ll see and learn will be so much more interesting.
I’ve always tried to immerse myself in the local community to better understand the people and culture. There’s nothing worse than “ugly expats” who hang around with other expats and never touch or feel the country they’ve moved to - what’s the point in moving if you do that? My motto? If a country lets you in to make a home there, you have a responsibility to be part of it and look after it as you would your own.
We weren’t born experts
Changing career paths is one of those issues that is frequently misunderstood, because it’s been mis-communicated and we’ve let the cautious and conservative hold the microphone. Yes, our professional standards prohibit us from advising or signing off on things we don’t know unless we’re supervised by someone who does know. No argument with that.
But, none of us was born knowing everything, none of us started our careers knowing everything, and none of us knows everything now. So how did the need to be professional get misunderstood into “you shouldn’t change paths”? I have, several times - am I a bad, unfocused actuary for doing so or at the forefront of curiosity?
A lot of what we learn as we go through our careers can become quickly out of date. So why do we judge and value others almost exclusively by what they've learned and experienced most recently rather than looking at the whole person? What we've done most recently is what employers value, what recruiters value, and, yes, what our fellow professionals value too. For actuaries, all of this misplaced (and incorrect) fear that we’re not supposed to do stuff “we’re not experienced in” is putting people off learning new things, changing paths, going into wider fields, moving abroad, trying and experimenting.
Even the requirement to be “supervised” must have its limits - if we followed the edict religiously, wouldn’t it mean none of us could work as Climate Change actuaries? Nobody was doing anything on climate change until a few years ago, so who are these “experienced experts” waiting to supervise us? Are we all waiting for experts to appear endogenously? As long as we’re not advising or compromising any of our clients, why can’t we move fields? Do it - move! Try something new. Your future and the future of your profession depend on it.
The Public Interest - my soapbox
I admit it - I’m a purist and a zealot on the public interest, and I think I always have been. What use is it to be a professional if it’s not for real people? What does “in the public interest” mean, after all? Do we let our employers and politicians do what they want even when we think it’s wrong? Are we going to sit around waiting for the next mis-selling scandal to explode so we can make our living sorting it out? That’s not what the public interest means to me.
We have brains and mouths so we should use them. We have to look at the real challenges people face in life, and give assistance: stop people getting ripped off, educate and simplify finance so they can see and understand what’s going on, and guide them to make the best decisions for themselves.
And we need to push for our respective industries to be organised in ways that favour people, and that work with the way non-experts think and process information, not for the comfort and security of ourselves or the regulator. Perhaps we could rescue “experts” from scorn and cynicism if we did that? Nobody should have to tolerate a regulatory structure that suffocates instead of innovates, or that complicates instead of simplifies.
When I look back, the things I feel most guilty about are when I should have spoken out but didn’t. Was it right to price products with front-end charges? Should I have trained sales forces to sell what people don’t need? Was it right to be complicit in never-ending complexity rather than shouting from the rooftops: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!!!?
The public interest is the great unfinished business of professions, and it’s mine as an old(er) professional, and it ain’t going away.
Elect me (please…..)!
Ultimately I’ve tried to do what I can over my career to change the world when I could, but what’s the best way of really making an impact? Get elected! I stood for election in last year’s now-cancelled Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong. I didn’t get enough nominations, let alone get elected, but it felt good. Why? Because people I had never met supported me. People I’d never spoken to agreed with and shared my platform. The regulator watched me and some within it even liked me. So was it wasted? Absolutely not.
We in the professions have to push our role as public advocates - we are as smart, well-trained and articulate as the best of them, so we should use those skills or lose them. There are so many fundamental real issues that will outlast me by decades:
We, of all people, should understand risk, and be able to articulate it and measure it. But so often we avoid it. That’s a waste - a waste of our talent and wasted chances to change the world for the better. And we’re setting a bad example to others too.
One of things I’ve noticed from my time in Asia is how much pressure is heaped on young people to “conform” or to have a job that’s “secure” or to have the status of a career that their parents can brag about. What has this led to? People aspiring to work as government officers - yes, secure, and probably well paid, but where’s the scope to innovate, to be yourself and to use your talents? And why choose to be a doctor, lawyer, or accountant just because your parents and their friends know what they do? Why does anyone think that the choice of professions we have today will be the same choice 20 years from now?
We have to be fair to our youngsters and stop pressuring them to be like us and to choose what we consider to be “secure”. What’s “safe and secure” today won’t be tomorrow, so shouldn’t we be encouraging them to take some risks and explore new paths so that they’ll learn to be adaptable? And happier?
We can’t go through life ignoring risk - we can understand it and manage it but it’s never going to go away. So why not embrace it, cherish it and exploit it? I’ve tried to.
If there’s one message I’d like you all to join me in ramming home to young professionals it’s this: 'Don’t avoid risk, enjoy it!' "