"My interest in maths began at a young age as I was blessed with having a maths teacher as a mother who made education a primary focus. At the time, though, it felt like a curse every time she ripped out my homework and said: "do it again, but this time properly". Looking back, this contributed to my determination and perseverance, skills which helped me complete the actuarial exams years later.
While my mother was pregnant, the doctors ran a test that suggested I might be born with brain complications. Later tests refuted this idea, but it concerned my grandmother. Thus she always tried to stimulate my mind as a young child with various puzzles, checking to see that I was okay. If anything, this promoted brain development and even to this day, I love doing fiendish mental problems. I recommend apps like KLAC and VMOD to anyone with a similar desire.
Thanks to the support of my family over my school career, I was able to achieve the highest marks in my school for not only maths but every non-language subject. This placed me in the Top 50 in the country, and I got accepted on a scholarship to study Actuarial Science at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg. Like many others, I chose Actuarial Science because I was told it was difficult and it paid well. It didn't disappoint – I went from averaging 90% to scraping passes here and there. I'm not ashamed to admit: I was crying probably once a week out of frustration, and I felt like such a failure.
The first few years of Actuarial Science were challenging – I was sometimes getting 25% for an exam. I thought I knew in advance that university was going to be tough – my older brother had warned me. But, until I was there, I didn't realise just how tough it was going to be: there was the mental challenge coming from the actual material, but there was also the emotional challenge coming from your friends dropping out. This caused me to worry that I would be next.
Fortunately, I did well enough to be accepted into Honours after my three-year undergraduate degree. Out of the 180 students who had started in the first year, less than a handful of us made it, yet that milestone was only half of the journey!
Actuarial exams after university
Another four years lay ahead of me after completing my degree, and it was only last year that I was able to call myself a Fellow Actuary. I started my first year of university in 2010, wrote the last board exam in 2017 and then took another year to complete the various workshops and assignments required.
A profession gives you credibility. By being in a profession, you don't always have to prove yourself; you don't have to say 'look at my CV', it just falls into place. The actuarial profession is an interesting one because people know that you are smart; they just don't know what you do."
It's a particular challenge trying to study and work at the same time. You need a manager who is patient and prepared to give you the study leave you need to progress with the exams. I would recommend working in a role that is related to what you are studying as that way the material makes sense, and you will perform better in the office.
I chose to write the CERA (Chartered Enterprise Risk Actuary) exam as part of my Specialist Technical/Principles studies mainly because I would get to add some letters to the back of my name. Compared to the local South African actuarial exams, the CERA exam was relatively easy for me: I somehow just clicked with the material and the content felt very natural to me. Interestingly, the CERA designation has so far gotten me more working opportunities than my FASSA (Fellowship of the Actuarial Society of South Africa).
I spent less than three months studying for the CERA exam but more than three years studying for my final Fellowship exam. After all those years of studying, I experienced a familiar feeling that other qualifying Fellows describe. I kind of went through a quarter-life crisis: I got through my university, I got through my actuarial exams, and then I thought 'now what do I do?'
MJ's YouTube channel
In my fourth year at university, I started making video study notes of each chapter so that while I was eating, I could watch and learn. I think there are around ten or so that I managed to put onto YouTube. They were my very first attempt at making videos. Another thing I did, because I was struggling, was to take all the past papers and plot them against the syllabus objectives, and identify when they asked which objective. It was amazing because a clear pattern formed, and I could estimate which questions were most likely to come up in the next exam.
After university, while continuing with the remaining actuarial exams, I kept making video notes, and I started posting a lot of them onto YouTube. My channel has the entire financial maths syllabus and the entire life contingencies syllabus, complete courses that I was making while I was studying for those exams. That gave my channel core content for it to get a little bit of a following.
The interesting thing about YouTube is that you can make a video where you discuss some substantial piece of the syllabus and go into a lot of depth and you'll maybe get 200-300 views from people who are specifically looking for that. But, no one is going to watch that if they don't have to. I think that's where the silly videos I've made succeeded; you'll sometimes get people who are procrastinating who'll watch those. There was a big temptation to keep making silly videos. I had to tell myself that I didn't want to chase views and subscribers by making entertainment. I wanted to keep the majority of my content serious, but every now and again have a fun video... Silly things like if there was an Illuminati, it's probably just a group of actuaries controlling the world...
The YouTube channel has been very important for my current career. It's the way a lot of clients find me. It's the way I can prove that I know what I know. I also use it to show people what Actuaries can do. So from a career perspective, it's been very beneficial, and I'm probably still going to be reaping the fruit from it for years to come."
At this stage, I'm not sure what to do next with my YouTube channel. Should I branch off into cryptocurrencies and FinTech? Should I stick with actuarial exams and tutorials? Should I include Actuarial News and Job Opportunities? I don't know at this stage, and I welcome ideas and input from my subscribers.
One particular opportunity that my channel has led to is creating videos for the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) including exam walkthroughs for the ASSA Academy. I also run workshops on enterprise risk management for them. I believe in the value of using technology to teach skills, and I offer online statistics videos via Udemy. Another idea is whether a corporate would be willing to sponsor educational videos, which would help them get their brand out to an audience of potential employees, while also contributing to education as a social responsibility imperative.
Interest in Finance
I've been interested in finance for a long time. I remember the days in highschool where, after reading a Warren Buffet book, I thought I knew the fundamentals of finance and how to play the stock market. But the more I learnt, the less sure I was about how to invest. There are so many factors that one has to consider that it's almost impossible to come up with the optimal investment strategy.
I also became disenchanted with the whole industry. Vague fee structures and cumbersome regulations have made 'traditional' finance inefficient. Fortunately there has been some disruption in this space. The Cypherpunk movement which had dissolved the US law on the export of cryptography was passing around a whitepaper called "Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system". This new decentralised approach particularly appealed to me.
Consulting and Lifelong Learning
One would think that after eight years of studying Actuarial Science, I would be sick of learning, but it's the opposite. I'm addicted to acquiring more knowledge and now pursue technology and programming. I currently consult for a firm called ActuarTech where we seek to connect technology vendors with actuarial firms. The ActuarTech community uses technology to address traditional actuarial problems.
My freelancing and consulting work includes building actuarial models of cashflows and advising clients on financial matters. I also spend time programming, have built apps (including decentralised applications on the blockchain), and designed a social currency. I'm very drawn to the tech side of life. In addition, I've published cross-discipline articles and want to write a book about finance as a social technology.
The dream is to work hard now so that I can retire early. I have a passion for theology and would love to spend every day going deeper into the Scripture. There is a Bible verse from the book of Colossians that prompted this: "...that they may be encouraged in heart, knit together in love and filled with the full riches of complete understanding, so that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." I want to know everything, and thus I get excited when I read verses like this..."
I'm obsessed with learning. I get frustrated if I don't learn something new in a day – I feel like the day is wasted. The one thing I find really find interesting about divergent ideas is seeing how they connect."