At the back Careers
t is too often assumed that when geniuses get into the ‘zone’, they become tunnel-visioned, blocking out all peripheral distraction to focus on a speciﬁc task. The truth is that this ‘zone’ is actually a ‘ﬂow state’, the point at which the genius ﬁnds absolute unity and harmony in every aspect – central or peripheral – even remotely connected to the task at hand, whether it be a pitcher in a baseball game, a musician on their violin or an actuary in the midst of an evaluation. Last month’s feature article in The Actuary by Nico Aspinall outlined the importance of environmental, social and governance, which essentially refers to taking a holistic approach to actuarial science – ‘seeing the big picture’. Indeed, actuarial science – like most 21st century ﬁelds or professions – is inherently interdisciplinary. A successful actuary will not only understand mathematics, business, behavioural science, politics, monetary economics, demography and much more, but will also know how to synthesise this seemingly disparate knowledge to construct accurate and insightful evaluations. The actuary ultimately ﬁnds unity in the complex diversity they are confronted with. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, we are generally not encouraged to approach life, learning and work in this way. We treat anything seemingly unrelated to the task at hand as a kind of ‘otherness’ – a distraction to be avoided rather than assimilated. This is because by the turn of the 20th century, academia, government and business had each adopted a stringent ‘division of labour’ structure, establishing a culture of segregated hyper-specialisation in every sphere of life. This trend has become the norm.
The myth of the ‘specialist’ Such division of labour had profound sociopsychological implications. We automatically assume that the great achievers in the world are lifelong specialists in their ﬁeld. We presume that they’ve been completely immersed in their work, not allowing anything to distract them from their primary subject or activity. We pre-suppose that the great Nobel laureates, scientists, writers
and artists, athletes, businessmen and statesmen are great because of their exclusive commitment to their work; that this complete, long-term immersion allows for their creative breakthroughs. This is a ﬂawed aw wed e aassumption. ssum ss sum umpt umpt ptio ion. ion. n. Edwin Hubble was boxer in Hu H ubble bb ble l eexcelled xcel xc elle led ed in n aathletics, th hle leti tics ti cs, wa w as an n aamateur maate teu teur urr b oxxerr aand nd n d angler, served sseerv rveed d as as a soldier sso old ldie ier during duriingg the du the h First Fiirrst World Wor orld ld War, War ar,, qualiﬁ qu q ual a iﬁ iﬁeed ed as a a lawyer, coached cco oaaccheed basketball baask sket ket etbaalll and and d taught tau augh ht Spanish Span Sp anis an ish h before befo be fo oree becoming beeccom omin ing the thee th Nobel Pr Prize-winning Priz rizzee-w wiin nn nin i g astronomer astr as tron ono om meerr whose who ose se name naam me was w s given wa give gi ven to to the Hubble Telescope. Nicolaus Copernicus was clergyman, bble bb le T eleessco el ope p .N Ni ico olaau uss C operrni op nicu cuss w cu wa as a cl lergy erggyyma er man n,, economist, painter, mis ist, t, p aaiint n eerr, polyglot, poly po lyggllo ly ott, diplomat, dipl di plom maatt, physician phyysssic ph iccia icia ian n and and an lawyer in in addition ad ddi diti tion ti n to to becoming beeco beco omi ming ngg the father her er of of modern mode mo dern rn astronomy, ast s ro on no omy omy my, y, whose whos wh ose heliocentric nttrric theory th heeor ory revolutionised r vvo re olu l ttiion onis ised d the the he way way a astronomers omeerrs viewed om vviiew view ewed ewed ed the the h universe. uni niveers rse. see.. According study rd diin ng to ng to tthe he Si he SSigma igm igm gma X Xii SSurvey, urrve u veeyy, a st tud udy by b American an n psychologist pssyych c ol olog ogist og isst Bernice B rn Be rnic ice Eiduson Eiidu E id du usso on based base base ba sed ed on testimonials im mo oniiaalls b byy numerous numer um mer erou ou ous us Nobel No No obe b l laureates, be laaur urea e te ea tes, es, s, great scientists cieen nttis tiisssts ttss often offtten n have hav ave ve multiple multip mu ltip lt ple le avocational avoca vo ocaati tion onal on al interests ts (prior (priiorr careers (p caarree e rs rs or or hobbies). ho ob bb bie bie ies) es) s). In-depth In n-d dep epth th analysis anaaly lysi sis si of Nobel Literature between el llaureates el aure au reat re reat ates es iin nL Li ite t rraature tu ure re b etwe et ween e 1901-2002 en 1990 011 20 2002 02 found that writers hatt ggreat reeatt aartists reat rttis i ttss aand nd w nd rite ri ters rss often oft ften en have en haavve multiple lee aavocational vo ocati caati t on naall iinterests. nteres nter nt ereesssts er ts. Eiduson ts. ts Eiidu E duso so son on found foun foun fo und nd that that th laureates were es we w eree highly higgh hlly accomplished accco acco omp mpli lish shed sh hed d outside ou utttsi side their si the h irr work: mo more half had artistic m oree tthan haan h h ha alff h aad d aatt le lleast eas ast one on o ne ar arti tist ti stic st ic ic avocation, on,, aand nd aalmost nd lmo lm lmos osst al aall ll ha had an had n eenduring nd n durrin ing hobby, hobb ho bbyy,, from chess insect One-quarter hess hess he ss tto o in inse nseectt ccollecting. ollleeccttin o ng. g. O ne-q ne -q qu uaart rter er were wer ere musicians, practised an ns, s, aand nd d 118% 88% %p ract ra c ised issed vvisual isua is isua ual ar aarts rtts ts ssuch ucch uc h as a drawingg or painting. They or p aint ai nttin ng. gT hey are he are 25 ar 25 times tiim mess as as likely lliike kely ly as as the th he averagee scientist scie scie sc ientis nttis ist st to sing, sin i g, g, dance, dan nce ce, or ce, or act; actt; 17 17 times tim mes as as likely l keely li ly to to be a visual more write poetry ual ar ua aartist; rti tist s ; 12 12 ttimes im mess m o e li or llikely ike kelyy tto o wr w rit ite po oet etryy aand nd d literature; do woodworking ure re;; eight eigh ei ght times gh time ti imes mees more mo m ore re llikely ikkel ikel ellyy to d o wo w ood odwo w rrkkin ng o orr ssome om o me other craft; raf a t; t; four fou our times tiim mees as as likely likkely eelly to to be be a musician; mu m usiici cian an; and an an; and an twice ass llikely bee a ph photographer. ikkel ellyy to to b p ottog ot ogra og ogra raph raph pheerr.
The polymath As one studies stu tudi dies es the es the he lives liv i es es of of renowned renown re nown no wned ed ‘specialists’, lis ists ts’,, it it appears appe ap peaarrs that pe that th a they the hey often ofte of ftteen have have ha ve
The actuarial profession is too focused on specialisation, argues Waqas Ahmed – the secret to success lies in polymathy 32 | THE ACTUARY | MAY 2019
32-33 Polymath_The Actuary May 2019_The Actuary 32