When You Feel Like Quitting, Think About Why You Started
I came to the United States in 1998 from Cyprus with one goal in mind, to become a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA). My story does not depict something extraordinary, but I still felt the need to write it down. I promised myself I would record my experience if I passed my FSA exam.
The Goal: FSA Before 30
I don’t think I would describe myself as an overachiever or hunting the lucrative career, but I definitely always want to be good at what I do, give everything I’ve got and contribute in a meaningful way.
I enrolled in a prestigious actuarial program, one of the best in the country at the time. That’s where the journey began. The coursework was not that easy but dedication and focus got me through. I graduated at a time where the competition was not that fierce and the demand for actuaries (recent graduates and senior levels) was at its peak. I managed to have a few preliminary SOA exams under my belt, which helped tremendously in landing an internship and a full-time job. Surprisingly enough both were with the same company, a company that till this day I admire and miss from time to time.
My goal, set at the beginning of this journey, was to become a fully credentialed actuary—FSA before turning 30. What was I thinking? Was I considering all the factors that life throws at you? I failed at meeting my big initial goal. At least I was able to attain the respected and prestigious Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA) designation. Up until that point, everything was on track as originally planned. There were a few exam disappointments along the way, but again, dedication, focus and faith allowed me to become an ASA.
The Honest Truth
It was definitely a great feeling of accomplishment to attain the ASA. At that point you do sense that you are closer to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s still a big step to get there, with harder exams that require different strategies and methods of preparation. After that point, I felt that I needed a little break, a break from studying so hard and putting aside a lot of other things and activities. I did feel a little burned out, but the honest truth is that a lot of other priorities made their way into my life. These priorities included marriage to my lovely wife, having adorable twin daughters; even the priority of the job and the long hours devoted to that.
Then, as I said above, life throws at you other things that are unexpected and unfortunately these events can get in the way of the exams. But I will not elaborate on those. I will leave it there. I did attempt to take the next FSA test but, who was I joking? I knew I was not prepared and not even close to being ready to take it. After a few attempts and again knowing that you can’t just wing it with these hard exams, the non-motivation feeling settled in, something that can be a huge deterrent. There were times when I was thinking maybe I should pursue something else, a different field and career that would be more meaningful for me. I even started questioning my own abilities to pass an FSA exam.
You can see now that this little “break” was full of mixed feelings, doubts and reflections regarding the exam progress. Every story is different. There are a few people that go through these tough exams with what seems to be relative ease. That’s just brilliant! And then there are lots of others who drop out at some point or another and follow a different path. That’s okay too! I was not ready to give up on my goal, a goal that was established when I was graduating from high school.
So here I am, an ASA with more than ten years of actuarial experience, a decent record of working for top name companies in the field, but not an FSA yet. It has been a road with lots of joy, excitement and suspense so far. Currently, I am with an organization that puts some pressure on actuarial exam takers. Do the exams define you as an individual? Does the exam success reflect the quality of your work as an actuary and your abilities? I don’t think so, but the truth is that they are needed for career advancement and opening more doors for new and exciting opportunities.
Perseverance is a word that I’ve heard on numerous occasions from fellow actuaries and managers. And that is the absolute truth. Especially in spite of difficulties and obstacles, you have to keep the steady persistence towards achieving your goal, your purpose. One colleague told me once, ‘you really have to want this.’ Reflecting back, he was right. I knew I really wanted to pass this sitting. A wonderful manager told me, when he was taking exams he always had the following thinking in mind, ‘study for a 10 and pray for a 6.’ He was right too! Lots of other advice and encouragement helped me as I took all of it seriously and translated it into some form of action while preparing for this exam. Another fellow actuary and close friend completed his FSA designation at almost 50. His circumstances were different, but he did not give up. He is certainly one of a kind, speaks so highly of his actuarial career, loves his job and he would do it all over again.
One of the worst feelings is the time spent away from the family. This was not easy for me with little kids, but unfortunately this sacrifice is needed. At the end of the day I was reminding myself that I was doing this for them, to be able to grow, learn and provide for them. Still, not the greatest feeling not to be there to interact, smile and play. So, when you are married, you need the support and understanding of your spouse. My lovely wife was behind me 100 percent taking a lot on her shoulders for several months and I am extremely thankful for that.
In terms of the preparation, strategy and steps taken, I am sure each candidate finds their own way that works for them. What seemed to do it for me was a ton of memorization, a ton of problem solving and the attempt to understand the prescribed syllabus to the best of my ability. An online seminar contributed tremendously to the latter. But once again, the material is so vast and deep that time is needed, a lot of time, and there was no way around that for me. Then, on the actual exam day, after all the effort and long hours day by day, I had to have a good strategy as well in terms of tackling each question with proper time management being at the forefront.
I Did It!
I left the exam room and I was not sure what to think. Did I do okay? Did I make a lot of mistakes? Did I leave out a lot of unanswered pieces? I really had no idea if my performance would put me in the passing list. But I knew I did my absolute best with nonstop writing up until the last second. I gave it all I had.
The exam results day arrived before I knew it. It takes a while to grade these exams, but time flies. It was a very stressful morning. You try to do some work but that did not help me or distract me from the thoughts of another failure. Even though everything is out of your hands at this point, I kept thinking mostly in a pessimistic way. What could I have done better? Is my bad handwriting going to take away points? It will be probably be a miserable 5. It was about 10:15 a.m. The instant messages started coming in with questions from my dear fellow co-workers asking if I had passed. The SOA had the lists uploaded. I think I was shaking a little from the nerves, but I opened the file and started going down the list of passing candidate numbers. My candidate ID was there! I could not believe it! I had to have a few colleagues check for me too, just in case I was dreaming. I was not dreaming after all. I passed! I did it!
I am not sure
if my story might help others that might be in the same boat or going through
something similar, but that is part of the reason I wanted to write about it.
Without a doubt I felt great satisfaction knowing that all the hard work paid
off. Again, I would not be able to do it without the push, the encouragement,
the support, the Faith and my family. I will close this with a quote from
Socrates. “We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.” Going
through this process has helped me grow professionally and personally to some
extent. I sincerely hope other exam candidates feel the same.
Nicholas Kallis, ASA, MAAA can be reached at email@example.com.