The Zen Actuary Installment 17: Mindfulness During a Black Swan
By Rich Lauria
Stepping Stone, January 2021
Author’s note: This is the continuation of a series adapted from the book Awake at Work by Michael Carroll, covering the application of Buddhist teachings to situations encountered in a modern corporate workplace setting. This series addresses challenges frequently encountered by practicing actuaries.
Life as we know it was turned on its head during March 2020. I went from co-facilitating a yoga workshop called Restorative Harmony on March 7 and teaching three in-person classes on Columbia University’s (CU) Morningside Heights campus, to getting my namaste from YouTube and converting my CU classes to a virtual learning platform.
The yoga workshop included 18 practitioners in an enclosed space focused on deep breathing with hands-on adjustments from me and my co-facilitator. The in-person classes at CU consisted of 58 to 60 students each in a room that accommodated no more than 75. Social distancing was nonexistent; the phrase was furthest from my mind—or anyone else’s for that matter. The one portent of things to come were the 5 to 10 students in each of my classes at CU who wore masks. Since many of the students I teach are from China, this was not too much of a surprise. My initial reaction was one of bemusement and that their fears were overblown. After all, everyone flying in from China had to quarantine for 14 days, and there were few signs of problems in the U.S. in January and February.
By late March, I viewed that reaction as one of deadly ignorance and naivete. As the first wave of COVID-19 swept through New York City, each day brought increasingly grim news on new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Public health experts became household names overnight, providing guidance on everything from social distancing to how to wash your hands properly, to how to sanitize your delivered groceries, to how to construct and wear your own mask. Something I thought I’d never see—New York City brought to a grinding halt—was happening right before my eyes.
During that critical time, my wife and I were forced into making many on-the-fly adjustments to essential life activities in order to minimize the risk of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus. Online banking went from being a nice convenience to the primary mode of managing our finances; cash is now a four-letter word!
Zoom went from being a supplemental form of communication to the first choice of many professionals to stay connected to their employers, colleagues and clients. The trend toward online shopping went to another level, with even grocery shopping now included to avoid being around others not in one’s household. New routines for taking out the trash, doing laundry and getting exercise were established.
With the virus now raging through much of the world, particularly here in the United States, these adjustments have become “the new normal” for many, although I have observed and felt pandemic fatigue set in at times.
Unprecedented changes are taking place for actuaries as well; all actuaries, regardless of practice area, have been impacted:
- Many continue to work from home and may do so at least partially even when the pandemic abates.
- Companies are taking bold steps to reduce workspace and the corresponding property costs.
- Health insurers are gathering experience data and adjusting rates to build in expected COVID-19-related excess morbidity.
- Life insurers are analyzing the simultaneous risk manifestations of excess mortality, historically low interest rates and high corporate bond default experience.
- The trend toward using the latest technology to enhance or replace existing processes in distribution, underwriting, customer service and claims management has accelerated.
- All actuaries are dealing with the ongoing challenge of staying connected and keeping abreast of the latest pandemic developments, whether as to trends in virus transmission, hospitalizations and deaths, or current treatments and vaccines.
Where does mindfulness come into play with all of this? The short answer is everywhere.
Meditation and yoga are always beneficial. However, they can provide the most value during difficult periods such as what we are all currently experiencing. Making the necessary adjustments to keep risk exposure to an acceptable level requires one to be present right here and now.
As I write this, the holidays are right around the corner. This will be the first one that I am not spending with friends and relatives. I also recently decided that I would continue to teach remotely for the spring semester, and that will be periodically reevaluated based on the conditions here in New York. I very much miss being with my friends, relatives, students and fellow faculty members. The decisions were made with a deep awareness of the current circumstances, not denying or dismissing them.
Mindfulness also allows one to witness one’s fears and habits. Fear is not something to be denied or avoided. Rational fears help us survive. They keep us from crossing the street while cars are speeding along or from standing too close to a ledge hundreds of feet above the ground. The virus has brought a new dimension to fear. I have tried to find “the middle way” as described by Buddha but have often found myself tilting toward either being paralyzed in despair or being complacently dismissive of the situation altogether. I know I am not alone in this struggle.
When the coronavirus hit, I was suddenly forced into doing everything from home. This led to the disruption of all of those living patterns and routines designed to build certainty and predictability into an ever-changing, unpredictable world.
Instead of going to my favorite eating haunts, I was preparing all meals at home. That resulted in a whole new pattern of food consumption, which I have kept to with modest tweaks to this day. For exercise, I developed new home routines combining power yoga and cardio to partially replace going to the gym. To give my mind a break and my body additional movement, I implemented 60- to 90-minute walks outdoors each day. I have learned more about my neighborhood and those adjacent to me than in the previous 28 years. Some days, the walks are about the mind and movement; other days, the walks become another opportunity for exploration.
I have always relied on routine to at least some degree. It has provided me the delusional comfort of the known, however temporary it may be. Part of my own journey has been my increased recognition of how I use structure to deal with the unknown. That awareness has only become more acute since March. The net result has been to establish new work routines and boundaries with my personal life to provide solidity to both and a sense of security during this perilous period.
Actuarial practice has always included a significant component of working in solitude. The development of pricing models, analysis of historical premium and claim data, formation of assumptions, construction of claim reserve triangles, projection of future financial results and so on regularly involve multiple contributions of individual actuaries operating in silos. A critical management skill is knowing how to bring all of this together. This approach has become only more pronounced with the advancements in information technology and computing power. Therefore, the pandemic has not materially impacted most actuarial work processes. Instead of going to an office and working on a new rate filing, the actuary hits the alarm clock, rolls out of bed, puts on the coffee and powers up the laptop to start crunching the numbers. It raises the question of why the actuary would ever want to bother dealing with the morning rush ever again.
Most actuarial employers were well prepared when COVID-19 arrived. Everyone was instructed to work from home indefinitely and provided the tools to be productive in doing so. Even employee support functions such as Information Technology Support were provided tools to diagnose and remediate most employee technology problems without accessing an employee’s physical device. For actuaries, the office environment was replicated as a virtual office.
The obvious difference in actuarial work post-COVID is in teamwork and collaboration. Instead of being in a physical conference room with colleagues, actuaries are now exclusively sharing their ideas in virtual forums. My experience in a university setting using virtual classrooms and meeting rooms has been largely positive, but there have been challenges. It is much harder to read faces and body language in a bunch of on-screen pictures than in person. Therefore, I am not always sure that my points are coming across effectively. While I do not have to worry about settling down a cacophony of chatting students at the beginning of class, I also have no way to read the energy of the room. In that sense there is only the illusion of a room, since everyone is physically isolated. Whether I need to be more boisterous or calming requires more trial and error for me to determine.
On the other hand, I have found the on-screen file-sharing features of Zoom to be a godsend. This allows anyone in the meeting room to share a file virtually with everyone else in the meeting without e-mailing the file. Since most of the classes I teach involve risk modeling, this enables me to do in-class demonstrations of how to construct a risk model. Perhaps more importantly, it permits students to share their work with me in real time during office hours, where I can provide them an on-the-spot critique they can incorporate immediately.
This type of virtual show and tell is definitely the way forward for exchanging ideas among actuarial teammates. In addition, the use of Google Drive and similar applications allow multiple actuaries to collaboratively build models, design reports and formalize presentations without version control issues. The pandemic has necessitated bringing these and other tools into the mainstream of actuarial workflows. New habits and routines have been formed, resulting in improvements in both the volume and quality of collaborative actuarial work product.
One last observation I’ve regularly noticed in my own mind is a fixation on the future, to a (hopefully) better time when herd immunity has been established and we can live our lives without social distancing and mask wearing. While hope of a brighter tomorrow can carry one through a dark today, fixating on it robs one of remaining present and making the most of right now, which is all we ever truly have. I allow myself to spend a certain amount of time each day catching up on vaccine news, and then I let it go. I have no control over vaccine development, testing or distribution. My worrying about it will not change any of those processes.
As actuaries it is a professional necessity to think about the future and play out various scenarios in our minds and models. Such endeavors empower actuaries and their employers with a better understanding of the world and help them navigate a perpetually shifting landscape. One can argue that such skills have never been in more demand than in this day and age. Projecting what will happen through this potentially difficult winter and beyond can have enormous ramifications on decision making across all industries. The actuarial profession has both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide stakeholders with the insights needed to make the best choices for themselves and the world at large.
However, I encourage you to pause each day from your ruminations to consider where you are in this moment. Consider what you have learned from this period and the positives that can be carried forward to a post-pandemic world.
- How can models be improved, particularly as to risk identification and quantification?
- What existing and new products will serve a pathogen-wary world?
- What mitigations can be strengthened in advance of the next crisis?
- How can enterprise risk management be kept at the forefront of the C-suite agenda when conditions become more favorable?
Every crisis brings with it a unique opportunity for both personal and professional growth. Mindfulness can be the vehicle for tapping into this potential. Taking a few minutes periodically to breathe, relax and contemplate can lower stress and allow one to tap into what is possible. While the COVID-19 experience can be all-consuming, each of us has the power to step back and let it go, even for just a fraction of a second. It is this ability that will ultimately enable us to work through this enduring black swan with a peaceful mind, fresh perspective and positive attitude.
Stay safe and well.
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.
Rich Lauria, FSA, CFA, MAAA, is associate director and lecturer in the Enterprise Risk Management program at Columbia University in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.