This is the fifth article in a 6-article series of 24 studying strategies for actuarial exams I used to obtain the FCAS credential at 24 years old.
Throughout the articles, whenever I mention quantities, please note that they are most likely arbitrarily-chosen. It is impossible to generalize quantities for all the exams given due to their own complexities and different syllabi. However, sometimes I needed a quantity to reference in order to help illustrate my point, and as such, they are arbitarily-chosen.
This article, volume 5.0 with 17-20 of the 24 strategies, will focus on Avoiding Catastrophes for actuarial exmas. In particular, it’ll continually reference how I failed FCAS exams 7&9 in Spring 2018 (scores of 4 and 5), and the strategies I used to come back stronger from it.
17. Why do you want to pass actuarial exams?
I believe we all have an underlying desire for passing actuarial exams.
Money. Recognition. Family.
The question here is: What’s your “why” for wanting to pass the exams?
What driving force gets you up in the morning?
What rationalizes the temporary sacrifice of happiness in exchange for the gruelling experience of studying?
For myself, I identified family as my “why”…the key motivator.
I was born into poverty, and raised poor: paycheque-to-paycheque. Due to a complicated backstory and my parents wanting the best opportunities for their children, I only saw my dad a literal three times throughout the first half of my childhood.
My parents worked in menial jobs with heavy overtime, and sacrificed huge life events that I could never even imagine emotionally going through, all because they wanted the best opportunities for their children.
I wasn’t going to let them down.
No matter how painful the process became.
No matter how many parties/friends I had to say no to.
No matter how distorted my daily life would be from what society says is “normal”.
I didn’t care.
I was ready to never miss a studying session. To never fail an actuarial exam without having giving it my all. To never give anything less than my best effort.
When I received the news of my failed exams 7&9 in Spring 2018, I cried heavily. But not once did I tell myself that I was going to lower my ambitions. For my parents and family, I knew this was just a temporary setback. I wont let my parents’ sacrifices go in vain and I would come back stronger.
Once the “why” is identified, and IF it’s a strong enough “why”, no price is too high to pay.
18. Stop Trying to Minimize the Pain.
I don’t think I fully understood this until after I didn’t pass exams 7&9.
When I decided to double up again for exams 7&9 for Spring 2019, I was faced with going through the painful process again of studying for two actuarial exams at once. Except this time, my mind was set on over-studying for both exams. I was ready to absolutely sacrifice it all.
No matter how painful the social isolation would feel.
No matter how depressing 550 hours of non-stop studying might become.
No matter how challenging every single day might be.
Whatever it took, I was ready to push myself to a state of consistent pain on a daily basis, if it meant ending the FCAS journey once and for all. No matter how painful the process became, the only thing I cared about is that the pain would not be fatal. I’ll still make it out alive. It was then that I realized that for all prior exams, I thought I was always well-prepared. But in reality, I was really always aiming to study the bare minimum. It follows the actuarial joke:
“If you score over a 6 on an actuarial exam, you studied too much.“
Growth never came from the comfort zone
Unfortunately, actuarial exams can be unforgiving and cruel. They don’t care how much you’ve lost, sacrificed, or even how many hundreds of hours you’ve put in over multiple months.
The only thing they care about is: do you know the material just as good as the top X% of passing candidates?
I’ve found that the answer to this is usually correlated to just how much was sacrificed during the prior months. This means that who sacrificed the most, in order to be able to study the most?
Once I overcame that mental block of “trying to squeeze by with passes”, I redirected my focus to sacrificing nearly every single non-exercise activity during my leisure hours. I also commenced a rigid series of 10-14 hour study days for consecutive months with no breaks. This time I didn’t try to maintain a “normal life” during the 4 months prior to the exams and had absolutely no desire in doing so. I was ready to sacrifice absolutely anything and everything to finish the journey once and for all.
Ultimately, Al Pacino in the ‘Any Given Sunday’ movie says it best:
“In any fight, it is the guy, who is willing to die, who is going to win that fight”
19. Review Examiner’s Report to Pass Actuarial Exams
I believe these are available only for the upper-level exams, and they are complete gold mines as they offer countless insights and perspectives into the minds of the graders.
Although I try to avoid skimming these reports until later on in the studying journey, I do make sure to study them carefully for ambiguous/complex questions, and focus on identifying:
- What were the most common mistakes?
- What was the quickest way to answer the question?
For exams 7&9, I reviewed their Spring 2018 reports very carefully, thoroughly examined which questions I did not answer correctly, and further identified why my prior studying strategy did not enable me to correctly answer such questions.
If I don’t openly embrace my failure and hold myself accountable for my own inability to have passed the prior sitting, then I will never be able to pass the exams, as I will have not yet accepted my own studying strategy to be insufficient.
Ultimately, I can’t change how difficult the final exam is going to be, but I CAN change how well I prepare for it.
20. Burn your Boats
“If you want to take the island, you need to burn the boats” – Tony Robbins
This can be a controversial strategy, but as well, one of my absolute favorite mentalities.
In summary, Tony Robbins is referring to historical battle generals, who upon naval arrival with their army onto an island for war, would order their own troops to immediately burn their ships before the battle. Their only exit strategy – gone. There is no turning back.
The army now has only ONE binary outcome: they either win the war, or they perish in battle.
When I decided to double up again for exams 7&9, I made sure to announce it publicly, and devote as much social media content as possible towards it.
If I were to fail them both again, I wouldn’t be failing them in silence, without anyone knowing. It would be such a massively publicized failure, the second one in a row for attempting a very unconventional feat which ended in a catastrophe the year prior.
Not only would it be extremely embarrassing and humiliating, but my personal brand, and most importantly my self-confidence, would be significantly impacted by it in a very negative way.
Without saying, failing them both another time would come with very serious consequences. This pushed me to a psychological level of no return which I always wanted.
There was no room for failing them a second time. There was absolutely no turning back on my word. Having no way out, I had to mentally prepare myself to endure the extreme pain and hardships. It was my only option.
From then, it almost felt like I was on a “fight-or-flight” response for the 4 months prior to the exams. Even when I became tired and exhausted, I had literally no choice but to keep on pushing forward.
In the end, it wasn’t my desire to pass both exams that propelled me forward. Instead, it was the desire to NOT fail them both and face the consequences, that provided a very frightening, yet effective form of motivation.
On a more practical level, burning the boats doesn’t mean publicizing it on LinkedIn. It can be as small as telling your friends, family, etc. To hold yourself publicly accountable, and even putting your own brand at risk. Burning the boats can mean a different thing to different people.
This can be a dangerous and unhealthy strategy!
I believe it ultimately uses one’s own stress response to enhance one’s own performance to overcome what the body is identifying as a “life-or-death” scenario. It can be dangerous as well, since failure is still a possibility, and its intensity is now amplified.
But it can definitely work, and is possible of turning absolute catastrophes…
…into some of our greatest accomplishments.
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This article has been written by Carlo Lahura, FCAS. I thank him for writing this article and giving us permission to post it here. I urge you to visit his LinkedIn profile and share your views/ideas/comments/feedback with him. Thanks for reading
This post has been published here by Vitthal