April 13, 2014

LIFE-CHANGING: THE FREE SHRI AMBIKA YOGA KUTIR COURSE IN TORONTO

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This year, I’ve been focusing on my health by
  • find out about the next courseeating better
  • sleeping earlier
  • exercising more
The big challenge is exercise. Good intentions haven’t translated into ongoing habits,

Intentions vs Actions

Visiting a fitness club takes time, planning and waiting for equipment. Yoga looked like a good way to exercise at home before breakfast. Since pure yoga melds body, mind and soul, I wanted
  • sevaks (teachers) who knew the ancient ways from India but taught in English
  • an extended, structured course (rather than a workshop)
  • personalized attention (rather than a student in a large class)
Is that asking too much?

The Solution

A fellow Toastmaster told us of a free 16 week course in West Toronto (Etobicoke near Kipling/Rexdale). My wife attended Shri Ambika Yoga Kutir and recommended I join. That’s a big commitment. The classes take place at 7:00:00 AM on Saturdays. I’m not a morning person and don’t like sleeping early on Friday nights. Would I have energy to travel and take a two hour class before breakfast?

I made a commitment and haven’t missed a single class despite the extreme winter. Since lessons build on each others, that’s important.

Benefits

Here the main benefits I’ve already achieved
  • more energy all day: the breathing exercises help you get more oxygen into your blood  — especially via Kapal Bhati (shallow bellows breathing)
  • better posture: you tone muscles which often get ignored (e.g. in your spine and neck)
  • more flexibility: we don’t use positions like padmasana (lotus posture) in our daily lives
Perhaps the greatest benefit is the confidence that comes from persisting and not quitting. My life has changed and will continue to improve as I continue the yoga.

The Catch?

The course is free and that’s not a trick. You’re not put on a commercial mailing list. There are no attempts to upsell you (because there’s nothing to sell). The only way you can spend money is on the optional course materials. The best ways to repay the generosity of the volunteer sevaks is by
  • continuing to practice yoga
  • encouraging others to join (a goal of this post)
You attend to learn. Students (sadhaks) are discouraged from the usual networking and exchange of business cards.

The Format

handwritten notes for yoga class 10Each class starts with all students on yoga mats facing a row of teachers at the front of the large room.

The week’s agenda is shown on a whiteboard. Different teachers explain the theory behind the new postures, the benefits and the precautions. There are demonstrations of the new postures.
Practice
We then go to one of four groups based on our age and gender. My group (males 45+) had about a dozen students and two teachers. That’s an excellent student-to-teacher ratio. As we practiced, we got personalized attention. That’s what I really appreciated since I wanted to do the exercises properly. You can’t get that from YouTube or a conventional show-up-if-you-want class.

Each student in my group had his own strengths and challenges. We weren’t competing, though. We were encouraged to do what we could. We weren’t pressured to do exercises for which we made us uncomfortable. Some exercises had variations for different needs.

Tips

For the best results in the Shri Ambika Yoga Kutir class
  • take notes (photography and videography is discouraged; manuals aren’t available until near the end)
  • practice daily (I averaged 5-6 days a week … only skipping mornings when travelling or having unusually early meetings)
  • invest in a proper yoga mat (e.g., the well-cushioned, nonslip Manduka BM71 with a lifetime warranty)
After you graduate, you can return anytime you want to repeat the basics or take advanced classes. If you’re interested, get details about the next course.

It’s funny how our bodies respond when we take care of them. What better investment can you make?

Links

PS I’m thinking of redoing the beginner’s class to learn the basics better and stay on track.

April 6, 2014

MAILBAG: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ACTUARY — MORE CAREER ADVICE

in the right field?
Here’s another request for career advice.
Hello Promod! I’m a first year student currently enrolled in the Mathematics and Statistics Co-op program at the University of Toronto. I am willing to become an actuary in the future and have no personal connection with anyone as of yet. I have a few questions regarding the career itself, and possible paths one would need to take in order to attain this career. I would appreciate if you could answer them as it would help me make my life’s first important decision.

Firstly, I would like to know how you go about handling your duties on a daily basis, in other words, if I were to be an actuary for a day, what I am going to be facing that day as a guarantee. I am also willing to know if the daily activities of an actuary are repetitive, or will my work differ from day to day? Another thing I’m willing to find out is the challenges actuaries face as a result of their career, internally and externally, whether it be the actual tasks that they complete, or whether it be the people that they face, or even potential consequences they may have. I am hoping to find what the future holds for these careers. Here, not only am I looking for whether or not the job opportunities will increase or decrease, but I am also looking for other careers that may use the skills that I have attained in these career areas.

By analyzing your responses to these questions, I would be able to figure out whether or not I see myself as an actuary in the foreseeable future. Your response to these questions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time!
When I was still in the corporate world, a student asked seven questions. Another asked to job shadow me to “witness the daily activities that an actuary performs and see if I can picture myself doing the same 20, 30 or 40 years from now.”

The requests are thoughtful but life is unpredictable. Here’s another attempt at answering the underlying questions.

Starting Out After Graduation

In each of 1983 and 1985, Metropolitan Life hired six actuarial grads for the Canadian Head Office (CHO) in Ottawa. In 1984, the economy was bad and they only hired me. The unemployment rate among my classmates was 77% (only 4 of 17 got jobs). Is the economy any more predictable today?

I got the usual actuarial equipment: a big electric printing calculator and a monochrome terminal connected to an unseen mainframe computer. No Internet. No smartphones. No answering machines.

On the plus side, you couldn’t take work home.

I shared a telephone with a coworker who smoked at her desk. Another colleague got sent home for forgetting to wear a tie. At the time, Metropolitan Life was the second largest life insurance company in North America. Within years, they left Canada. I had already moved on.
My Evolution
You gravitate toward the type of work you like and are good at doing.

I’ve been good at learning, experimenting and communicating. Much of my work was project-based. For instance, launching a new product. I liked variety, uncertainty and making decisions. You might prefer work which is more predictable and guided.

Shortly after I started working at Met Life, the Chief Actuary (my boss’s boss’s boss) wanted basic color graphs for an important presentation. I didn’t know how to create them but no one available did either. We were in the early days of computers and graphing printers used expensive felt pens. I learned how to graph and found ways to communicate results better than expected. I made my boss, boss’s boss and boss’s boss’s boss look good. Do that and you look good too.

In those days, actuaries did coding (then called “programming”) in APL — powerful but tough to use well. I became good through self-study, which opened up more opportunities. Even today, coding is considered a must-have job skill. You can learn for free on your own time, how many bother?

You gain a valuable edge when you do what others can’t or won’t do.

A Typical Day

There’s no typical job, which means there’s no typical day. Roles change with circumstances, your abilities and your level.

An actuary is trained to measure and manage risk. That seems technical but computers simplify the work. Success requires many soft skills such as getting along with others, communicating clearly, thinking independently, innovating and meeting deadlines.

There are many different kinds of actuaries. I’ve worked primarily in the world of personal insurance (life, critical illness, disability). While the product actuary at National Life, I had three actuaries reporting to me. We focused on universal life insurance optimized for wealthy clients. Success required creativity, a deep understanding of the tax laws and the creation of effective point-of-sale computer-based tools.
The Team
I had an actuary for each of these core responsibilities:
  1. New product development:  analyzing competitiveness, calculating profitability including “what if” scenarios, writing product descriptions (for the launch process)
  2. Advisor support: answering questions, developing/testing point-of-sale computer-based marketing tools, gathering market intelligence
  3. Administrative support: getting the customer service systems updated to accommodate the product features, drafting policy contract wording, projecting performance of inforce policies
Each role was important but required different skills and personalities. My other seven staff were also involved, primarily with advisor support. Managing people was necessary but not as easy or enjoyable as I first thought. I invested time in learning how to get better.

Career Stages

When you get your first job, you'll be doing work related to your skills. Since your skills are limited, don't count on doing work which is especially interesting. You're learning how to meld into the working world — skills you only master by doing. Demonstrate your growing skills and and you’ll get new opportunities.
Changing Roles
Big insurers like Met Life had a rotation program for students writing the actuarial exams (10 at the time). You work in a department for two years. The first year, you learn from the actuarial student who's about to leave. The second year you train your replacement. This process helps you decide which department suits you. I worked in Corporate Finance, Personal Insurance and Group Insurance. That left Investments and Pensions but I left the company by then.

You also got paid study time (3 workdays per hour of exam). For a five hour exam, that's 15 days (three workweeks). Write twice a year and that's 30 work days (six workweeks). Add three weeks of vacation and you’re away nine weeks a year. Plus you get juicy salary increases for passing.

I don’t know what the practices are in today’s leaner world since I’m in the nontraditional role of helping the public review, repair and renovate their insurance at Taxevity.

Your Brand

There's tremendous value in building a personal brand. That was very difficult in the past, even if you wanted to stand out. How could anyone find you? Now we have Google. How could they gauge your experience? Now we have LinkedIn. How could you show your thought leadership? Now we have blogs. How could anyone  hear or see you? Now we have podcasts and YouTube, respectively.

What’s your strategy? When will you start? When you’re looking for work, your classmates are your competitors …

The Opportunities

As a student, you’re usually too young to make the right decisions for a 30-50 year career. It’s easy to get fooled by common career myths. Look around. Despite best efforts at planning, many people hate their jobs and even change careers (though the oft-repeated estimate of  seven career switches seems unlikely).

The good news is that you don’t have to make the right decision today. You just need to make a good decision and then adapt. Keep developing portable skills to keep fresh and maintain your edge as new opportunities arise.

Links

PS Even if you’d rather not, keep building trust with networking.