April 28, 2012


parking meterIt's tempting to wait until the last minute.

Consider filing your taxes. Here the deadline is real. You face penalties if you're late. There's media attention. You know what you have to do, even if you'd rather not. Help is available whether you want to Do-It-Yourself or pay someone do it for you.

Silent Deadlines

Most deadlines aren't well known. You may not face an immediate penalty for missing them. The onus is on you to be proactive.

Think of farming. You can't plant crops five minutes before dinner. Even pizza delivery takes longer. Since you know you must eat, you know you need to prepare in advance.

Think of saving for retirement. The magic of compound interest takes time. Delaying is very expensive. Since no one is forcing you to save, it's easy to delay,  save less or both. The pain comes later. You might not be able to save if become disabled and are unable to work. Or if you don't take steps to remain employable.

Think of health. Our bodies are accommodating ... until they're not. We can't go back in time to exercise more, eat better or drink less.

Health insurance and life insurance purchases have silent deadlines. When you are likely to claim, coverage may not be affordable or available.

The Easy Solution

There isn't one. The important but non-urgent things are easy to delay when the unimportant but urgent beckon.

A Bucket List is a place to itemize what you want to do before you die and then start doing them. The list often contains exciting goals like travel.

Balk-it List

A Balk-it List is different. Here you jot down the things you don't want to do but need to do someday.

Here’s how. Set a timer for 15 minutes and start writing. Feel free to continue if the ideas are still poring out of you. Pen and a small paper notebook work well. You can add more items later simply and quickly. You may prefer your smartphone or tablet.

Next, organize your list by priority and timeframe. Electronic tools might help here (e.g., Remember The Milk or Toodledo). Finally, work on reducing your list. This is a situation where the Pick Four 12-week goals program may be just what you need.

Stop Balking

We don't know when our last minute will expire or our state at that time. We know where we are now. Are you where you want to be?


Podcast 166

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS You could add your Balk-it List to your Bucket List

April 21, 2012


Pick Four fisnishedI just finished the 12 week Pick Four goals program. Is it right for you? Let’s explore. To start, here is how this program from Zig Ziglar and Seth Godin works.


Overall, I'm relieved. The program works well but was tougher than I expected. I'm not used to working on the same goal each day for 12 weeks. For years, I've been planning by the month/quarter/year and scheduling by the week.

I made progress on all my goals.
  1. Ask for business (3 times a week): I have and the process helped me clarify the need for an Actuarial Insurance Review (AIR). There are now three variations: corporate (CAIR), family (FAIR) and personal (PAIR).
  2. Improve health (daily): I made reasonable progress, especially in eating better. I still need to exercise regularly and sleep earlier [my original goal was too narrow: “Exercise (3 times a week)”]
  3. Declutter (daily): my blue bin was fed well but this remains my biggest struggle. There’s a reason I didn’t include a photo of my desk …
  4. Ship video (once every two weeks): I did. I’ve overcome mental obstacles and now feel comfortable editing video. You’ll see the results here. I have yet to record myself talking directly to the camera but now feel I can.
Four goals may not seem like much, but they are.

The Peers

It's very difficult to find groups without slackers or members with ulterior motives. The other three members in Pick Four were exceptional. They were committed and supportive. We showed up on time. We felt guilty if when we fell behind in a goal.

Even after 12 weeks, I don't feel that I know much about the other members. I don't understand basics such as what they do, how they picked their path or what they want to achieve in their lives. Those details weren't necessary for Pick Four but would have added context.
To use an analogy, think of going to walk-in medical clinic. Your symptoms get treated but are you really get cured? That takes longer and requires deeper probing. Perhaps you need to modify your thinking or priorities. Maybe your goals are too modest. Outside perspectives help.

Success Elements

Even if you're good at setting goals, you'll get better results when you're in a support group.

We met weekly except for a couple of times. Once we had a conference call. That saved time but was less enjoyable.

The meetings were structured and lasted an hour. Each member reported on their progress. The rest of the group asked questions and made suggestions. That’s fine but there was no time for the magic that happens outside a formal meeting.

Areas To Improve

I don't like writing on paper. I would have preferred an app with web-based synchronization (e.g., via Dropbox). An app would allow nifty analytics like graphs and also nagging reminders.

Prior to starting the program, prospective members could meet for a couple of hours to get to know each other. That would help with bonding and could weed out incompatibilities.

Would you travel over an hour to attend an hour-long meeting? I did but would not like to do this indefinitely. A Skype video conference might be a workable solution but in-person is best.

After the meeting dates are set, life will intervene --- sometimes in tragic ways. What if you can’t attend? It’s tempting to reschedule (which is difficult with four busy calendars to address) or cancel (which is easy). The fairest solution is to continue the meetings with whoever can show up. 

The Schedule

We met in downtown Toronto at 6 PM. If you're driving, you get to battle "rush hour" traffic. You also get to pay both the daytime parking rate and the after-6 PM flat rate. The earlier you show up, the greater the penalty.

My monthly mentoring/mastermind groups start at 7 PM and run two hours. That feels more relaxing and allows time to eat before attending. A 7 PM start time wasn't practical for Pick Four because of busy schedules.

The meetings took place on different days and at different locations. This was inevitable because of our schedules. I would have preferred a fixed day of the week but that was impractical, even for me.

Since I plan my weeks Monday through Sunday, I readjusted Day 1 to start on Monday. That may seem minor but was important to me.


Pick Four may work very well for you, especially if you’re in the right group. To start, order the Pick Four workbooks. When they arrive, start looking for participants.

Overall, I prefer monthly peer mentoring with a variable end time. That structure allows deeper discussions. The monthly frequency allows time to meet goals despite the disruptions life hurls our way.


My group is meeting for a wrap-up dinner. We'll give each other a 360 degree evaluation. That will be very valuable since we can't see ourselves. What we do looks unremarkable and routine to us but might awe others. The outside perspectives would help us value ourselves and see areas for improvement.


April 14, 2012


CareerCast has released the list of the Best Jobs Of 2012. Actuary is #2 (up from #3 in 2011). Oh no. Studies like this create interest in becoming a actuary, whether as a student or by switching careers. Picking a job based on a ranking may not be the best choice.

The Winners And Losers

Here are the 10 best and 10 worst jobs.

# The Best The Worst
1 Software Engineer Lumberjack
2 Actuary Dairy Farmer
3 Human Resources Manager Enlisted Military Soldier
4 Dental Hygienist Oil Rig Worker
5 Financial Planner Newspaper Reporter (new)
6 Audiologist Waiter/Waitress
7 Occupational Therapist Meter Reader
8 Online Advertising Manager Dishwasher
9 Computer Systems Analyst Butcher
10 Mathematician Broadcaster (new)

You’ll find the full official list here.


In any job, workers range in skills, with most close to average. You're not a "big fish in a small pond". You're a normal-size, normal-looking fish. What sets you apart? If you're studying or changing careers, years may pass before you're ready to work. There's no guarantee that you'll get a job ... or like the job.

Value comes from demand and demand comes from scarcity. Rather than becoming one-of-the-many, you want to be one-of-the-few. How? Develop portable skills and apply them where they're rare.
For example, an actuary in an insurance company Head Office is a commodity. An actuary outside of Head Office is a rarity. Guess which is worth more?

Where would your skills be valued more highly?


What's best for you needn't be best from the perspective of your clients. Financial planners are ranked #5. They're happy but customers have little trust in financial services. Win/lose. Since anyone can label themselves a "financial planner", buyer beware.

Job Security

There is no job security any more. Picking what's "best" today provides little assurance that demand will remain when you're trained to do that job. There are blips.

Y2K created high demand for programmers and that meant good money for them. That didn't mean companies kept them any longer than needed.

Ideal For You

The ideal job is easy to define but hard to find. The ideal job is a hobby for you and valuable for clients. Imagine working at something you'd do for free and getting paid well while you enjoy. How can you have competition when your motivation is the joy of doing and the pleasure of honing your skills.


If you're always learning, you're better able to adapt to what's next. Stay alert to what people might want and where they may need help. Be aware of trends.

By 2020, over half the US workforce may be self-employed. That creates opportunities. What will these people need to do to get jobs? Can you help them? If you’ll be competing with them, can you get started now to get ahead of them? Maybe you show your expertise by starting to blog. Stick with it and you'll build a huge lead over the laggards. Your advantage will grow word by word, post by post. Perhaps you start investing in additional learning now.

Case Study

I started as a conventional actuary working in the Head Office roles. By 1993, I saw that actuaries were virtually interchangeable. They thought in similar ways. If you can predict what someone will say, they are easier to ignore and replace.

I started looking for what actuaries would not do at all or could not do well. I saw that technical people are good at knowing how. That makes them easier to replace. I decided to become the one who knew why. That's more valuable. Soon start asking "why not". That's the most valuable if you can explore the opportunities without undue reliance on others.


Actuaries are trained to measure and manage risk using the tools of statistics and probabilities. Those skills are valuable inside multibillion dollar insurance companies. Since risk is everywhere, those skills are even more valuable outside where they're rarely applied.

Few actuaries have this perspective: actuarial science is a true science with hypotheses and results. A lab coat is optional.

In science, you experiment. You build prototypes and analyze. You get comfortable with ambiguity. You learn to separate the trend lines from the random deviations. You develop an intuitive sense of what might work, even if you can't explain why.

These skills are portable. In 2005, I left Head Office to help advisors make more money. In 2009, I left them to help you make better decisions about insurance. That's a nontraditional path.

Your Path

What can you do to build on your unique skills in ways that most others are overlooking?

If you've got one of the "best jobs", congratulate yourself but don't become complacent. If you're thinking about switching to one of these "best jobs", best wishes.


Podcast 164

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS Where does your job rank? Do you agree with the positioning?

April 7, 2012


nice lawnBuying your first home is such a wrenching experience, especially if you're newly-married or starting a family.

Job 1

The biggest challenge is finding the right real estate agent. This is very difficult. Experienced agents tend to sell more expensive properties and deal with repeat buyers. That means you're stuck with beginners, less successful agents or agents who put volume ahead of service.


We first bought in 1991 during a hot Toronto real estate market. We had difficulty finding a real estate agent who would bother with us. Eventually, we met George (not his real name) at an open house. He committed to finding us a place if we were serious about buying. We were. He understood our needs (safe neighbourhood, spacious, near public transit, near schools, good resale value) and budget (not much but all we had). He concluded our best opportunities were condos near the west-most Kipling subway stop.

George understood our needs well. We bought the first place he showed us --- but not just then. We didn't realize it was right for us until we looked at several other places.


We were also fooled. George seemed successful but the summer was hot and George's air conditioner didn't work. That we could accept. This is where the trouble started. He took us to a mortgage broker who offered a convoluted blended rate from no-name lenders on terms he was unwilling to explain. Plus the broker wanted to charge us hundreds of dollars for processing. All we had to do was sign here, here, here. And here. Even if we didn’t understand what we were signing.

Since we were confused, we asked questions. Foolish us. Rather than explain, the mortgage broker started shouting at us --- yes, shouting --- for wasting his time. He told us to sign. We declined.
George took us for coffee and berated us. Weren't we serious? Mortgages aren't complicated but George didn't understand what the mortgage broker was doing either. As best I could tell, he was blending a fixed rate mortgage with a pricey second mortgage with rates that increased after six months.

George hadn't understood the mechanics and was also miffed when I explained my interpretation. He arranged cheaper conventional financing through an out-of-town Canada Trust branch. The rate was 13.5% for a six month open mortgage, which was a good rate at the time.

Tough Parts

Buying a house is a time of emotions. It's often difficult to afford what you want (or your parents own). You'll have lots of questions and face self-doubt.

You're dealing with two commissioned salespeople, yours and the seller's. The agents have their own goals. A fascinating section in Freakonomics (original edition) shows how their interests take precedence over getting a better deal for you. Agents encourage clients to buy/sell quickly, rather than wait for a better price. However, agents left their own properties on the market for longer and sold for higher prices.


You're not helpless. Use the Internet to do your own research. You're probably looking for a neighborhood where
  • where you feel safe
  • property values are growing
  • your house isn't the most expensive one
Ask other homeowners, ideally experienced ones.


Be willing to compromise. We picked smaller places in better neighborhoods with good schools. You may have other priorities.

Don't stretch too much. Unexpected expenses are likely. Our furnace broke down during the first cold spell when our son was just two weeks old. Luckily, our mortgage came with free home protection insurance that covered most of the replacement costs. That was a welcome surprise.

The Advisor

Selecting the right advisor is essential but difficult. We found their most important skill is negotiation and this is hard to assess.

What they drive is a measure of their success. They might have a nicer car than they warrant but be wary of someone who drives a cheaper car. That may be all they can afford.

You're making your biggest financial decision (besides marriage and raising children). Be sure that you and your spouse are in harmony.


Podcast 163

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS Home inspections don't catch everything.