Presence and the Art of Being an Actuary

“We first thought of presence as being fully… aware in the present moment… then we began to appreciate presence as deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. … Ultimately, we came to see all these aspects of presence as leading to a state of letting come… to manifest or realise an emerging future.” – Peter Senge*

Have you ever been in a situation where you just ‘lost it’? You became consumed by what seemed like overwhelming obstacles, shackled by your ‘automatic’ responses and it all ended in tears? Some people may respond, “hey, you’re describing my regular Monday morning!”

On the flip side, have you ever at the moment of dire peril, been able to access a very different state, found a way to navigate through the carnage, and identify the necessary pathway to move forward? People often describe their experience of this state as the external world seemingly slowing down, an inner clarity and certainty, and a capacity to get out of their own way to act upon the system.

This capacity to act wisely in the moment is referred to by Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer, amongst others, as presence. This month, we will explore presence as it applies to the role of the actuary.


Through much of life, we can get by on ‘automatic pilot’. Whether it be walking to the train station or conducting a routine piece of work, we often do not need to be fully present to each and every aspect of our day. This applies to circumstances where there is known, predictable stability.

However, when circumstances are changing rapidly or the challenges we face are becoming more complex, then presence is important in order to be able to address the problem as it presents itself, rather than an automatic response based on past circumstances.

In Otto Scharmer’s Theory U – The Social Technology of Presencing, he describes three kinds of complexity: dynamic, social and emerging.

Each of these is relevant to the work of actuaries.

Dynamic complexity occurs when there is a separation of cause and effect in either time or space. Examples where this occurs in an actuarial context include:

  • Current experience vs. experience from last investigation.
  • Pricing a product vs. experience of product.
  • Underwriting practice and claim experience.
  • The pricing and designing of a product and the selling of a product.

Social complexity is a product of diverse interest and world-views among stakeholders. Within organisations this plays out through different practices and beliefs about what is important of different functions. Stereotypes include distribution focus on sales, finance on profit, actuarial on value, underwriting on claims, customer service on customer satisfaction. Each group may use different linguistics and acronyms and justify their world-view through their unique experiences.

Emerging complexity is characterised by disruptive change. It has three core characteristics – the solution of the problem is unknown, the problem statement is still unfolding and the identity of the key stakeholder is still not clear. Examples in an actuarial context where we are seeing emerging complexity include:

  • Impact of technology on longevity.
  • Societal changes leading to increasing rates of depression and obesity.
  • Emerging social trends that will identify potential lifestyle changes that will influence customer behaviour and claims experience.
  • Impact of technology and data availability on data analytics and implications for actuarial traditional models and tools.


There are a number of steps towards bringing a state of presence to our circumstances.
In Theory U, Otto Scharmer describes the process as having three steps: letting go of judgement, letting go of cynicism and letting go of fear. So how do you do this?

  1. Be aware of the trigger events that pull you down the funnel of judgement.
  2. Create a space between the trigger event and your response.
  3. Observe the automatic response and investigate where is its source, when was it born. Is it still relevant today?
  4. Take a global perspective to seek other possible ways of viewing the event. What would the observation be of different parties – the chief marketing officer, the chief underwriter, the IT guy, the CEO, someone from a company with a different paradigm, a historically important figure such as Newton.
  5. If Einstein is right and problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness from which they were created, then how might you reframe the problem statement so that new options emerge?
  6. Explore what you fear the most if you were to respond very differently to your normal response. Fear of losing credibility is often at the heart of what locks people into repeating or being a prisoner to the past.
  7. Practise all of the above! Regularly put yourself in situations where you are in over your head (safe-fail situations where the worst that can happen is you learn; not life or death situations).

If problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness from which they were created, then how might you reframe the problem statement so that new options emerge?


Applying presence in the daily work of an actuary looks on the face of it a bloody good idea! While we are all likely to have levels of presence on a semi-regular basis, are there opportunities we are missing? At a high level of presence, some of the following capabilities would be emerging:

  • Access to new fields that were previously invisible. It may be how external market expectations influence internal targets. It may be how the politics of the organisation influences the accepting or otherwise of actuarial advice, it could be the culture of the organisation and influence re carrying out operational practices in line with original pricing assumptions.
  • Not being inside the construct of our models and assumptions, but to be able to see them as if it were our first day on the job.
  • Suspending judgement or assumptions. Treating each section of data as brand new and exploring the curious questions when two pieces of data don’t quite reconcile. Treating each person we deal with as having a worthwhile perspective and someone who we can learn from.
  • Becoming aware of the constantly changing/shifting nature of the markets we are in and what that implies re our approaches and possibilities.

* Peter Senge’s opening quote describes the process of presencing as a way of recognising the emerging future. i can think of nothing more important for the actuarial profession right now.

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