This question has been central in my mind lately because I’ve finally found a job that I enjoy. (If you’re wondering why that’s a big deal, read this post about how bad my time has been since getting out of the Army.)
Having made a pact to myself and my family to grow up and make better choices, I now work full-time at a liberal arts college in Minnesota. Every day I am excited to go to work and feel grateful to have the opportunity to work in Higher Education. In fact, I’ve just passed the one-month mark at my job and it’s been the best month of employment in my life.
Outside of working (and not working), I’ve been studying and researching mathematics, statistics, and, in particular, actuarial science for close to four years.
So, you might be thinking, “OK, so you love your job in Higher Ed. and you like to do math; it sounds like you’ve got a pretty sweet math gig… maybe you should just keep mathin’ it up and keep on keepin’ on.”
So… what’s the problem? Well, that’s only partly correct.
See, this job that I love... it’s at a college; but, it’s not exactly . . . mathy.
That is, I’m definitely not a mathematician or professor or even a researcher. I work in a generic-titled job for a small liberal arts college in rural Minnesota as a “Building Services Coordinator.” If the name sounds fancy at all, let me bullet my main duties:
Set-up/Tear Down Event
Move tables and chairs (mostly 8-person round tables and padded metal chairs)
Coordinate setup design with students, faculty, and staff
Ensure audio/visual needs are met by setting up a/v equipment
Make Student IDs
When I’m not doing setups or other tasks (see below), if a student loses their ID or needs a replacement, I take their picture and print them a new student ID
Conduct Equipment Inventory and Preventative Maintenance
We have a lot of stuff (plasma TVs, projectors, audio equipment, vehicles, furniture… so, I conduct inventories and Preventative Maintenance on that stuff
Even in the coldest and snowiest of Minnesota days I’m in charge of ensuring the US, MN, and college flags all fly high and look good. (You better believe I helped facilitate the order of new--correctly sized--flags as soon as I started my job).
Maintain Audio/Visual Equipment
Mostly preventative maintenance
Replace batteries in wireless mics
Other than the above tasks, I’m also the go to guy in the building that I work at (the main building on campus--I’m not quite ready to call it “my” building) for general “fix it” tasks. Additionally, I may be called on for random projects like sorting through two semesters of Lost and Found to match gloves, hats, and scarves.
To be fair, there are a lot of areas that I am given development leeway. So, for example, approaching my job from more of an “Operations Management” angle than just a table and chair mover is not just possible, but encouraged.
Alas the point remains . . .
TL; DR: I’m not doing a technical job.
Should I Keep Studying?
What are my technical skills?
First: Math: I’d say I’m more in tune with modern mathematics than most Americans my age (30); though, I do not [yet] have a PhD (or even a Masters) in math, which is unusual for someone as nerdy as me at my age.
In fact, getting a PhD will be quite a challenge for me as I don’t consider myself anywhere near the level of “great at math.” Mostly, I just like to think abstractly and work hard.
One can know more than most people know about a certain discipline; however, what really matters is whether or not you know more (or as much) as most of the people who study within that discipline. This isn’t so subtle a point and, unfortunately, I do not fall into that latter category (even among my peers), which is why I’m still “studying.”
Still, you can stick me in an applied math graduate seminar and I can do about as well following along as most people in the crowd (I know this from experience going to these things--yes, I’m that kinda nerd).
Second: Computers: Though I’m not at the top of the game in math, I am at the top of my game in math (so far), which means I have a lot of skills required for understanding basic programming, algorithm design, and the use of Computer Algebra Systems. Since Jan. 2014 I’ve been on a quest to better my programming skills--it’s a fun quest--and, so, if you’re reading this in Jan. 2015, there’s a good chance I’m an advanced user of Python, an intermediate user of Java, and a novice at understanding algorithm analysis.
Third: Statistics: OK, some people might lump this in with mathematics. But, I’m giving it a different paragraph because the technical know-how for stats is a bit different from math. For example, sure I know how to integrate certain distribution functions; but, conceptually, the process of Exploratory Data Analysis and Bayesian thinking that takes place within statistics is sort of my bread and butter. In fact, data analysis (including, specifically, munging and formatting data for analysis) is the only official “technical” work experience that I have (I worked in market research for almost a year doing data munging).
Fourth (and perhaps most important): Communication: Unlike a lot of math nerds out there, much of my work experience has involved written and oral communication. In the Army I was in Human Intelligence, which required learning a new language, interrogation, and report writing (among other things). Before and after the Army I spent a lot of time in college where I was required to write papers and excelled in courses such as Writing Across the Curriculum, Technical Writing, and Non-Fiction Research. Finally, for close to a year I worked as a freelance writer--indeed my whole livelihood consisted of typing words to communicate information (sometimes highly technical information).
So, given all of this . . . given my background and interests and money spent, it has been a personal certainty that I’d eventually transition into a technical job requiring the use of mathematics, brain power, and a lot of coffee.
But now I’m not so sure . . .
More than just feeding my overactive brain, my goals have been largely pecuniary. As I noted above, I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars acquiring education. Add on the opportunity cost of sitting in classrooms, reading books, and solving insurance-math word problems, and I’ve probably spent a half million dollars trying to better myself academically.
All for what? Like I said above--for the dolla dolla bills y’all, of course. But, really, my thoughts have been that if I sacrifice all this time, energy, and money then I will be rewarded with a higher paying job, more financial security, and the means to pay back all my debt without having to live paycheck to paycheck. Also, like it or not, I’ve felt a tremendous amount of familial pressure to chase the all mighty dollar (pressure manifested from various opposing forces: the wealthy half of the family versus the.. er… not so wealthy half of the family; the educated white collar versus the down-to-earth blue collar; the materialistic wife versus the Buddhist girlfriend; the healthy fitness gurus versus the diabetic epicureans; and on and on)
So, it’s been partly the pursuit of something challenging and meaningful and partly the pursuit of a responsible and secure lifestyle.
Now, though, I’m just so content with where I am. I’ve got the coolest girlfriend and we share a quaint little apartment right downtown with our most-adorbs 11-month old. We both love our jobs, which are close to where we live (walking distance) and close to family. And, well, for the first time in a long time, things seem to be going well… why should I keep looking towards the next thing? Shouldn’t I just be happy where I am?
Here are my thoughts on the matter:
A Personal Inventory
I love my job
I have a tremendous amount of debt
I’m not content with just watching the years go by
Money doesn’t buy happiness
What about rainy days?
Everything seems perfect right now
Math is fun
What can I do? It seems I have two options:
Should I Keep studying to better myself?
Should I just be happy where I am?
One advantage of being of the “millennial” generation is that I really believe there is a third option:
How about both?
Given that I love my job and I am content in my situation, there is no reason to change it… right now.
That said, because I have a tremendous amount of debt, I have to deal with the fact that I won’t be able to own things or buy whatever my heart desires until I start paying back that debt.
Even though I am not content watching the years go by, there’s nothing that says I have to. I can research and read all the mathematics and statistics and data science that I want (I live in a town with three awesome college libraries).
So, I’m not going to focus on getting a better job anymore. Why? Having that as a near-term or even five-year goal is completely based in a desire for greater material wealth. There is no guarantee that the technical job I’ve worked my life to get is going to make me happier than I am now. In fact, I’d say it’s rather unlikely.
But then there’s the issue of rainy days . . .
Instead of worrying about getting a better job (which often means thinking along the lines of “what can I do to make myself more competitive relative to others in the job-market), I am just going to continue studying mathematics and statistics at my leisure. I am going to take the convenience and benefit of being at a college and working a job that doesn’t require too much brain power to keep moving forward with my technical learning. In fact, as an employee I have the benefit of taking two classes a year for free. So, I’m going to take advantage of that benefit and learn for learning’s sake--not for the sake of being competitive.
But, I WILL begin building my portfolio.
My goals are going to shift. Instead of saying, “I have to pass X exam by this date” or “I’ve gotta take these classes during this semester if I want to be competitive,” I’m just going to learn the material as I would if I were doing it for fun, which in many ways I am already.
The hope with this approach is that it is going to lessen the stress in my life just a little bit more. I think I’ve been going about my “technical” studies all wrong in that I’ve been trying to do what people say the job-market wants. But, I’ve already got a job I want… the best thing I can do is learn for learning’s sake so that my skills aren’t manufactured but are real--and reflect my values as a person.
Perhaps if I stop worrying about what I can do to be more competitive and start thinking about what I can do to be more learned, I will end up never having to worry about rainy days.
All of the work that I do, however, will be documented. I’m going to begin putting all of my programming stuff on GitHub. And I need to figure out a better way (better than blogging) to document my learning so that everything I read, write, and learn becomes part of my “portfolio.”
In conclusion, I think what I’ve realized is that it doesn’t make sense to look at life in such a zero-sum way--i.e., just because I want to study doesn’t mean I have to leave the job I love; and just because I love my job now doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t improve my skills for rainy days. If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, perhaps it’s because you’re unhappy--in that case, by all means, try to make the best choice that will leave you feeling better and living a more happy life. But, if you’re like me and you’re happy where you’re at, maybe you don’t need to worry so much about the future. Maybe the answer is to just live in the moment, enjoy what life has given you, and be the best “you” you can be.
The following is a message I sent out to family and friends based on my thoughts after writing this article:
(4/2/2014): As of today, I'm officially stepping away from studying for the actuarial exams.
While I still want to complete the preliminary exams as a life goal (because I'm a nerd who likes to take tests), I've found over the past few years that I'm less and less interested in financial math (perhaps the prospect of knowing *in detail* where I went wrong with all my college loans is too much to bear!) ...
Since I've lost a great deal of interest in the minutiae of financial math, there's really no sense in continuing to put forth the effort to work in the insurance industry as an actuary (given that financial math is the field's bread and butter).
That said, I am not walking away from mathematics. In fact, the impetus for officially stepping away from actuarial math comes largely from having discovered the areas of math I find most interesting; so, I'm looking to concentrate on those areas with all of my effort.
While in some ways I feel like I'm "quitting" or "giving up"--the feeling that so often pervades when we stop short of our goals--I know deep down that I'm entering a new phase of learning and career development (a phase that imbues me with a feeling of achievement). Without having gone through the past few years of studying probability, statistics, interest theory, and financial economics, I don't think I would ever have discovered the areas of math that most excite my curiosity.
So, in short, goodbye actuarial exams. . . I learned a lot because of you and I know that wherever math takes me, I will always have your fun little word problems to thank!
Trying so hard to live this way:
"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." - Buddha