Choices and Communication: Advice from an Economist

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Last month, Macmillan Learning welcomed to our New York office economist and author Betsey Stevenson to discuss choices, communication, and her time working as the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor from 2010 to 2011.

When I first saw the announcement for Betsey’s talk, “The Power of Communication,” I'll admit I was a little skeptical. What does an economist have to say about the power of communication? Yet as I listened, I found not only that she had a lot to say on choices and communication, but that her words of advice could apply to anyone trying to make solid decisions and get ahead in their respective fields, even if those fields had nothing to do with numbers and data.

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Betsey began her talk by highlighting the three key principles she has followed throughout her life and career: 1) have no regrets, 2) communicate, and 3) do your best. These may sound simple and easy enough to follow, but as Betsey could attest to, they're anything but, and will be challenged repeatedly throughout one's career.

In Betsey’s case, the first principle, have no regrets, was tested when she had to choose between her ongoing career in academia and accepting an offer from former President Obama to be an economic adviser for the Department of Labor.

Thinking like a true economist, she realized that the key to making a choice without regret is to know and understand the costs and weigh them against the benefits. Life is full of risks that we take every day without thinking about it (getting into a car, for example), but it's when the risks are unfamiliar that the choices become harder. As Betsey said, the key to making a choice is to "Make the best decision I can with the information I have at the time." By doing that and carefully weighing the risks, you can make a choice you're comfortable with. Then, regardless of what happens, if you start to feel regret you can remind yourself that you made the best choice you could at the time. Sure, it's not as easy as it sounds, but it's the best way to move forward confidently with your choice, and in Betsey's case, it worked out in her favor, with her enjoying her time as a chief economist and later finding a teaching position at the University of Michigan.

After jokingly acknowledging that economists aren’t always the best communicators, Betsey then shared an important tip for communicating: "don't think about you, think about your listener. What do they want, think, and need?" Even if you aren’t the best speaker, if you can think of your audience, emphasize with them, and get in their head, you can communicate effectively. For example, if you start to explain something to someone and they say, “I’ve got it,” stop explaining. They’re telling you that they already understand, and you can both move on in your discussion.

Her last bit of advice was to do your best. When making choices and communicating, it’s important to think about the information you have, weigh the costs and benefits, make the best choice you can, and then be adaptable to whatever changes you’ve chosen to make. “Your brain is out to get you,” she said, with psychological traps like procrastination, which you can beat with lists, tiny tasks, tiny rewards, and acknowledging progress being made. Other psychological traps to avoid include overconfidence, assumptions, and not taking the time to process information.

As an economist, author, and speaker, Betsey Stevenson gave us some excellent advice during her Macmillan visit, and hopefully this advice can be useful to you throughout your career, and with your students.

For more from Betsey, check out her talk, “Making Economics More Inclusive," or her panel on “Economic Empowerment."

About the Author
Melanie McFadyen is a Development Editor for the Communication & College Success team at Macmillan Learning. Originally from the Boston area, Melanie recently moved to New York and is currently spending most of her free time wandering around the city.