Your Major is a Tool Set, NOT a Pre-Packaged Solution by (3 Stories)

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Majored in Economics.  A lot of classmates were frustrated the major did not address sales, marketing, and other aspects of a traditional business degree.  Not me.  Loved the “pure” theory with concepts of opportunity cost, comparative advantage, joint products, and imperfect markets.

Asking the right questions enables the client to reveal what they really need and to also guide staff to do the right work.  

Had the opportunity to apply these concepts as a lens to understand how the public University I attended promoted a public facing branding effort but internally allocated resources in an altogether different manner.  This only re-enforced my confidence in the value of pure economic theory to exploring, understanding and acting on public policy topics.

As I got close to making a decision to act on the first employment opportunity, wanted to verify there were not better options.  So I went to the Library and read the Sunday classifieds for the Los Angeles Times.  (This was long before the internet and the newspaper was the only source of employment advertisements.)  There were thousands of ads organized by job topic.  There were jobs for electricians and educators but absolutely nothing under economics.  That was fine as it made a necessity of my conviction that Economics was a tool set for whatever came in the future.

My career arc went from legislative advocacy to management information systems to software programming, to environmental program oversight, to Big Eight management consulting, to starting and managing custom software development and integration companies working with the public sector.

A common denominator across all these activities was learning that having answers was far less valuable than having the right questions.  Economics provided the theoretical foundation to ask the right questions.  Asking the right questions enables the client to reveal what they really need and to also guide staff to do the right work.

Alas, we were taught in the classroom that “pure” economics that any consumer activity that did not attempt to maximize return for a level of effort was “irrational”.  Behavioral economics has emerged in the past 20 years that blends psychology and economics to make sense of how people act in the real world.  Behavioral economics introduced “cognitive bias” to explain the rationality (and hence predictability) of decisions people make that do not align with traditional, “pure” economics.  Wikipedia lists over 80 types of cognitive bias.  I should have balanced my emphasis on Economics with a few courses in psychology and anthropology.

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  1. Suzy says:

    Hey Steve, glad you’re here! I like that you went to the library to read the classifieds in the LA Times. It’s getting harder and harder to remember how we functioned before the internet. It sounds like you have had a very interesting career arc using your degree in Econ, and I agree, asking the right questions is more important than having the answers. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Steve, I really agree with what you said, “learning that having answers was far less valuable than having the right questions.” Life experience teaches us this far more than any college major.

  3. Great story, Steve. As another devotee of behavioral economics I couldn’t agree more. You probably recall that after Thaler was awarded the Nobel he was asked what he would do with the prize, and he replied something to the effect, “spend it as irrationally as possible.”

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good observations about blending behavior with answers.

  5. John Zussman says:

    I love the image of you rummaging through the Classifieds and coming up empty when you got to “Economists!” Obviously your degree didn’t hinder you from finding a career path. I wonder if those skills you acquired actually helped you be successful at it, given that Economics was more theoretical (and less behavioral) in those days.

    I majored in Child Psychology but ended up in high tech. When people asked whether I found it any help, I used to joke that it taught me how to deal with engineers.

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