Men are very often given an upper hand over women in the economics profession all over the world. However, there’s one name who is making waves with her work is Portia Antonia Alexis. She is a British economist and a mathematician who has worked in some of the best firms in the globe like McKinsey & Company and Newton Asset Management. She formerly worked at Bank of America as an investment banker and was also at Merrill Lynch. She is a reputed name who is helping to strengthen the world economy. Not just an economist, Portia is also a columnist who has done her research in Economic Mobility Income Equality. She grew up in a diplomatic industrialist family and she loves to share knowledge about economics to many charitable and media firms of the world. In a candid interview, Portia Antonia Alexis speaks it all right from her inspiration in life to the advice for all the young women who aspire to become economists.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Q: What advice would you give to young women wanting to get into economics?
A: Economics is a historically male-dominated discipline. Women and minorities have been extremely underrepresented in this field. Although things have changed over the years and the situation is more positive today, the ratio of males to females hasn’t budged much. There are more undergraduate men majoring in economics than women.
I take my responsibility to mentor the next generation of women in economics very seriously. Women need to know that economics is for everyone and that not being a man shouldn’t be considered an obstacle to their ambitions and aspirations. I let them know that they shouldn’t let others put them down. They must know who they are and what they are capable of, and if other people don’t understand or pass them over for silly reasons, it’s not their problem.
I want future women economists to be bold enough and to seek the best for themselves. Surround yourself with excellence. Don’t underestimate yourself, aim high and be around people and colleagues who intellectually challenge you.
Q: What rituals do you follow to have so much energy to do all your daily tasks and roles?
A: My morning routine starts with gratitude. When I wake up every morning around 5:30. Before I get out of bed, I think of five specific things for which I’m grateful. This practice gives my mind a positive focus and puts me in a great mood. I drink some lemon water as it spikes my energy levels physically and mentally. I follow it up with some work out before I have my breakfast. Boxing, in particular, helps me release all the stress I might be feeling after a busy week.
I make sure I have a leisure breakfast along with my family. This happens to be the most important meal in our household, so we tend to make as enjoyable as possible. My creative energy is highest in the morning, so that’s when I do my writing each day. By comparison, I block out my afternoons for interviews, phone calls and emails. Ultimately, I love what I do and that gives me joy, satisfaction and a jolt of excitement to head about my day and fix problems with my teammates.
Q: What is the best way to get motivated?
A: Our job as economists can be very consuming, even draining at times. Nevertheless, getting to contribute even in the smallest way possible to the progress of the field can be very rewarding. Research is a long journey to the end result. Waiting for reward in the ultimate goal can be tiresome. For that, I adopt a more multifaceted view of my career. I take ownership of my personal career growth and that somehow helps me stay motivated even during difficult moments when what I do at the bench isn’t working out.
I also tend to work smarter instead of harder. Being overwhelmed by trying to do too much is another common cause of losing motivation. Experience taught me not to go through that anymore.
At the end of the day, reminding myself why I did research in the first place and looking at the progress that it’s being made in the field, it is very refreshing to see my projects with a big picture perspective and keep moving forward.
Q: Who were your heroes growing up and what lesson did you learn from them?
A: My hero growing up was Martin Luther King. I was so inspired by how hard he worked to bring greater equality to America and ensure civil rights for all people, regardless of race. Dr Martin Luther King had a dream and worked passionately toward making it a reality. His life and legacy taught me to never quit and keep on going even when things get difficult. He asked us to invest in ourselves through education and to stand up for what we truly believe.
Dr King led a brief life filled with many great accomplishments. His nonviolent approach to protesting, his legions of followers, and his true belief in the ability of mankind to live in peace went a long way toward the advancement of civil rights during that tumultuous time in history. As a society, we’ve benefited from his ability to not stop trying. I believe if you embrace that universal moment with passion and commitment, as Dr King did, anything is possible. That belief, however, does not mean sitting back and waiting for something to happen. Things don’t happen because you want them to; action is required. Throughout the many lessons King taught us, there is one key thread -be true to the reality of who you are.
Q: What is your opinion on multitasking, since you have so many rules and occupations?
A: I don’t believe in multitasking. I think it’s a myth, a scientifically impossible phenomenon. Psychologists have even shown that it is impossible for the human mind to completely focus on more than one thought at a time. I am one who commits to one task all the way to its completion then moving on to the next task. I think that bouncing back and forth between things doesn’t make life easier because what you’re really doing is task switching, not multi-tasking.
Playing task ping-pong means your brain must re-orient itself each time you switch tasks because it needs to let go off the cognitive rules is applied to the first task and apply a whole new set of rules needed for the next thing you work on. It may take milliseconds and feel seamless, but it chews up your mental firepower. Since I have so many occupations, I try to prioritize as much as possible, and I have a great team of people who make sure the work is nicely done. Believe me, concentration is a major key to minute by minute success in any endeavour. It doesn’t matter what your business venture is. The hardest thing about being successful is not your business’s mechanism. It’s the staying focused part that makes the difference.
Q: What could you say to a young woman looking for advice and motivation for her future? What should she focus on?
A: I would say that persistence is a trait you need to survive. The difference between those who finish and those who don’t is more about persistence than intelligence. People who are willing to take the rejection, and do not give up, succeed. Most ideas fail you should from very early on work on a concrete project. Working on a project in a clearly defined research area is typically the best new questions, avenues, etc.
Talk to others about your ideas. You might be either over-optimistic about your ideas or too pessimistic. And remember that the topic must be interesting to others in the profession and not just you.
I doubt that the need for gender-specific professional advice is going to disappear anytime soon. But I am optimistic enough to believe that the greater representation of women and the growing number of young female role models will reduce the productivity nor the quality of your output.
Be persistent. Decide what is important to you and do not let anything force you to renounce your values.
Stick to your ethics and be the change the world is looking for.
Q: What habits do you think were important for your success?
A: I learnt two main habits that I credit for where I am today. One is the organization. You can’t procrastinate, an economist or any researcher for the matter must be working on something all the time, even if it’s a modest project. You also can’t let other activities take over. Because research is hard, one tends to spend more time on more immediately satisfying activities such as the internet, taking another course, reading too much…
And you must keep in mind that research takes time so you must organize your life throughout this journey of academic research. The second habit is to constantly ask the most questions. I learned to become insatiably curious, open-minded and humble about my intellect. With this mindset, my mind became capable of collecting and procession information from everyone, everywhere, at all times. On the contrary, I can tell when a certain is either too shy or too boastful if they never ask questions or think they know everything. Because this is a great way to never attain success.
Q: How do you keep focused on what really matters and what advice do you have for people needing that kind of focus?
A: Focus can only occur when we have said yes to one option and no to all other options. It is the key to productivity because saying no to every other option unlocks one’s ability to accomplish the one thing that is left. One of my favourite methods for focusing my attention on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t comes from the famous equation: work accomplished = (time spent) x (intensity). I get in the zone for at least 90 minutes and I build up to periods that last anywhere from two to four hours or more.
Finding ways to increase efficiencies, for example spending less time searching for documents or easing collaboration with my team has also helped me improve workflow. Scheduling and tracking time also have a huge benefit of giving time back. I have been able to produce an ample amount of work while working normal hours and having time for personal pursuits or family on evenings and weekends. My advice for people needing this kind of focus is battle for your attention and cut the shallow work. The average American watches 35 hours of television a week, and our viewing habits have taken a dramatic tilt from televisions to devices…
If you spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness, you automatically reduce your capacity to perform deep work. It takes great patience and practice to get to the point where you can integrate long stretches of deep work into your schedule but it’s going to be worth and you’re going to thank me for it.