Q & A With Professor Thomas Eppel

Courtesy of TEDxUCI

Last Tuesday, I caught up with Professor Thomas Eppel, a lecturer at the Paul Merage School of Business.  Dr. Eppel has been with UC Irvine since 1996 starting as an adjunct professor, in 2000 he became an Assistant Dean, and in 2005 he transitioned to lecturer. During our 30 minute interview, Professor Eppel shared his experience on moving from Germany to the United States, talked about his favorite spots here at UCI and offered his wisdom on life.

Jamie Kim: First of all, professor, you are from Germany! How did you decide to study in the United States?

Thomas Eppel: “Sometimes you make decisions consciously and sometimes things just happen. So, while I was in grad school in Germany, I had already specialized in decision making. One semester, I took an advanced seminar where every student had to present a paper. Back then I was almost pathologically afraid of speaking in front of other people. That was an issue that stayed with me for a long time. So, I was very nervous on the day I had to present. My professor walked in with this guy and all of our jaws dropped when she introduced him because he was this famous researcher in decision making, who was doing some consulting in Germany at the time.

“He just talked about what he was doing. He also grew up in Germany but got his PhD in the United States and was and still is a professor at USC. I was absolutely fascinated.”

JK: In terms of decision making expertise?

TE: “Also as a person. What a cool guy! Does interesting work and travels the world doing consulting. And I knew, maybe subconsciously, that I better do a good job because this guy could open doors for me. Sure enough, when I was done, he said, ‘Thomas that was pretty good. Do you want to have a beer?’ We had a beer and talked about all kinds of things. He took an interest in the work I was doing in Germany and eventually invited me to come to the United States.  First for half a year and during that time, I decided to stay here and get my PhD at USC, where he was my mentor, later my best man and business partner.  We are in contact to this day.”

JK: So would your advice for UCI students be that mentorship is important?

TE: “Absolutely, in my case it was an academic advisor. Having a mentor changes you. If you are fortunate, you find somebody that inspires you. I just ordered an iPod Mini yesterday and had it engraved with the famous phrase “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” That is what I want to instill in students. Never be done. Always think there is more to explore. Have passion. Find your voice, your calling, whatever you may want to call it. That is, in my opinion, what life is all about. The other day I brought my two sons to campus and told them how proud and fortunate I feel to be part of UCI. How much I love what I’m doing and get paid for. I never say I go to work. I never go to work. Period.”

JK: Any funny stories about learning English?

TE:  “Thankfully I had to read a lot in English before I came to the States. I had six years of English in high school and had to read a lot in English in college and grad school in Germany. So the passive vocabulary was already there. When I came here I watched a lot of TV.  One show that I watched a lot was Family Feud. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: learn English plus find out what Americans think about what other Americans think when asked weird questions.”

JK: When was this?

TE: “1984. That was when I came to the States. It is an overused term, but I was in culture shock. In many dimensions, I really didn’t like Los Angeles. It was too big, the weather was always the same, there was no structure there. I kind of felt lost for a long time.”

JK: You wanted to return to Germany?

TE: “To this day, I miss certain things about living in Europe. Fortunately, I can go back and visit friends and family and experience the European culture quite often.”

JK: If you could do something different in your life, what would it be?

TE: “That is a difficult question … I probably should have taken some time off between the undergraduate and the graduate degree and do something different for a while. I hung out at universities pretty much all my life. I wish I would have done something different for some time.”

JK: Travel?

TE: “Yeah, travel. Some of my friends back in Germany bought Eurail passes, stayed in youth hostels, or slept on the train while traveling all over Europe. You mature as a person if you do something different for a while.  Seeing the world opens your eyes. The world is not just Orange County.  Actually, Orange County is a rather strange part of the world.”

JK: If you weren’t teacher, what would you be doing?

TE: “Both my parents come from the country side. They never finished high school and my dad was trained as a black smith.  I was always fascinated by his hands. He died a long time ago, but I learned a lot from him and always enjoyed doing something with my hands.  There was a time when I contemplated quitting school and becoming a carpenter. Doing something with your hands where you immediately see the results is very different from living in your head most of the time.”

JK: What is your favorite spot at UCI?

TE: “Probably the student bookstore. I go there once or twice a week. I love walking across the campus and feel the energy of the young people. I also love Aldrich Park, just to sit and lean on a the tree.”

JK: What is your favorite movie?

TE: “Oh, my favorite movie is Dead Poets Society. I don’t know how often I watched this movie in my life. It’s about education. It’s about passion. It’s about being different.  This movie is very inspiring to me of course.”

JK: What is your favorite book?

TE: “Nathan the Wise by Lessing, it is a classic play that I had to read for the first time in high school.  I have read it many times since. The play is set in Jerusalem during the crusades and teaches a lot about tolerance and that theme, to not judge other people, has stayed with me.”

JK: What is your Favorite Food?

TE: “Spaghetti.”

JK: Your least favorite word?

TE: “Least favorite word … maybe least favorite phrase. It’s “work hard and play hard.” For whatever reason, I never liked that phrase. It is very often used by people that I don’t like much and sets up a separation that over here is work and over there is fun. Work can be fun.”

JK: Favorite word?

TE: “My favorite word is ‘surrender.’ It has a very active connotation for me. There are so many things that you can’t control. Surrendering to this fact may give you the strength and power to concentrate on the things that you can control.

JK: What are your hobbies?

TE: “Reading, hanging out with my wife and children, making music. I have a music studio and disco in my garage.”