Mark Skoskiewicz on Daniel Kahneman and Visiting Rome

Noodle Expert Mark Skoskiewicz discusses what he'd want to learn from psychologist Daniel Kahneman, why he thinks he got rejected from some of the colleges he applied to, and why hard work and determination are more important than talent.

Noodle Expert Mark Skoskiewicz discusses what he'd want to learn from psychologist Daniel Kahneman, why he thinks he got rejected from some of the colleges he applied to, and why hard work and determination are more important than talent.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would want to be taught by Daniel Kahneman,a famous psychologist who does research on decision-making and judgement. In essence, he has proposed that we humans, although we think of ourselves as basically rational, make errors of judgement all the time based on innate biases and incorrect assumptions. For example, when faced with a somewhat difficult question, Kahneman’s research shows that people instinctively and consistently tend to replace the actual question with one that is far easier to answer. For example, a student might be asked, “Was the test assigned by the teacher fair and reasonable?” Instead of thinking about the question and answering rationally, the question they immediately answer is, “Do I like this teacher?”

What this suggests is that over time, a student might become convinced that everything about a class is ridiculous and unfair, when really this is all driven by an initial bias against the teacher based on a first impression or something comparable. This might seem intuitively obvious, but his research shows with statistical significance that we really do think this way all the time, often to our own detriment. Ultimately, this type of thinking leads to poor performance in the classroom, because you become convinced that the teacher is too big an issue to overcome.

Although I read his most famous book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, what I would want him to teach me during this year is simple: What mental strategies and concepts can I continue to learn and what tips and tricks can I apply so that the decisions I make about what to buy, what to eat, how to respond, etc., are really in my best long-term interest?

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I’ll actually give two answers to this.

First (and I don’t know where I first learned of this concept, as I think it’s a pretty common theme you might read in any book about business, nutrition, or exercise) I always try to remember that success comes slowly over time from making many small steps, choices, and decisions with a particular goal in mind. If you are unhappy, stressed, sad, or feeling something similar, things are often made worse by thinking about how nice it would be to be in a completely different place immediately. It’s typically impossible to accomplish large shifts in your situation in a short amount of time, and simply wishing things were different tends to be ultimately depressing. But, you can always do one small thing to move in the right direction. Those small steps accumulate over time to help you accomplish big goals.

Second, my uncle suggested to me once that I accept an unpaid internship at a prestigious company instead of a paid internship at a less prestigious one. At the time, this was a hard decision. It was difficult to imagine working hard all summer for literally no money. In hindsight, it should have been the easiest decision of my life. Money is only one form of compensation, and one which can be spent quickly. The experience, skills, and connections I gained from the unpaid internship have probably been worth a thousand times more than the money I passed up.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I haven’t traveled to too many places. This, by the way, is something I regret and hope to reverse and I get older.

That said, I’d recommend Rome or Greece (my honeymoon was in Rome). It’s fascinating to walk amongst the ruins of the civilizations that started it all for those of us in the West. Everyone learns about these civilizations in high school or college history classes, and traveling to the actual physical locations can make what you learn come to life.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

This question is painfully simple for me to answer. I was always a good student in high school, and also very involved in four significant extracurricular activities: hockey, golf, tennis, and the student newspaper. On top of that, my standardized test scores were always very strong. And, finally, I basically took the hardest classes possible in high school: lots of AP classes. However, I wasn’t truly committed to getting good grades. I thought that A's, B's, and even a C here or there would be fine. My objective was to get into Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin, or, as a back-up, the University of Illinois.

It was a shock when I was rejected from all three of these schools. What I learned was that there are lots of smart people in this world, and the difference between those who really succeed and those who perform about average or just a bit better really comes down to planning, commitment, resilience, and hard work. My B average was okay, but it was a lack of research and planning that resulted in my not realizing that B's just weren’t going to cut it at my target schools, regardless of my test scores and extracurricular activities. A B here or there would have been okay, but a B average was too low. Looking back, my B's could be explained by a lack of commitment, resilience, and hard work. I did enough to slide by with B's, but not enough to get over the hump and earn A's. I had the intelligence and the ability, I just didn’t have that extra drive to commit to getting top-notch grades.

The message was simple. It’s a competitive world. You need to set goals, plan, and work both hard and smart — giving any endeavor your best shot — to succeed. You might be able to achieve your goals occasionally with less than your best effort, but you’ll find that’s rare. There are too many other folks sitting next to you, or sitting in a school on the other side of the world, working their hardest to achieve the same goals you have in mind, and there are a limited number of opportunities in any field. You have a lot of competition.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I started a tutoring company not necessarily because I had a grand vision for how to run a tutoring company better than other people might, but because I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I knew a lot about business strategy and operations from my life as a business consultant, and I thought a lot of those skills were applicable to the tutoring world. I also knew that education is only increasing in importance over time, which suggested that the demand for tutoring would continue to be strong.

I have been surprised by the extent to which parents and students don’t realize how much control a student can have on her own individual academic outcomes. I hear so much about how difficult a teacher is, or how this student “isn’t a math person” or that student “just isn’t good at taking tests.” But by asking questions in class, going to office hours, studying deliberately and consistently, almost any student can achieve excellent performance in school and on tests. It all comes down to mindset, planning, and hard work. Natural talent or intelligence is much less important than many people seem to think. The students who appear to have these innate abilities can often be found studying far more than their “average” peers and fully engaging in the learning process in ways that others just don’t.

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