The Good 10

By Christos Tsolkas

Now and then I get asked to talk a bit about my career and give advice to audiences. Modestly I refuse most of the times. Infrequently I open up. I think the people I talk to expect to hear something about my background or upbringing to explain whatever small or big (depending on who’s asking) success I’ve enjoyed. What I say usually surprises them.

When I was a kid in Greece we often played a game of cards called “Kseri” (I know, difficult to pronounce) in which getting the 10 of diamonds gives you double points. We called this card the “Good 10” and sometimes we used the term to describe someone who’s really good at something or really special. “She or he is the Good 10,” we’d say. Growing up, I was never the Good 10.

Ridiculously Average

I knew people who were. My brother, for instance, is a musician. He was the Good 10 at music. I played guitar very seriously for five years and then quit when I realized I had a total lack of talent. I loved basketball, and even played for my city team. But I wasn’t good enough and my “career” lasted only three years. I did martial arts for another three years – nothing special.

You’re probably thinking I was an exceptional student. You’d be wrong. I was incredibly average. I finished in the top 20 of my class of 80 students. When I got accepted into a rather good university, I was number 82 out of a class of 120. I graduated with a B plus (average), and for a post graduate degree I followed the path towards a school famous for a lot of things but not for the one I selected (Business). Boringly average again.

There was no reason why I couldn’t have been super successful in school, sports, and music. I grew up in a loving, supportive, middle class family in a big city with lots of opportunities. I had intelligence, coordination, and artistic interests. I just didn’t have the talent or the skill to be a Good 10 at anything I did.

A Fish Story

In my business career, it’s been a different story. I’ve succeeded at almost everything I’ve done. Even when I’ve had setbacks, I’ve turned those failures into wins. I’ve been identified in many cases as special by my superiors, given challenging assignments and quick promotions, and put into leadership positions with lots of responsibility often before my peers.

So why the difference? Part of it might have come from the “Big fish in a small pond” phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell talks about. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to grow in competitive environments that brought out my best without crushing me. In fact, I thought about this recently when I read an article in the New York Times about applying to Ivy League Colleges.

In the story, many bright and accomplished young applicants tried to get into the top schools. Some succeeded, and thought they’d gotten the Good 10 and doubled their points. Others failed, and thought their lives had gone bust. But within a few years, the people who didn’t get into the best schools came to realize that their life was still full of opportunities, and often they ended up in good places regardless. Maybe they’d even had more opportunity to grow because they were big fish in small ponds, and they were motivated because they thought they deserved a bigger pond in the first place.

Interestingly, the article also pointed out that of the CEOs who run the top ten companies in the Fortune 50, only one attended an Ivy League school. As the author said, “Life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.”

Predictors of Success

I gained some understanding of what personally motivates me from my executive coach. The light went on one day when we were walking along the Thames, enjoying a long conversation about many things, and he told me that, for a child, curiosity and a reluctance to take “no” for an answer are the best predictors of success. That rang true in my own life – more than any other factor such as talent in sports or academic ability.

I was incredibly curious as a child, and asked so many questions about so many things that I wore my parents and teachers out. I also had a lot of difficulty with the word “no.” I was stubborn about getting my way and I wanted to win every game I played, even among friends. Nor was losing a deterrent to playing again. The more I lost the more effort I put in next time. I rarely stopped. (In fact, we used that motto as a rallying cry on one of the teams I recently led: “We never stop!”) Since I wasn’t a Good 10, I came second or third in almost everything I tried to do. So, I spent hours analyzing where I’d gone wrong, and thinking of ways I could improve.

I also tried to learn from the Good 10’s in my life, even the friends I secretly believed were better than me. I found that being around people who were successful and whom I admired helped me learn even more. If I had to sum up the qualities I think have helped me do better in business than in guitar or martial arts, they would include: insatiable curiosity, unusual resilience, an oversized drive to win, and an eagerness to analyze, learn and improve.

I suspect these are qualities helpful to leaders in general. But I think I have another overarching drive that motivates me even more than all of those qualities I listed. I have a very strange and compelling desire to help others succeed. I always want my team to grow and learn and be the best – much more than I want that for myself. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I know that in cards, the player with a Good 10 in his or her hand has a better chance of winning the game.

March 2015 @ChTsolkas

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