How can I channel the "Survivor" mentality in my own life?

Applying the mentality of outwitting and outplaying to our daily lives

Experimenting with when I send this post. If you don’t like the later time, let me know.

Thank you to everyone who shared how you find work/life harmony with me. Here’s what I heard from one reader (edited for readability):

Harmony is a good way to put it too. This is a new idea to me, but makes a lot of sense, in an age where the work/life distinctions are blurring. First thing that comes to mind for me is how I’ve incorporated exercise into my daily routine. I used to run in the morning, just to get it over and be done with it. Now I save it for later in the day, and I feel it’s a part of my working day (Harmony). It helps me break up the day, get some fresh air and let different ideas develop/ knowing I’ll do it later in the day gives me something to look forward to.

This is awesome. I’m glad that this reader has been able to develop a division of his/her time in the form of a harmony rather than a balance.

Now on to today’s grid.

This past Wednesday, CBS’s Survivor wrapped up its 40th (not a typo) season of the perennial reality series. I have watched nearly every episode of the 596—I admittedly missed a few seasons from 2011-2015 while I was in college. Through this lofty time commitment, I can say one thing for certain: the show is the most consistent form of enjoyment and entertainment I get through television. IMDb agrees with me:

IMDb Rank of Every Episode of “Survivor” (S1-S39)

Chart taken from r/Survivor Reddit community. Work of user: u/amitycrellin.

As you can see, with Survivor you can be confident that you’re going to get a certain caliber of TV—even with it being reality TV. Sure, there are a few landmine episodes that are below a 6.0, but generally you’re getting a show that consistently puts out episodes between a 7.5 and 8.5. What’s impressed me most about Survivor is a few things:

  1. Despite being on-air for 20 years, the game itself continues to innovate—making each season fresh with its own theme, twists, and character personalities. Some seasons work better than others, but I appreciate the producers working to always keep the show feeling new.

  2. The level of strategy required to reach the end has increased exponentially. We’ve come a long way from someone voting out competitors in alphabetical order. Survivor has taught me a ton about frivolously trusting people and how others can perceive your actions.

  3. It’s good family fun. My mom, my fiancé, and my old roommate all watch. Survivor, plain and simple, brings me closer to the people I care about.

Together, what does this all mean? It means that Survivor is just a fun show, one that people keep tuning into (with regularity) 20 years later:

Survivor Viewership in Millions (2000-2020)

Data from “List of Survivor Episodes” Wikipedia Pages (S1-S20; S21-S40). I removed a handful of “recap” episodes with no data.

Wild. You really can’t find that type of devoted longevity. For reference, season 40 of Survivor averaged 7.6 million viewers per episode while the most recent season of The Bachelor averaged 6.4 million. For its 40th season, the producers did something special for fans and brought 20 previous winners together for what they called Winners at War. As a longtime super fan, it’s the season people had craved for a long time. It did not disappoint.

Now that I’ve defended Survivor, I’m excited to share my take on how we can apply the Survivor mentality of outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting to our personal lives.

For those of you who may not know, the winner of Survivor is decided by a selection of the castaways who’ve already been voted out. These “jurors” must evaluate the castaways who made it to the final day based on their ability to outwit, outplay and outlast. Here’s how Jeff Probst, the host of the show, describes each three components:

Outwit would be the social part of the game.  The emotional intelligence.  Your alliances. Your relationships.

Outplay would be how you responded by the conditions put on you by the game. How do you respond to the hand you’re dealt?

Outlast is the most critical. Did you put people on the jury who respected how you outwitted and outplayed?

On today’s grid, we have outwitting on the x-axis and outplaying on the y-axis. To me, outlasting is the byproduct of how well you do both of those things. Some seasons of Survivor see winners who outplay much more than they outlast. Other seasons see the reverse. But, in my opinion, most (and the best) winners are double threats: they can outwit their fellow castaways while simultaneously outplaying them, too.

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Understanding the Grid

Let’s discuss what it means to be strong or weak in either category and what it may suggest about how you go through life.

Balanced & Perceptive

You can both outwit and outplay at a high level. These types of people are, more often than not, crowned winners of Survivor. It’s because these types of people can use their ability to outplay to fuel their ability to outwit. Similarly, their ability to outwit improves their ability to outplay. Both skills power each other. What’s most powerful about these types of people is that they use their social skills primarily not to deceive but perceive—meaning that they know how to read the room and adapt their strategy accordingly. These people are leaders, but they are collaborative not dictatorial. All this taken together is a superpower. In life, it means that you’re more skeptical than you are trusting—preventing you from being gullible or putting your faith in someone you shouldn’t. Ultimately, these types of people are balanced, meaning they know when and where they should (and shouldn’t) be using their skills to get ahead.

Strategic and/or Manipulative

Your ability to outwit far exceeds your ability to outplay. These types of people often find themselves getting voted out after the halfway mark, but before the finale. Constant overthinking and/or incessant manipulation tends to blow up in their face. One of two things happen with these players: (1) either these people end up appearing too strategic that they end up being voted off as they are perceived to be a social threat or (2) they burn too many bridges by being so manipulative and untrustworthy that they end up being voted off. In life, this translates to the people you know who are social climber, heavy politickers at the office or drama causers in your friend group. While these types of people have high emotional intelligence, they often fail to see the big picture of whatever game they are playing. They are often concerned with the next best move and forget about the long-term nature of all games: life. The best thing you can do with these types of people is patiently wait. Their short-term success through strategy, cunning and manipulation will eventually be met with a figurative Jeff Probst snuffing of their torch.

Athletic and/or Adaptable

Your ability to outplay far exceeds your ability to outlast. These types of people are the physical threats. They’re usually strong, attractive, athletic or incredibly funny. They dominate the challenges—usually consisting of lifting something heavy, swimming through choppy waters, or balancing on something precarious. They tend to have strong personalities, which makes sense as they went through life being told they’re the fastest, strongest or most attractive. These people’s adaptability don’t stem from their own strategy, but from others gravitating towards them. In Survivor, a recent strategic move called using someone as a “meat shield”—or a keeping a castaway on the island that is a bigger threat than yourself to prevent any attention being placed on you—is frequently played towards these types of players. Thus, their adaptability comes from their ability to go with the flow when they recognize it’s in their best interest.

Overconfident and/or Naive

These people are pure personality—they don’t have a strong ability to outwit or outlast. These types of people are the ones who have amazing applications—they dazzle, impress and delight—but when it comes time to get down to work, they don’t know how to do the job. These people know how to sell themselves, but don’t have a strong understanding of their own skillset. I’m all for people pushing outside their comfort zone and trying something new, but I also respect people who know their limits and boundaries. On Survivor, these castaways are usually voted off within the first six episodes. They either have personalities that don’t adapt to the game around them, have assumed the leader role all throughout their life and don’t know how to tone it down when everyone is on an even playing field, or isolate themselves. Isolation typically comes in the form of finding one other person to connect with while simultaneously ignoring everyone else. This raises eyebrows in a game of skeptical collaboration and trust-building.

Grid Shortcomings

There are two key shortcomings in this grid:

  1. These are clearly oversimplifications. If you’ve ever watched Survivor, you’ll know that there are plenty of castaways (and real life people) who fit in a given quadrant, but don’t act how I described. My goal here was to create general archetypes that we all can learn from. I think, in general, Survivor is a game that rewards relationship-building, skepticism, physical fitness, and winning personalities. Those four tenants can certainly be applied to living a better life.

  2. Take what you will from a hyper-competitive game where the grand prize is $1 million. I like to think that the producers of a show do a great job getting castaways from all walks of life. Because of this, I believe that there is much to be learned by watching the people compete on the show. However, I do recognize that the way people play the game is not like how people live their normal lives. That makes sense, though. Do you think the way you behave right now is capable of winning $1 million?

Even if you don’t watch Survivor, I hope you enjoyed today’s post. If you are suddenly interested to give the reality show you watched back in early 2000s again, you can catch the majority of the seasons on Hulu or Amazon Prime Video (or all of them on CBS All Access). Some of my favorite seasons to get you started: 10, 16, 20, 25, 28, 33, 34, 37, 40.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,

If you enjoyed this issue of Gridology, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family or colleagues. If you have any feedback or have other ideas you’d like me to tackle, just reply back to this note!