08 March 2015

Life Lessons from "Survivor" Winner John Cochran

A few weeks ago, whilst slowly waking up, I was daydreaming about the fantastic season of “Survivor” when the underdog, John Cochran, came back from a defeat in his first season and claimed victory. For those of you unfamiliar with the reality T.V game show “Survivor”, it is a brutal physical, mental and emotional test of endurance and a fascinating, highly entertaining study of human politics and psychology. If you love television you will love “Survivor”. As a life-coach I personally guarantee that you will become more enlightened if you watch it.

Later that same day I went to watch a friend and client play in his band and to my delight saw that Cochran (as he is known on the show) was in the audience. I had just been daydreaming about him (it sounds creepy) and there he was, a rockstar in his own right.

Embarrassingly my heart raced. My friend and client knew and worked with Cochran and kindly  introduced us. I stammered something and asked if I could email him with a few questions. Cochran was gracious and generously got back to me. Here are some life lessons I garnered from this inspirational “Survivor”. (My questions are in Italics.)

R.H: I was really inspired by your story. I love the made for T.V narrative that you were first a fan of Survivor, then you went on Survivor but didn’t make it to the end and then returned and won it all. To me it is a wonderful example of a dream being realized. You mentioned that it was surreal. Would it be too far of a reach to say that it felt like you fulfilled a part of your destiny when you won?

J.C: Thank you so much!  That means a ton.  My “Survivor” experience was absolutely a dream come true, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it felt like I was fulfilling a destiny.  Part of what was so exciting about participating on (and eventually winning) “Survivor” was that it felt like such a complete departure from what I had assumed my “destiny” would be.  At the time I was playing “Survivor,” I was a law student who wasn’t especially enthusiastic about pursuing a legal career, but had nonetheless resigned myself to that being my “destiny.”  By separating me physically, mentally, and emotionally from law school, however, “Survivor” really did open to my eyes to what my “new” destiny could be.  It encouraged and inspired me to chase after experiences that I found more gratifying, rather than just following along the path of least resistance.

How had you changed from your first season of Survivor in contrast to your winning season? Did you do anything different to prepare?

The two seasons of “Survivor” I played on were only filmed about a year apart, so there wasn’t too much time for me to be able to undergo very much of a physical transformation.  I did experience something of a mental/psychological shift between my two seasons, though.  I think playing the first time — which was, for me, a game marked by intense anxiety and paranoia and compulsive worrying — allowed me to get a lot of my negative, nervous reactions to the game out of my system.  Once the novelty/insanity of appearing on “Survivor” wears off, it’s easier to be able to approach the game in a much more level-headed way, and I think it’s that relative calm that allowed me to play better the second time around.

You mentioned that you were afraid to talk to people. Did being on Survivor and being forced to interact with your tribe help you overcome this fear?

Yeah, absolutely.  I’ve joked about it, but it’s true — having to live with a variety of very eccentric/domineering/volatile personalities in an extreme environment that forces constant socializing basically forced me to abandon a lot of my social fears and anxieties.  Not only that, but having that experience televised — and therefore having it dissected, criticized, and mocked by thousands of people on the Internet — made me develop thicker skin, so that everyday social interactions didn’t seem quite as daunting.

What advice would you give to a person who suffers from similar social anxiety?

I don’t have any especially novel insight or advice, apart to say “exposure” therapy is basically what worked for me.  Just forcing yourself — whether it’s diving in headfirst, or in a series of baby steps — into scenarios that trigger social anxiety, and realizing that you actually can cope with it, and eventually adapt to it in a way that doesn’t cause you discomfort.  Another little related revelation I had is that, a lot of my anxiety is caused by worrying that people I’m with are assuming the worst about me, and hyper-analyzing what they must be thinking about me… The realization that, in truth, most people don’t really care enough to expend the energy doing that sort of critical assessing is liberating — everyone’s really too worried about themselves, regardless of whether they articulate it or not, to be that focused on your little quirks and eccentricities.

Did you feel more confident second time around?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt “confident,” but I definitely felt calmer, which I guess is in itself a form of confidence.  Being calmer made people want to spend time with me, which allowed me to play a more confident game.  The first time around, I was broadcasting such an anxious, nervous energy, that people were far less eager to confide in me.

I found it interesting that you said you had to play your own game, not go into the contest thinking, “I wanna be the next Boston Rob!”  A lot of life coaches talk about finding your “authentic self”. When you went back to play Survivor again, how did you ensure that you played the game that most suited your strengths?

I guess I just did a lot of self-assessing and realized that the only way to play well and win is to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses.  Doing that helped me come to the realization that a lot of my weaknesses could even be leveraged as strengths.  My general insecurity and self-effacement, for example, which ordinarily would be taken as a very clear weakness, actually proved itself valuable in the context of “Survivor” because it helped establish me as a relatively unthreatening personality, and invited people to console me in a way that built strategic bonds that helped me through the game.

One of my favorite qualities in human beings is a sense of humor. I remember you being self-effacing after you were burnt to a crisp, you joked that even the soles of your feet where inflamed. How did having a sense of humor help you in Survivor?

As fun as it looks on TV, “Survivor” is very, very difficult and boring in person.  On the island, we’re all hungry, thirsty, tired, irritable, and unable to rely on creature comforts for distraction.  In that sort of environment, having a sense of humor — whether it’s self-effacing or even directed at other contestants — provided much-needed relief from the tedium of day-to-day life out there, and helped reduce tension.  Making a joke out of a difficult situation is always preferable to having some big argument or silently sulking.

How has a sense of humor it helped you in dealing with the trials and tribulations of life?

As any nerdy/slightly awkward person will tell you, a sense of humor is the ideal self-defense mechanism.  It’s one I’ve used all my life, guided by the principle that someone can’t make fun of me for something I’ve already made fun of myself for.  Fortunately, what started out as a self-defense mechanism has, over time, developed into something more — namely, a passion for comedy writing.

Do you think that you came into the first season of Survivor with a lack of self-belief? Did you think you could win it? Do you think self-belief had an effect on your performance?

I think my problem the first time around is that I got so overwhelmed by the novelty and excitement and paranoia of the circumstances, that I lost sight of what my strengths/weaknesses actually were.  So instead of playing the game I’d loved for so long, I just spent my time panicking about how I was being perceived.  I was so paranoid about whether I would last another day that I didn’t even have the time to worry about whether I thought I could win.

How did your academic appreciation of the game compare with reality?

I spent so much time studying “Survivor” and trying to reduce it to rules and theorems and concrete strategies, but the reality is that it’s entirely a social game that is way more fluid and unpredictable than any academic intellectualizing of the game can account for.  Adaptability is one of the most important assets to have in the game, and adhering to strict rules about what you should/shouldn’t do in “Survivor” — regardless of the “academic” support for those rules — is an easy way to lose the game.  

What did you learn from your mistakes?

It’s corny to say it, but I guess I learned that I should give myself more credit for my own strengths (and realize that even my weaknesses can be valuable, too) instead of allowing myself to be overtaken by panic whenever a situation makes me uncomfortable.

The thing I find fascinating about Survivor is the ability that people have to psychologically manipulate each other. It is thrilling how well people can lie, backstab and cheat, now you are working in the entertainment industry, do you think those skills will come in handy?

“Survivor” does weirdly reward a set of somewhat sociopathic skills (like being dishonest and compartmentalizing emotions), but they’re not ones that have too much relevance for what I do in the entertainment industry.  “Survivor” is a fundamentally individual game — there can only be one winner — but being a part of a writing team is, thankfully, much more collaborative, and rewards openness and and cooperation, rather than Machiavellian scheming.

You remarked that taking part in Survivor opened up to you the possibilities of breaking out of a set career path and mentioned offhand in an interview with The Harvard Law Record that you might become a writer. Has taking the risk of doing Survivor given you the courage to steer toward your true passions?

Definitely.  I went into “Survivor” a risk-averse law student who assumed he’d spend the rest of his life slaving away at a big corporate law firm, doing a job he didn’t really enjoy, and mainly looking forward to the weekend/paycheck.  Participating in “Survivor” inspired in me a sort of adventurous impulse, that made me feel more comfortable abandoning everything I know in order to pursue something I’m truly passionate about — writing.

You mention that the ability to make a temparamental shift and stay calmer helped you enjoy the challenges more and probably contributed to you winning some challenges. How do you keep calm and relaxed?

In “Survivor,” I mainly kept calm by listening to other people, and being engaged with their concerns and interests.  Not only was it strategically valuable, but it also helped distract me from all my own anxieties and worries, since I was investing myself in theirs.  Back at home, playing guitar has been a good way for me to stay relaxed.  Because my hands are so occupied with finding the right strings and my mind is so occupied with remembering what chord comes next, I can’t focus on anything else that might trigger anxiety.

Is self-awareness a gift and a curse for you? I find self-awareness great in that it helps us keep perspective on ourselves and our ego’s but do you sometimes find yourself trapped in your head over-thinking your identity and decisions? If so, how do you turn off your brain when you feel you are being too neurotic?

Yeah, one of the dangers of being too self-aware is that you end up experiencing analysis paralysis, which is something I’ve definitely struggled with.  There’s no easy way to turn off my brain in these instances, apart from recognizing my maladaptive thought patterns, so that when I feel myself starting to obsess too much over something, or hyper-analyzing something that isn’t even important, I can think “Hey, John — you’re doing it again.  Knock it off.”  So I guess just recognizing patterns and trying to nip it in the bud before I fall down the rabbit-hole of overthinking.

What advice would you give others who were thinking about taking a risk to pursue a dream?

It’s trite, but you’ve really got to go for it.  Playing “Survivor” and being a comedy writer, two things I’ve had the incredible good fortune to experience, were always dreams of mine.  But they were dreams that weren’t ever going to become realities unless I took some positive step towards realizing them.  For “Survivor,” that meant sitting down and recording an audition tape, despite how silly the entire experience made me feel.  For comedy writing, it required a lot of good luck and timing, but also required me to actually be vulnerable for a moment and very publicly state a dream of mine.  My experiences aren’t typical, but what is typical is that dreams are unlikely to come true unless you actually act on them.  It can be intimidating, but it’s well worth it.