How to Survive ‘Survivor’

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Photo Source: Robert Voets/CBS; Illustration by Erica Whyte

It’s been almost 25 years since “Survivor” premiered on CBS, and it’s hard to imagine a world in which we don’t tune in to watch contestants try to scheme, strategize, and yes, sometimes—often—lie in order to win that $1 million prize. 

Getting cast on the venerable competition program (there are only 17 or so players every season) can be as difficult as some of the show’s challenges, but there are ways to get ahead in the game once you’re on the island.

“My mantra for ‘Survivor’ is ‘The difference between adversity and adventure is your attitude,’ ” says co–executive producer John Kirhoffer, who oversees every facet of the show’s games, reward, and immunity challenges. “And the attitude on location is always so freaking good.”   

Kirhoffer speaks from nearly a quarter-century of experience. He’s been working on “Survivor”—originally as a challenge producer—since its very first season in Borneo in 2000. “I had only a couple of people with me and we had a whole plan of challenges,” he recalls. “But we learned that the first casualty of any battle is the plan.”

These days, “Survivor,” which will air its 46th season (!) Feb. 28, is an operational machine so well-oiled that it practically hums amid the palm trees. Based in the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji since 2016, the show staffs about 300 men and women from around the world. The impressive number includes a bustling art department and a full-time dive team. There’s also a young and eager group of de facto interns known as “the Dream Team,” who rehearse all the challenges and have risen through theSurvivor” ranks to take on careers everywhere from HGTV to Marvel Studios. 

Whether you’re a castaway or a crew member, Kirhoffer has advice on how to have a winning attitude. Come on in!

Survivor

Accept a low-maintenance lifestyle.

Kirhoffer uses catering as an example for how even beautiful islands are still islands. In Borneo, the crew was often served runny eggs for breakfast, lukewarm rice for dinner, and fast food fish heads, he says. “At one point, [a producer] set up a helicopter to the mainland with $1,000 to pick up McDonald’s,” he says. “I embraced it because the fish heads were a local delicacy.” And while the three buffet-style meal options served daily at “base camp” are now first-rate delicious, he still acknowledges the obvious: “You can’t be an international traveler and expect the variety and flavors you get in America.” 

Learn to adapt to the elements.

A show like “Survivor” must go on, rain or shine. Make that lots of rain and shine. “The thing about the tropics is that it pours all the time, and then the sun comes out and it gets really hot,” Kirhoffer says. Nonetheless, don’t raid REI before production and then tote along every type of water-proof outerwear and pair of shoes for each day’s shoot. Due to all the physicality involved (especially for cameramen trailing contestants), “you need to travel light, so just bring things that can fit into a backpack,” he says. In fact, Kirhoffer adds that the locals usually just wear shorts and flip-flops. But always pack sunscreen! 

Don’t quit. 

“Look deep into your soul and remember who you are doing this for,” says Kirhoffer. “Remember that you are a part of something much bigger, so don’t make it about yourself. I believe [host] Jeff Probst coined the phrase, ‘Play like it’s your second time,’ meaning don’t hold back. Make the bold moves, or you will most likely go home regretting that you didn’t.” 

Take advice when you can get it. 

Kirhoffer does know what he’s talking about. “One season, a woman asked if she needed to wear her shoes to run an obstacle course with a portion over a taut circus net,” he recalls. “Jeff told her, ‘Kirhoffer would tell you to wear your shoes, but it’s your game; you can do what you want.’ She looked at me and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d wear shoes.’ She contemplated it for a few moments, then took her shoes off at the start line. As she ran across, she caught a big toe in the net, broke the toe, and ultimately lost the challenge.

But don’t take things personally

“This is a poker game with one pot of money on the table,” Kirhoffer says. “Only one person wins it. If you fall for a bluff, own it and move forward.” 

And whether you’re winning or losing, Kirhoffer recommends emotional honesty. “Don’t hold back on your feelings,” he says. “People relate to your vulnerabilities.” 

Maintain an attitude of gratitude. 

Each year when Kirhoffer sifts through video applications for Dream Team membership, he places an emphasis on verve over a polished résumé. “You can have a master’s degree from Harvard in graphic design or you can have an awesome energy and work ethic,” he says. “I’ll take the energy every time.” Indeed, he says the key to thriving and Surviving is a gung-ho outlook even on the most grueling days. “I always say that there are two kinds of people in the world—those who say ‘I can’ and those who say ‘I can’t,’ ” he says. “Both are right, but your mindset is everything.”

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