Thank you, Survivor…

To manage my anxiety, I use daily medication, bi-weekly talk therapy and watching and thinking about the television show Survivor, which opens it’s 35th season tonight on CBS.

Yes, that Survivor… The one often misconstrued as being only about fire, running obstacle courses and living in the wilderness. These elements always occur in the 60-minute show, but they’re present only to push the limits of the actual competition at hand…

The true game of Survivor looks more like high school than camping.

It has more in common with climbing the corporate ladder than Boy Scouts.

Because, winning the game isn’t just about physically surviving in nature, it’s about mentally and emotionally surviving in society.

“The game has shifted from being an adventure to a social experiment about how you interact with people,” Survivor winner Rob Mariano once told Rob Cesternino’s invaluable Rob Has a Podcast. “You have to manage people, create relationships and be aware of how people perceive you.”

For example, to last 39 days in the game, you’ll have to disingenuously gain the trust of strangers and -when they least expect it- stab each ‘ally’ in the back, thus voting them out and ending their chance of winning the game.

Only three out of 16 contestants make it to the game’s final episode. The key to winning the $1 million prize, however, is to be seen with as little blood on your hands as possible so the ‘allies’ you voted out prefer to give you the prize money over the two people sitting next to you.

In other words, they don’t have to like you, they just have to like you more than the other two finalists…

The final tribal council during Survivor 20: Heroes vs. Villains

Basically, “Survivor is high-stakes human poker,” host Jeff Probst recently said about the show, when asked by the Hollywood Reporter’s Josh Wigler to sum up the 34-season, 512-episode series in one sentence.

During a 2017 interview with Cesternino, Survivor’s first winner, Richard Hatch, beautifully connected Probst’s poker metaphor to the viewer’s experience watching the game play out on TV…

Survivor exposes who we are (as a society) and you (the viewer) have the opportunity — when you’re watching — to ask yourself what you would do in any of these scenarios, in any of the pairings, in any of the situations, during which you see someone making choices. Would you make that choice? What do you feel about that person’s choice? How did it impact others? How would you do it differently? Why would you do it the same? Those kind of things enable us (the viewers) to explore introspectively who we are. And that helps us be better in our lives, at work, with our families and friendships, as parents, as kids, as siblings. … And, that being introspective is what can enable us to be healthier, happier, more engaged people in this short journey we call life.

Hatch’s assessment is important and accurate. Because, for me, watching and thinking and talking about Survivor helps me expand my self-awareness. It helps me recognize my biases and how I choose to make decisions in certain social situations. It helps with my social awareness…

It creates opportunities to talk with my friends and spouse and think my way through moments yet to occur in my life. It helps me see people in a strategic, intelligent way, while playing out game theory in my mind and connecting it to outcomes I hope to create in my career and personal life.

It helps me be more mindful and -most important- reaffirms that the only thing I can control are my own thoughts and actions.

In the end, the TV show Survivor has taught me that people are unable to succeed only on smarts, ‘stuff,’ and skill. Instead, like the show’s contestants, you and I define our own success in life and we’re remembered by society through our actions and how we leave people feeling when we’re gone.

This is a difficult concept to manage when suffering with depression and anxiety. Thankfully the game of Survivor is teaching me how to do it…

Survivor’s 35th season, Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, premieres Wednesday, September 26, at 8 pm ET on CBS. In no way, shape or form do you need to have seen a single previous episode to understand this season. Having watched previous seasons may help with understanding the game’s rules, but those rules often change from year to year. So, like sports, though the game is the same, one season has nothing to do with the one before it. It’s all random. And, we’re all essentially newbies on Day One…

This year, I’m picking Roark Luskin to win the game, thanks in large part to information learned on Cesternino’s 20-plus hours of brilliant, pre-season podcasting, which included Wigler’s in-depth, on-location, pre-game interviews with the year’s contestants…

I dig Roark’s self awareness, humility and understanding of the purpose of the game. I also think her Heroes tribe is set up well physically to advance deep in the game. So, I think she’ll be in good position when it moves from a team sport in to individual survival mode.

In addition to Roark, I see Mike Zahalsky, Desi Williams and Jessica Johnston as also having the potential to win.

In the Maybe column, I put Cole Medders, Joe Mena, Ryan Ulrich, Alan Ball, Ben Driebergen, Simone Nguyen and Ali Elliott.

Simone Nguyen and Joe Mena from Survivor: Season 35

I read Simone and Joe (pictured above) as wild cards. I expect them both to be compelling players, both emotional and intelligent and highly entertaining. If they have enough discipline and self awareness- I think both are capable of winning the game, with the potential to be among the game’s best villains.

That said, I see JP Hilsabec, Katrina Radke, Patrick Bolton, Lauren Rimmer, Devon Pinto, Chrissy Hofbeck and Ashley Nolan as having zero chance of winning the game.

Lastly, if you’re new to the world of Survivor, subscribe to Cesternino’s Rob Has a Podcast (RHAP), which you can learn more about here. Basically, RHAP is to Survivor what ESPN Radio is to the NFL.

Cesternino, a former two-time contestant of the game, produces roughly 7–10 hours of post-game analysis peppered throughout the week. His series of podcasts is without question the best place to learn about in-game strategy, potential outcomes and hear reporters and former players think through scenarios with Rob and his roster of guests.

Rob has asked me to be on the show five times and it’s always a thrill!

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