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Life Lessons from Playing Survivor...twice

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Survivor Season 30 finale had just wrapped. 

Jeff Probst was revealing which 20 past contestants were voted back in for Season 31, Survivor: Cambodia- Second Chance.

Tensions mounted as Probst went to each former player with a “you’re in” or “not this time”.

Jeff Probst: “Andrew Savage, you’ve waited how many years?”

Andrew Savage: “12 years”

Jeff Probst: “12 years…you will get a 2nd Chance!” And with that, over a decade older, he was picked by fans to go back into the Survivor cauldron. 

andrew savage from survivor wearing madda fella

Andrew Savage is a longtime Madda Fella customer. His legacy in delivering  some of the most awesome moments in Survivor history is undeniable.

We were able to gain insights not just into a life being well lived, but learn a few lessons from his epic Pearl Islands season in Panama (S7), and the grueling Second Chance season in Cambodia (S31).

Survivor fans know game conditions can be brutal. Away for about 50 days, no contact home, physical and mental exhaustion, with recoveries sometimes lasting 6-12 months. 

We wanted to understand why do this…twice. 

Over the course of several hours, Andrew Savage gave us insights into not just the game, but how his approach to life helped him within the game and a few life lessons drawn from those experiences.

Savage Life Lesson #1 - Life is an absolute adventure…challenge yourself to get everything out of it.

“I live my life on the premise that I refuse to be on my death bed and have any regrets in life, not one.” Andrew Savage

Savage has a very clear outlook on life, and on challenging himself. From law school to college football to rugby to white water rafting, Savage pushes and stretches himself to see how tough he really is. He puts everything he has into each life challenge. 

He took that attitude not just into Survivor, but also into his audition tapes. The decision to audition, and then “play the game” was a personal test to see if he had what it took. It was that inner gut check.

There’s also something deeper here…not being afraid to fail. Fear of failure can be paralyzing. It’s not whether we fail, it’s how we see failure and use it as personal “fuel”.

“Failure is simply life telling us to move in a different direction. I believe that we must embrace failure and repeated disappointments as gateways to clarity, clear avenues to tremendous growth.” 

With tens of thousands of audition tapes sent in, the odds of getting selected are tough. Once selected, the odds of winning are still tough. The odds of going twice, about the same as winning a decent lottery. 

Yet, he threw himself into the mix. Unafraid of rejection or elimination, twice putting himself into incredibly challenging situations. 

” As human beings, we must push ourselves outside our comfort zones because that is where the good stuff is.” 

His advice for those struggling to overcome fear, and fear of failure, is direct and on-point. “My advice is to take that step, however small or large, to get outside your comfort zone. Yes, it is terrifying but once you do it, once you land outside your comfort zone, cherish it, revel in your surroundings, and celebrate that you did it, know that you can continue to do it and press on and go father. I promise that you will not regret it.”

For Pearl Islands (S7), there was about 6-7 weeks from notification to “take-off”. He used that time to train as if he was doing a triathlon. Long runs, lengthy swims, intense bike excursions and rigorous weights. He focused on more proteins and fewer carbs, read books on tying knots and survival training, as well as a book on lying and how to detect it. 

He got himself as “prepared” as he could before the journey started. Savage went deep in the game, with a strong shot of taking the prize. That first elimination stayed with him for 12 years. 

When the call came to be part of 40 past contestants, where fans would vote in 20 for a Second Chance season (S31) …it was about redemption. At that point, Savage was older, deeper in his career, and a growing family. 

But as importantly, and maybe more so, it was also about the incredible, unconditional love and support he received from his family. Without question, Savage had incredible support and encouragement. In many ways, if not completely, he tossed himself into this 2nd shot, into the substantial chance of not making the cut, for his family and personal pride. 

He put “fears of rejection” aside and focused on finishing “unfinished business”. 

Second Chance was a different Survivor experience. It was an all-star season with some of the best competitors to ever play, and the game had evolved over the 12 years. Cambodia in the summer is one of the most inhospitable places on earth: temps over 100, high humidity, venomous viper snakes abound and dangerous conditions. 

From the moment they arrived at the hotel for the selection show (they were not allowed to talk to each other…only non-verbal), to being loaded onto the bus, to hitting the beach it was “Survivor on steroids” with intensity, depth of game play and strategy.

The social game in Survivor is as powerful as the physical game. Alliances and who you align with are a major factor in how far you go. The same is true in life.

Savage Life Lesson #2: Align your life with people that see it through a similar lens, and value honesty, integrity, and hard work.

Savage’s values applied within the game. I am looking for someone who is genuine, a good person, it’s that simple. Someone who seems to be honest and reliable.”andrew savage pearl islands sketch

He reflected that how people behave outside of the show has similarities to what they do inside of the show. If lazy in life, they don’t just show up and suddenly have an amazing work ethic. If a jerk in life, they don’t suddenly become this amazing person everyone loves. 

Who you are outside of the game tends to be who you are inside of the game. 

Survivor strips you down to your core. 

“When you are sleep deprived, starving, dehydrated and isolated from everything familiar, your entire comfort zone, you have no choice but to be yourself.”

As in life, you need people with you. Relationships become your most valuable asset, but it is a two-way street. 

They determine your fate...win, lose or draw. Whether it is depending on each other in physical challenges or working with another player, who you align with drives how far you can go.

For Savage, integrity and core values are essential traits to advance, particularly prior to the merge. Even after a merge, alliances are important. 

“If I make a commitment, I stick to it regardless of the consequences. My word is my bond, full stop, which is not a good trait to have on Survivor, unfortunately. But I am who I am and that is how I am wired.”

In Survivor, “lies and liars” become part and parcel of the game. Sifting through what is truth becomes tough.

“When I’m in a tense situation on Survivor and deceit is likely in play, I simply listen and observe. I take it all in, absorb all of it, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, hand movements, shifting stances, non-verbal communication is incredibly powerful.”

There are moments in life when unexpected change happens. In Survivor, it’s that moment where Jeff says “Drop your buffs.”

Savage Life Lesson #3: Never quit. Fight for it.

For Savage, that moment was tough. He went from top of the tribe, in a camp with shelter, supplies, food source and some levels of infrastructure to nothing. 

The random draw of buffs sent him to a new, 6 member, Angkor tribe where he was not just at the bottom, but sent to a beach where they had nothing…no shelter, no supplies, a dead cove with no food source and 4 players that had already aligned.

The challenges inside the new tribe were tremendous. Their mental and physical stamina draining by the hour, while the other two tribes had all of the essentials plus more. Bluntly put, it was unfair. Devastatingly unfair. Responding to adversity is part of the game and life.

For Savage, it was a clear moment where the end-game was obvious and ever so easy to just give up. He drew strength from his family and wanting them proud of him and the super fans that voted him back in. He dug deep within himself to keep driving…even when all odds had him out.

andrew savage cambodia sketch“I believe that the greatest growth in one’s life comes from when a person is knocked flat on her/his back and what does she/he do?”

The producers at Survivor described the turn-around orchestrated as one of the very best they’d witnessed. It’s worth rewatching that episode. (S31, E3)

But it goes deeper. Sure, we get Survivor is a game with an end date. At that moment though, it is your life and making it even one more day is a question. 

As a metaphor for life, we wanted to see if there were lessons from this experience that applied to how one handles “unexpected life challenges”.

Savage captured it better than we ever could: It is moments in one’s life when you get knocked flat on your back that you truly find out what you are made of, your true character surfaces. I’ve had a number of those difficult moments in my life, and they have been intensely challenging. 

Each time, I realized how deeply difficult the situation was and that the only way to address it, the only way to turn a negative into a positive, was to get up off the ground and fight, and fight, and fight. I knew each time that if I continued to fight, that the situation would improve. I didn’t know how much or to what degree it would improve, but I knew it couldn’t get worse, it could only get better. 

I also knew that if I didn’t fight, if I just gave up, which was the simplest choice, that it would haunt me forever and that I could not live with myself. I also knew that it is the times of deep struggle, those horribly challenging times and how you react them that result in the greatest personal growth. We as humans need to take on those difficult challenges because that is how we grow as human beings.”

And he quoted one of our own heroes, Louis Zamperini, “One moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory. “

Moments such as these become “gut checks” and test what we’re really made of.

That moment for Savage came in the Reward Challenge. The tribe is deeply fatigued. Four days without food. Exhaustion beyond what most people ever experience. 

The reward for winning is food, but with a twist. Each tribe had to select one person to run the entire challenge. A “Hero Challenge”. The tribe selects Savage. He’s up against the strongest players from the other two tribes, each well fed and rested. At that moment everything is stacked against him. 

The challenge was to retrieve a sandbag about 50 yards out in water, race back and launch it into a net. Be the first to do it 3x and your tribe eats.

“…what I did know is that if I gave it everything I had, that I had a chance and that’s all I wanted and all I could ask for.”

After bag 1, Savage had fallen far behind the other two. “Exhausted” doesn’t nearly describe his condition, and it was looking pretty grim. “…I tried to ignore how far behind I was, all I needed was 2 more attempts and I would land each sandbag perfectly. I just put my head down and got through the agonizing water as best I could. 

I kept saying to myself, just give me a shot, that’s all I ask, and I poured every ounce of energy and determination I had into those handful of water laps.”

Sometimes in life we just need to “put our head down”, not worry what others are doing, keep fighting, stay positive and so long as there was chance, no matter how long of a shot…then there was a chance to turn it around.

The dramatic, come from behind win became Survivor lore. (S31.E4.10 minute mark)It wasn’t just coming from behind to win, it was the desperate circumstances that now those 5 tribe members had endured, and digging deep inside to keep going. 

Even more fascinating was the impact one person can have on a team…even in Survivor.  He transitioned from being part of a team, to stepping into a leadership role. Four days without food, Savage not only posted a dramatic win but lifted the team. In the post-win cutaway, he looked into camera and said:

“This little tribe. Now they know we can compete against all of those big horses on the other tribes, and that’s huge. That’s a game changer. Because now, I think we can fire on all cylinders and just not go to tribal.”

Even though he won the solo challenge, he gives credit to his team. 

We wanted to understand this thinking a bit more. There is no one around other than the camera crew. It would have been easy to just take the credit, but he didn’t…it was about team. 

Savage Life Lesson #4: Lead with your heart.

“My leadership philosophy is that I lead with my heart, not with my head. What I mean by that is that every single person on my team (and tribe) means a great deal to me.

andrew savage pearl islands sketch

They are my family, and I will do whatever I can to help them personally and professionally.Leaders must lead by example because I believe actions speak louder than words. Words are certainly important, but they must be backed up and supported by strong consistent actions. 

I believe a true leader must let her/his team know that if they do their jobs and they do them well, the leader will be their biggest fan, will have their backs, support them and will help them succeed anyway she/he can.”

Nearly everyone gets voted out. In fact, it is usually the “alphas”, leaders, challenge threats, and those that appear to have “status” within the game. 

Getting to that final vote for the prize is an accomplishment, and winning the $1M is life changing. 

But, it seems there’s more playing out for people actually in “the game”. For many, it’s about proving something to yourself and a journey of self-awareness. 

At that moment where Jeff says “the tribe has spoken”, it isn’t a loss, just a moment of transition.

“The life lesson for me when getting voted out is that if you give it your all, if you put yourself out there and compete every opportunity, regardless of mistakes (we all make them), getting voted out isn’t that horrible because you gave it your all, there is nothing else you could have done and you have no regrets. 

It’s the same in life. 

Get off the sidelines and get in the game, take (smart) chances, give it your all and let the chips fall where they may. 

Some things will go your way, some won’t, but nothing will go your way if you don’t get in the game and compete.”

For us, as fans of Survivor and believers in living life to the fullest, it was a privilege for Andrew Savage to take as much time with us and share so deeply about his experiences. 

He gets the last word: “I don’t care how much money a person has, what car they drive or how big their house is. What I care about is what is inside, what drives someone, is that person honest, ethical, adventurous, selfless, and interesting. If so, let’s become friends.” 


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