Survivor Creator Tells Readers: Dare to Succeedby David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Nobody would argue that, today, Mark Burnett is a success. He produced the most successful summer television show ever. He had the most successful show on TV in 1999 as well. Both, of course, were Survivor. Before that, he created and brought to TV Eco-Challenge, now one of the world’s foremost endurance race events. His work spawned a myriad of copycats which will fill 2001’s viewing schedule.
But he wasn’t always a success. In fact, after leaving the British paratroopers, he originally planned to be a “military adviser” in South America, but instead ended up with a job as a nanny in California. That job led him to another nanny job, which led to an insurance job, which led to selling T-shirts at Venice Beach, which led to owning his own credit card marketing company. He was a success! But that wasn’t what he wanted, and he threw it away to follow his gut in creating Eco-Challenge, which eventually led to his more recent, and more profound, triumph.
As has been done by countless others before him (including even Rich Hatch, winner of the first Survivor series), Burnett decided to share his secrets of success with the rest of us. His vehicle is the new book, Dare to Succeed: How to Survive and Thrive in the Game of Life.
I have to admit that, when I received my copy of this book, I was a little hesitant. Was Burnett going to use this book to tout himself? To talk about what a great guy he is? Would he ignore his failures and only talk about his victories?
I was happy to find that my hesitancy was unwarranted. Sure, there is a little bit of ego that shines on through, but if I were in his position, I can’t say I’d be any different. However, throughout the book, Burnett faces his failures head on and explains how they happened and what he learned from them. Mind you, if you’re looking for behind-the-scenes info on Survivor, like his take on the accusations of “fixing” the first series, you won’t find it here. But since he has tended to blow off those accusations publicly, I wouldn’t expect him to address them in a book like this. It would certainly be nice to see them addressed somewhere, but we may just have to wait for court hearings to see that.
With this in mind, let’s look at the book on its own merits, rather than thinking about the possibility of scandal behind parts of it.
Rich Hatch had his 101 secrets to surviving and living happily. Mark Burnett has only seven. Each of these seven make up a chapter, which is filled with the ongoing story of his success from the point he arrived in the U.S. until today. He manages to intertwine the autobiographical parts with these principles, using his stories to give solid examples of how they work in life.
The seven principles are: 1. Only results count; 2. Have the courage to fail; 3. Choose teammates wisely; 4. Perseverance produces character; 5. Be right or be wrong, but make a decision; 6. Set achievable goals; 7. Try to go above, beyond, and then further.
The main problem with his discussion of all of these is that, like pretty much all books telling us how to be successful and change our lives, he makes the assumption that his experiences hold true for everyone. Because he was able to use these rules to succeed, everybody should and can. It sounds great to say a person should get out of their dead-end job and go with their gut, but their gut doesn’t pay the bills for the dead-ender’s family. Early in the book, Burnett says he didn’t have family to fall back on here in the U.S., but then later he discusses how a wealthy friend offered him a loan if he needed it, and that made Burnett feel more comfortable about the risks he was taking. Most of us don’t have wealthy friends in case we fail. We just have creditors.
Still, it’s hard to argue with some of his advice. And, as I indicated above, he doesn’t shy away from discussing some of his own failures. A few years after he arrived in the U.S., he paid $50 to a guy for what he thought was a $500 television set. Instead, he was a victim of the classic “box of rocks” con, where he ended up with a box full of nothing but material to weigh it down. Most people don’t even tell their acquaintances about such an incident, figuring they will look stupid, but Burnett shares it with everybody who picks up his book. Indeed, one of the things he mentions frequently is that you cannot be afraid of looking stupid if you are chasing your dreams.
Later, he faces other more serious failures head-on. There have been rumors circulating about his participation in one of the races that served as an inspiration for Eco-Challenge, the Raid Gauloises. In his third attempt at the Raid, Burnett quit a few days into it. Yes, one of his teammates had already quit due to injury and thus the team was disqualified. But he let his other teammates down, and it was actually a culmination of events that led up to that particular race. As he discusses, while he was at the Raid, he really should have been at home preparing to run his first Eco-Challenge, and his mind was not on the task at hand. Up to the starting gun, he was soliciting for his race rather than thinking about the one he was about to run. As he says, “Clearly I was in Borneo for Mark Burnett, not Team American Pride.”
Frankly, you don’t often see this kind of honesty, and I have to give him credit for it. He could have simply said he quit because they were in last place and had already been disqualified anyway, etc. But he was apparently forthright about the whole incident, and says he learned from that failure and moved on.
Still, other parts of the book seem a bit more tainted with questions. For example, he professes amazement when environmentalists were against his Eco-Challenge race in Utah because it might bring harm to the environment. From Burnett’s viewpoint, it would be helping people to see how beautiful nature is, and therefore they’d want to protect it. But Burnett was hit by environmentalists even in the much more recent Survivor 2, where one contestant illegally took coral from the Great Barrier Reef while another killed a pig. Nobody is perfect, but we cannot help but view Burnett’s discussion of his environmental views in the hindsight provided to us from Survivor 2.
As I indicated earlier, the reader won’t find a lot of inside Survivor information here. However, he does discuss a bit about how he lured advertisers with his promises to make them a part of the show rather than just giving them 30 seconds of commercial time. Any viewer of Survivor can attest to sponsors permeating the activities of show, from Doritos and Budweiser as prizes for various challenges to several minutes being spent on Colby discussing the Pontiac Aztec he won and how great it is (although, amusingly, he would later say he didn’t even want it and was going to sell it).
Another general look at the way he produces Survivor comes from his discussions even dating back to Eco-Challenge, when he wanted to cover the human drama while Discovery Channel wanted to cover it as more of a historical and natural documentary with some people thrown in almost as an afterthought. Survivor continued in this trend and, indeed, took it further. Several other reality shows, such as The Mole, focused more on plot and less on character, but even they are now coming around to the human drama aspect for their second seasons. Unfortunately, I find myself having to think about the “fixing” allegations and recalling that as much as Burnett would like to think of it as drama, Survivor is, at its heart, a game show, and the producers cannot forget that.
What does Mark Burnett have in store for the future? The reader does get a bit of inside information here, as he discusses his proposal for a new reality show, Destination: Mir. Obviously, with the Mir space station no longer in existence, Burnett faced a serious setback. However, he changed the name to Destination: Space and is still hoping to work with Russia to get an agreement for sending somebody to their portion of the international space station (much as Californian billionaire Dennis Tito bought his way into a trip via Russia to that station). He says this will be the most challenging project he has ever worked on, and its status is up in the air even now.
So, Mark Burnett is a success, and trying to reach even greater heights. There are certain aspects of his life that people would do well to emulate; there are others that are not entirely realistic for most. In this volume about how to succeed, he faces his failures and puts them into perspective as far as how he has faced various challenges. While Survivor fans might have hoped for juicy stories about his first two shows, they may also find themselves quite enjoying this book for what it is rather than what they wanted it to be. Other questions will have to wait until a later date for proper answers, but for now, Burnett’s book is an interesting and entertaining read.
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