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Jewish World Review March 2, 2001 / 7 Adar, 5761

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports


'Survivor' as a Machiavellian handbook on getting ahead!?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
LIKE its predecessor, this second round of Survivor is a cunningly constructed, annoyingly addictive form of entertainment that teaches America precisely the wrong lessons about competition.

A recent article in USA TODAY suggested that the phenomenal popularity of the reality show already has influenced workplace attitudes.

Gene Ondrusek, a California psychologist who is a consultant to the program, said that Survivor has become "a kind of Machiavellian handbook on how people can prevail, how to balance cooperation and competition."

Unfortunately, people who emulate the strategies they see on the air will guarantee their failure in the very different world of contemporary business.

In the artificial universe of this TV game show, you win the ultimate prize by driving your competitors out of the tribe - until there's only one person left for a million-dollar bonanza. With only 16 contestants and one driven away every week, you succeed by structuring ever-smaller alliances, accepting a constant decrease in the size of the target audience - or the customer base - you must handle.

In the real world, on the other hand, success requires a regularly expanding group of colleagues, clients and customers; a business strategy that focuses on a constantly shrinking market niche will inevitably fail.

The other destructive lesson from Survivor involves the sense of relief and celebration among remaining contestants, whenever one of their fellow tribe members has been voted down and out by the tribal council. In the context of the game, this reaction makes sense - disaster and defeat for one of your competitors makes your own success that much more likely.

In everyday competition back in the United States, however, this "last-man-standing" approach hardly applies. Competition is never a zero-sum game. The success of your competitors doesn't necessarily spell defeat for you, nor would their collapse inevitably promote your victory.

Consider the situation of two cafés opening up on the same block in a slightly seedy, run-down neighborhood. If your neighbor achieves tremendous popularity, the chances are it will help you, not hurt you - drawing more people into the area, increasing foot traffic, raising property values, making your place more fashionable and desirable. If still more businesses open up on your street, you might well find reason to feel encouraged. If, on the other hand, your competitor were forced to close, leaving your operation as a lonely outpost in a forlorn location, it could prove devastating to your long-term prospects.

In our economy, your neighbor's success will generally prove a blessing to you, not a threat. If the guy living next door manages to double his income and plans a major remodeling job, it makes your house more valuable, not less so - as long as he doesn't block your view with his new second floor. More economic activity in your community, more money flowing into the families and businesses that operate nearby, means more resources for people to buy whatever goods and services you are trying to sell.

This basic recognition, so contrary to the scheming and jealous Survivor spirit, casts important light on the moment's biggest debate in Washington, D.C.

Opponents of the president's tax-cut plan condemn it because wealthy people would save even more money than the middle class - getting enough to buy a Lexus, and not just a new muffler, Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., says.

But so what if your neighbor buys another fancy car? How does that hurt you - because you'd be paying less in taxes yourself with an overall rate cut?

Meanwhile, his purchase would help the entire auto industry and pump new money into the economy. Those who believe that someone else's prosperity necessarily harms them don't understand the basic need for every economy: across-the-board growth that can benefit everyone.

The me-against-the-world mentality of Survivor can't work in corporate America - and it couldn't even work on a real desert island.

The show only works because the TV cameras and busybody producers are present to cushion the outcome. On an actual Survivor island, you'd never want to drive other people away. If you were left all alone as the sole survivor, you'd be horribly poor, not suddenly wealthy. Even if you had all of the coconuts and dead rats to hoard for yourself, you'd have no one to make deals with - no help in getting food or building shelter or looking for help. If you ended up as the last surviving business operator or homeowner in your city or town, after everyone else picked up and moved elsewhere, that would hardly constitute a formula for economic triumph.

Contrary to Survivor's scheming, the world of business demands a spirit of cooperation and congratulation, not envy and go-for-the-jugular ruthlessness. It also requires a recognition that the prosperity of one contestant helps more than a single individual; it will most often benefit all members of his tribe.


JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Michael Medved