Six years after being on the show, I still have countless people approach me with the question "What does it take to win Survivor?"
Whenever asked this, I can't help remembering a piece of wisdom New York Times bestselling and Edgar-winning author John Hart told me last year over coffee.
"It takes three things to make a book a bestseller," John told me. "It takes a lot of talent, an ability to harness that talent to write a great book, and, most important, a lot of luck."
John then sipped his coffee and said, "You've got the talent, and you've written a hell of a book... "
"And now I just need the luck," I said.
"Now you just need the luck," John nodded.
This conversation, I think, best answers the question of what it takes to win Survivor.
It first takes skill. You must be smart, socially adept, and able-bodied to win.
It then takes the ability to harness those skills. Any Survivor fan knows that countless capable contestants have seen their torches snuffed due to poor thinking, massive social blunders, and/or key physical failures.
It is here that some contestants -- but not many -- are eliminated.
Each season, there are at least two cast members who, no matter how many times he or she were to play the game, could never win. Though these characters often make it very close to the end, they never have a chance at actually winning. They simply don't have the talent, or, in the rare case they do, they simply don't have the capacity to harness that talent in the way required to win (think Russell Hantz and Johnny Fairplay).
The wonderful thing about these characters is that they never -- I repeat never -- know this is the case about themselves. In fact, when reading this, they would nod in agreement at what I'm saying, never considering that I may actually be referring to them. Instead, these unique characters invariably believe they should have won their season and, if given another chance, would absolutely win. It was true of my season (I won't name names because I am still close with my cast mates) and it was glaringly true last season (if you watched, you know who I'm referring to).
Though this eliminates some from the field, it still leaves the vast majority with a chance at winning. This is the beauty of Survivor: each season there are many cast members who potentially could win.
And this is where the final element necessary in winning Survivor comes into play: luck. Hence luck, just as John Hart said of writing a bestseller, is the most important element of winning Survivor.
Every season, while the winner employs massive amounts of physical, mental, and social skill, he or she also experiences a vast amount of luck. This luck takes many forms, but it is always the wild card helping dictate who will emerge victorious.
So this dynamic causes three tiers of players, the odds of winning getting slightly less with each tier.
The first tier is an elite group, a group whose skill and ability to harness that skill is greater than most. These select few can -- and likely will -- make it very close to the end each time they play.
Parvati Shallow falls in this group. So does Boston Rob Mariano. So does a select group of others.
Under this group is a tier of people who have slightly less skill, but have more than the average player. These characters have a great chance of making it to the end, but they also have a great chance of being booted before the jury.
Cirie Fields is in this group. So is Tom Westman. So is Bobby Jon Drinkard. So is Rafe Judkins. So is Mike Skupin. So are a countless number of contestants, because it is this tier that contains the majority of players.
Below them is a group who theoretically could win, but the chances of the vote going their way are slim. They have the skill to get there, but the social game makes it virtually impossible (albeit not impossible, like in the case of Russell Hantz and Johnny Fairplay) to win.
People such as Jerri Manthey and Sue Hawk are in this group.
In the end, though, for each group, it all comes down to luck.
Someone else must flub a challenge; someone else must make a poor strategic move. A tribal shuffle must happen; a challenge must be better suited to one's strengths than to another's. The ways luck comes into play in Survivor are endless.
Ultimately, the secret to winning is perhaps best summed up by a conversation I had with my friend Aras the night he won our season of Survivor.
"I just got really lucky a few times," Aras said to me, in his usual self-deprecating way.
"Yes, but you also played a great game," I said.
And I was right.
But so was he.