"Aitutaki wins immunity!" As I heard those words, my head started spinning. My body was doubled over with cramps, my fingers were chafed and bleeding. And lurking in the back of my mind was the ever-present fear that my bowels would choose this inopportune moment?forever captured on camera?to express their dissatisfaction with my sporadic, coconut-centric diet. But for the next several minutes, I felt a rush of joy and pride incomparable to anything I'd ever experienced in my life. My little Aitutaki tribe had just come from behind to defeat a much larger adversary in a grueling battle of wits and strength.
I was a contestant on the 13th edition of the long-running CBS reality show Survivor, which took place last year in the Cook Islands. The season was extremely controversial because of the show's decision to divide the contestants into four tribes based on race (African American, Asian American, Caucasian, and Latino). Several major advertisers pulled out, and a few lawmakers even called for a ban of the show.
On episode eight, my tribe started off badly, initially falling behind 20 in a challenge in which we had to maneuver our boats into precise positions to hit three underwater targets with cannonballs. With the other tribe closing in on its third target, we faced an increasingly hopeless situation. So I did what any competent lawyer does when he or she finds that sticking to precedent or established methodologies isn't working: I creatively interpreted the laws. I came up with an approach that wasn't contemplated under the rules, but wasn't technically barred by them either. I realized we could locate the targets directly by disabling the release mechanism of the cannonball and looking down the chute. After getting a good look, we quickly hit all three targets and won the challenge. At last, we had a hope of getting someone from Aitutaki into the final four.
Like most of the minority contestants from my season, I didn't apply to be on Survivor. I had been quietly following a professional career that included stints working at several law firms, clerking on the Second Circuit, and being a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut). The show recruited me in an effort to fill out the ethnic tribes. We weren't told about the racial segregation until the night before the game started, and the late disclosure hit me like a bomb. What if one ethnic tribe wiped out everyone else? What if people began using racial epithets?
My worst fears appeared to be coming true halfway through the competition. The four ethnic tribes had been redistributed to create two tribes, each consisting of six members representing all four groups. However, the two Caucasian members in my tribe defected to the other side to realign with their original Caucasian tribemates. Although they realigned with each other only because they had spent the most time together, I couldn't help but think what a horrible message it would convey if it appeared that the white contestants had banded together to get rid of the contestants of color. From that point on, I didn't really care whether I won. I just wanted to do all I could to ensure that the final outcome wouldn't be racially homogenous.
Ironically, because I wasn't focused on promoting my individual self-interest, I was able to try some things that had never been done before on Survivor. I applied many of the skills I'd learned as a lawyer dealing with people from different backgrounds?building trust and communication. I tried to lead using a collaborative, consensus-driven approach that relied on persuasion and diplomacy rather than unilateral decision making. I also tried to instill a level of transparency and inclusiveness.
Our diversity became a source of strength rather than weakness. We were able to adapt to circumstances far more quickly and effectively than the larger, more homogenous tribe. As a result, our small tribe of four won every challenge against the tribe of eight. This was the first time on Survivor that any tribe members had overcome such long odds and were able to stick together to the very end without betraying one another.
I was eventually voted the winner by a majority of the contestants, but I'm more proud of being able to transform a motley crew of rejects into an unbeatable, multiethnic team. In doing so, we really made a statement about the power of diversity.
Yale Law School graduate Yul Kwon, who won $1 million on Survivor, now lives in San Mateo and works with several charities. He is a regular public speaker, and has worked as a CNN special correspondent.