Steve LEVITT: My guest today, Yul Kwon, has done a little bit of everything. He’s got a law degree from Yale, taught courses at the F.B.I., hosted television shows on PBS. and CNN, started a frozen yogurt chain, and held high-level jobs at Facebook and Google. He even won season 13 of the TV show Survivor. There’s so much to talk about with Yul, it’s going to take two episodes to cover everything.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I first met Yul a few years back. A mutual friend introduced us saying Yul was the smartest person she had ever met. We said hello. Yul asked me what I was working on. And I told him about a new project using GPS technology in the criminal justice system. Just so happened that Yul had worked for two years on GPS, and he gave me great advice that really shaped that project.
Then he asked me what else was I working on? And I mentioned another project. Yul just happened to know exactly the right person to help me get that project implemented. A third project? Yul had thought about that issue, as well. And he had three great reasons why the project was going to fail. He convinced me to drop the project. So since then, I make it a point to run all my new projects past Yul.
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Steven LEVITT: Yul, it’s so great to have you here with us today. You were a high-achieving teen. Valedictorian in high school, varsity water polo and track and field athlete, before going on to Stanford, where you graduated Phi Beta Kappa, a highly selective honor society. It sounds like things came pretty easy to you early in life.
Yul KWON: Yeah, I guess if you look on paper, it looks like I did lots of good stuff. But the reality is that I felt like certainly my childhood was a struggle. My parents immigrated here from South Korea back in 1970. They didn’t have a lot of money. I think my dad had something like 200 dollars in his pockets.
And I grew up being a very introverted, shy kid. But I think as I grew older, they evolved into some more significant liabilities. I really struggled with social anxiety for most of my life and also was bullied quite a bit when I was a child. And I think that led to some long-term challenges for me.
LEVITT: And so that doesn’t sound like the ingredients for a kid who is going to be Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford. Did something happen along the way? What happened to turn you into such an achiever?
KWON: Honestly, I think a lot of it was I just wanted to be normal. Growing up, I had a lot of anxiety. I had pretty severe O.C.D. to the point where I would wash my hands like 20 times a day. I had this obsession with even numbers. And I think the thing that probably was the most debilitating was when I was in elementary school a lot of the older kids would pick on some of the younger kids.
And it got to the point where they would hide in the bathroom, and when one of the younger kids would come in, they would try to grab the kid and hold them against the wall while the other boys would take turns urinating on them. And that was just like a crazy traumatic thing. In my case, I never got caught. But it instilled in me this deep fear and anxiety around going to the bathroom. And it developed into this thing called paruresis, which is an inability to relax enough to go to the bathroom around other people.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the practical constraints are pretty immense. It basically meant that I couldn’t go to parties or ball games or to the mall or to movies or anything where I didn’t know that I would be able to access a private bathroom. I would spend 50 percent of my day worrying about this. And so all these different things, all these different anxieties that I had, really limited my ability to function normally and to really have a happy life as a kid. I wish I had the courage to open up and ask for help. But I didn’t know how.
Especially in the Asian community, things like mental health and psychological well-being, those are taboo subjects and they’re often seen as a source of embarrassment for the family. So I think for me just more out of desperation than anything else, I thought about how my life would unfold, and I realized that if I didn’t start changing now, then it wouldn’t lead to a happy ending. At that point, I just really started thinking, “What can I do? How can I change myself? What are the things I can put into place now?”
And it was such a daunting challenge. But I tried to tell myself I didn’t have to change overnight. Just break things down into manageable chunks, like what can I do today? What can I do tomorrow? Just to push myself a little bit outside my comfort zone. So, for example, I told myself, “O.K., today in school, I’m going to raise my hand in class” — something I’d never done before. It would just scare the crap out of me. Or today, I’m going to sit next to someone I don’t know and say hi.
And I didn’t always do it, and it didn’t always end up having a good outcome. But I generally found that a lot of times, if you try, good things come out of it. And even if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I did some other things, too. I knew that it’s really hard to change yourself just through sheer willpower. It’s often easier to change when you change the environment. So I started doing things like signing up for drama class, which would have never occurred to me when I was younger. But if you’re in drama class, everyone’s kind of scared.
LEVITT: First, let me say, I feel tremendous empathy for little Yul and the suffering you were going through. It sounds awful. How old were you when you came to this realization that these incremental changes could transform your life?
KWON: I think it was sometime in middle school. I think that was a time where I really remember having this conscious decision that I wanted to not be — in five years or in 30 years — I didn’t want to be this person that I was.
LEVITT: What’s interesting about that, Yul, is that I did something very similar. It was in maybe eighth grade. I also decided that I despised the person that I was. Interestingly, for me, I had a sister, Linda, who was five years older than me. And I was able to turn to her. And she was an incredibly talented and creative person.
And I said to her, “I just want to remake myself. I want to be a different person.” She was exactly the type of person who took that kind of challenge as her ultimate being, so she invested incredibly heavily in helping me to transform who I was.
It’s interesting. I think my path was simpler. I didn’t have as many of the really, hard, built-in challenges that you had. Do you have any recollection of how it was you actually committed yourself to stay on this incredibly difficult path?
KWON: It’s really interesting that you raise a point about your older sister. I actually had a similar conversation with my brother that was for me pretty pivotal, and I think addresses your point. My brother was someone who had built this confidence that I felt like I was always lacking.
Growing up, my brother was very angry at times. And he basically explained a lot of his anger came from fear and insecurity. He basically decided, look, if I don’t have confidence, maybe the thing I can try is to pretend to be confident. And he found that, the more he acted confident, the more positive reactions he would get from other people, and it would actually, in turn, build real confidence.
And I think that’s the thing that allowed me to stay committed to this program. I saw that over time, it was having real impact. It’s not that people are infinitely plastic. It’s not like you can completely change fundamentally who you are. But it is more flexible than I think people often think.
LEVITT: You’re essentially talking about the idea of “fake it till you make it,” and research has actually shown that this works — that just acting extroverted can lead to a higher well-being. So knowing what you know now, do you have advice for a kid or even an adult who’s struggling with these kinds of issues?
KWON: Yeah, totally. I eventually went into therapy and I found that to be enormously useful. And I just wish I had found that sooner. Beyond that, I think the things that I did for myself are things that are still applicable, which is: don’t try to change yourself all at once. There is a possibility of change. I know, because I went through that process, too. The important thing is that you just keep on doing it.
LEVITT: So part of your strategy of self-improvement is to put yourself in difficult situations. What would you say the most difficult situation you ever managed to put yourself into was?
KWON: Once I had gotten into college, I eventually got to a point where I felt like I had plateaued. And I was thinking, “What is the hardest thing I could do?” And then fortuitously, I opened my mailbox and I got this flyer saying, “Hey, join the Marine Corps.”
Boot camp for the Marine Corps is super hard. And even within the Marine Corps, the really hard thing was called Officer Candidate School. For O.C.S., not only do you have to go through a lot of the hard emotional challenges of boot camp. But you also are really stressed physically, because the Marine Corps really believes that officers have to set an example for the people that they’re leading.
So I applied, I got in, and oh, my God, it was like — that was crazy. I had many nights when I was weeping in bed thinking, “Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?”
LEVITT: Yeah, I’m really curious to hear. So, what do they do to you? And how did you respond?
KWON: Oh, man. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. You go there. And as soon as you get off the bus, they’re just screaming at you. They’re just like yelling at you. It’s just a maximum volume. You’re disoriented. You have no idea what’s going on, and the whole thing is like that.
I mean, the basic idea is that they’re trying to break down any sense of ego or self identity, and eventually try to build you back up into a unit. And that breaking down part was just incredibly painful. I also got a lot of crap from the other guys for being too well-educated, like they thought I was weak and they were wondering what I was doing there.
The other thing, too, was I was the only Asian American in my platoon. So I also felt marginalized from that perspective. But again, for me, it’s just one of those things like, I knew that if I dropped out, this would eat at me. And so I just had to harden up and just mimic the behaviors of the people around me and learn to project myself.
I started becoming more aware of the way that people perceived me and the mannerisms that I had that would often cause people to jump to conclusions about who I was and what kind of person I was. And that itself was such a valuable insight, because it made me learn how to change myself in order to be successful across different environments.
LEVITT: I think this next question that I’m asking is going to be the hardest question that I ask. After you graduated from law school, can you just list off in order the set of organizations you’ve worked for over the last 20 years?
KWON: O.K., let’s see. After law school, I went to work at another law firm in Silicon Valley. Then I worked for Joe Lieberman in D.C. after 9/11. Then I worked at another law firm. Then I went to clerk for a judge in New York on the 2nd Circuit. Then I went to work at McKinsey as a management consultant. And then I went to Google for a hot second. Then I went on Survivor.
And after Survivor I did a lot of nonprofit work. I also started a frozen yogurt chain — did that for a few years. Then I went back to D.C. to work at the Federal Communications Commission, then I left to host a mini series on PBS on technology. At one point I worked as an adjunct instructor at the F.B.I. Academy. I went to work at Facebook. I was there for about five and a half years, and then I left to come back to Google, where I’ve been for the last two and a half years.
LEVITT: So unlike most people, you seem to be quite good at quitting something when it’s not right for you, and finding something better.
KWON: Yes, I’m a quitter. That’s exactly right, Steven.
LEVITT: Do you have any advice for folks who are stuck? What are your strategies for when you’re feeling stuck?
KWON: I guess the fact that I’ve had so many different jobs is partly intentional and partly coincidence. I’ve always felt the need to challenge myself and push myself, because I’m naturally a very timid and anxious person. And left to my own devices, I have a tendency to collapse into myself. So I think whenever I feel a little bit too comfortable, I know it’s time for me to start pushing myself again.
The other thing, in terms of my career — I’ve always tried to find the holy grail, the one job that gave me everything I was looking for: job satisfaction, challenge me, working with great people, financial security, working at a place where I believe in the mission. And I’ve generally been pretty disappointed.
And so what I concluded at some point in my career was: what if I took a longer term view, a portfolio theory of my career, so that over time and over the cumulative experiences I will have gotten all the things that I’m looking for? So at different points in my career, I’ve optimized for different things. I think taking that view has been really helpful for me. And taking that approach for the most part has given me a pretty high level of career satisfaction that I think I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
LEVITT: So you’ve made a lot of changes in your life. So I’m curious, do you have more regrets about the changes you have made or about the changes that you never made but you wish you had?
KWON: I would probably say that maybe I switched too many times. I generally think that it’s good to challenge yourself and to put yourself into different environments that will force you to grow and develop new skill sets. As I’ve gotten older, though, I generally feel like I don’t know a lot about any one thing, but I know a little bit about a lot of things. There have been times in my career where I wish I was the expert in the room, because it can be exhausting ramping up from scratch. So I think there’s probably a happy medium and a balance to be found.
One thing that I’ve found to be helpful as I’m thinking through my choices in life and in my career, I do this thought experiment. I’ll look back and see how I’ve changed over the last, say, four years. And I’ll put myself back into the shoes of me of four years ago, and I’ll ask myself, “If the Yul of four years ago could look ahead into the future and see me as I am today, what would that person think? And would I be happy with that? “I’ve generally found that to be a really helpful exercise.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with lawyer, entrepreneur, political organizer, and government regulator Yul Kwon. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about how Kwon won the popular reality TV show Survivor.
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LEVITT: Well, I have to say, I was caught completely off guard about the challenges Yul has faced. I’ve only known him in a professional setting. And when I started the interview talking about how he was a high-achieving kid, I thought he would just chuckle and say, “Yeah, school came easily to me.” I had no idea about the truth and I’m so glad he shared it.
My plan for the second half of the interview is to delve into Yul’s experience on Survivor. I know he’s had a lifelong interest in game theory, which is the name economists give to the study of strategic behavior in small groups. The TV show Survivor is a perfect setting to try to test those insights. So I’m really curious to hear: what was his approach and whether he felt like it paid off.
LEVITT: So, Yul, it’s December 2005. You’ve cycled through, I don’t know, seven, 12 jobs already since you graduated from law school. You get a phone call or knock on the door. Who is it and what happens?
KWON: My friend had met a casting agent for a reality show, Survivor, and I talked to the casting agent and they basically told me, “Listen, we’ve interviewed thousands of people, but we want to interview you. Can you come down to L.A. this weekend and go through the final casting call?” And for lots of different reasons, I thought, “Yeah, why not? Why don’t I go forward with this?”
LEVITT: Why do they want you? You’re a nerdy guy, doing consulting.
KWON: Yeah, I had no idea at the time. As I found out later on, once the game actually started, the producers had this crazy idea to divide the tribes based on race. So essentially they’re going to have a race war. And for this, they were looking to create a tribe of Caucasian people, African-American people, Latinos, and Asians. And back then, you just didn’t get a lot of Asian people wanting to be on reality shows.
LEVITT: I’ve always been curious, how hard is it on Survivor? Walk us through the process of how you get from the door of the plane to, in your case, one of the Cook Islands. And then can you tell us how hard it is physically and what makes it not so hard or really hard physically and emotionally?
KWON: It’s pretty daunting. So what happens is, you go to L.A. first and then you stay in a hotel. You’re not allowed to have any interaction with any of the other contestants. At some point they take your phone away. And then you get onto a plane, and you’re zipped off to where we need to go. You’re living next to all the other contestants, but you’re not allowed to talk to them for roughly a week.
I think they use that week essentially to help you acclimate. They do some basic training. They give you some basic survival skills, like don’t eat this fish, that’s poisonous. And then we had to get into a small boat that was blacked out. So you couldn’t see outside the boat. And then we’re just waiting in the ocean for hours. I still had the shy bladder syndrome. I was claustrophobic, seasick, I really had to go to the bathroom and I just couldn’t go.
Eventually, finally, the cameras roll. Jeff Probst, the host, comes out. And he says, “All right, you have two minutes to grab as many supplies on the ship and get off.” And then just all pandemonium breaks loose. You’re grabbing all the things that you can, trying to throw them overboard onto these rafts that you’re supposed to get on to with as much gear as you can collect. And then essentially when time is up, row to the island that you’re supposed to be staying in.
That was just brutal. Oh, my God. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. That was probably the closest I got to quitting, because I was so exhausted. I just did not feel physically or mentally well, or emotionally. And I was saying, “I don’t think I can hack it.”
But again, going on Survivor itself was another instantiation of this lifelong commitment I’ve had to putting myself in situations that made me uncomfortable. I mean, the reality of being on Survivor is, it really sucks. That season, they did not give us any food. For the most part, we lived off of coconuts. There’s no bathrooms, there’s no soap. It was pretty rough.
LEVITT: So here you are, you’re heading into Survivor. What was your plan as you started the game?
KWON: I had a pretty good sense of how you should play the game. So one thing that you always see people doing over and over again is acting like a jerk. It just happens every season. And you keep thinking to yourself, “Why do these people act like idiots?” I think the answer to that is, I found out, that if you’re in an environment where you’re miserable and it’s just arduous and you’re dirty and you’re scratching all these bites, it’s hard to keep a lid on your emotions. But that’s one obvious thing: just generally be a pleasant person.
Another lesson learned at a high level is: you don’t want to be too much of a leader. You don’t want to be the person who’s telling people what to do, because generally people don’t like being told what to do. And if you happen to be a good leader, then you’re a potential threat.
At the same time, you can’t go too far under the radar. So it’s that fine line. And at the same time, pulling enough moves that are subtle and in the background but are visible enough that when you make your case to the jury at the very end, you can build a compelling case.
LEVITT: Did you have a particular set of strategies in mind as you launched into the show?
KWON: Oh, yeah. So from a game theory perspective, I was always a fan of Robert Axelrod‘s work around the evolution of cooperation. He was a political scientist who was really interested in trying to figure out: what is the optimal strategy for playing prisoner’s dilemma?
LEVITT: So for people who don’t know what we mean by the prisoner’s dilemma, let me just say it’s a situation in which there are two players and if they can cooperate, they’ll both be better off. But the private incentives are such that they want to cheat on the other person. And in the end, that typically leaves both of them worse off.
KWON: Yeah. So one thing he did back around 1980 was to host a tournament where he invited some of the most prominent researchers, economists, political scientists, computer scientists, to submit a strategy for playing iterated prisoner’s dilemma in the form of a computer program. So he set up a tournament where all of these programs would essentially compete against each other in a round robin tournament of iterated prisoner’s dilemma. And each time they played against each other it would be like something like 200 rounds.
There were lots of different strategies that were submitted. Some were pretty complicated. The thing that ended up winning was one of the simplest programs. I think it only had something like four lines of code. And it was submitted by this mathematical psychologist named Anatol Rapoport. His strategy was something called “tit for tat”.
It starts off cooperating. It starts off being nice. And then it just copies whatever the other guy did the last time. So if the other program cooperated, then the next time tit for tat was like, “O.K., I’m going to cooperate, too.” If the other program backstabs, then tit for tat is like, “O.K., I’m going to backstab you; I’m going to get retribution.” But then if the other program starts cooperating again, then tit for tat would cooperate. So super, super easy program, and tit for tat ended up getting more points over the course of the tournament than any other program by a wide margin.
LEVITT: I teach a class to the undergrads that is an economics course for non-econ majors. And one of my lectures is on game theory and in particular on the prisoner’s dilemma. And indeed, I try to tell them at the end of the lecture that tit for tat is a pretty good strategy for life, and basically says: start out being kind and giving people the benefit of the doubt. When they betray you, react fiercely and punitively, and let them know that it’s not O.K. to betray you. But then give them immediate forgiveness and to repeat.
And actually, if you only have a few rules for life, I think that’s not the worst set of rules to carry around. So you took this theory that Axelrod had developed so seriously that that became the basis for how you lived your life on the island in this Survivor setting, which is about as close in the real world to a game theory setting as we’re going to see. Can you give examples of how you played the strategy?
KWON: We started off as four different ethnic tribes and then there was a tribe swap up where we got divided into two tribes that had equal numbers, six to six. And then they gave everyone the opportunity to mutiny and to defect to the other tribe. And in this case I had developed an alliance with the two Caucasian people on my tribe, this guy, Jonathan. And this woman, Candice.
And when given the opportunity to defect, the two white people basically backstabbed us by flipping sides and joining the other tribe, such that they had a massive numbers advantage, eight to four. At that point in time, it seemed like for the most part, we had virtually no shot of getting farther in the game. What ended up happening was, we went on this crazy run of winning challenge, after challenge, after challenge, so that we ended up getting down the numbers from an eight to four disadvantage to a five to four disadvantage.
So in terms of tit for tat, first of all, we tried to penalize them for defecting against us. For Candice, it was very clear that there was no signal she was providing that indicated intent to cooperate. So we just kept on punishing her. Jonathan was still open to the idea of potentially cooperating under certain circumstances. I realized, hey, look, I should continue to work on him. That’s from basic game theory.
As it turned out, that ended up ultimately sealing the deal. He was eventually able to come back to our tribe, cooperating with me, and I would cooperate with him. We got the numbers advantage and then we booted out the rest of the opposing tribe.
LEVITT: So one key element of tit for tat is, as you said, you need to be able to communicate to your opponents that that is your strategy, both to prevent them from defecting in the beginning, and also from letting them know once they’ve made a mistake that there’s a chance for a redemption. So did you actually, literally with words, try to communicate that to the people around you, either directly or indirectly?
KWON: You don’t want to tell people that you’re using game theory and you’re using this thing called tit for tat, because then that starts freaking people out. They get like, “Oh no, I don’t know what’s going on. You’re manipulating me.”
LEVITT: I think that’s a general rule of economics, which is that if you’re interacting only with economists, you can be very explicit and you can tell them what you’re doing. But when you’re acting like an economist with non-economists, it’s often better to disguise the fact that you’re an economist, for fear of frightening them, yeah?
KWON: Yes. At some point I tried to tell them what my strategy was and Jonathan got it. I think Candice just — it made her nervous, and helped push her over the edge to defect. So, lesson learned is, yeah, use game theory, use tit for tat, but don’t tell people so explicitly that’s what you’re doing.
LEVITT: So let me just interrupt the interview here, because the way Yul used game theory there was amazing, but we glossed over it so quickly in our conversation that what was neat about it got lost. It wasn’t until after the interview when I went back and I sat down with pencil and paper and I worked through the math that I understood exactly how brilliant it was. So let me take a minute to walk you through those calculations more carefully.
So to recap the situation, everyone remaining in the game is now in one tribe. There are nine players, and they’ll be voted off one by one. Two strong alliances have developed. One has five members, the other has four members. Yul is unfortunately in the smaller of those two alliances. But he does have the hidden immunity idol, which provides its owner with a one-time protection against getting voted off.
Without going into all the details, if both alliances hold strong and the dominant alliance plays its cards right, Yul has almost no chance of winning. The alliance with more members will simply vote the people in Yul’s alliance off one by one. There’s one series of events involving the immunity idol that can save Yul, but it’s statistically unlikely. So mathematically, in this scenario, when I compute the chances of Yul’s winning, it turns out to be only about one in 32, or about three percent.
Then Yul hatches his scheme as payback to Jonathan’s treachery, Yul tells Jonathan that every member of Yul’s alliance will vote for Jonathan in every round. And, he tells Jonathan that he, Yul, has the immunity idol and he’ll randomly pass it around within his alliance before every vote. Yul then walks Jonathan through the math, showing him that if Yul’s alliance follows through on the strategy, Jonathan’s probability of surviving the next few rounds isn’t very good, well below 50 percent.
But, then Yul makes Jonathan an offer, “Come join my alliance.” If Jonathan switches alliances, then this new alliance will have the majority, and the immunity idol. Together, they could proceed to wipe out Jonathan’s former alliance, giving Jonathan a straight shot to the final five and some reasonable chance of winning the game. In game-theoretic terms, Yul has used a version of what’s called the mutually assured destruction strategy on Jonathan. Cooperate with me or I’ll make sure we both go down together.
It makes complete sense in light of this for Jonathan to switch sides. But the real winner from Jonathan switching is Yul. Now Yul is guaranteed to make the final five but he also keeps his hidden immunity idol and doesn’t have to share it with anyone, giving him a huge advantage later in the game. When Jonathan switches, the math gets tricky, but by my calculation, Yul’s chance of winning jumps to about 50/50.
So this one brilliant piece of game theory took Yul’s likelihood of winning roughly from one in 32 to 50 percent. With a prize to the winner of $1 million, that’s worth almost $500,000 in expected value for Yul, plus all the perks of winning. That is what I call economics in action. O.K. Now back to the interview.
LEVITT: I know you’ve suffered from migraines your whole life and that one way that you’ve gotten respite from them is wearing a mouth guard. But someone told me that they didn’t let you bring the mouth guard on the show.
KWON: So if I don’t wear the mouth guard and I grind my teeth at night, then I will usually wake up with a migraine. I also had this bad tendency to literally chomp down on my tongue which would give me this bloody tongue, which was really gross.
So, yeah, for me, one of the transformative things that allowed me to function in life was having a mouth guard. So I got a doctor’s note saying, “No, no, no, no, I really need this. It’s a medical necessity.” They’re like, “Nope, no mouth guard.” So I think, “I’m going to get a migraine every day and chew up my tongue. I’m not going to be any good.”
LEVITT: I can’t believe you went. I mean, what kind of a person are you? Who goes into a situation like Survivor knowing that you’re going to suffer from migraines every day? I mean, are you crazy?
KWON: Again, it’s this thing that I’ve just had my whole life. If there’s something that I feel like I can’t do, I’m too scared to do it, I feel like I have to force myself to do it.
LEVITT: So the first night you go to sleep and then when you wake up in the morning, you have a terrible migraine. What do you do?
KWON: Well, the really surprising thing was — which completely confounded me — I was so convinced I was going to go and grind my teeth and chew up my tongue, wake up with a migraine. And the first night I woke up, I didn’t. I’m like, “Woah, this is weird. I feel fine?” And then the next night, the same thing happened. I did not get another migraine — I didn’t grind my teeth for the entire length of time I was on the island. The other surprising thing was, as soon as I came back, I started grinding my teeth again and getting migraines.
LEVITT: So you came off the island. You thought, “Oh, my God, I’ve finally solved my problem with grinding and migraines.” You don’t wear your mouth guard, you’re back in civilization. And you’re right back where you started.
KWON: At the time, I didn’t really think about it too much because I just thought maybe it was a fluke. The thing that’s actually been super interesting for me is I went back on Survivor pretty recently, and it had been like 13 years. I went on the first time in 2006 and then I just went back on for the 40th season of Survivor. It’s the 20th anniversary of the show. The producers decided to do something they’d never done before, which is bring back the winners and have an all-winners competition. And I went back on the island and I stopped grinding my teeth.
LEVITT: So we’re going to talk more about your second stint on Survivor in a second episode we’ll publish, but I just want to know now, what’s your theory about why in Survivor world you didn’t grind your teeth and in your daily life, you grind like crazy?
KWON: I think there are at least a few factors that I could probably point to. One is: when you’re living on an island and you don’t have any flashlights or lamps or anything like that, you wake up when the sun comes up and you go to sleep when the sun comes down. So, your sleep habits are perfectly aligned with your circadian rhythms.
I think another thing is, the diet makes a big difference. For migraine sufferers there are typically a lot of dietary triggers. And in modern society, you’re eating so much processed food. I think that actually ends up being a real trigger for me. So I think diet played a big role.
LEVITT: What about screens and computing, which dominates modern life?
KWON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, I work in technology, and I’m a fan of technology, and, generally, I’m an optimist. I mean, being on an island, you just recognize what a role technology has really played in making life just better. But, in my normal life, I spend most of my time in front of a screen and I’m squinting and I’m looking at these tiny little things all day. Whereas if you’re on an island, you’re very rarely straining your eyes to look at just something right in front of you. And you’re not locked into this one posture all day for hours and hours at a time.
I think another thing that’s really interesting is, I think when I was on the island, for the first time in years, since the last time I was on Survivor, so 13 years, I felt like I was whole in a way that I hadn’t felt in a really long time. What I mean by that is, we live in such a fast-paced society that you’re constantly bombarded by all sorts of different stimuli. I’m giving a fraction of my attention and myself to this particular issue or this incoming e-mail or to this person.
When you’re on an island, you don’t have any of that. Literally, it’s just you and your thoughts. And there was something about that I found to be really refreshing. When you’re on an island, there are concrete, tangible actions you can take in order to address stressors. If you come back here to modern life. There’s so many things that you have to deal with but you can’t concretely do anything about; it also becomes overwhelming.
I’ve read that the World Health Organization has done a couple of studies and indicates that there’s a rough correlation between, on a country level, the wealth of the country as measured by income and rates of both depression and anxiety. I think there’s something to that.
LEVITT: In line with that, have you tried to adapt anything from the island into your life now? Do you try to go to sleep when the sun goes down or anything like that?
KWON: I tried. When I was on the island, I had these real epiphanies. Just like, “Man, when I come back, I want to be a better husband. I want to be a better father. I want to be a better citizen. I want to do these things that are more meaningful.” And coming back, it’s very hard to maintain that perspective, because it’s just human nature to revert back to the norm and to view your life in a very relative sense. Human nature is such that you anchor towards the things that are most salient around you. So sometimes I wonder; it might be good to go back on an island by myself and just suffer through it to realize how damn lucky I am.
LEVITT: That’s the end of this episode but not the end of my conversation with Yul. We agreed to reconvene and when we did, we talked about his second stint on Survivor, his efforts leading Google’s side of the Google/Apple Covid-19 contact tracing project, and even my own failed attempts to pitch the networks on a reality TV show called Cops and Robbers. That’s all coming up in next week’s episode.
That’s right, next week — just a reminder that People I (Mostly) Admire now comes out every week, instead of every two weeks.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey and Morgan Levey. Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, and Emma Tyrrell. We had help on this episode from James Foster. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A at freakonomics.com.
KWON: I jumped off the ship into the water. And then as soon as I hit the water, I’m like, what the f*** am I doing? Why did I just jump off the ship? Oh, hello? Did I lose you?
LEVITT: No, I’m laughing. I’m just laughing.