I Like to Watch

Looking to "Survivor's" Cindy and North Korea's Kim Jong-il for lessons on how to lose big, lose early and lose often.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published December 11, 2005 12:32PM (EST)

The one-minute manager
Everyone has their own winning formula. For some, that formula is hard work, a positive outlook on life, and a collection of throw pillows with inspirational sayings sewn onto them. For others, that formula includes whining, procrastinating and drinking to excess. But whatever your winning formula is, you should feel grateful that you have one -- that is, unless you're not winning at all, in which case what you have is a losing formula.

Even so, at least you can fall back on the same old strategies over and over again instead of having to be spontaneous or conjure an original thought or challenge yourself occasionally. Of course people say they love new challenges, but the only ones who really do are those rich enough to hire a team of experts -- interior designers, MBAs, Sherpas -- to do most of the work for them. These rich folks also know that once the hard part is over, they can get a three-hour massage and eat a plate of foie gras the size of their heads.

Try not to think about them too much, though. Feel proud that you have to succeed the old-fashioned way -- by cheating, or by confusing people into thinking that you're talented. Feel proud that you came up with your winning formula on your own, without the help of any paid consultants or life coaches. Only through years of failures and disappointments did you learn to cajole, obfuscate and manipulate others into doing your bidding. That's right! When no one was looking, you became a manager.

Which is great, because you'll find that, as you get older, what you once referred to as your "life" looks more and more like a big, complicated factory. If you hadn't become a manager over the years, your "factory," with its moving parts and irritable union laborers, would completely overwhelm you, and the wheels of personal industry would grind to a halt.

A torrent of abuse
OK, but here's the sad thing. As you start to realize that your "identity" is just a mid-level managerial position and your "home" is a leased commercial space and your "lifestyle" is, in fact, a strategy for maximizing profits while ensuring future growth, it's easy to lose sight of your "values."

No, no. Put down the employee policy handbook -- that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about values, you know, like morals and ethics.

"Huh? What are those?" you ask. And hey, that's OK. It's OK to be completely devoid of any guiding principles or ethical standards. I mean, who wants big ideals and notions of what's right and wrong around? Those things are only going to slow you down, and compromise the efficiency of your production facilities.

And yet, as a good manager, you're going to have to be armed with a solid mission statement; otherwise your minions might notice that you've been taking three-hour, four-martini lunches for that past 20 years. It's shocking, in fact, how few managers today know that they even need a mission statement, beyond something like "Work harder, bitches!" or "I want more stuff from Crate and Barrel!"

Take Cindy from "Survivor" -- stay with me, now, I know you're tired of reality TV, but this is important. Last week, Cindy won the reward challenge, which meant she won a brand new Pontiac Torrent, which is a bubbly-looking midsize SUV. But wait, there's a twist! Soon after winning, host Jeff Probst gave her another option: Give up the brand-new car, and the other four contestants will each get a brand-new car of his or her own!

OK, chickens. Answer me this: Who pauses to think at this point? What kind of a mind wraps itself around that question and comes up with any answer other than "I'll give up the car, Jeff!" Four people get brand-new cars, four people, one of whom has never owned her own car in her entire life. Who could even consider taking a new car for herself, knowing that she cheated four people out of that experience?

And that's without factoring in the millions of people watching. When you consider all those people out there, millions of people, lots of them young and impressionable, watching as you decide between doing the right thing, or doing the selfish thing?

"But hey, it's just a game," you say, so let's cast all moral considerations aside and consider the game. No matter how they feel about you, I guarantee you that the other contestants would be physically unable to vote you out, after you gave them all cars. By giving up your car, you might just have won yourself a million dollars -- you'd at least have a great shot at it.

And then you throw in the long-term picture: You give up the car, and millions of people are watching. Here's what happens next: 1) Everyone at camp loves you, and feels a personal sense of obligation to make sure you make it into the final three at the very least, 2) everyone at home goes "Awww, that was so nice of her!" which means that 3) you'll be sitting down with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer and God knows who else to discuss your huge, generous heart, which means that 4) you'll demand a good sum as a public speaker for a few years and 5) you might just earn a hefty sum for appearing in a few print ads and, hey, even if you don't want any of that stuff 6) you can spend the rest of your life with your head held high, knowing that you did the right thing.

Now let's look at what happens when you keep the car: 1) Everyone at camp instantly dislikes you, and for a very good reason, 2) everyone at home goes "Ewww" and tries to pry your mean little face out of their minds forever, 3) you get voted off at the next tribal council, 4) not even the host of "The Early Show" on CBS really wants to speak to you, 5) your 15 minutes of fame are reduced to five minutes and 6) you spend the rest of your life known as the Selfish, Morally Bankrupt Idiot Who Sold Her Soul for a Pontiac.

When Cindy paused, I groaned, but thought there was no way in hell she would screw the others just to keep the car for herself. Not so. Not only did she keep the car, but she spent the next few days at camp talking about how friggin' fantastic the car was, how much she loved it, how she couldn't believe how lucky she was. She was voted out that night, of course.

I mean, look, even if you have no values or morals whatsoever, it's a terrible choice. Here's what you do if you're a cynic and an ethically bereft opportunist: You say, "Oh, Jeff. I soooo want that Pontiac Torrent, with its stylish leather seats and its roomy five-passenger interior. I've been coveting that car ever since I read its excellent review in Road and Driver magazine. Ask my mom! I have a picture of it on my mirror. But you know what? If I love that car, I know these guys -- and I consider each one of them a close friend now that we've been through so much together -- I know that they'll love that car just as much as I do. To be able to give them all cars! What a great feeling!" And then, turning to the other contestants, who are by now squealing and breaking down into sobs: "I love you guys! Congratulations!"

Next, you either win the $1 million or you don't, but either way, I personally guarantee you that not only does a representative from Pontiac drive a brand new Torrent up to your door, but you become a spokeswoman for the Pontiac Torrent for the next year and earn some serious walking-around money.

I know I sound like I'm obsessed with this situation, and that's because I am. I just can't believe how anyone could be so unthinkably selfish and so disastrously short-sighted at the same time. Contestants Danni and Rafe were flabbergasted to the point of laughing out loud in disbelief, which you'd think would be everyone's reaction. Not so! Lydia told Cindy that she made the right decision, and Stephanie said it didn't even occur to her that anyone would do anything but take the car. She thought Rafe's comment that he never, ever would've taken the car was just a lot of holier-than-thou posturing.

Imagine that! To not only refuse to even consider giving four cars away instead of taking one, but also to think that anyone who says that they'd consider it must be full of shit!

Look, we're all busy and we all have our own factories to run, usually with limited resources. But it's downright disconcerting how different we are from each other, ethically. That reward challenge wasn't a choice, it was just a veiled opportunity, courtesy of the producers, to do something generous and honorable, if not just to appear generous and honorable. Seeing someone turn down that chance is like wandering into your neighbor's house and finding a herd of preteen girls sewing together Gap sweatshirts until their fingers bleed.

The kicker -- this is what Cindy's mom told the local paper about her: "She's not into materialistic things. Her philosophy is that you take what you need and then you give back the rest. She's a true environmentalist."

Living underground
Yes, and North Korea's Kim Jong-il is a wonderful man with a realistic plan to transform his country from a concentration camp to the next Hollywood! Hurray! Forget that so many in North Korea risk death to cross the border to China, whereupon those sweet, kindhearted Chinese ship them right back to the death camp that they call home.

This Tuesday night on PBS (Dec. 13, check local listings), Independent Lens presents "Seoul Train," a very personal look at a handful of North Korean refugees and the activists who risk their lives to help them escape North Korea and China. While news surrounding North Korea tends to center on standoffs involving nuclear proliferation, 2 to 3 million have died of starvation, and there are estimated to be about 250,000 North Korean refugees in China.

The film focuses on some of these people, who will face torture or death if they're forced to return to North Korea. One woman says, through tears, that she can barely sleep, she's so afraid of being caught by the Chinese. Then there's the scene where a group tries to cross the border, and one woman gets tackled by the police as her toddler daughter looks on, terrified (there's a picture of it for those of you who are in the mood to cry).

But before you get too depressed by the notion that the world is populated only by Cindys and Kim Jong-ils, remember that filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth put their necks on the line to raise awareness of the human rights crisis going on. If you don't have a firm grasp of what's happening in North Korea, set your managerial duties aside for a while to tune in to this hair-raising documentary.

The death of celebrity
After that, you're going to want to shift gears completely and watch something that's guaranteed to make you laugh. Lucky for you, I have just the thing: Bravo's "Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words" (10 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15). While the horrible title makes this one-hour special sound like an "E! True Hollywood Story," it's exactly the opposite. The special is a live performance by a bunch of great comedians who take the stage and do interpretive readings of celebrity autobiographies by Burt Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor and 'N Sync.

Whether Sly Stallone is telling us how he talks to his muscles, or Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson are remembering the details of their romance, "Celebrity Autobiography" does us all a big service by reminding us that celebrities aren't just like us -- in truth, they're a lot more self-involved, stupid and boring than we are.

No matter how much we try to deify them, we can't make celebrities any more interesting. That may be the big lesson of the decade, coming to us courtesy of way too many celebrity magazines and celebrity shows and wasted paparazzi energy. Brangelina, TomKat, BritFed, and all of the other two-headed gargoyles of celebrity are slowly but surely starting to wear out their welcome with us. Hell, even Oprah is having trouble feigning interest as they sit there on her buttery yellow leather couch, prattling on and on about their mediocre films and dull little lives like anyone should care. "Hey!" Oprah looks like she wants to say, "I'm the celebrity here. You're just an actor."

Featuring Cheryl Hines, Jay Mohr, Kevin Nealon, Fred Willard and a bunch of other talented comedians, "Celebrity Autobiography" is a hilarious performance that you really, really shouldn't miss. Trust me, don't miss it.

Losing your win-win religion
Whether your winning formula involves taking credit for other people's work then stuffing yourself on goose liver, passing up an opportunity to be generous and honorable just to win a crappy Pontiac, or running your country into the ground while millions starve, you can take comfort in knowing that you'll be safe from a flood of outrage, because people have decided that outrage is unfashionable and unsavory, and besides, the "Survivor" finale is on tonight. Just keep managing your little factory and keep distracting yourself with the tedious details of celebrity lives, hoping that someone else will put themselves out, challenge the conventional wisdom, or decide spontaneously to stand up for what's right -- you know, so you don't have to.

Next week: How "Star Trek" freak-lady Seven of Nine moved to "The OC" to wreak havoc on Kirsten and Julie, but all she got for her efforts was this lousy teaser.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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I Like To Watch Survivor