Jeff Probst has an electrifying energy, a passion for life and an intellectual mind, working to understand the human condition.
And, of course, the drive of an entrepreneur who walked away from corporate life, who turned down more than nine job offers with faith that the right gig for him was still en route.
“I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller,” says the Emmy Award-winning host of Survivor during the New York City premiere for the 32nd season—Survivor: Kaôh Rōng. “My first job was at the Boeing airplane company, they had a motion picture department. I started learning as a production assistant, then as a writer, then as a producer; then I hosted one of my own shows and I realized that’s the person delivering the message. That’s why I got in front of the camera—so that I could be the last voice in authoring it.”
That involved risk-taking. When he worked for Boeing for two years, the now executive producer and filmmaker realized he wasn’t good with rules. So he left corporate. “I remember my friends saying, ‘The good news is they really like you, you can always come back.’ And I said, ‘I’m never coming back.’”
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After walking away from “a lot of money” in that job, Probst hasn’t looked back since. Even when he wasn’t working, he said, “I’m not going backwards if I can’t get what I want.”
“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had success, but I still would have made the same decisions…. I’m not a corporate America guy. I thrive with autonomy. Give me a little trust and I’ll work three times as hard to deliver and make you happy. Put me in a box and I shrivel up.”
Those decisions meant turning down nine consecutive potential jobs within 18 months. After TV gigs at FX and Access Hollywood, he mentions, “They were super nice guys but I just didn’t like where my career was heading.”
Convinced he wasn’t meant to be that guy reading a teleprompter on a dating show introducing couples, his agent agreed he wasn’t crazy for turning down work. Instead, he told Probst, “Just wait—it’ll come.”
It was while driving on the freeway in Los Angeles that Probst heard TV producer Mark Burnett on the radio explaining the premise of Survivor. “I pulled over,” he recalls, “and got on a pay phone and called my agent and said there’s this show, Survivor. I’ve got to meet on it.”
At the end of a two-hour meeting with Burnett, Probst had all of five minutes to actually speak up for himself. “I said, ‘Listen, forget all of the anecdotes I was going to tell you. I’m a writer. I’m a student of the human condition, I’ve been in therapy, I get your show.’ And he said, ‘Very nice to meet you, thank you for coming in.’ I felt—what?!”
That’s it? What just happened? Probst was certain he was the right guy for the role.
He didn’t hear from anybody for months, so he took an interesting approach. He wrote a series of fake articles by different reporters who all talked about how successful the show had become, like how Survivor set a summer season viewing record. “All of these things that ultimately, weirdly came true! I put it in a bottle and I sent it to CBS like it had been washed upon a shore—and didn’t hear anything back.”
“I thought, I guess I was wrong.”
Four months later, his agent called. “I walked into CBS… and I got Survivor.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Do you have the entrepreneurial spirit to outwit and outlast the competition? Jeff Probst knows what it takes for that part of you to survive. Here, he shares his lessons, from the show and from his own experience, for not just surviving, but thriving in the entrepreneurial jungle:
1. Follow where you put your energy.
“Follow where you actually put your effort—not your dream. If it’s a dream and that’s all it is, that’s all that’s going to remain.”
If you really want to be a long distance runner, run every day working toward your goal. If you want to write a novel, write persistently every morning.
“What we tell our kids is, ‘Pay attention to what interests you, explore it and if you become good at it, the money will come,” Probst says. He didn’t want to get stuck—so he patiently pursued his passion, and he pursued it wholeheartedly.
2. Go all in.
“I watch Shark Tank a lot. Mark Cuban always asks the same kinds of questions every week: ‘How many hours a week are you putting into your business?’ And when somebody says, ‘Well right now it’s kind of part-time,’ he says, ‘I’m out.’”
Cuban looks for somebody who cares about nothing else but their passion project. “That’s the way I feel about my professional life,” Probst says. “I’m really only interested in storytelling, so I’m either writing a story of Stranded (his children’s book series) or a script, or I’m editing Survivor or I’m making Survivor—but I’m not interested in a lot of other things.”
3. Build alliances.
Pointing out contestant Richard Hatch from the first season—he understood moving forward intuitively by forming a group, Probst recalls. “We didn’t get that. When he said, ‘I’m forming an alliance,’ we thought, ‘What is an alliance and what is he talking about?’ Probst mentions that lightbulb moment of realizing OK, he’s saying as a group we can all move further in the game together.
“But what he didn’t tell anybody is, ‘I’m not going to tell you when our agreement is over, but I’m going to cut you before you know it—therefore, I’ll be the last one standing.’ It was a brilliant display of what Survivor was meant to become.”
4. Fail, learn, tweak. And play again to win.
“Take a look at John Cochran. He’s a Harvard grad heading to law school—nerdy, skin so white it’s translucent, sunburns instantly. Plays Survivor, thinks he knows the game up and down, wrote a college thesis paper on it and gets voted out early. Instead of crumbling, he looked at the experience and thought, How do I turn all of those liabilities into assets? He said, ‘Can I play again?’”
Related: 5 Ways to Reframe Failure
Not only did he come back, he won and became one of the most popular winners of all-time. “His failure led to all this knowledge. That knowledge unlocked door to him winning,” Probst says. Instead of looking at his failure as a setback, Cochran looked at 13 episodes as information as to where he went wrong.
He tweaked his performances, turning negative into positives. “He was the best version of himself. He’s the same guy who played the first time but presented himself differently. He was able to see how people saw him.”
5. Think bigger—and go for it.
“All of us are capable of much more than we believe we are. Most of us are as good as we think we are, we’re just often afraid to test it.”
A lot of contestants finish the experience and think, Wow, I’m better than thought, or I’m as good as I hoped I was. “You only get that by going out into the world and saying, ‘I’m going for it. I’m going to start my own company, I’m going to leave this job, I’m going to go get my master’s degree,’ whatever your thing is. The only way you find out if you’re as good as you think you are is to go find out.”
Survivor: Kaôh Rōng premieres Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.