“Survivor” Contestant Returns to Campus


Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS

John Cochran, ’12, returned to campus this term after taking the Fall 2011 term off to compete in “Survivor: South Pacific.” He responded to questions from The Record in an e-mail (edited for style):

Record: When and why did you decide to apply to join “Survivor”?

I applied for “Survivor” in January 2011. I’ve been a huge, huge fan of the show since the very first season in 2000, so playing the game was something I’ve always dreamed of doing. In terms of “why now,” I think my Summer 2010 internship at the [Federal Communications Commission] played a big role. At the FCC, it just so happened that my supervisor ended up being Yul Kwon, the winner of “Survivor: Cook Islands.” Yul is an extraordinarily accomplished guy: Stanford undergrad, Yale Law, worked at Google, McKinsey… his resume goes on and on. I think meeting him in person, and seeing that an ambitious, normal person can participate on a reality show, was eye-opening for me. It made me think “maybe this won’t be career/reputation suicide! Look at Yul!” And in addition to that, I was very aware that I’m not likely to take such a bizarre risk once I graduate law school. I figured that this was my last chance to really indulge myself in such a wild way.

Tell us what it was like being on the show. Was it more difficult than 1L? Did your experiences at Harvard Law help you to perform so well on the show?

“Survivor” is the real deal. We’re sleeping on bamboo or the ground, eating nothing but coconuts and occasionally fish, and really dealing with the elements. And on top of that, you’re under constant psychological stress, worrying about whether you’re going to be voted out or backstabbed (which, for me, was a very realistic worry). In my pre-game interviews with the press, I think I joked pretty frequently that “Survivor” would seem like nothing after going to Harvard Law; Harvard is obviously a really competitive environment, and can be very stressful, so I thought there were some striking parallels. As it turned out, though, the experiences are really different. I think [Harvard Law], on the whole, has a pretty cooperative atmosphere. It’s not the super cut-throat world of “The Paper Chase.” On “Survivor,” everyone really is looking out only for himself: you can’t trust anyone. I’m not sure how much my time at Harvard helped me on “Survivor.” I’d like to be able to say that it allowed me to craft convincing arguments that persuaded my fellow castaways to keep me, but I think, on the whole, my verbose, law student babbling probably alienated me more than it helped me. I consider my “Survivor” persona to be very different from my “law student” persona. There’s not much overlap. Had I made it to the finals (where you plead your case in front of a “jury” of the people who voted you off), maybe I could’ve flexed my Harvard Law argumentative muscles more.

What’s it like being back at HLS? Is it difficult to adjust to being a law student again? How much of a physical toll did “Survivor” take on you?

Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

It’s a little bit disorienting to be back. Three or so weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles with all these “Survivor” fans fawning over me at the live finale. Now I’m back in Cambridge where, really, nobody watches or cares about “Survivor,” so that’s been a kind of funny transition. I’ve also found I’m a little bit rusty as a law student. A friend of mine wrote me a message with “8th am” in it, and I couldn’t figure out what she was referring to; the Constitution has been so far off my radar recently that I had no idea it was a reference to the 8th Amendment. I’m improving every day, though, and it’s nice to be back.

Regarding the physical toll the game took on me, I was fortunate not to get any infected cuts or stomach viruses or anything. The big thing was weight loss. I usually weigh around 145 to 150 pounds, and I left the game at 120 pounds. I gained back all the weight almost immediately, though, and had pretty awful eating habits for a couple months after the game ended. I’m pretty much back to normal now.

What’s next for you? Will you be pursuing a legal career after graduation?

For the time being, I’m focusing on schoolwork and getting back into the groove of law school. I’m still actually undecided about what I want to do after I graduate. There’s a good chance I’ll do something law-related, but an equally good chance I’ll do something totally out of left field.

How did “Survivor” change your life and, specifically, your career path?

As goofy as it sounds, “Survivor” really did change me in many ways. I think a big thing that changed is that, like many (if not most) law students, I’m generally a pretty risk-averse kind of guy. There’s something easy and appealing about the path law school, and especially a good school like Harvard, affords you. Go to school, work at a big law firm for a few years, go in-house somewhere. “Survivor” was such a big detour for me, though, that now I feel a little more comfortable with the idea of straying from that path. I feel like inertia has been too strong a force in my life, so now I’m trying to resist it. It’s scary, since the law school-to-biglaw path is pretty inviting, but it’s also pretty liberating. I’m excited about the possibilities now. Maybe I’ll be a lawyer! A writer! Who knows? It’s embarrassing that it took participating on the 23rd season of a reality show to show me this, but it’s the truth.

Cochran also provided an excerpt, the first two paragraphs, from his Spring 2010 paper for the “American Jury” course, for which he received a Dean’s Scholar prize for comparing the American jury system with “Survivor”‘s jury system. 

Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Some jury members are former allies of one or both of the finalists; others are old enemies. While some jurors approach their vote with palpable bitterness at having been outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted by the finalists, others strive to set aside their personal feelings towards the finalists and focus instead on the merits of their gameplay. Regardless of their personal allegiances and vendettas, these eliminated contestants are arguably the people best situated and most qualified to render the “verdict” that crowns the winner. Having lived with the finalists for several weeks, witnessing their acts of loyalty and betrayal—and, in many  instances, being the beneficiaries or victims of such acts—these jurors, more than anyone else, are able to base their votes on an intimate knowledge of the finalists and their actions throughout the competition. As an avid fan of “Survivor,” I wondered what we could learn, extract, or apply from this show in the realm of the American legal system, and was particularly intrigued by the “Survivor” model’s implications for the American jury. My goal: to better understand whatthe American jury is and, perhaps more importantly, what it could be.

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