As a young boy, Kiran Naidoo CA(SA), a strategy consultant at Step Advisory from Johannesburg, had a dream of competing in the hit reality show Survivor SA. His dream finally came to fruition in 2021 when he got the chance to be part of the show. Although he got voted out with only four days left, Kiran would not trade his experience for anything, as it was life-changing
‘I’ve been a life-long fan of Survivor SA. The first season aired when I was about 9 years old and I loved it for the physical challenges, but as I got older it morphed into an interest in the strategies of the game,’ explains Kiran.
‘There’s also this element of wanting to test yourself and to see whether you’re as good as you think you are, or whether you’re just better as an on-the-couch analyst. It’s a combination of putting yourself through your paces and putting your money where your mouth is.’
The 29-year-old credits his occupational background for getting as far in the game as he did. ‘Being a strategy consultant is a cool job. It’s very stressful, but it’s different each day and you help businesses achieve their goals, whatever that may be,’ he explains.
Kiran believes that this t served him well. ‘My daily life is to think ahead and be three steps ahead of our client. I’m usually underestimated in real life; in the game, I think that was a strength.’
Growing up, Kiran wanted to become a lawyer. ‘I was quite argumentative as a kid, so law stuck out. As I got older, though, I realised being a CA(SA) opened more doors and made it is easier to work internationally. Additionally, I really enjoyed accounting at school. Little did I know that type of accounting is not what being a CA(SA) is about,’ he laughs.
Kiran loves competition and believes ‘playing “for fun” is the most annoying concept in the world!’
About Survivor SA: Immunity Island, Kiran says: ‘It is the greatest social experiment. You have to have an understanding of people, their behaviour and their motives. I am exceptionally curious about the world around me and the motivations behind why people do what they do.’
At university, Kiran developed an interest in Behavioural Economics. ‘That is Survivor SA in a nutshell – understanding how people react in specific situations, how their vices can make them do something completely the opposite of what is optimal for them,’ he explains. ‘I am equally guilty of sometimes making decisions based on groupthink and what my friends are doing around me,’ he admits.
According to him, the tough conditions of Survivor SA strip you down to ‘your bare bones’.
Surprisingly, the most difficult thing about the Survivor SA experience for Kiran was something unexpected. ‘Going in, I thought the most difficult thing would be the scheming, but actually that came pretty easily because I could guess ahead what people’s optimal moves were and what they were going to do. Especially if they were thinking logically,’ he laughs.
‘The thing that I thought would be fairly easy were the elements, but it wasn’t. From Maslow’s hierarchy perspective, it becomes quite clear that the most important thing is always keeping dry. Being wet is miserable! Your clothes stick to you. You can’t sleep. You start chafing … It is literally the worst thing!’ Kiran explains.
The second important thing is being warm, and thirdly, being fed. ‘That was tough. When we got to about four weeks in, the hunger was unbearable,’ he admits. ‘I’ve done a lot of diets and that’s easy. You can always see your next meal on the horizon. When you’re busy, you don’t think about how hungry you are. On Survivor SA, no matter how busy you are, you will always think about food …’
In a South African context, Kiran feels this experience was quite poignant. ‘Millions of people are starving, so for me to willingly put myself in that situation shows how privileged I am. It contextualised the plight of millions of South Africans.’ These days he finds it very difficult to drive past someone who is homeless and hungry because he understands a bit more about what it means and what it feels like.
‘You see 50 minutes of the show and it’s all deeply strategic. Bur for about 23 hours of the day, all we did was sit around and talk about food. It is all-consuming,’ admits Kiran.
While on Survivor SA, Kiran even had a list of about 60 items that he wanted to eat when he got back home. ‘So, I have a lot of empathy with people who are hungry, especially given COVID-19 and everything that happened. Even the recent looting and rioting (before it became opportunistic) … I didn’t condone it, but I understood.’
According to Kiran his relationship with food has changed even more on a personal note since being part of Survivor SA. ‘Coming off Survivor was very much like coming off a diet and wanting to eat everything. It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s an addiction or whatever the case may be … Mentally I know I’ve eaten enough and there is an abundance of food, but there is this compulsion to continue to eat …’
Kiran lost 10 kilograms during his time on Immunity Island. ‘And since, I’ve put on 14 kilograms. When I got back, all I did was eat. It was only 10 months later that I was able to put the brakes on this. It puts you in an unhealthy space where you feel the need to consume as much as possible,’ he confesses.
It is difficult for him to say what his favourite part of Survivor SA was. ‘I loved everything, but if I had to choose, it would be the social element. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a social chameleon – I’m an Indian guy who went to a Model C school. I don’t sound like anyone in my family. Growing up my friends were predominantly black guys. So, I’m very much a multi-cultural individual. To see my ability to connect with most people come into effect on the show was great!’
Kiran admits he is not what the ‘typical Survivor player’ looks like. ‘Not many Indian people participate – even internationally. I don’t know why. But for me, it did show I can compete with the best, which was great. As a lifelong fan, that was validation to know that I wasn’t a fish out of the water, but a real competitor.’
He enjoyed the physical challenges immensely. ‘One of the most memorable moments was an immunity challenge where you had to stand on a 5-metre pole. I eventually won after holding onto that pole for three and a half hours (even though I normally can’t sit still for 10 minutes!). I’m not an endurance person by any means. But I am deeply competitive and believe if you put your mind to it, it’s possible.’
For the first hour of that challenge, Kiran admits, he mostly thought about food, naturally. As time went by, he decided to challenge and push himself to see how far he could go. Towards the end, he started thinking strategically about what he would do if he won the challenge.
Kiran believes his CA(SA) qualification helped him immensely during Survivor SA. ‘Analysis − the ability to judge risk − was a big part of the game. A lot of people are afraid to take risks and CAs, in particular, are usually seen as very risk averse. But that is not true. We are very good at understanding risk and know that taking some risk is the optimal thing to do,’ he explains. In Survivor, Kiran’s ability to accurately assess risks and rewards directly aligned to his training as a CA(SA), which aided in his success.
‘The ability to see beyond face value (of what people were saying) and dig deeper was also important. Having a CA’s questioning mentality helped a lot in the game,’ he explains.
Although Kiran was the only player not to shed a few tears during the season, he admits towards the end he did start getting emotional. ‘There were a few people who started playing quite destructively – so much so that their moves didn’t even make sense to themselves. Trying to navigate the game and plot my path was quite frustrating,’ he admits. ‘I would like to think I generally played quite logically, so when people moved in ways that didn’t make sense for them, my frustration would show.’
Kiran went into Survivor SA thinking ‘there are so many variables at one time that you can’t try to force an outcome. All you can do is make the best decision based on the facts in front of you. My mantra going in was “a good decision is based on the facts in front of you, not the outcome”.’ According to him, this sentiment was reinforced time and again during the competition. ‘It is something that I definitely try to underpin in my career and especially with my clients.’
The most surprising thing Kiran learned about himself during Survivor SA was that he thrives in difficult situations. ‘When the chips are down, I become more positive. I don’t know whether it was about collective suffering – knowing you’re not in it alone. Or if it was just a case of “it can’t get any worse, so try and consolidate and see the positive”.’
If there was one thing he would have done differently, it would have been to allow viewers to see a bit more of his light-hearted side. ‘People at camp saw me very jovial, always making jokes whereas what you saw on TV was someone who is deeply analytical, really focused on the strategy. I would have liked for the audience to see my spicy side!’ he laughs.
After being voted out, Kiran felt proud to have been seen as a threat in what he considers to be the greatest game on earth. ‘To have other people tell me I was a massive threat, having the validation of knowing that the game I’ve played was threatening to someone else is almost worth a million bucks. It gave me a lot more belief in myself and helped me shake off the shackles of “imposter syndrome” quite a bit.’ His experience freed him up to do his best in his career without wondering and worrying whether he was doing the right thing.
Kiran will always feel privileged to have been part of Survivor SA. ‘To be able to take part in a game that I’ve loved for nearly 20 years and have people be that afraid of me, makes it all worth it, because I am recognised for the threat that I really am.’
- Kiran’s advice on surviving the game of life
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
- Remember: a good decision is based on the facts in front of you, not the outcome
- You have to try to get an understanding of people, their behaviour, background and beliefs. Understanding people to that level gives you insight into where they come from, what motivates them and ultimately how they make decisions
- Never lose your CA questioning mentality
- Believe if you put your mind to it, it’s possible
- Test yourself to see whether you’re as good as you think you are and put your money where your mouth is.
Author Marteli Brewis