117. Compassion & Perseverance to Survive with Ethan Zohn

The Do a Day Podcast from Bryan Falchuk

Ethan Zohn is a humanitarian, inspirational speaker and television host; former professional soccer player; cancer survivor and advocate; winner of the hit reality television show, CBS’s Survivor: Africa; contestant on season 40 of Survivor: Winners at War, author and inventor; and co-founder of the global non-profit, Grassroot Soccer. He has found purpose through his humanitarian work and community involvement, and believes that a better and healthier world can be achieved through education, advocacy and inspiration.

In 2002, Ethan used a portion of his Survivor: Africa winnings to help found Grassroots Soccer (GRS), an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize at-risk youth in developing countries to overcome their greatest health challenges, live healthier, more productive lives, and be agents for change in their communities. To date, the organization has reached over 2.9 million youth in over 60 countries with critical health information, access to health services, and mentorship.

Ever the tireless and creative promoter, in 2008, Ethan embarked on a record-breaking 550-mile journey on foot, from Boston, MA to Washington, D.C., dribbling a soccer ball the entire route, to raise money and build awareness for GRS.

In 2009, as a fit, active, 35-year-old former professional soccer player who had traveled the world on behalf of the international health community through Grassroot Soccer, Ethan became an unlikely face of cancer. Diagnosed not once but twice with CD20+ Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the span of several years, Ethan endured years of aggressive treatment, including two stem cell transplants. Never losing optimism, spirit, or humor despite extraordinary rigors and setbacks, Ethan used his journey and considerable platform to connect with others – young adults in particular – and offer much-needed inspiration, advice, and comfort.

Ethan is a graduate of Vassar College, and he has played and coached soccer professionally in Zimbabwe, the United States, and as a member of the US National team for the 1997 and 2001 Maccabiah Games in Israel and 2004 Pan-American Maccabiah Games in Chile. In recognition for his work Ethan was awarded the 2004 Nkosi Johnson Community Spirit Award by the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, the Heroes Among Us Award from the Boston Celtics and the Massachusetts State Health Department, and the Auxilia Chimusoro Award from the US State Department in Zimbabwe.

Key Points from the Episode with Ethan Zohn:

  • Ethan’s philosophy in life is service over self, making happiness real for other people
  • Leading with compassion and empathy versus business and money creates an authentic, vulnerable leader
  • Ethan won the show Survivor in its third season, taking place in Kenya, Africa
  • He went in with this intention to lie, cheat and steal to win, but once he got out there, he realized that wasn’t who he was, and couldn’t play that way
  • He realized how much you need to know yourself and play in alignment with that or it won’t work out
  • Ethan grew up outside of Boston with his parents and two older brothers
  • When Ethan was 14, his father passed away from colorectal cancer
  • The community reached out to support his mother, him and his brothers, teaching him the importance of supporting those who need you
  • He played soccer in college, and then went on to play professionally in Zimbabwe, Africa
  • After winning Survivor, Ethan co-founded a charity called Grassroots Soccer to help raise money and create support for those dealing with HIV and AIDS in Africa
  • Ethan himself ended up with a cancer diagnoses (Lymphoma) at age 35 while training for the NYC Marathon
  • Being diagnosed with cancer was such an eye-opener for Ethan, especially in his AIDS work, to really appreciate what it means to get that diagnosis and face a battle for your life
  • He also learned the impact of philanthropy and support at an even deeper level and how  much it means not to have to face a life-threatening challenge alone
  • He does a lot of public speaking, including talking about failure a lot, which may be surprising given what he’s achieved
  • His path was all born of failure, as jobs didn’t work out and he had nothing to do, so he and his friend worked on Survivor submissions, landing him a spot in Season 3
  • He was asked to join Season 40: Winners at War, and got back into the show to see how it changed since the last time he played (Season 8: Survivor All Stars)
  • In Season 40, there was an island you go to when you’re voted out called The Edge of Extinction (EOE), which acts like a purgatory where you can quit but are also fighting to get back into the game, which creates a mental struggle every day
  • This mirrors so much of the mental journey of fighting cancer that Ethan experienced – having to choose to stay in the fight with the temptation to just give up and not face anything anymore, feeling alone on an island and more
  • He got so thin and was emotionally ravaged, his wife came out to visit during the Loved Ones Visit, and saw his struggle
  • There was a log challenge where they had to carry 20 logs across the island before sun down, and Ethan passed out while on log 16
  • He expected people who take advantage of his going down since they were all competing for $2 million, but they rallied around him and helped him finish, which was a great reminder of the humanity that can transcend even that level of financial gain
  • Ethan lives by the saying that you never let a crisis go to waste
  • For every crisis in his life, he’s chosen to focus on it and do good through that situation
  • He shifts the failure mindset into one of not trying, so rather than worrying about the failure, he thinks about all the things he’d miss if he never tries, whether that’s achievements or learning experiences
  • When he was diagnosed in 2009 with Lymphoma, he made a choice to be public about it, working with People Magazine to chronicle his journey
  • The public battle, which he won, setup a strong sense of failure 20 months later when the cancer came back
  • He had felt built up as a hero and source of inspiration, and then felt like he failed those who were looking to him when it didn’t work
  • This resonates today so much as there are so many things people are going to be trying and failing with home schooling, work, how to get food, stay safe and healthy and so much more
  • It feels foreign, scary and uncertain – things Ethan understands all too well, but he also sees himself prepared for because of his cancer journey
  • There are only two things in life that we have to be completely certain about
    • We are all going to have to die, and
    • We are all going to have to live until we die
  • That means we have to ensure we live the life we want to live
  • Acceptance is key to survival – once you accept what you’re facing, you can move to the next phase where you get to see a path to the other side
  • It’s ok to just survive something, just getting through this is ok – advice that’s so relevant to the current situation


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