Another worthy riff in this past Sunday’s The NY Times Magazine, this time from Andrea Seigel concerning “The Life Lessons Hidden in Reality TV.”  She tackles the messages found beneath the surface of three particularly potent shows, Survivor, The Bachelor and Say Yes to the Dress, and while there’s a fair amount to say about each, her take on Survivor was too rich not to reproduce here (and for those who stopped watching decades ago, the insights translate to the Bravo stable fairly well). She casts the original jungle show as a parable of the limits of self-awareness and gives a number of amusing examples about people not being able to follow their own advice. If Reality TV is to be trusted (…), then even when we have access to the right information about ourselves and our behavior–even when there is serious money on the table!–self-transformation seems to require a bit more, um, wattage than we have at our disposal, geography changing everything and nothing. It may sound a little defeatist at first, but there’s something undeniably comforting about it as well, at least when it comes to thinking about glad tidings of great joy and all that:

Here was a show that pretended to be about physical endurance and exotic adventure — and that featured some rat roasting by the Pagong tribe that got the media pretty excited — but all of that was obviously just set dressing. What “Survivor” is really about is the inescapability of your being yourself, even when you have told yourself you can be someone different for 30 days.

In the first minutes of the first show, Richard Hatch, a corporate trainer whose livelihood revolved around the study of successful team building, was already failing at team building. He couldn’t handle not being in control of everyone. He sat on a downed tree stump and whined about how his group wouldn’t let him lead them in team-building exercises. The thing was, the rest of the tribe was already going ahead and acting as a team by preparing the camp. They were doing instead of talking, but Rich was an expert in talking, and it made him mental that his skills weren’t the ones bowling the others over.

And here’s the crux of the show: Hatch knew he had a problem with cockiness because he talked about it to the camera, saying, “That’s the kind of thing that I really gotta keep under wraps.” Yet he failed immediately. (Though to be fair, he was the show’s first winner.) Same with Rudy, a former member of the Navy SEALs who knew that the younger people making up a majority of his tribe weren’t going to understand his conservatism or his age. Right away he said, “I gotta fit in — not them.” And then he proceeded to behave like the stodgy codger he was.

This happens over and over again on the show, season after season, regardless of contestants’ professions, bank accounts or, most interesting, intelligence levels. Russell Hantz, arguably one of the wiliest players ever, still couldn’t figure out that in order to win, he needed to pretend to be humble for five minutes during his final speech. Last season, John Cochran, Harvard Law student and self-professed “Survivor” superfan, predicted great things for his game play because he’d spent so much time studying the show. And still, when the popular ringleaders of his tribe decided that he was unfunny and dorky, he couldn’t stop joking. He couldn’t conceal his dorkiest tendencies, not even a little. He was doomed to be who he had always been, even in this strange place among strangers.

If you’re going to make it as far as you personally can on “Survivor,” I think the very best preparation you can do before leaving is to ask your friends, family and co-workers, “Hey, what do you think are my most annoying qualities?” Learn to truly see yourself, especially everything that’s unpleasant. Then sign up for acting classes and learn how to pretend to be a person who doesn’t have those unpleasant qualities. [ed note: see exhibit A at the bottom of the post]

I understand how hard it is to force yourself to be someone different. By the end of high school, I had taken to doing my math homework up against a concealed wall during lunch because I was tired of socializing. When I left for college, I told myself that this was a chance for reinvention. No one on the other side of the country knew that I was an introvert, so maybe if I tried not acting like an introvert, I wouldn’t be one. The first night I moved into my dorm room, I forced myself to leave the door open, and I put music on so people passing by would poke in their heads and say hi. I tested out what I imagined to be an open and friendly kind of expression in the closet mirror. And then after the first person stopped in and wanted to go over my CD collection with me, I shut the door and got into bed. The difference is, I wasn’t trying to win a million dollars.