Podcast S2. Ep 7: Character is the Ultimate Survival Tool - Ethan Zohn

Character Strong · September 19, 2019

For Ethan Zohn, winning CBS’s SURVIVOR: Africa was the springboard to an exceptional young life of entrepreneurship, social purpose and advocacy. It was also the prelude to an incredible story, one of perseverance, accomplishment, and enduring spirit in the face of once unthinkable challenges. By sharing that story, Ethan inspires countless others around the globe. His message for young people, academia and the corporate community alike emphasizes character, resiliency, service, kindness and turning challenges into strengths. A fit, active, 35-year-old former professional soccer player who had traveled the world on behalf of the international health community through his foundation, 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. As demonstrated by his charitable work with various global and domestic health and wellness organizations, and community involvement, Ethan believes that a better and healthier world can be achieved by living with strong values. His inspiration to help heal the world stems from being taught at an early age the importance of kindness, community and a connection to social goodness. Ethan is a recognizable face that delivers deeply felt, meaningful lessons on character, kindess, personal strength, and giving back, all which he developed long before his battles with cancer. With his remarkable combination of humor and honesty, Ethan offers keynotes that inspire others to answer life’s opportunities with strength and the conviction to never let a crisis to go to waste. Programs & Speaking Topics: Cancer Mental Health/Anxiety Sport for Social Good Motivation & Inspiration Service Learning Character Development Social Entrepreneurship Jewish Leadership and Values Preservation of Israel HIV/AIDS.

We talk about how crises are also opportunities to do important things, how making a difference can start with something simple, and how character is the ultimate survival tool.


“Act. Affirm that I'm making things happen, not just letting them happen. It doesn't have to be something huge and big. It can be something as easy as dropping balloons off at a hospital, skip your coffee this week and donate the money to the Red Cross, call your grandmother, read to some kids. All these things are wonderful things to do to give back in the world. It's very a kind thing to do. Kindness is an incredible word to focus on and a way to live your life.”

— Ethan Zohn

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school, culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Ethan Zohn. For Ethan Zohn, winning CBS Survivor Africa was the springboard to an exceptional young life of entrepreneurship, social purpose, and advocacy. It was also the prelude to an incredible story, one of perseverance, accomplishment, and an enduring spirit in the face of once unthinkable challenges. By sharing that story, Ethan inspires countless others around the globe. His message for young people emphasizes character, resiliency, service, kindness, and turning challenges into strengths.
  • John: A fit active 35 year old former professional soccer player who had traveled the world on behalf of the International health community, through his foundation, Grassroots Soccer, Ethan became an unlikely face of cancer. 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. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Ethan Zohn. All right. It is incredibly exciting to have Ethan Zohn on on the CharacterStrong Podcast with us today. How are ya?
  • Ethan: I'm doing fantastic. How's everyone doing today?
  • John: Oh, we're doing great man, and we are so thrilled, one, just like personally as a fan of the show Survivor, just want to say it is awesome to be able to talk to you. In fact, you won the TV show Survivor, Survivor Africa. What was it, 2002?
  • Ethan: 2002 is the third season of Survivor. Then they did another one called Survival All Stars in 2004. I didn't do as well on that one, but I still made it on.
  • John: It's pretty awesome, man. Well, here's the thing that I love too as a fan of the show, just the group dynamics. As an organizational leadership kind of geek, I love digging into just like the human nature side, but it's your story outside of that, what you have done since that time that I have found so inspiring. We're so grateful to have you connected with CharacterStrong and that you're speaking in schools sharing your story. I just want to get you right into this man. I'd love for you to share with the thousands that listened to this podcast a little bit about what you might share going into a school and/or organization.
  • John: In fact, as we were talking a little bit, I love this kind of theme, never let a crisis go to waste, because it's an opportunity to do some really important things. Talk to me a little bit about what you might share if you were to come into a school.
  • Ethan: Definitely, yeah. Thank you. It's wonderful to be part of the speaker squad, and I can't wait to share my story with all the schools that you guys got working on. Never let a crisis go to waste. It seems like throughout my life, in all the moments of crisis that I've had, I've pretty much used that as an opportunity to do some really important things. Starting off, when I was playing professional soccer in Zimbabwe, I kind of witnessed firsthand what was happening with HIV and AIDS and how it was just destroying this community that I was now a part of. People who are dying. Everyone knows why, but no one was doing anything about it at that time, including me. I was a 27 year old soccer player. I didn't know how I could fix this huge problem in all of Africa.
  • Ethan: At that time, I did nothing. I said, "It's not my problem. It's in a land far away." I shelved it and kind of just went on with my life. It really stuck in the back of my mind, and then I got a couple of letters from my friends in Zimbabwe telling me that this player had passed away and that player passed away. It really hit me close to home because statistics, they numb you to what the real problem are. They're not just faces. These are my friends. These are my teammates. I was paralyzed with not knowing what to do. Coincidentally enough, I was chosen to be on the reality television show Survivor right at the end of my playing career. I went back to Africa to play the game of Survivor.
  • Ethan: While I was on this show, I won one of those reward challenges that we're all pretty familiar with. I won two goats, which I wasn't so happy about, but I got to take these goats to this little village of Wamba. Before I left this village of Wamba, I was hanging out in the parking lot of Wamba Hospital, and all these little Kenyan children came out. They were touching my skin and playing with my hair. They had never seen anyone like me before, and that's when I busted out a little mini soccer ball that I had brought with me on the show. We all started playing, and we're having a wonderful time. We're communicating and connecting and smiling and giggling and sharing this moment. There was a sport that we both loved.
  • Ethan: Before I left the parking lot at this hospital, I asked one of the nurses, "Why are these kids just hanging out in the parking lot of a hospital," and she says, "Well, these are all the kids that are HIV positive." Here I was in the middle of this game, this cutthroat game of Survivor for $1 million, and I had this real life experience. It was at that moment I decided that something has to be done. I got back from the show. I used my money that I won to start this charity called Grassroots Soccer. Grassroots Soccer is an adolescent health organization that uses the sport of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people to make smarter choices in life. Through a lot of hard work and dedication, we're now in 50 countries.
  • Ethan: We've graduated over 2.2 million kids from the program, and it's something that we're incredibly proud of.
  • John: You should be. That is powerful. I mean, a couple of things that are jumping out just like I think so many when we see things that are going on and there's so much going on in our world, right, and it would be very easy, we've all been there, I've been there so many times where it's like, man, part of me is like, I want to do something, but then it seems like it's so far beyond me, so then I end up doing nothing. It's like, what can I do? Coming back to that, what can we do? Where do we start?
  • Ethan: Well, I mean, just do something right. There's that famous quote like to do nothing is also to act, right? Act. Affirm that I'm making things happen, not just letting them happen. It doesn't have to be something huge and big. It can be something as easy as dropping balloons off at a hospital, skip your coffee this week and donate the money to the Red Cross, call your grandmother, read to some kids. All these things are wonderful things to do to give back in the world. It's very a kind thing to do. Kindness is an incredible word to focus on and a way to live your life. For me, that's kind of really... At every moment, I feel just kind of focusing on the plight of other human beings helps you heal as a human being.

“I realized like reaching out and connecting to other people is something that I should be doing more of...”

— Ethan Zohn


  • Ethan: It's the kind thing to do, and it's great for humanity. It's a great theme to live by.
  • John: Yup. As we always like to try to challenge when we're going to schools, it's not just some fluffy thing, you know? It gets a bad rap sometimes for being fluffy. It's like it's not fluffy at all.
  • Ethan: Yeah. It's underrated I feel. As like a character, I do a lot of speeches. Character I feel is the ultimate survival tool.
  • John: So good.
  • Ethan: But that work can easily be switched up with kindness because it kind of falls in the same category.
  • John: Yeah, kindness, commitment, patience, that character, that is character in action, any one of those tools that we always have at our disposal. We could use them in different ways, but we relate it to... With CharacterStrong, the relating of just like lifting weights. That I can lift that patience weight. Right now I might be at 10 pounds with patience. I might be at 50 with commitment, but we can lift those weights. The more we do, the stronger that we get. When we don't lift it, just like if we don't use our muscle, it atrophies. A lot of times what it atrophies back to is that natural selfishness that it's all about me and everybody else is just in my way or that inaction that can be there.
  • John: Well, I want to keep you kind of digging in here. One of the things I loved, that character kindness, the ultimate survival tool. I know that you had a powerful example that happened I believe when you were on the show, right? Tell us a little bit about that.
  • Ethan: Yeah. The moment with the hacky sack, playing soccer with all these HIV positive children in the middle of the show, that was really a defining moment during the show, but there was another moment where I was working with this guy named Big Tom. He's from Saltville, Virginia. Southern guy. Tom was a really interesting guy because he'd never met anyone who was Jewish before, and I'm Jewish. I never met anyone who has never met someone who's Jewish before. Here we are placed on this tribe together and he was definitely treating me a little bit differently than some of the other contestants. I thought of that quote from Abraham Lincoln, "I do not like that man. Therefore, I must get to know him better." Right?
  • Ethan: Once you get to know someone better, it gives you a bridge to understand. It gives you empathy. It gives you a better opportunity to work with this person in a positive way. Tom and I, we weren't really getting along that well, so I needed to take the time to get to know him better. Once I got to know him better, we worked together for the rest of the game. We played challenges together. We aligned together. He is still one of my best friends today. I often think to myself like, if I never took the time to get to know this guy, I've been missing out on a best friend. For me, that's that whole thing. I could've gotten pissed off and try to vote Tom off, but that would've been too easy. Instead, I wanted to be kind.
  • Ethan: I wanted to educate Tom about the foods we eat, the holidays we celebrate, the rules of our culture. And I think now in today's age, there's a lot of tension going on in the world and in politics and religion and prejudice and people treating people in unkind ways. I think that was just a really good example of how here I am in this crisis, me and this guy aren't getting along because of my religion, and now I can use that opportunity to teach him something important that day.
  • John: Yeah. So good. I mean, in such a focus that we have with our characters aren't curriculum that's in schools, it's even just that idea of getting people interacting with each other more one-on-one in a day and age where it's so easy, whether that be through social media or digital, which can be totally used for good, but it also could be used for bad. One of the things it can do is get in the way of that one on one actual human connection. I love that challenge of instead of expecting him to change, when you started to get to know him better, then that influence starts to happen. When we do that, it leads maybe to kind of the final piece in this shorter podcast today, which is...
  • John: I think it connects to the other part when we were talking before this is just that idea of like when you're talking about like your battle with cancer and making your battle public so that the details of your life could help others, and then what happens is the more that we then get to know someone, the more we get to know their story, and there's power in that. Maybe speak to that to close this out today.
  • Ethan: Definitely. I had an experience. I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called CD20 positive Hodgkin's lymphoma. Trust me, the first time I had heard of it either. As a 35 year old guy going through a horrible life debilitating, illness that has no cure, it was a really scary moment for me in my life. I realized during my fourth chemotherapy treatment, I was in the waiting room of the hospital. It was jam packed. It was so full, and we are all just sitting there like strangers, yet we're so connected by this horrible disease. I saw a woman sitting across from me who was having a breakdown because her son had just been whisked away to start his chemotherapy treatment. I saw her just having a really difficult time.
  • Ethan: I got up, walked over to her, sat down next to her and said, "Hey, my name's Ethan. I have cancer too. It's going to be okay." We share that moment, that warmth of another human being. I realized like reaching out and connecting to other people is something that I should be doing more of, right? That's when I decided to take my battle public and be a voice for this young adult cancer community because maybe the details of my life has the opportunity to help other people out there. Maybe they'll learn about my symptoms and they'll go to the doctor and get checked out or something along those lines. Here I am in this crisis of cancer where I'm like on my death door. I still felt there was an opportunity to go out there and help other people.
  • Ethan: I really do believe that focusing on these other people and helping these other people during my worst times helped me get out of a dark time. It helped me heal a little bit.
  • John: What a powerful message. I could honestly talk to you for quite some time, and I hope that this does leave people wanting more. the reality is that they can. A school could have you come out to speak. How can they connect with you? I mean, this is something now along with a lot of other things you're doing, but something that you're open to doing is sharing your story with young people that are in schools as well.
  • Ethan: Definitely, yeah. Please. I love to come share a story. Even opportunities to kind of stay at the day a little longer. Do a breakout session. Maybe a have practice with the soccer team, the boys and girls soccer team.
  • John: Nice.
  • Ethan: That's always good for me to work in there. Reach out to CharacterStrong. Check out the speaker squad. I'd love to our come speak with the school and hang out with the kids. I think I have a really good message to share, and I love just doing what I do.
  • John: That's awesome man. I just want to say when we were setting up the calendar to like come to this and it has like questions where you can set up the time for us to chat. It says position and you put goalkeeper. I'm like, yes, he is a true soccer player. That is great. You could have put so many things. You're like goalkeeper. I'm like right on. We share that. You and I were both goalkeepers.
  • Ethan: Oh, no. Really?
  • John: Which is great, man. I love that. We'll have to have a talk just about that at some point. Well, thank you, Ethan, for taking the time to be with us today. Schools can reach out through characterstrong.com to book you at any time, but just grateful of you, your story, your focus. It is so needed in our world today. Have a great day.
  • Ethan: Awesome. Thanks so much.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

 

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.