Interview: Zoe Kors

Zoe Kors: What inspires you?

Phil Keoghan: The achievements of others. I admire a lot of people. I love reading about things people have done. I remember, early on, being inspired by Sir Edmund Hillary’s story of climbing Mount Everest in 1953. Or Shackleton’s story of going down to Antarctica and getting trapped in the ice. He got all his men out safely after his ship got crushed. They had to drag their lifeboats across the ice to the frigid open ocean, where he took a death-defying journey to an isolated island, where there was a whaling station. In the end it took over a year for him to save his men. Those stories have inspired me to explore and try things. If you look around my room, you see lots of lists. I’m inspired by what’s up on the wall. I’ve always been about setting goals. Then when I had a near death experience at nineteen, it made it even more important to strive to achieve certain things.

ZK: You’re referring to being trapped underwater while diving in a shipwreck. Was that near death experience an immediate aha moment?

PK: I’d always felt like I was going to take part in adventures in my life. That’s what led me to diving in the shipwreck to begin with. But when you’re faced with your own demise, you have to accept that you are vulnerable and that you are only here for a set period of time. There was some expiration point to my life, and it became very important to maximize the time that I did have on Earth. That’s what led me to my personal philosophy: “No Opportunity Wasted”—NOW for short, which is about living life to the fullest. We have a gift of life. What we do with that gift is dependent on the choices we make. The people who we spend time with. The things that we go out to do every day.

I wrote a contract with myself. It’s really my list of things to do before I die. As I’ve gotten older, the list has changed. When I was nineteen, it was pretty immature. It was more about me and what I wanted to do for me. Now my list is still about things I want to do for me, for personal satisfaction. Thankfully, there’s a little maturity with the list. Now it impacts other people’s lives a lot more than just my own.

ZK: Who else is served by your list now?

PK: People with multiple sclerosis. I have been working with the MS Society, the MS movement, for about seven years. One of the things on my list was to raise one million dollars for a chosen charity in my lifetime. MS just seemed to make sense: I could marry my passion for cycling to a cause that really needs momentum. Many people who have MS lose the ability to move. I can move and I can ride a bicycle, so I literally joined the movement.

I’m a father and that I can have influence over my child and make sure that she has the right start in life, and that I can give back to my parents, who were obviously there for me during my life.

We all judge the effect that somebody’s life has had, what they meant to the world, what they left behind. Were they an amazing teacher? Were they the reliable plumber in a community for fifty years? Were they somebody who was active in the school community or the church? Did they influence decision-making at a level that affected the betterment of other people’s lives? It doesn’t matter how big or small the contribution to life. At the end of the day, we’re all judged by those we leave behind. The idea was, the best life I could have would be to get paid for what was on my list.

ZK: That’s a great goal.

PK: It takes a lot of hard work. There are times where you can’t always get paid to do the things you really want to do. What really epitomizes your dream job is the job that pays you to do what you want to do.

ZK: How do we get there? How do we start to make that shift?

PK: By starting early. Where we really effect change, in terms of creating a passionate work force, is by listening to kids early. Schools often box kids into predefined categories. But we don’t know what amazing ideas, inventions, cures, and contributions all these youths really have. We see the potential, but how many teachers are out there really helping to steer these young people? There are amazing teachers, but the system doesn’t always allow them to address the individual needs of a child. It also has to come from the influence of parents and relatives. We need diversity in our population to make it work.

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how education is taking away creativity makes so much sense—our schools are filled with this potential energy, and we need to create an environment for that energy to manifest itself. How many amazing brains are shut down early because of a necessity to go to work? Or an inability to go to college? What potential energy are we not capitalizing on?

ZK: Or limited thinking.

PK: Or limited thinking. That environment comes from nurturing talent. And I do believe that out of adversity comes incredible resourcefulness. How many people have dropped out of college to follow a passion because they really believed in what they were doing? Sometimes they are even ridiculed for trying something new. I love that quote: anything new and different is most susceptible to market research. How true.

ZK: Steve Jobs.

PK: Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to college or you shouldn’t finish your degree, but sometimes people have a very clear vision about what they want to do, and they just want to get on with it. That’s why I wrote my book, No Opportunity Wasted. I try to encourage people to identify the things in life that they really want to do, so that over a period of time they can design or steer their life towards those things.

I once had a young musician come to me and say that he wanted to be a professional musician. I asked him to write his list. When he came back to me, the three things in his life he most wanted were: to be paid for his music; to travel around the world; to meet new people. We came to the decision, after thinking really creatively, that if he got a job on a cruise ship, he would fulfill those goals. He went and did it for a year. Now he’s a session musician. He’s still not where he wants to be as a soloist, but he is a professional musician, he is traveling, and he is meeting new people.

ZK: There’s something of value in identifying the desire and keeping a strong connection with the essence of the desire, but then allowing the story to write itself.

PK: Being adaptable, and being clear.

ZK: What really drives you?

PK: I’m still working it out. Really. I’m driven by telling stories, I love telling stories.

ZK: On your wall, you wrote: “Tell me a fact, I will remember. Tell me a truth, I will believe. Tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”

PK: I first heard that quote from former NFL Films President Steve Sabol. I love stories. When I tell a story, I try to think of people sitting around a crackling campfire. A good storyteller can hold everybody captive without the special effects of Hollywood.

ZK: You love a challenge. Why?

PK: I love to be challenged because I’m wrong a lot of the times. After more than twenty-five years in television, there are days when I feel like I’m just beginning, because I’m learning new things. I want to be better all the time. I’ve done thousands of stories in my life. In the four-and-a-half years alone at Fox, I must have done close to a thousand stories, hundreds of interviews, lots of live TV, more than two hundred-and-something episodes of Amazing Race. Even before Race, I’d worked in over sixty countries, more than one hundred now. I’ve covered everything from milking spiders to diving the world’s largest underwater caves to being in a nudist resort, swimming from Asia to Europe across the Bosphorus, having a 5-star dinner on an erupting volcano, breaking a world record bungee jump. I love finding myself in the most bizarre situations, drinking cobra’s blood—really diverse stories. And yet, I will still turn up on location sometimes and be surprised by what I’m encountering or by how to do something.

ZK: In Buddhism, that’s called shoshin, “beginner’s mind.” That’s a gift you can give yourself—to approach something with beginner’s mind.

PK: I tell you what I love—and I think you get better as you get older—when you’re younger and you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend to talk more about what you think you know. You shut out the opportunity to learn what you don’t know. As you get older and you realize you really don’t know as much as you think you know, you listen more. Because then you think, now I need to be more receptive to the things I don’t know. That’s how you learn.

ZK: It’s a little cyclical wisdom. Tell me about The Ride.

PK: The Ride is my documentary I made with my wife, Louise, about riding my bike 3,500 miles across the United States in forty days. It was grueling, and helped us reach our goal of a million dollars for MS, which we achieved last year. I did that ride for three reasons: I wanted to spend some quality time with my dad; I wanted to take on the biggest physical and mental challenge of my life; and I wanted to work towards raising money for my favorite charity, MS.

ZK: What projects are you involved in that you’re passionate about?

PK: I am working on making a new film which honors a New Zealander with a great story that, sadly, has been forgotten over time. His obituary didn’t even mention the fact that he achieved extraordinary things riding in the Tour de France in 1928 as part of the first English-speaking team. I want to bring his story back to life by literally retracing his race. I want to continue to raise more money for MS through this film, and again to tell an inspirational story. When I hear people watched my film and then got on their own bikes and rode, whether a few miles or across America, to achieve their own goals—that excites me. It’s the power of a story. Stories have inspired me all my life. I like reading about what other people have done and it inspires me to share my own stories, and encourage people to make their own life stories.

ZK: We all lift each other up.

PK: I’m all about nonfiction. I rarely read fiction. I like to read about things that really happened, facts, real life situations. That’s what inspires me.

ZK: I want you to make an encyclopedia of inspiring people. One page of each person. You are a wealth of knowledge of people who have achieved great things, on all scales.

PK: What a great idea. I love underdogs, people who have achieved extraordinary things against the odds.

ZK: What’s your favorite Amazing Race moment?

PK: One of my favorite moments would have to be Margie and Luke winning the first leg of Season 14, and signing to them that they were the number one team.

ZK: A mom and her hearing-impaired son. I loved them. I don’t think there was a dry eye in America that night.

PK: I remember working with the signer who was traveling with us on the show, working with them to try to make that moment work for Luke, so he’d know I really made an effort to acknowledge him on his terms. That’s probably one of the most inspirational stories for me from an underdog point of view. I don’t think that people thought it was going to work for them to stay in the race, just because he was deaf. And it was like, well, that’s ridiculous. All of us make assumptions about what somebody’s potential is, because we all think of why somebody can or can’t do something. We make terrible assumptions. So I love the underdog stories. I love people who refuse to give up.

ZK: That seems to be part of your fabric.

PK: Tell me a fact, I will remember. Tell me a truth, I will believe. Tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.

ZK: Somehow I get the feeling this is definitely not the end of this story.

[laughs] I hope not!


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