The Secret Life of a Survivor Player

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X castaway Sunday Burquest talks about how you sometimes have to hide who you are to succeed at Survivor.

Every season we watch 18-20 castaways form a new mini-society. It is one of the reasons Survivor works as well as it does. Watching the dynamics of a group of strangers form relationships (and alliances) is fascinating. With every new group of castaways or even returnee players who haven’t played together, there is a clean slate of identities.

As a player you have a choice to make, should I be me or should I be somebody else? In many cases, before ever stepping foot on the island, the players know who they are ‘supposed’ to be. These expectations can come from a variety of places and because each player is basing his or her game play on their own set of expectations – it’s impossible to predict what the viewer will actually see.

We are all familiar with the player who lies about their profession. Tony Vlachos is perhaps the most famous example, the Survivor: Cagayan winner who lied to his fellow castaways about being a cop, instead telling them that he worked in construction. Tony didn’t want to be painted with the negative traits sometimes attributed to police officers. In Millennials vs. Gen-X, there were at least four players (Chris, Bret, Jessica, and Zeke) who lied about what they did for a living, each of them for different reasons. In each case, it made perfect sense why they weren’t honest about this part of their lives. Well, I sort of masked my career also…

It was after we first landed on the beach. We were all lined up and waiting for Jeff Probst to give us directions, that is when we first heard the words ‘Millennials vs. Gen-X’. We all clapped politely, on the outside I seemed to have the same level of excitement as everyone else. On the inside, I was literally jumping up and down! Working with Millennials was my full-time job, not to mention I have two sons in this age group. I knew this was a beneficial skill I was bringing into the game and it was part of my strategy. After being divided into tribes and sharing our names and professions, I told my Takali tribe that I was a pastor but left off the ‘young-adult’ part. I knew working with younger people would be an asset to me in the game (and it was), but I didn’t want anyone else to know that. I half-lied about by job – does that still count as a lie?

The Takali Tribe on SURVIVOR: Millennials vs. Gen. X, when the Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 33rd season with a special 90-minute premiere, Wednesday, Sept. 21 (8:00-9:30 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

After reflecting on the game and my mistakes, I realized self-imposed expectations affected my identity to the point where I felt like I was playing my game inside somebody else’s box. I actually had a few ‘boxes’ I put myself in that I will share below:

The Mom Box

Playing the ‘mom’ card helped my game tremendously, especially on the Ikabula tribe where Bret and I were outnumbered 4-to-2 by Millennials. The tribe quickly referred to me as Mama Sunday, and I definitely filled the role by listening to them talk, relating to them and even giving Will some of my food – these small things all helped me form bonds with the Millennials who did not want to vote me out once we lost immunity.

As the ‘mom,’ you have to be nurturing and trustworthy, which are both good gameplay, but on the other hand you are underestimated and not always communicated to regarding strategy and decisions. If you align yourself with more than one other player and the other players happen to be male – people will always say you rode their coattails because after all, moms are just around to help, not do the heavy lifting, right?

"I'm the Kingpin" - Justin Starrett and Sunday Burquest on the eighth episode of SURVIVOR: Millennials vs. Gen. X, airing Wednesday, Nov. 9 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

The Pastor Box

Playing a game like Survivor is tricky for most, add the title of Pastor and Christian to that, and now you really have some moral navigating to do. Because I’m a huge fan of both the show and good gameplay, I have always viewed Survivor as a game, not a life lesson or a Bible class example; it’s just a game. While I had no issues with blindsiding another player, I did feel there was a certain way I had to go about it. I did lie in the game, I did go behind peoples’ backs, you have to – but I was never mean-spirited about it.

While I tried to give myself the permission I needed to actually play the game, part of me couldn’t break out of my Pastor/Christian box. I dealt with so much guilt for trying to vote out Jessica early on that it made me almost apologetic for wanting to play the game. This ended up coming across on camera as if I had some sort of obsession with getting Jessica out when really it was my ‘pastor’ guilt driving me to want her out of the game. This was an emotional reaction because I thought if she was gone I wouldn’t feel guilty anymore.

The truth is I didn’t need to feel guilty for anything, I was playing the game, and it took me months to own the fact that I had permission to ‘play’ pastor or not. This became rather evident in my confessionals, while I tried to be honest about how I was feeling about the game, I 100% held back on commentary regarding other players. I was way too worried about sounding mean and therefore had so-so confessionals (maybe some would even say boring). At home, I joke around with people all the time, especially when it comes to being sarcastic. I actually have to be really careful because I’ll say what I think is a funny or sarcastic joke, and then people get their feelings hurt. I was too careful about this in my confessionals.

"Who's the Sucker at the Table?" - Sunday Burquest on the fourth episode of SURVIVOR: Millennials vs. Gen. X, airing Wednesday, Oct. 12(8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

The Leader Box

In my life at home, I am the leader in most things I do. I ran a volunteer team of over 100 young people, ran my own area of ministry with my husband, was in charge of camps of over 300 students, mom’s groups at the school – you name it I did it, and I would always be in charge. I’ve had my own business – I like to be in charge! The problem is, being in charge is not a good thing in the game of Survivor. I know my tendency in any situation is to take over or control it – this does not make for good Survivor gameplay.

I purposely ‘followed’ so I wouldn’t have a target on my back. But instead of following in the Paul vote, I should have thought longer about how it would affect my individual game, taken control and turned the tables – that would have been the move a leader would have made. I also wanted shields in my alliance, people that others could see as leaders or more importantly – targets.

Hiding the leader in me was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you are mellow and don’t make waves, you keep the target off your back, but no one will give you credit for big moves in the end. On the other hand, if you go all out type-A leader, you’ll have a target as big as Texas on your back and be voted out. Nobody knew I was hiding my leadership skills – including the camera. I majorly over-corrected in this area and it hurt my game big time.


There are more attributes about myself I hid, but those are the biggies. What’s my take away? From now on when I watch other players, I will have a better understanding that just because I’m not seeing it on my TV screen, doesn’t mean the player isn’t using personal strategy. The main strategy for Survivor is to survive the vote – you can’t survive a vote if you cannot intentionally mask some of the things about yourself that make you a target. Viewers and other players do not have the luxury of really knowing who they are working with on the island – they only know what that person or production is allowing you to see.

Survivor is a tough ass game – no doubt. Remember, when you are watching, every single player has either lied about, hid or over exaggerated their true personality and skill set as part of their ‘secret strategy.’ And in most cases, no one will ever even know the extent that player has gone to only show the parts of them that will further them in the game, instead of those that will get them voted out.

Written by

Sunday Burquest

Sunday, from Elk River, Minnesota, was a contestant on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen-X where she finished in 7th place. She is now working as an Inspirational Speaker.

3 responses to “The Secret Life of a Survivor Player”

  1. I was rooting for you Sunday! Wish we could’ve gotten to hear more from you. Thanks for the article 🙂

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