Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Christian Hubicki reveals David vs. Goliath pregame antics
With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
There's the game of Survivor, and then there's the game before the game — when players size each other up while out on location in the days leading up to filming, even though they are not allowed to speak. It is a crucial time where first impressions are made — impressions that can often play a pivotal part in a game in which alliances are often formed minutes after players hit the beach.
Christian Hubicki certainly took note of what others were up to in the days leading up to Survivor: David vs. Goliath. As contestants relaxed (some more than others) in Fiji at Ponderosa (the name given to the location where players live both before the game starts and after they have been voted off), Christian devised a complex system to keep track of his impressions when it came to the 19 other million-dollar hopefuls. Unfortunately, a pregame mishap out by the water gave his competition plenty of ammunition to use against him.
Fortunately for Christian, the fan favorite was able to overcome a certain flip-flop faux pas and make it all the way to day 35 in the game. Now, in his Quarantine Questionnaire, Christian reveals what went down before the game began, explains how the show made him completely re-examine how he was perceived and treated by others, gushes about getting to promote the joys of science on network TV, and divulges that Mike White thought he was actually a CBS plant placed on the season for the purpose of a little network cross-promotion. You don't need to be an expert mathematician to know that our 225th Quarantine Questionnaire had to be special, and Christian Hubicki more than delivers the goods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
CHRISTIAN HUBICKI: Things have been busy since getting back from Fiji as I tried to refocus on my life and career. I moved to Tallahassee with Emily and started my job as a robotics professor, which happened after filming and before the show aired. I've been running my own robotics research lab called the Optimal Robotics Laboratory, where my bright and intrepid researchers program robots to walk and run like people.
Right now, we're working hard on some cool projects for companies and government agencies. I also teach graduate-level robotics classes, and excitingly, I've been giving public talks about robotics and the ways I've been inspired from my time on Survivor. Research, teaching, and public speaking have all been life goals of mine, so I feel incredibly fortunate. It's been busy but it's been a blast.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Looking back at all the crazy happenings of Survivor: David vs. Goliath, I'm most proud of two things: communicating my scientific point of view on the show and staying respectful to my competitors in the game. I'll talk more about the first later, but I always saw science as a powerful way to view the world and I love to share that view with anyone that will listen. I felt I was able to prove that a spearfishing sequence could be fun, even when lecturing about the physics of kinetic and potential energies.
It was also important that I kept a respectful attitude under the pressures of the game. At Tribal Council when the votes are revealed, it felt natural to cheer when a crazy blindside worked, or to get your licks in after turning the tables on whoever tried to end your shot at a million dollars. In those moments, I would remind myself that this is the end of someone's dream. I would sit straight-faced as they got their torch snuffed and look them in the eye as they turned back to say goodbye, so I wouldn't shirk away from my responsibility for ending their game. That seemed the respectful thing to do, even though it was hard at times. This also meant being calm and kind to people back at camp who just tried to vote me out — which happened a lot.
I'm also proud of some of the big TV moments too: surprising Jeff Probst with a fast slide puzzle solve, peppering Jeff with hours of questions and selected excerpts from my robotics publications, and all my other antics that forced a range of reactions from Jeff. I remember Jeff's rapid-fire Q&A at Tribal Council, and specifically the time Nick compared the game's strategizing to scrambled eggs — an astute point and reference to our season's recurring egg motif. Then Jeff pivots to me and asks, "Christian, if the game was like scrambled eggs before, what is it like now?" I was now forced to improvise a metaphor about poached eggs on the spot, somehow managing to stick the landing. I'll never forget Jeff's long pause and judging stare, as if to say, "I cannot believe you actually exist."
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I do my best to be self-compassionate, so I don't feel much regret about the show generally.
When it comes to tactical or political errors, most of my mistakes have a way of tracing back to Hollywood filmmaker Mike White. Misreading his intentions, trusting him too much, not recognizing his narrative and political control, etc. If I had taken a breather and read the evidence better, I could have deduced that he was a critical power center and an existential threat to my game. I thought I could convince him I was his most effective ally for maneuvering to the end. It never worked, and I should have spent that time working with Davie.
A greater factor, though, was my self-image at the time. It drove me to be more "threatening" in the game than I understood, and it was my threat level that did me in. For one, I couldn't understand why I was this underdog "David" character, who Mike and others reasoned was narratively destined to win. To me, a guy with a PhD didn't seem to fit the theme of an underdog. Jeff justified it in promotions that I was bullied, which I found an exaggeration. But upon recent reflection, I realized there have been people throughout my life who would belittle my accomplishments, and I would believe and internalize their criticism. To me, they were just telling me the truth, and that the only way to beat the criticism was to agree with it and do better. Only now am I accepting that many of those people were just being mean. So there was more truth in what Jeff said about me than I was able to admit.
Being so overly critical of my own strengths directly impacted my game. It's hard to simultaneously be self-critical and judge yourself as threatening. So when I blurted in the opening challenge that I had written puzzle-solving algorithms, I didn't view it as a brag or expression of skill or competence. It was more a statement of my interests and tastes. Just like people are into crochet — it would make sense for a crochet enthusiast to have an unfair advantage in a crochet challenge. My self-criticism obscured to me what other players found obvious — algorithms must mean I'm smart. Smart equals a threat.
Even in that moment, a gobsmacked Jeff was bantering with me about the puzzle, but my mind was still focused on potential criticism. Jeff monologued that I had "written a paper" about slide puzzles. I corrected him that I had written an algorithm, not a paper, fearing that a Googling audience would deem me a fraud because I never published a paper of my work. Meanwhile, my tribe was guffawing at my correction. "It's not a paper, it's an algorithm!" Davie would tease.
But do I regret it? I don't think so, because it's just who I was at the time. All I can do is give myself more credit in the future.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Blowing minds is a high bar, but a few untold experiences come to mind. I could talk about how shortly before our five-and-a-half-hour endurance challenge on day 27, I slipped on a wet rock and slammed my head into a rock face, leading to a bloody forehead and an impromptu field neurological exam from Dr. Alison Raybould.
Or how I forgot to buy extra contact lenses before filming, so I only had a few pairs on the island. I need them since my lens prescription is -9.0 (i.e., horribly nearsighted). I lost one before the day 9 immunity challenge carrying in the tribe flag. You can see me during the march looking confused, since a few seconds earlier the flagpole twisted and slapped the contact out of my eye. I did the day 26 reward challenge on the slack line with no contacts since they started burning my eyes right before the challenge. I was down to my last pair by my final day of the game.
Or the time I decided to impress Dan by climbing a tree to retrieve a particularly attractive palm frond, using my own weight to break the stem, only to get turned upside-down with my legs clutching the trunk for survival. The producer with the camcorder was so entranced by my inverted shimmy to safety that he forgot to film it.
I could recount Elizabeth's many camp engineering projects, including her infamous rock-and-rope boat anchor. Elizabeth wanted to try spearfishing but she wasn't the strongest swimmer, so she used her invention to tether the tribe raft close to her fishing spot for safety. Nick, Davie, and Bi were on the raft relaxing when, unbeknownst to all parties, sharp coral sliced through the anchor rope, setting the raft adrift. Elizabeth assumed she'd been abandoned, needed to be towed by a production boat back to shore, and was fuming upon her return.
Instead, I'll flash back to the beginning of the game — and even a bit before that. The pregame is an underreported surreal experience. Astute consumers of Survivor blogs, podcasts, and other supplemental materials are aware that the contestants arrive in Fiji several days before the start of the game. We stay at the Ponderosa resort, and all the contestants are there with a handful of producers to supervise us. While hanging out at a Fijian resort sounds nice and relaxing, I found it simultaneously boring and stressful. The key reason: Nobody is allowed to talk.
We settle into our wordless Ponderosa routines while observing our currently nameless competitors. I still remember it all. Gabby serene with her book. Alison studiously taking notes at a picnic bench. Pat finger strumming to music only he can hear. Jeremy in silent command of the beanbag chairs. John in desperate search for heavy objects to lift. Natalie, the most boredom-prepared, chuckling while watching a mobile DVD player she packed. Alec, hands on hips at the shore staring forlorn toward the ocean, sullen that the water is off limits. Nick pacing around shirtless after attempting a tan, which backfired — in that his back literally looked like fire. And a certain business school graduate negotiating alliances via the surreptitious exchange of water bottles.
As for me, I'm doing anything I can to avoid attracting attention or looking stupid. I assumed this is when everyone is looking for a good first boot candidate. With just one shattered dinner plate, everyone could just look at each other and nod, thereby sealing my fate. I put a lot of thought and energy into appearing normal — with mixed success.
At first I sat at a table working on a Sleigh Bell Sudoku book. On one hand, it was an unpretentious signal to future tribemates that they should keep me around for puzzles. But the book was also a ruse. I was taking encrypted notes with an alphanumeric cypher, encoding my observations of other players as numbered sequences in the Sudoku boxes. The covert system also preserved the correct Sudoku answers, so I could leave it open and unattended so anyone could peek at it while I was in the bathroom. This way it looked like I had nothing to hide. Only Natalia detected anything odd, noticing that my solve strategy wasn't logical, and she concluded I must suck at puzzles. All in all, it was more successful in distracting me from my own nerves than it was an efficient note taking system.
But the relaxing effect was temporary. I noticed that some contestants would sit on the edge of the boat dock to watch the fish. I decided to give it a try to help me stay calm. I passed by Carl in his usual spot, standing arms folded halfway down the dock, and I sat at the far edge. The water was crystal-clear, so I could take in the whole shallow-water ecosystem, my feet dangling over the water, and when I got up to return — bloop! My flip-flop flopped in the ocean 150 feet from the shore.
So began a panicked calculation. Do I break the rules, jump in, grab it, and return to shore soaked and needing to explain myself? Should I abandon the flip-flop, leaving a visible drifting monument to my clumsiness? Do I ask a producer to rescue my flip-flop with a leaf skimmer from the pool, like I'm a high-maintenance diva in need of rescue? No. I concocted a solution where I'd fix this myself without breaking the rules.
I walked back to shore, pulled a producer aside, and asked if I could wade in the water "real quick" and grab my flip-flop. He gave me the go-ahead, not realizing what he'd just done. The water was quite shallow, so I could wade in and only get my bottoms wet. Further, if I entered the water under the dock, I would be less visible to everyone on shore and not make a show of it. So I planned to wade in quick, grab it, come back, no fuss. And if anyone noticed, I'd be the guy who confidently gets things done.
As soon as I stepped in the water, I realized my miscalculation. While the shore was sandy and smooth, the undersea floor consisted of loose baseball-sized rocks. When I put my weight on a rock, the rock would shift, then I would lose my balance and need to catch myself. This made every step its own individual and unique indignity. Somehow I stumble my way out 150 feet (according to Google Earth) and retrieve the flip-flop. At this point another producer took notice of my quest and talked to me from the dock above. He was helpless to make my return voyage any easier, and it wasn't.
Once I finished bumbling back to the beach, I could finally assess how many people noticed. The answer: everyone. Quiet stares from the entire cast. I could feel the judgment and could only guess at the political damage. Nervously, I turn to the producer and whisper, "I'm a little worried how this will affect my game." He reassured me that people tend to forget these things once they hit the beach. Fast-forward over a month, my game is now over, and I'm back at Ponderosa with that same producer. Only then did he confess, "When the flip-flop thing happened, I thought you were screwed."
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I feel incredibly fortunate for my edit for so many reasons.
First, my character was in the center of the action a lot, so you got to see much of the plot from my perspective. I also got to see so many of the fun and seemingly inconsequential moments I thought I'd never see again. On day 10, when Jeff tossed the map to our new swapped Tiva tribe, the map was about to bean Gabby in the face, except I snatched it out of the air and felt like a badass. That could have easily been cut out, but instead it was on television as a subtle symbol of the codependence between Gabby and me. I could go on forever about all the little things I'm happy made it on national TV.
To my surprise, I even got a bunch of episodes titled after my quotes. I was once interviewed on the island and referred to my social antics as a "charmpocalypse" when I meant to say the far catchier "charmageddon." After the interview was over, I wasn't sure which I said, and probably would never know. Sure enough, "Charmpocalypse" was in the title of the episode, immortalizing my mistake on IMDB.
Above all, I'm happiest about my portrayal as a scientist. Survivor deserves a lot of credit here. A lesser show would have edited me in a way that sneered at my incessant science explanations as something to be derided just for laughs. Instead they portrayed science as a kind of superpower, and an interesting way to look at the world. I could tell just from talking with Jeff and the producers during casting that they were up to the challenge of presenting notoriously "boring" material in an entertaining way.
My "breadth-first search" for an idol is my favorite example, where I explain a real search algorithm in every algorithm textbook. The show took that interview and used it to voice-over a helicopter shot of the island with beautifully overlaid colored regions illustrating the search nodes I described. I have barely enough video editing knowledge to know that the editor had to do 3D motion tracking of the shot to get that visual effect to work right. It's such an exquisite sequence that I use it in my real robotics lectures and tout it as proof of the power of good science communication.
Oh, and I didn't even mention that an unsung hero editor spent a week editing my multi-hour challenge ramble. These are some dedicated folks — folks with the sound of my voice embedded in their skulls.
So overall, I was thrilled by my edit beyond all my expectations, especially considering that I never felt entitled to a "good edit." Though I need to highlight one aspect of the airing that bugged me, and it's how the relationship between Gabby and I was received by the audience. I don't know exactly the cause, but a lot of the audience watched our season and thought that Gabby had no idea I had a girlfriend. This was shocking to both of us because my girlfriend Emily was my top conversation topic around camp. This led many in the audience to jump to all kinds of conclusions about Gabby and me and our motivations, when, in fact, Gabby and I were always incredible friends (and still are) with relationships of our own.
Ordinarily, I would just write this off as the price of admission for reality TV, except that it affected more than just me. I would be approached by complete strangers asking if I'm dating Gabby, and Emily would be right next to me. I couldn't even hang out with Gabby without an onlooker beelining across the room to tell us we'd be a good couple. There was a distressingly popular take that Gabby tried to vote me out on day 32 because she discovered I had a girlfriend on day 31 and got jealous. That is so insulting to Gabby — and might have been avoided with an earlier mention of my girlfriend making it to air.
It was so intense that actual celebrities, like HBO-show famous, would publicly speculate about our love lives. And trust me, it's not cute to have what feels like the whole world telling you that your real 13-year relationship is less important than the one they're inventing in their heads. I get that people love a love story, but I would encourage people to remember that trying to push one on strangers, as well-intended as it may be, can hurt more people than you know.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
After being followed around by cameras documenting my most trivial behaviors, I assumed I would get a huge spike of narcissism. I was also worried I'd pee on trees out of habit. Thankfully, neither happened. Instead, I came back almost Zen, detached from my previous problems and concerns. Before Survivor, I scheduled to come back to work the first day after I returned, which suddenly seemed so needlessly people-pleasing. I felt at peace to the point that the day-to-day dramas around work and life I was catching up on all seemed less stressful to handle.
But while the Survivor experience succeeds in helping you put things in perspective, it can be whiplash for people that know you at home. Suddenly having a new outlook on life can make you seem like a different person, like they don't know who exactly came back. Plus, you suddenly have 19 new friends that consume your social calendar. All of which can make you seem alien to your friends and family. But that all gradually fades as you spend more time in your normal world.
I was also paranoid about sleep for a while. I was used to going to bed with a mental map of who is sleeping where in the shelter. That's adaptive, so you know if someone got up early to talk strategy. One time I woke up in the night and looked at Emily and shouted, "Who's that?!" because I wasn't used to her being there.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Never. That said, there were times before filming that I had to consider backing out. The reasons were entirely career-related. I was partly concerned about reputational risk. Could stuffy academics take me seriously if they saw me running around an island in my underwear? I also had some evidence of this. Some academics got wind that I was going on some TV show and advised me it was probably a bad career move.
Thankfully, I had other academic mentors talk some sense into me because, whatever this opportunity was, it was unique and I would regret passing up. I also resolved that a profession that would sneer at me for doing what I love wouldn't be worth doing. In hindsight, it's obvious that Survivor was a huge net positive for my career for so many reasons — not the least of which, lots and academics watch and love the show!
Reputational questions aside, there was also a timing issue. I was slated to leave in four weeks for Survivor and I was in the middle of job search season. It was always my goal to be a professor, and those openings are rare and competitive. The timing of Survivor was such that after I got back, all the jobs would likely be taken. While Survivor was a lifelong goal, being a robotics professor is my career passion — I was in school and postdoc training until I was 32 to get to this place. If I didn't have a job by the time I had to leave for Survivor, I feared I would have to pull out. I communicated the scheduling issue with Survivor and they had to process an alternate for me just in case.
In the weeks leading up to Survivor, I was crisscrossing the country doing these grueling eight-hour-a-day, two-day-long faculty interviews. These colleges didn't know why, but they knew I needed a decision quickly and would be "out of communication" after a certain date. Thankfully, my now-employer wanted me badly enough that they were willing to rush the process. I signed the job offer letter the day I left for Fiji.
In hindsight, it feels crazy that I nearly passed up this opportunity. As a bonus, I got to hear all the wild speculation about where I was going. I later learned that my now-employer assumed I was disappearing to work on a black-ops CIA operation. Survivor had given me permission to tell my then-employer I was going on television, so their speculation was more informed. One of the signatories on my leave form was particularly curious. He ran into me and said, "My wife is a huge reality TV fan. And she looked up the dates you'll be gone and compared them to the reality shows filming during that time. So, I know you're going to be on The Bachelorette."
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I talk with Gabby a lot, of course. We can talk for hours about anything without breaking a sweat. I like keeping in touch with my fellow David tribe members. I wish I never had to move away from Davie in Atlanta, but I love shooting texts with him. I've also enjoyed exchanging updates with Nick, Carl, and Elizabeth whenever I get the chance. I also have randomly timed calls from Alec, my Slamtonian Mayor John, and my friendly nemesis, Mike White, whenever the mood strikes.
I hope that everyone from my season knows that I'm delighted to get a text from any of them, any time.
In fact, I just had a conversation with Mike that blew me away. I texted Mike about the opening challenge of my season, where I was selected as "the weakest David" and thrust into the spotlight to complete a slide puzzle. There's a rumor among our cast that the Goliath tribe had decided to select Nick instead of me, but Mike called an audible and chose me instead when Jeff asked. Mike confirmed to me this was true! I was floored, because you could argue that his decision changed the entire trajectory of my game. If I wasn't in that challenge, I might not have been immediately pegged as this "ultimate David" character for the season, and thus been less targeted in the late game, maybe avoiding my eventual vote-out.
More surprising was his reason for the change. Mike White, a showbiz man by trade, thought that I was a plant for CBS. Specifically, he thought I was a ringer the network placed on Survivor to cross-promote the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. From what little he had heard me speak in our pre-challenge "mat chat," Mike said my similarities to Sheldon Cooper and the other Big Bang nerd characters were so uncanny that there was no way I was organically cast for the show. Jeff's enthusiasm toward me only added to his suspicions of a corporate tie-in. So Mike reasoned the show must want me to be picked for this opening challenge, and he didn't want to upset the corporate powers that be.
I believe that Survivor is a game of beautiful ironies. You can be too strong to win. So unlikable that people want you to stay. People reward the very players who stabbed them in the back. Now here I was, so much like an antisocial nerd stereotype that I must be here to entice America to watch CBS' fall prime-time lineup. This game is phenomenal.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do still watch the show. For me, it's still hard to top Survivor: Cagayan. So much character, great game fluidity, and yet you stay glued to it through all the twists.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
My quick answer is always Tony Vlachos. That would be a thrill ride I'd never want to stop. I would add that I wish I could have been the third wheel on the Sophie Clarke and Yul Kwon nerd-shield alliance. They are both sharp, and I'd want their acceptance and validation. I would also enjoy playing with someone with an earnest intensity like Jeremy Collins. The list could go on, but I like playing with people that make me think and I'd have a good time working with.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I would let the players be the primary drivers of the evolution of the show.
Variance is important to the long-term success of the Survivor. The big question is how you achieve that variance in a way that feels authentic and yields an engaging story. You can achieve that variance with novel game mechanics like nullifiers or tokens. A casting theme can give a season a unique stamp. However, I think the show should embrace the casts' view of the game, whatever that is for the season, and have that lead to its unique feel.
I think Survivor has gotten into the habit of framing the game for the players, instead of letting the players frame the game. Final Tribal Council is a good example. While I'm positive about the final Tribal Council debate format, they also try to define the criteria for winning ("Outwit means this, Outplay means that"). I understand where this framing would have been more warranted with some earlier casts that didn't value interesting gameplay. But I think Survivor has already solved this problem with increasingly phenomenal casting. Now they cast ambitious players looking to make their mark. Take 19-year-old Jessica Peet from my season, who looked nice and sweet, but she was primed and ready to slay her adversaries (that's its own story). These modern casts don't need convincing to keep the game moving and shaking.
Freeing up the players to reframe the game can lead to the next evolution of how it's viewed and played. Yes, you may occasionally get a season that feels like a narrative mess, but that's part of the charm of the genre this show started. If you always have a tight and satisfying story, it would be boring and predictable. America didn't know it wanted a show where Richard Hatch would win, but that was a far more provocative outcome and got people thinking in new ways about this show. I think Survivor is already taking a step in this direction by dropping the "colon theme" season branding, hopefully letting any themes and motifs emerge from the cast. As such, I'm excited to see what kind of stories emerge from post-pandemic Survivor.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Here's the long answer. It depends on my career stage and what I'd want from the experience.
First, my job is my passion and it puts bread on the table, so I know that needs to come first and couldn't be overly threatened by the time off. Thankfully, I think there are good ways to work out the scheduling and I'm confident my colleagues and supervisors would be supportive.
Second, I try to think about why I applied for Survivor in the first place. If I'm honest with myself, it was never about the million dollars. I'm content with my career path and money has never been a big motivator for me. While I, of course, would be happy to get a million dollars, how much money I get paid for something doesn't correlate well with how much I want to do it.
I did want to experience the game, and I've done that and got a huge and fulfilling experience out of it. I also thought it would be a lot of fun, and it was more fun than I expected. Would it be as fun the second time? Hard to say, but I'd hope so. I also wanted to prove that I could be more than just a robotics guy, that I could succeed in a world where there was no computer code and my education conferred no special privilege. I felt I did that on David vs. Goliath.
What I didn't expect was how rewarding it was to play and work with fascinating people. It was inspiring, and even gave me tons of ideas for my robotics research. Some of those ideas are helping propel my lab right now! So if my work's okay and the cast is awesome, I would be up for another inspiring adventure.
The short answer? Probably yes. And maybe this time nobody spreads rumors I'm on The Bachelorette.