Celebrating the goddamn slackers among us

"You going to Burning Man this year?" "Nah - taking a break."
“You going to Burning Man this year?”
“Nah – taking a break.”

I had a great time attending the last two Global Leadership Conferences, hobnobbing among some amazing people who are out spreading Burning Man culture through the world, and getting free drinks.

This year, however, a friend’s wedding and the first leg of the world’s slowest book tour have kept me out of town during the GLC.  I’m missing a lot of people I’d like to talk to, and don’t get to see the latest and greatest news about Burning Man in the world for myself.  My drinks aren’t free.

It breaks my heart, just a bit.

But it reminds me a situation that would come up surprisingly often when I was the Volunteer Coordinator for Burning Man’s media team.  A highly qualified virgin burner would apply, and I’d send them a note, and we’d talk and they’d seem great, and I’d offer them a spot on the team, and then, suddenly, he or she would hit me with an email like this:

Hi Caveat:

I’m so excited to be on Media Mecca and go to Burning Man for the first time this year! 

The only thing is – I just got a new job, it’s my dream job really, but they won’t give me the vacation to go to Burning Man until I’ve been working a whole year.  Also my grandmother is dying, and is likely to die during Burning Man, and my best friend is having her 30th Birthday party and really wants me to come. 

So I can either go to Burning Man;  or keep my job, see my Grandmother before she dies, and attend my best friend’s milestone birthday.  What do you think I should do?

My response, in tones as gentle as I could muster, was always some version of this:  “Don’t be crazy.  Do the important life stuff.  Burning Man will still be here next year.”

It’s always easy to say that, of course, when you’re the one going to Burning Man.  It’s perfectly convenient to say “Have patience – it’s not going anywhere” when you don’t have to sacrifice anything.  Not being able to attend this year’s GLC, I feel that keenly.  Everybody’s so damn nice, everything is so exciting … and did I mention the open bar?

But just because it’s an easy piece of advice to give when you have a magic ticket doesn’t mean it’s not right.  And, as Burning Man’s culture continues to grow and spread, it’s going to become even better advice – and not just because more people will want to attend That Thing In The Desert than the space can allow.  That’s a natural extension of this issue, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

Because … and let’s be honest here … the newbies who were seriously considering throwing their whole lives away to come be a part of Burning Man this year instead of 365 days later were on to something.  Burning Man culture is “inspiring” – and “inspiration” can be a synonym for an obsession that takes over everything you do.  It’s so easy to leap into Burning Man … but sometimes hard to climb out, no matter how exhausted or burnt out you may be.

It was bad enough when there was just Burning Man in Nevada.  But as it becomes a global culture with more events and regionals and happenings than anyone ever imagined, it becomes easier and easier to lose oneself completely in Burner culture – to not just focus on living the 10 Principles in your life, but to make your life revolve around getting an art car to all your regional evens, managing the “Burners who Watercolor” email list, and heading up the camp t-shirt committee.

Which isn’t a bad thing per see, but … we’re only human.   Of course we all need to step back sometimes.

Which on one level we understand – there’s no shame attached to a person who goes to Burning Man for a few years and then takes some years off.  But there are other levels at which we’re really bad at working with this.

In general, I would say:  the more you’ve tried to build something in this culture, not just to party, the harder it is to take a much needed break.

I know a fair number of people who are holding on to their camp positions with white knuckles and lockjaw because they’re afraid that if they take a year off they’ll be replaced and never find a position of influence again.  There are plenty of regional reps who won’t take a year or two off – no matter how burned out they are – for fear that they’ll never make it back.

At some level this is just human nature, but there are also ways in which Burner culture is very “what have you done for me lately?”  Burning Man’s cultural momentum is relentlessly forward (even if it was so much better last year), and so we often don’t know how to best approach people who need to take a breather.   How to reassure them that it’s okay to step back, that they’re not disappointing us (even if they are because they’re just that awesome), that we’ll still be their friends (which is a tricky one for people who – let’s be honest – we only see at Burning Man stuff), and that we’ll remember who they are when they want to come back.  We are bad at staying in touch, and at helping those who need to take a breather feel like it’s safe to disconnect.

Now, to be clear, nobody has a right to their seat being saved:  there’s so much new energy coming to burner culture, and so many new people who should be welcomed in and given their first shots at glory.  The fresh air they bring is essential.  But the fact that this is absolutely true also reinforces the problem that, if someone does decide to step down for a while, it can be hard to get back in – which makes the taking of a much needed vacation into something of a heroic act.  Which in turn means that fewer people will do it, instead clinging to their positions long after it would have been good for everybody if someone else got a turn.

Which is to say that, as we celebrate the amazing accomplishments of those who are returning to the Global Leadership Conference in triumph, I would like … as someone accidentally sitting on the sidelines … to raise my glass to those people who are deliberately sitting on the sidelines.  Who decided to take a year off, or more, not because life forced them to but because it better suits their own vision of their journey.  Who responded to “what have you done for me lately” with “I’ll see ‘ya later.”

The vision of a “do-occracy” will be incomplete until it’s safe to take a sabbatical, and for today’s leaders to just be slackers for a little while when they need it.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

4 Comments on “Celebrating the goddamn slackers among us

  • Yvel Queen says:

    The Sabbatical is the best thing a community can offer an individual. Taking it is the hard part. This comes from someone who “retired” for a year, whilst still living and participating in my theme camp, the Black Rock Boutique. I was the first to suggest it, and the first to take it. I relinquished all my official leadership roles, many of which involved organizing, facilitating, managing, et al. Being on the playa without any responsibility was one of the most difficult yet rewarding endeavors I personally embarked upon. I was able to do this in support of my community. I learned not to hide behind my work and earned authority. This encouraged a lot of other people to step up into roles I temporarily vacated. I was also able to take on a smaller project that only I worked on. It felt great to carve out my little space and not tell anyone what to do when I was the one that wanted to do it myself.

    We had the second person in our community take Sabbatical last year. It was heart-warming to be able to provide this gift (we offer it after 5 years of demonstrated bust assed-ness to anyone who needs it), and to support our people in taking a breather and still be in camp (albeit required to work and show up for shifts, but not be in an official role). We both have merged back into what we love to do, and no one “stole” our previous leadership positions. In fact, we have learned over the years to co-lead our entire theme camp with trust and encouragement. Thanks for bringing the value of Sabbaticals to the light. With the right group of people, it can be the best thing to keep burn out at bay, and make you a better person.

    Report comment

  • kendrick says:

    great piece and some thoughts that bear reflection

    Report comment

  • Jason T says:

    I am sitting this year out from almost everything. No trip to the playa, no regional burn, not organizing my city’s FIGMENT, not applying for a BRAF grant to do spread the principles in my city. It was an intentional decision in response to burnout from the last 4 years since I first got involved in Burner culture.

    People are supportive and understanding, but we don’t necessarily have the deep bench of new people to take over all these projects. Finding an enthusiastic, willing, and capable replacement for me as leader on the FIGMENT team took over a year. And as soon as I announced my retirement from that, I was bombarded with people asking for help with other projects.

    In the Bay Area, there may be such a huge well of talent that people in leadership roles “[are] afraid that if they take a year off they’ll be replaced and never find a position of influence again.” But out here on the east coast, we need to consciously develop the next generation of leaders so that someone will be around to replace us so that we can take a break at all. We have too few people who are able to actually commit and deliver on projects and those people are stretched too thin.

    This is not unique to Burner culture, of course. But it would be good if Burner culture addressed the issue in its own unique way. I’ve seen a couple of good models. The most notable is the Disorient leadership, which has a 3-year cycle of camp management that goes something like this: apprentice, camp manager (aka hell year), wise elder.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.