Raise your hand if you’ve “graduated” from Burning Man

Has this been you?  (Photo by AlphaSpirit)
Has this been you? (Photo by AlphaSpirit)

A few years ago Sondra Carr, the artist who first introduced me to Burning Man, said that she had reached a poignant new milestone: she was done with Burning Man, and ready to move on.

Now most of the people who you hear saying things like this are angry: they say “I am DONE with Burning Man!” and will tell you, at length, that their readiness to move on from Burning Man is entirely Burning Man’s fault, because they’ve got ROADS now, or because too many of THOSE people are here, or because the organization ISN’T LISTENING!”

That is to say, they talk about Burning Man as though the decision to move on from it is the result of a terrible mistake, even an injury, and that in the normal course of events we would all keep doing it for the rest of our lives.

That’s not what Sondra meant. Just the opposite.

She’s not angry at Burning Man. She doesn’t agree with everything the Org has done, but she doesn’t expect to agree with everything anybody does. She has had very good experiences here, a few really terrible experiences, and is ultimately very grateful for Burning Man providing her with the opportunity to engage in tremendous personal and artistic growth.

It’s just that, having grown, she believes it is time to move on. This doesn’t mean never coming back: “I’ll come back if I have a particular art piece that I think should happen there, or if a ticket happens to come my way,” she tells me. But it does mean that going to Burning Man for its own sake is no longer a priority: rather, she needs to refocus her efforts .. and all that growth … on making the magic she discovered at Burning Man happen in the rest of the world.

She sees it as graduating from high school: you don’t stop going to high school because goddamit high school did something terrible to you … you stop going to high school because you are ready for other things. There is no ideal world (except on TV) where people never stop going to high school. It exists for you to be done with it. If it’s done its job well, it will show in the way you live through the rest of your life.

Sondra says she has graduated form Burning Man, and I think she’s right. She’s even said she intends to hold a graduation ceremony. (I’ve told her that if she can do it in San Francisco I’ll get Andie Grace and John Law to give commencement addresses – no luck on getting that scheduled so far.)

One way of looking at this is as my friend’s idiosyncratic decision, but I actually think it’s a good and useful way of thinking about what Burning Man is and our personal relationships to it. This is something we should have been thinking about years ago, but now is particularly important in a time of ticket shortages.

What does it mean to graduate from Burning Man? To be an after burner? Because it’s one thing if it’s something people are forced to do (“I haven’t been able to get a ticket, so I guess I’m an afterburner”), and another if it’s something we choose to do. Here the high school metaphor breaks down: choice is always better.

Having graduated Burning Man, Sondra is hardly living a mundane life. On the contrary: being less devoted to Burning Man in the desert frees her up to devote more time to creating Burning Man culture in the world. She has created a number of instillations in her city of residence that have gotten tremendous attention, both enhancing her art career and expanding the minds of people who didn’t know art could be like that. She is preparing a traveling exhibit of one of her more successful interactive pieces. Without taking anything against the work she was doing before, I would say she is more engaged in creating the common culture we aspire to, not less.

This isn’t an aberration: in my experience this is typical. In fact, many of the people whose practical engagements with art and culture I most admire are AfterBurners. They don’t have any problem with Burning Man, occasionally they go back, but they are focused on making magic happen right where they are. And it’s amazing.

Furthermore, they’re better at it than Burning Man. Burning Man does an amazing job of producing Burning Man. I honestly don’t know that it could be done much better. But while “Burning Man” the event is an incredible boot camp for “Burning Man” the culture – a training ground and networking opportunity of unparalleled utility – the fact is that the act of creating art and producing events at Burning Man is strikingly different from doing it anywhere else.

Many of the skills are transferable, no doubt – doing one surely makes you better able to do the other. In particular, artists and non-profit leaders across the world have told me that they like to bring Burners on their staff because Burners already understand many of the key approaches: the idea of a “do-occracy,” of Radical Self-Reliance and Radical Self-Expression, of giving and decommidifying to the extent possible. But past that point of understanding … once someone gets that … the skills needed to create at Burning Man begin to diverge from the skills required to get shit done in the rest of the world. The more focused and specific people get at making the magic happen on playa, the less they are taking the opportunity to hone those skills off playa.

It makes a difference.   While there are some Burners who manage to do both exceptionally well – Will Chase and Stephen Ra$pa, for example – it is my considered opinion after a number of years that Burning Man events off playa, both artistic and public service, are decidedly inferior to events produced by people who, having done Burning Man, are now committed AfterBurners.

I should mention, both as a matter of full disclosure and as a proof point, that I am on the board of an arts organization, The San Francisco Institute of Possibility, which is made up almost entirely of AfterBurners – and that their work is amazing. In fact, as I’ve noted before, we’ve actually taken the concept of Gifting much farther than Burning Man, by creating an event for which tickets can only be purchased for others – that is to say, given as a gift. It creates a whole different kind of experience.

The point being that graduating from Burning Man is not a fallback position or a second choice option: it is part of the natural evolution of the culture we are creating, and of the people in it. A conscious choice to reprioritize. To level up. To graduate. And potentially to make the very changes in the world that Burning Man the event cannot.

Burning Man itself can perhaps best be seen as a hybrid form of the culture that is emerging from it. It is a common thing to point out how Burning Man does not live up to its values. And this is absolutely true. But this is precisely because nobody knows how to do what they’re trying to do. No one has ever successfully created a fiscally viable organization in a capitalist economy that is truly decommodified. How do we really do that? What does it look like?

Burning Man’s job, institutionally, is not to get it right the first time. If it knew how to do that, it wouldn’t be necessary. Burning Man’s job is to keep slowly advancing the banner and practice of the culture, inspiring and networking the people from whom, eventually, the new discoveries of how to do that will be made.

As I have written elsewhere, Burning Man’s next steps will be found on the frontiers, not the playa. The next major discoveries of how to do what Burning Man is inspiring people to do will come out of places like Idaho, South Africa, and Taiwan, not San Francisco. Some of them will surely come from the regionals. But many of them will doubtless come from AfterBurners – people who are specifically focused on making the culture of Burning Man work where they are and with people who have never thought about going to Burning Man.

There is no more important work. To be an AfterBurner is not to break from Burning Man or give up on it, but to advance the mission where it is needed most – outside the playa.

This the best reason to encourage and nourish a culture of AfterBurners.

But there’s also the unfortunate reality of ticket sales.

To say that Burning Man could handle ticket sales “better” is a truism because it’s true – systems could not break down, for instance. They could be hacker-proof. But such complaints ignore the 800 pound mechanical octopus in the room: that if there are 160,000 people who want to go to Burning Man, and only 80,000 tickets, then there is no way to distribute them that will make all 160,000 people happy. You can check my work, but I’m pretty sure the math is solid.

Barring some seismic shift – the ability to double the size of Burning Man, or move it to another site – this scarcity is here to share.  How we handle this crisis of scarcity – as an organization and as a culture – will define Burning Man for in its next incarnation.

Figuring out the best way to make the system of who gets to go most fair (whatever that means) is a worthy goal, but not nearly as important as the role of AfterBurners, who will create the capacity for people to have experiences of Burning Man outside of Burning Man. Who will bring Burning Man to the other 80,000 people, and maybe even create sustainable ways that the 10 Principles can be lived out in the world.

This is not only because the efforts of AfterBurners are more important to Burning Man culture’s long-term growth anyway, but because – again – there isn’t a way to make a truly fair and just system about who gets to go to Burning Man that will make everybody happy. It can’t be done. But at least, through the efforts of Regionals and AfterBurners, people will have more things to do, and more ways to engage in this culture where they are, instead of having to go to the Nevada desert every year.

And ultimately, that’s the real goal. A Burning Man that doesn’t offer a path through the desert, a next step, is actually a pretty shallow dream. There’s a whole world out there, and the AfterBurners will lead us to it as much or more as Burning Man.

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

61 Comments on “Raise your hand if you’ve “graduated” from Burning Man

  • Janno says:

    The moment you graduate Burning Man is a lot like the moment you decide to leave an abusive relationship. It’s sort of like when your self-preservation instinct kicks in, and you tell yourself that you’re no longer going to put up with this shit… but rather than be congratulated by your friends, you are ostracized. People talk behind your back and wonder what went wrong, or rather what YOU did wrong.

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    • Rrandy Fecundity says:

      I just like to ride my bike for a solid week , play music, and pretend to have ADD. After graduating years ago, I still go to these annual reunions expecting nothing but what I cause to happen, and experiencing things I could never anticipate. It’s fun.

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    • bc bob says:

      Yep . . been there done that last burn was Green Man and that was just to show my lady what burning man was about . .. still love the people and the energy and still in touch with the ORG but it will be a while before I head back -no hard feelings

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    • Someone says:

      You realize you’re in tons of debt, your efforts to spread the good word sounded like a cultist, and you need to get your life back together. And as you reject the cultist sayings, you are immediately ostracized from everyone around you for not drinking the kool-aid anymore.

      No burning man, We are NOT “Changing the World” together through regionals or whatever, the world is changing burning man, by commodifying more and more of the event each year as capitalist pressures increase.

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      • TheyCallMeKraft says:

        A number of theme camps on the esplanade sold camping spaces via indiegogo and kickstarter last year. And you could ala-carte pick what kind of extra conveniences they’d supply you like shade, power, and food catering.

        So being a good Burner of community building mindset, I emailed IP@burningman.com and they informed me that that behavior wasn’t against the 10 principles and if it bothered me so much maybe I should contact them.

        I wrote back told that writer from ip@burningman that it wasn’t my job and that I’ll never be contacting them about an infringement again, because if that’s not against the principles? scalping isn’t, mooping isn’t, and apparently $17,000 a head camps aren’t either.

        My belief in the social movement parts of the event died a lot that day, I guess that’s “graduating”. And no, Burning Man, you may not have credit for my actions and projects that occur outside of your event. I’ll make sure to stay away from your holy words to avoid Decommodification LLC’s wrath.

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      • Caleb says:

        Yeah, I heard it was gonna be dusty this year, too.

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  • Celeste says:

    If you want to create more “Afterburners” you need to address the broken ticketing system, because the broken ticketing system is what is making people break from Burning Man and give up on it. Like the clearly obvious fact that the ticketing system is not actually first come first serve. The number of people posting what time they clicked on the link and if they got tickets has made that obvious.

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    • Off White says:

      Thanks for stating it so clearly Celeste, as one of those who clicked in the first second and didn’t get tickets I concur with your observation. “Graduation” is great, and I appreciate the sentiments of this article, but something that feels more like “Expulsion” is a much less joyous feeling when the system feels unfair. Perhaps a truly random lottery would be better.

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      • Cowhead says:

        Seriously? Do you not remember when they tried that? Believe me, there were many more pissed off burners and waaay more problems with the lottery….

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  • Admiral Fiesta says:

    *raises hand*

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  • heathen john says:

    a burner graduation ceremony would be fantastic! The graduating class might get large. Wedding dresses might be preferable over graduation robes.. people in this crowd are more likely to have one of those in their closet.

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  • Moze says:

    This is a really good blog, well thought out, and to the point Caveat, and I appreciate you putting this out there for everyone to contemplate. I remember Danger Ranger saying something to the effect that he felt like he was handing off Burning Man this year and I’ve had similar feelings. These eras where things you work to create evolve, happen regardless of whether we want them to or not and having learned what we can and then taking that forward is quite a reasonable way to deal with something you love. There are still plenty of reasons to attend, the art, the people, the freedom, spending that week with friends, but psychologically graduating after a long time under the spell and realizing that the lucidity you’ve gained can be channeled into other aspects of your life is a grand and valuable realization. Thanks for putting this into words, man.

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  • Peace says:

    I suppose if I kept going to Burning Man and it was the same every year and there was nothing left to learn, then I would stop going. But that isn’t the case. It is difference every year. I am different every year. My interaction with the Playa and my Playa family holds infinite possibilities. Yes there are other ways and other places to have transformative experiences, but as a spiritual teacher of mine once said, “you can dig a lot of shallow holes or one deep one”. Plus going to the burn does not mean you can’t take it home with you as well.

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  • Peace says:

    One question I would have is this. Yes it seems daunting to figure out a way of expanding or moving the event. I personally don’t have a great answer for that, but I would like to know if the Org is at least trying. Do they see it as a problem that needs solving, or have they given up on restoring actual radical inclusion.

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    • Cooky says:

      Peace I am not sure that infinitely growing the size of the event in the Black Rock Desert (or elsewhere is the answer to radical inclusion.

      In general, I think the orgs response to growth outpacing physical and other capacities of the desert event is encapsulated in the creation of the Burning Man Project. It’s been clear for quite awhile that not everyone who wants to attend the Gerlach Regional Burn in the Black Rock Desert can each year. Infinite growth of that event is also not really sustainable, even if the permit was raised to 100K attendees, could we really all fit on the roads in and out and would we want to? Is that the culture that we want as attendees? Is growth for growth sake the answer and what issues does it bring with it? I’ve seen the Project and the broader community wrestling with these ideas.

      Here’s the way I see the Burning Man Project growing radical inclusion beyond the Gerlach Regional Burn:

      1. encourage the creation and growth of Regional events and communities all over the world. This is where I’m focusing my energy, where to the spirit of this blog post — “graduating”.

      2. collaborate with existing and budding organizations all over the world who have similar ethos so that the possibilities that are inherent in the Black Rock Desert expand beyond the desert, and so that we learn and cross-pollinate with others.

      3. potentially acquire more property in Nevada to host a year round series of events and gatherings.

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      • Peace says:

        I am not sure it would be a good idea to grow the event back to a situation where anyone who wants to come would come, but I find it disturbing that, because it is such a daunting problem, the response is to say it isn’t a problem; to say regionals and smaller events and gatherings make up for the fact that some people are excluded from the most powerful force of Burning Man, the event itself. I have never heard the story of someone saying “I went to a regional and it changed my life”. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen to the same degree.

        I started going to Burning Man prior to the ticket shortage. I felt different and marginalized, but I wasn’t sure I was “cool enough” for Burning Man. A Burner friend of mine suggested I give it a try and I bought a ticket, because anyone could buy a ticket, and I found my family and my home. I worry that others like me are now getting shut out and I worry that the org isn’t worried about that.

        Like I said, I don’t know that there is a solution or that growing the event would even be a good idea (there are certainly much bigger events than Burning Man. I believe the last Kubbla Mela had 8 million people). I also don’t know if there is anything we can actually do about global warming, but I want to know that someone cares about global warming and is at least trying to address the problem, rather than just pretend it isn’t a problem.

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  • TTATC says:

    “She has created a number of instillations in her city of residence that have gotten tremendous attention, both enhancing her art career and expanding the minds of people who didn’t know art could be like that.”
    Ummm, instillations or installations? Was that a typo? Both words work in context coincidentally.

    Everything changes. Burning Man cannot but change. Many cultural phenomena over history evolve to become parodies of what they started out as. Love it or leave it. If certain trends are not moderated I may well “graduate”. In the greater scheme of things we all will graduate from Burning Man sooner or later, so that is something to be mindful of.
    Maybe Diplomas can be issued to graduates? :)

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  • Thank you for writing this. I really feel that it captures my feelings on my current relationship with burning man and I appreciate your ability to put it to words so eloquently.
    After six years of projects on the playa I feel as though I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and that if I continue to push for more I risk becoming burned out. Instead of taking that path, I’ve decided to take all of the good experience I’ve gained and focus that on improving myself and the world around me. I’m not giving up on Burning Man and I’ll likely come back at some point, but right now I have more important things to attend to. After many years of being unable to imagine life without an annual trip to the playa, I feel like that is finally OK to say that I am out for now.
    I love you all. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I’ll be coming home soon, but not too soon.

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  • Rusty says:

    It is funny that you call it “graduation”. I threw that term around after my 4th burn in 2004 and said that I had “graduated” and was moving on to “grad school” and then my PhD!! Unfortunately, 2005 was the last year I burned as we moved away from the Bay area back to my old stomping ground (south Louisiana). My not returning is not by choice. Children came and my partner in crime (came to 4 of the 5 burns with me) has chosen to graduate and wants me to choose to graduate. I can’t do it. My experiences in BRC are burnt into my brain/pysche (ha that was the theme one of my years) for life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about, miss it, and long for it. What more could you ask for ? The best things in life…and the worst, stick with you. When we go, all we take with us are memories (hopefully anyway). I tease my wife that she will die first and the first thing I will do is wheel out to the playa. Some of my ashes will also be spread either during the event (hopefully) or on the vacant playa. It changed me forever and existence/spending time doesn’t get much better than being in BRC.

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  • Rusty says:

    What I meant by “Graduation” and moving onto “Grad School” and then PhD was I was moving forward/pushing on with my playa education. It meant I had advanced and still wanted more…5 burns was not enough

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  • (The Other) Dave Cooper says:

    Eighteen and out.

    I’m not going to do something else instead. I’m not going to be a disgruntled hater of the event. I’m not feeling hope for the event. I’m not going to miss it. Eighteen is enough. That simple. It’s over. It’s over forever too.

    I’ve worked my ass off. Spent weeks building it. Had a blast. Been frustrated. Helped fix the frustration.

    Came to the end.

    I won’t be an After Burner. I won’t support it. I won’t detract. I care, but not that much.

    I will take with me everything wonderful and light about it. My dreams have already become about The Man replacing those of not being prepared for school. It’s in me that way.

    I don’t think creating another grandfalloon is needed.

    Just leave.

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  • sammy nasr says:

    For me, having been to BurningMan fifteen times, I decided not to go anymore. Albeit, the ticketing seemed messed up, but more than that; I started to see it going in a different direction from when I first went. Specifically, the amount of junk people bought and wasted, the phenomenal amount of propane used, and most of all, those ‘turnkey’ camps. BurningMan has a huge and growing carbon footprint. We can speak of radical this and the other, but in the end we have to include ‘radical responsibility’ for a consumptive and waste-filled event.

    I wouldn’t have gone for fifteen years if I didn’t love being there, but I’m hoping this next generation of new burners will take it in a better directions, and I look forward to that.

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  • Schnauser says:

    You really are very good Caveat; BM Org’s number one shill with a bullet. And apparently not even on the payroll :)

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  • jlish says:

    Hands-up. Thanks for articulating the sentiment. I graduated by choice. Last burn was in 2007 after attending since 1999. It’s not about a ticket shortage or the organization doing anything ‘wrong’. It’s about reallocating resources so I can focus my efforts from what I learned, and what still lives in my heart, to the rest of the world around me the many other days of the year. I’ve found it to be a rewarding, fulfilling and healthy practice to reassess throughout life and move forward taking the lessons learned with you on your journey.

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  • Billy V says:

    I finally have a term for what I am…an AfterBurner! So well said.

    I watched the event grow from 1200 my first year in 1995 to the behemoth of 60,000 I attended in 2013. The vibe is very different now with the obstacles it takes to attend and the populace in general. It was sad to WANT to leave it behind.

    Next week we are attending BEquinox (our LA regional) for the first time and I am beside myself with anticipation. We are bringing art, friends, and a thirst for a new experiences. Let the love flow outward and the tide will bring it back to you!

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  • I completely relate! After 5 years of attending — all completely different experiences, some good, some bad — I told myself i would “skip” a year as I got settled in Portland. But as time went by I felt less of a desire to go back.

    I’ve found a lot of the same kinds of experiences in my life here in Portland, and can draw on things I learned at Burning Man. I’ve joined an intentional community and have found local groups that fill the role in my life that the Burn did.

    It’s not that I don’t want to go back — I would if the right camp or project came along. And the hassle of buying a ticket is definitely a factor. But ultimately it feels like a pretty natural transition out of a very transformative phase of my life.

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  • Jorge says:

    After 3 in a row, and seeing the beautiful light along with the dark side of BM, I’m going to have some other adventures in the “default world” before returning to BM. Graduation assumes up and down, but there is only around and around. A week is just not enough, and there are so many places to go and things to do, and the voices of children…

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  • Bob C says:

    How appropriate to use a high school analogy in this blog as my Burn experience over the last few years has witnessed just as much of the same immature, cliquish and “all about the party” attitude that was prevalent in both high school and at university, while using the principles to justify the behavior; it’s no longer trying better than the default world IMHO.

    The principles should remain with less focus on the partying; at least that is what I am taking with me in my after burn life.

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  • Chuckster says:

    Many years ago, there was a time when Shirley McClain, the dancer and actress, went on the lecture circuit to talk about New Age ideas and her transcendent experiences in South America (which included, IIRC, flying saucers). She stopped those lectures, I learned from a later interview of her, because she saw the same people showing up at the lectures, wherever she went. She was trying to plant new ideas in as many minds as she could, but had acquired an encrustation of people who were addicted to the messenger, not the message. Or perhaps, the message only lived for them when intensely and charismatically delivered by her.
    The BM Org has a lot of statistics, are there any about how many Burners are actually artists, or artistic people, vs turnkey camp Silicon Valley dweebs and shirtcocks, etc ? I would think not, since being an artist or “artistic person” can be highly subjective. My point here is that I can see why some people “graduate” from Burning Man.

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  • Fearless Lemur says:

    An honest, well-thought article. Thank you.
    I think what should be remembered is that Burning Man, and being a Burner, is a way of life, of thought, of being; not one place or event. What happens on the Playa once a year is a physical manifestation of what it means.
    I will not be on the Playa this year physically; but my mind and heart and memories will be. It is by choice, and it is enough, this year. And it frees up a ticket for perhaps someone’s first time; someone who needs to be there more this year than I do.
    True, there is a capacity. The ticketing system is uneven. Would it be better if LiveNation or Ticketmaster handled it? NO. The system might be smoother, but an integral part of the adventure would be lost. What I have seen in my experience is that those who really, really want to go – not just those who put it on their list along with Coachella – find a way to find a ticket.

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    • Corvus says:

      “What happens on the Playa once a year is a physical manifestation of what it means.”

      Where’s the Like button on this thing?

      There are those who are bucket-listers – one and done, never even dreaming of coming again.

      There are those who try it once and hate it – someone who thinks TTITD is for everyone is nuts and you don’t know until you try it.

      I am a member of a third group who intend on returning until I can no longer physically do so, hopefully because I am dead. Forgive my naïveté but after six years I cannot grasp not wanting to come.

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  • bellz says:

    Yep- well put! After 6 years of going, and 10 years prior of helping other’s prepare, I too naturally started pulling away. The past 3 years, instead of going to burning man, I’ve been diverting the same kind of energy into other projects. My alternative projects have been awesome, I’ve had time and money to do other crazy-amazing things: like Shamanistic work in Central America, other international travel, yoga training and certification, volunteering at other festivals, and improving my home and work-life, bringing more art and meaning to those spaces. If you choose not to go, (and you’re used to going), then you need another crazy amazing project to get involved with!

    It’s been so inspiring to be apart of such a wonderful community. I feel like I’ve “popped”, and that I’m a burner in the world, and there’s more to do with my time, energy, and resources, than spend my entire year crafting around the event (which in my opinion, is how it’s best done – by preparing, engaging in community, fundraisers, costume making, artcar building, fire performance, and events that prepare for what you’re going to create there). The feedback I’ve had from committed burners the past few years has been that the vibe has definitely been shifting as the event has taken on so many new people just show up for the party without the same kind of all-year preparation and camp involvement. They’ll transform too, but I feel really really grateful and lucky to have been a part of it at exactly the period of time I was. I love the term after-burner. :)

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  • FoXXX says:

    Rationalizing the growing discontent in generic terms palatable to anyone doesn’t mask the fact that the more disillusionment grows, leading to “graduation,” for WHATEVER reason, there is likely to be a degradation of the event as a whole, which most people I know and talk to clearly recognize. More contrubutors leaving then are arriving. This in turn will lead to more commercial compromises by the org, which is clearly committed to an unsustainable vision as a corportation without bending to market forces, thus creating a withering away of the state of affairs that originally attracted so many willing and contributing participants.

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  • Wendy says:

    Things have changed during the 12 years I went to the playa, in a way that I don’t enjoy. It really came down to spending a ton of money and hassle to go, then having my life threatened by the “radically entitled” (those who are allowed to roar around the playa drunk, in old cars with the doors ripped off) several times. I don’t go on vacation to be run over by drunk drivers, (and verbally threatened if I complain about it). There’s enough of that BS in the default world. When I went to Burning Man the first few times, I felt like it was a pretty safe place to be, largely free from those who would maliciously or carelessly harm others. The last few times I went, (2012 was it), I felt like I was walking around in a “bad” neighborhood and I should be carrying the means to defend myself. I already work in a neighborhood where robberies, assaults, murders and car-jackings are common. I won’t waste my money or hard-earned vacation hours to be stressed out about my safety or even put up with an endless stream of assholes. I have lots of fond memories of Burning Man as it was and I’m leaving it there.

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    • Joebunny says:

      BMorg seems to like to think it’s the organization itself, with all its bullshit that causes burners to “graduate”. I learned to stay away from the inner circle and the only hard part was staying away from DPW (and the like) as they tend to find YOU. But it was always easy enough to toss a can of beer towards the portapotties to get them to move along.

      For me, the final straw was not being able to get away from entitled burners themselves. It just got too much. I ran an esplanade camp and had to downsize from that because of all the hangers-on we attracted. Even after that, a few years later, we had hangers-on again. It wasn’t like that in the beginning (around 2000), but it eventually became our job to care for all the people who couldn’t care for themselves. This is around the time when 40% of the population were virgins – not their fault, but fuck me if I’d rather do something else than nurse another sparkle pony down from the first time she tried acid or E. And you can’t just leave them there with their eyes rolled up in their heads, even though you have plans to meet your friends as dusk. And so you sit there and take care of them and in the morning, they have no recognition of the last night, and just sort of stumble off after consuming whatever they can get from you when they come-to around sunrise.

      So basically: FUCK YOU ASSHOLES! I’m not going back again. You can starve or die of thirst or suck dust up your nostrils tripping on whatever. I’m not your daddy or mommy, anymore.

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    • Peggy says:

      I think you are right. Burning Man probably never was an ideal place for you if you are looking for a safe vacation like experience. Come back in a few years time because it is evolving to accommodate those seeking a more comfortable time.

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  • Kay O. Sweaver says:

    I can 101% relate to this. Thank you so much Caveat. I’d gladly help organize an After Burner grad at the SFIOP.

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  • Sir Skip of Dakota says:

    The constant erosion of the 10 principles, bit by bit, year by year, and the way that such a large group has turned the main and temple burns into some kind of pseudo-religious experience, when originally it was a good excuse to use up your remaining ammo. I understand that the guns had to go when it grew larger, because too many of the new arrivals were meatheads who couldn’t be trusted, but then, despite much resistance from the 20 year burner crowd it became some sort of religious experience…..WTF!!!!! ……..It was never meant to be a religious experience people! It’s a freaking party!! Of course the LARGE scale plug plays that can only be afforded by the uber rich were the last straw………retirement time for Sir Skip of Dakota!!

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    • joebunny says:

      Ya. It became a haven for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ school teachers on spirt quests. Yuppie spiritualism and ritual… you couldn’t go take a piss without stepping through someone’s spiritual rock garden, like you just stepped on the Virgin Marry’s pussy.

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  • burnersxxx says:

    For every Burner lucky enough to go home this year, there are ten AfterBurners.

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  • HisNameWasPaulAddis says:

    Having particpated from 1998-2003… again frim 2007-2010… and most recently in 2014- the Burn has been a vocation from days of virgin undergrad, earning a playa doctorate and is now a continuing education program. Its been amazing to see how much the event has changed over the years as it’s graduated itself from an underground, word of mouth, counter culture event to being both a reflection of and fountainhead for modern popular culture.

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  • Zippo says:

    This may possibly be my last Burn. It depends on what happens this year. I’ve been going since 1998 (class of 1988, as we call it). Back then, the total attendance was 17,000. Now, there are 17,000 people on playa BEFORE they open the gates. I’ve been a volunteer building art for the last 11 years so getting a ticket was never a problem for me, praise the Goddess. Of course it’s changed, but I never felt like I wasn’t safe out there, even with the huge crowds. They’re mostly a crowd of friends. What DID change started in 2011 when the ORG declared themselves to be a “non-profit”. Benefits for volunteers gradually began to be stripped away, and there were more and more “rules”. Perhaps a seminal moment was last year when Larry Harvey declared that the 10 Principles were not “commandments”. No, Larry, they’re not commandments, they’re IDEALS which I take very personally and try to live up to in my daily life. Of course, I was so disappointed to hear that. And now, as the promotion of this so-called “non-profit” gathers speed, it feels like I’m working (volunteering) for just another big corporation. All I hear from Department Managers is “They’re cutting my budget”. And if promoting “Burning Man Culture” and the 10 Principles is the stated goal of the Burning Man Project, then what’s up with the for-profit “commodification camps, the most infamous of which, last year, Caravansicle, was organized and run by one of the BMP’s Board of Directors? I’m hoping that was a mistake, an aberration that will not be repeated or tolerated this year—but it’s one of the things I’ll be watching closely. If I do “graduate”, and this is my last year, it’ll be because I feel that the BMorg and its priorities are going in a different direction than I am. And I’m O-K with that. I bear no resentment or ill-will towards the BMorg. It is what it is. My heart is already overflowing with so many fond memories, not to mention the thousands of photos and videos. The wonderful friendships I’ve made with so many great people over the years, forged in the heat, sweat, dust and adversity of the playa, helping to build big art, sharing a camp and a drink, are the real reason I’m going this year. Maybe this will be my last year, maybe not. All I can say is, “Let’s see what happens.”

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    • Peace says:

      Hey Zippo,

      First, thanks for your contribution all these years. I don’t think the issues you are referring to are related to the non-profit, they are related to ticket scarcity. Department heads used to be “budgeted” all the tickets they wanted because anyone who wanted to go was going to get to go. Now every ticket granted a volunteer is a ticket that doesn’t go into the primary sale. It represents someone who wants to go and can’t. So when department heads (camp organizers, artists with large projects) request tickets, the non-profit has to decide if that ticket is really necessary. It requires folks to think about volunteers efficiently, rather than say “come one come all”. Compared to the way it used to be, it sucks, but it would be the same if it happened under the LLC or the non-profit. You site 2011 as the beginning of the problem, but the non-profit really didn’t take over until last year. However 2011 is when you could see ticket scarcity coming down the line. This isn’t the org’s fault, or the non-profit’s fault, or your fault, or my fault. It is the fault of a 70 mile two lane road that nobody can do anything about.

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  • AleXander says:

    I raise my hand – but in protest to the adolescent sentiment-driven idea of “graduating”, a diploma for the scarecrow, a sugar coating to deflect the deep and growing disillusionment occurring around the event as it becomes a parody of itself.
    I extrapolate on one commenter: I will not be an After Burner. I won’t spend a lot of time detracting, but I won’t support it.
    After 10 years and choosing not to return I am not interested in proselytizing the Burning Man © Brand, it’s tablet of 10 Principles ©, or it’s sales pitch as some sort of Personal Transformation Movement © that will change the world. From my experience the world has done much more to change it.

    (My guess is the author gets a free ticket.)

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    • Payroll says:

      The author is most likely on the payroll in some form or another.

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    • TheyCallMeKraft says:

      After 8 years myself, I have found value in reading this blog because I came across your comment.

      I also am choosing not to return I am not interested in proselytizing the Burning Man © Brand, it’s tablet of 10 Principles ©, or it’s sales pitch as some sort of Personal Transformation Movement © that will change the world.

      I worked with Burning Man at the GLC level and as a regional event organizer. My experience also informed me that the world has done much more to change Burning Man, and we are not ‘changing the world’.

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  • Will Chase says:

    Great post, Caveat, and something that’s been on my mind for a while. After 14 Burns, I can better see the arc of the natural trajectory for the Burner lifecycle. I’ve always said there’s no shame or tragedy in moving on from Burning Man. The whole point is to take what you’ve learned from the experience, incorporate it into your way of being in the world — however that looks for you — and go do more fantastic things that don’t have to be on playa.

    While we’d certainly love to snap our fingers and solve the scarcity problem (and it’s a problem we’re trying to mitigate, but yeah, the math doesn’t work), our ultimate goal isn’t to get more people AT Burning Man, it’s to get more people to EXPERIENCE Burning Man. If it were just about throwing a great party, I wouldn’t be doing this. It’s about giving as many people as possible the opportunity to become their fullest, most realized selves, inside AND outside Black Rock City.

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  • Dennis Hinkamp says:

    Yes, well put. I apply the same response to religion. Shouldn’t any good religion teach you how live a moral life and then let you go out and do it rather than requiring you to take a refresher course every Sunday? I have been going consecutively since 1997 and still look forward to it for various reasons. However I am no longer terrified of missing a year if there is a death in the family, a sick dog or whatever else life throws me.

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  • Becca says:

    Anyone else really reminded of ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ while reading this post? The similarity is so obvious that I feel quite silly pointing it out.
    I have yet to attend Burning Man, so I can’t say I’m ready to graduate yet – but I can appreciate the point being made! There is no progress made walking through the same door over and over…,

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  • Craig Martin says:

    Love this! I’m so grateful for the 3 years I got to attend Burning Man. I had amazing experiences and painful experiences, but every time, I had months worth of personal growth crammed into one week. I met amazing friends and had a great time.

    So grateful for all of it. And now I’m moving on.

    What’s beautiful about the ticket shortage is that the limitation is forcing new creativity to happen. We can’t stay in the womb so we are out in the world. We are spreading everywhere. Now it’s up to us to create the experience we want where we are, be it in the dust or the snow or the forest or the city. I love the principles of Burning Man, and I look forward to the great ways we can truly live them out here beyond the playa.

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  • Thanks for your positive take on those of us finding the same radical growth that Burning Man once provided, on new personal frontiers.

    Yet, I don’t see this as such a clear, first this, then that experience — at least taken as a whole. You’re on to something good here, and I want to help grow its scope.

    Here’s the case where I feel the analogy needs expansion: I am “AfterBurner” in some areas, and still “Newbie” in others… and, I am still excitedly pursuing growth on each level.

    This makes sense to me, and feels natural. I’m like a jet plane with both burners (main engines), and afterburners (massively awesome super boost!). A skilled pilot draws on the strengths of each of them, at appropriate times.

    I feel like that pilot. I agree that learning to be the Burner, has enabled me to engage the AfterBurner (and I think that was your main point), your analogy captures that order, but I still want both, when I want them.

    Here is a perhaps more inclusive, less black and white alternate view of the transformation you write about.

    Burning Man is a conference — a meeting of our collective global tribe whose values are not yet embraced, let alone even understood, by the Default World. It is exciting, and inspiring, to be among our people! Just like any conference in the Default World, the more energy you put into it, the more energy you get out. BMorg gets this, and suggests it as valuable learning with the value of “No Spectators.” Not everyone gets this, but it is an entry level, or at least early, class.

    Learning happened for me when I saw this playing out on large scale around me, when my jaw dropped upon living in BRC for the first time. Speaking personally, it rocked my world. In that blast of inspiration, it expanded me from engineer to engineer+light sculptor, an abrupt path change that continues to this day, decades later, with the added (Default-World-learned) ‘+entrepreneur’. Charged with that blast of initial inspiration, and a welcoming conference to practice my flexing of that muscle, I learned to “Put more in.” Having learned that, like you, and many of the people you call AfterBurners, the natural arc of my own personal evolution, still wants to continue to more advanced learning on the topic — beyond what Burning Man can support. As you aptly suggest to be a commonality — I am now continuing to learn to “Put more in,” year-round. 17 Burns later, with the frontier of my evolution now off-playa, by your definition I’m an AfterBurner. I’ve accomplished something amazing (at least to me), and I am honestly flattered by your (admittedly external) validation.

    BUT… as clear, and flattering as your definition is, I want to expand its strength. I view yours as the best answer I’ve heard to the leading edge question of “What’s Next?” Lots of us experienced Burners are asking this question of ourselves naturally, but some of us Burners have to ask unnaturally, because we didn’t get tickets. To lots of us, it is an important, quite likely even defining, question. The BMorg’s answer is to spread Burning Man culture worldwide — a great answer for an organization, but it doesn’t easily translate into personal terms. It leaves us to fill in our own blanks. It leads me to think deeply about blog posts like yours, and what wisdom might found therein that I can use personally. I see wisdom there, and I want to add to it, to help it advance this transformation in myself, and others.

    There are so many “Classes” to take in the “School of Life”. The untold unique offerings that the Burn, and the Regionals offer, are literally incomparable, truly ranging from entry-level (Say Hello To An Obviously Friendly Stranger) to advanced (Execute a Large Scale Team Art Project), not excluding the often more vital, internal, and relationship lessons, literally custom-made for us. But the richness of Burning Man’s potentials doesn’t stop, or start, life, or growth everywhere else. There are countless Non-Burning-Man, opportunities for growth. It is not at all unnatural for our personal frontiers of growth to move back and forth between Playa and Default, or between other modalities in life. In fact it is unnatural for those frontiers NOT to follow us around where we go.

    So, I offer up this enhanced definition of ‘AfterBurner, ‘ building on your wonderful philosophical work here. It is the massively empowering super-boost that the values, learning and experience of Burning Man CAN gift you with. It includes an advanced course in preparation, among so much other useful knowledge, that can be applied as you quest towards your own evolving off- OR ON-Playa frontiers. It is inclusive, not exclusive, of your past Burning experiences. It wishes you well as you set off, and is rooting for you, but ALSO welcomes you Home again someday, for the loving comfort of that delicious, but ephemeral, home-cooked meal of dust and art, lights and sound, motion and magic, humanity and happenstance.

    I wouldn’t call you, or anyone else, an AfterBurner for focusing your efforts outside of the festival. If anything, you demonstrate the mastery of your AfterBurner abilities — and celebrate the attainment of that skill in others — by transcending the incessant “What’s Wrong With BM” conversation, with the positive message hidden therein. You acknowledge the role of even that often-challenging, and divisive conversation as a natural part of the festival’s ability to help us evolve, and offer a beautiful, promising acknowledgement of the positives that can come out of the LIMITATIONS of Burning Man. If I could pick for anyone a sign that you’ve truly enabled your AfterBurner, it would have to include that.

    My years of Burning experience is uplifted by it. I feel honored to contribute to the conversation.

    While it is the only one, the Playa is one of my favorite places learn…

    I take that wisdom everywhere, but I keep returning…

    And I keep learning…

    And I keep Burning.

    Homemade Rules

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  • Dustin says:

    youre NOT a Russian novelist!?!?

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  • DFC says:

    I can see myself choosing to not return for a year, or a few years.. I don’t think I would ever definitively say “I’m never going back.” This year life is taking up all my energy- I might miss the burn but I won’t have FOMO. I think taking time off is a good way to make sure the energy and currency of excitement remains high. But “hang up the phone” once you get the answer- it applies here as well. Sometimes it takes time to process the lessons you learn in the desert, sometimes life stands firmly in the way. Sometimes you have found the answer and you can hang up the phone- you don’t need a limimal event to give your life purpose. Cheers

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  • Daniel says:

    This will be my first year at Burning Man. I am far from graduating. From the multitude of discussions about the event by people who have been going there for years, I get an impression of a little sadness over how things have changed since they first started going.

    Some people lament the loss of some freedoms. Some lament the heavy law enforcement presence, which is guess is the same thing. Some lament the new managerial leadership and an apparent appropriation of Burning Man by self serving billionaires.

    I don’t have the same experiential frame of reference, but I can relate to those concerns. I am hopeful that none of this will make any difference as to whether or not I enjoy myself.

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  • DoNotClaimMe says:

    Dear burning man business entities:

    No, you do not get to take credit for my actions as a post-burner.
    No, I am not continuing as vehicle of communication for your PR.

    Living on the other side now, I feel more like cultist who’s escaped the compound, rather than a graduate.

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  • Hanapepe says:

    It has been several years now that I have been unable to obtain a ticket. I frankly do not believe that it really is a first come first serve ticket procedure. I clicked the first second the last two years but that made no difference. Obviously many tickets are reserved for the “perceived” elite and an elite secondary market appears to have existed where ticket and customer services are provided for a cost. This is sad on many levels. I am a no choice graduate and as such burningman gets no credit for my creative energy going forward.

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  • St. Tiki says:

    Thanks for posting Caveat. While I’ve certainly seen the Afterburn effect, and experienced myself (I went 1997-2004, then returned for our regional core project in 2011 and 2013) I think the effect is different in the regional events. I’ve been involved in the regional network since the beginning and I’ve observed the common cycle of transformational awakening then ever increasing commitment until burnout is achieved, then disengagement. Many people remain in the orbit of the local community and many return to the event, even volunteering again when they realize how much they miss the community.

    What I have seen is a different Afterburn effect, one that is similar to the jet engine afterburn which gives a brief but powerful thrust. Participating in a significant way at Burning Man (big art project, volunteering, running a theme camp etc) gives people the confidence and training to stretch themselves “to the next level” as you say. They bring that confidence back to the regional events and into their lives year round. They launch their lives into a different direction and use their afterburner confidence to overcome obstacles.

    One example is a good friend who worked in a cubicle in a life sucking job for a big company. He became a volunteer in our regional event, eventually joining the organizing LLC and focused on firesafety. When he went to Burning Man he volunteered, brought back his experience and eventually became a recognized thought leader in regional burn safety. When he lost his job in the financial crisis, he went back to school and studied his passion, photography, becoming a published fashion photographer and working fashion week in NYC.

    Three years ago while driving to see his mom in rural Texas, he realized he was having a heart attack. From his safety training he knew how to mitigate it, called 911 and drove to where the ambulance could meet him. He recovered well and is now caretaking for his mom. With his Burning Man fire experience he joined the local Volunteer Fire Department.

    Last night he entered a burning house, found a woman overcome with smoke in a pitch black second story room and carried her to safety out the second story window. She was lifeflighted and is recovering.

    He’s a bonafide hero at age 53, volunteering to save lives in his local community, and still volunteering in our Burner community. I would argue for many the skills needed to create at Burning Man begin to converge with the skills required to get shit done in the rest of the world. Life changing, and sometimes lifesaving shit.

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  • Horace says:

    QUESTION: Along with paid VIP placement, are there plans for Burning Man to sell something like Disneyland’s fast passes? And, when will there be cabana rentals? That is, for those of us who have lots of money and are pressed for time. I would just rent a luxury motor home, but then I’d have to arrange for someone else to drive it out there, stock the wet bar and condom drawer, and pick me up at the airport. By the way, anybody know how well 1200 thread count sheets hold up in that environment (air conditioned desert air)?

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  • Willie fisterbottom says:

    Been there, not impressed, get jobs, don’t vote democrat,quit wasting natural resources.

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