This ferocious, brutal, impossible year was my 10th trip to Black Rock City. I believe 10 is the “heat stroke” anniversary.
Now, 10 years isn’t a long time around these parts … I still get picked on by people who were here during the 90s (especially Stuart) … but it’s a nice, arbitrary, point at which to try and reflect on the things one’s learned.
This will be the first in a series of posts looking at the things I’ve learned about and through Burning Man over time, rather than in any given moment. If I were doing this right I’d have 10 posts – one for every year and for every principle – but (a) I’m not actually sure I’ve learned 10 things; and (b) that would inevitably turn into a goddamn listicle, because focusing on a gimmick like that would sand off all the rough edges, and the rough edges are where all the interesting thoughts are. Which is a fact that Burning Man epitomizes, but that I didn’t actually need Burning Man to teach me.
It Has a Boundary Problem
Burning Man has an incredible capacity to take over your life, which I saw at the very beginning of my association with it – and so for years I created personal barriers to limit the degree of access it had to me. The most infamous was my “do I need to show up for this meeting” test, which I instituted after I became the Volunteer Coordinator of the media team, and started getting invited to attend all kinds of meetings and consider new and exiting roles.
The rule stated that I would only show up for something, whatever it was, if one of three conditions was met:
- The meeting was so key to the role I had actually volunteered for that I could reasonably be accused of misconduct if I didn’t show up.
- There was an open bar.
- Fish tacos were served.
If one of these things was true, I’d be there. Otherwise, sorry art projects, sorry volunteer opportunities, sorry social gatherings … go ahead without me, I’ve got a life over here.
It worked well for about four years. Then, for better and for worse, those barriers went all to hell. It’s no surprise that after 10 years Burning Man has become a major influence on my life, but the degree to which it has become a dominant force impacting everything from how I think about the world to who my friends are is unprecedented for me. This is expressly what I did not want to happen, and yet here we are. Do I regret it? Well … no … but I still have the same reservations that led me to put up roadblocks in the first place. Balance is healthy.
To be in at all is an invitation to do more, and I at least could not resist.
It’s a no-brainer to say that the longer you stick around something, the more opportunities it has to become important to you. But Burning Man is unusually potent this way: a radically inclusive culture is always going to have entry points that you don’t see coming; a do-ocracy is always going to have ways that you can help, and contribute, and be relevant.
Aristotle defined happiness as working at your full capacities, in accordance with your values, towards a meaningful goal. Burning Man offers that, along with a community of people to witness and help and play. In hindsight, of course I got pulled in. I’m not saying this has to happen to you: people leave all the time, people decide this isn’t for them all the time. But I am saying that the binary of “in” or “out” is easy with Burning Man in a way that splitting your time and setting boundaries isn’t. There is a degree to which “mission creep” is inseparable from Burning Man culture. To be in at all is an invitation to do more, and I at least could not resist.
It Doesn’t Get Better – But You Do
It’s not just that to be active at any degree in Burning Man culture is to constantly be approached by ever more amazingly fun and interesting things that seem worth doing for their own sake and could use a hand if you have any free time. It’s also that – over time – you get better and better at doing the things that once seemed miraculous and amazing.
In a way that I’m still struggling to articulate, the 10 Principles aren’t just aspirations to follow, they are skills that can be learned and improved.
This isn’t an abstract formulation: this is one of the most concrete realities of my time in Burning Man. This is something that changes my day-to-day life for the better.
No one ever taught a class or gave me instructions, but 10 years in I am capable of giving gifts at a level I did not even imagine possible before. From the very idea of what a “gift” is and how and when to offer it, to the inspiration of conceptualizing gifts, to the process of creating them, to the act of actually giving something away – this is a skill set I never knew existed but has now fundamentally changed my life.
The 10 Principles aren’t just aspirations to follow, they are skills that can be learned and improved.
I was always self-expressive – I never thought I needed help with that one – but attempts to solve site-specific Burning Man problems have in fact hyper-charged my art, leading to some of the work I’m most proud of, and that is arguably the most impactful.
My ability to participate in and engage in communities has likewise advanced in ways I never thought possible. It’s still something I struggle with, but I am a better community member – and more able to be in communities at all – as a direct result of my time in Burning Man. Obviously this, too, has changed my life in significant ways.
I have a far better grasp of inclusion – of what it means, of how to do it, of the problems that will come up, of how to handle the discomfort that comes with doing it right …
And so on, (mostly) down the line. (I’ll deal with the exceptions in another post). It had never occurred to me going in that whatever else it might be, “Burning Man” is also a skill set that you can practice, and get your 10,000 hours in, and that you will actually spend most of your time using off-playa, in your day-to-day life. But it is, and I’m now living it.
To spend time doing Burning Man is to expand your skills in the 10 Principles. I think that’s also one of the reasons Burning Man creeps into your life the way it does: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the more you want to explore and use these new talents and capacities – and even if you’re going to mostly end up using them in your day-to-day life, what better place to experiment and discover what you’re now capable of than Burning Man? That’s a virtuous, and very time consuming, cycle.
It Gets Harder
I don’t just mean this year, although God yes. I mean that the virtuous cycle – the more you do Burning Man the better you get at it, the more you want to test those skills, so the more you do Burning Man – means that the difficulty level of Burning Man is always going up. Instead of resting on your laurels and doing what you know, you keep trying to do that much more. It just gets harder.
How could it be otherwise? The whole Burning Man ethos is about plunging into new opportunities for self-expression, community, inclusion … when we say they are “radical,” we mean that these are things that you throw yourself into, or you’re not really doing at all.
So of course it’s going to get harder.
Burning Man is a proving ground for who we are becoming, and we like who we are becoming.
I think this is also happening at a cultural level: that “Burning Man” as a populace, as a culture, has been getting better and better at doing what we do, and so has kept throwing itself in to trying to do it on a grander and more potent scale. Not just bigger art and bigger events, but more complicated, more intricate, more engaging, more intimate. Often we fail – but even when we fail, we learn and we keep coming back. Forget 10,000 hours: collectively, we’re well past a billion. And it shows. Every year, we’re setting new standards of the impossible to achieve.
Ten years ago, I did not understand that Burning Man is a moving target because it changes us. We grow, and so we change it, and as long as we stay involved we are going to make it harder on ourselves, not out of masochism (although sure) but because Burning Man is a proving ground for who we are becoming, and we like who we are becoming.
We leave, I suppose, when that’s no longer true. Or when it is even more true of something else we have found in our lives … which is surely the best case scenario. Until then, our boundaries will be pushed and we will discover new capacities we never knew we had, and they will make our lives so much better and so, so, much more difficult.
Maybe that changes after 15 years, or 20. But I doubt it.