What If, after 10 Years of Really Trying, I Still Suck at a Principle?

It’s time to admit the truth: I suck at Radical Self-Reliance. It’s really bad.

I went to my first Regional in 2003. I first went to Black Rock City in 2006. I have had all the time, support, training, and encouragement any person could reasonably need to get this right.   But despite all this support, and so much other success – it’s finally time to call it. I fail self-reliance 101.

You want to know how bad it is?

  • Except for the year when I shared an RV, I’ve needed someone to help me put up my tent. Every time. And not “got a helping hand,” I mean needed.
  • At about 25% of my Burns I have shown up at BMIR and crashed on their couch from heat exhaustion or lack of sleep and had to have friends nurse me through it. (This year, on Sunday, a Burning Man staffer was so concerned at how out-of-it I looked on a BMIR couch that he later took me aside to ask: “you’ve got a place to stay, right? Someplace to sleep?”)
  • A friend and co-volunteer was so concerned that I wouldn’t get this tent thing right that he actually brought a tent for me for three years. A really good one. Which I accidentally destroyed while trying to break it down in the night.
  • After all this time, I still get lost trying to leave Black Rock City. Where is the damn exit again?
  • Not to keep emphasizing the tent thing, but I think it makes the point pretty well that I finally got one of those expensive “put your tent up in 2 minutes” idiot proof kind of things, and I still need other people to come in and help me zip up the floor.
  • I have forgotten to bring a flashlight.


It’s not nearly this bad with the other principles. In fact, I’m pretty good at some of them. My ability to form and work within communities has gotten leaps and bounds better through my years of involvement with Burning Man, as has my capacity to give meaningful gifts to others.

But from a Burning Man standpoint, I am not a self-reliant person. At all. Despite 10 years of practice, I still fail at basic tasks of survival and self-care. I rely on others in a way that is completely out of step with a vital principle. And despite continuing to try (“I’ll buy a simpler tent! I’ll stop fooling around with a propane stove and just eat canned food!”) it’s not getting better.

My very accommodating friends try to fudge the issue. “You contribute!” they say. “People like having you around!” Which is great – very flattering – but come on, that’s pretty obviously not the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with being liked and making a contribution – making a contribution is, in fact, something covered in various ways by other principles. But honestly now, we’re talking about Radical Self-Reliance here, and while it can be interpreted in various ways, it can’t be stretched quite that far.

By the same token, we don’t need to be fanatical about this: on a practical level, there are a whole lot of people who can’t be self-reliant in a literal sense out in a harsh environment. This shit gets harder as you get older; this shit can be extremely difficult for the disabled. Some of them still manage to pull it off, because they’re awesome while I’m just incompetent, but nobody’s going to propose a litmus test about how much gear you can load or what kind of tent you can set up.

But the fact that other people have this issue to varying degrees only makes it more worth asking: what does it mean if somebody just can’t manage a principle? Not just “at this moment” but “consistently over time?”

One thing we can do is to expand the context of the principle, which is kind of what my friends were trying to do when they said “you’re okay, you make a contribution.” What they are emphasizing at that point is not Radical Self-Reliance of the individual, but of the group: not “I” can be self-reliant, but “we” can be self-reliant, and just because you have the camping skills of a one-handed toddler with poor depth perception and a chronic cough, doesn’t mean that you’re not contributing to our ability to take agency and be autonomous together.

There’s something to this. Actually there’s a lot to this: As Burning Man has gone from being a frontier to a culture, and now a high culture, its communities have grown both larger and more complex, able to take on bigger tasks and allow for members to develop specializations in order to better support the whole.

This is happening at every level, and well it should: people learning how to band together for big and ambitious projects without losing their souls or surrendering all their autonomy is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. If we truly want to be relevant to the world and our lives in it, we have to learn how to do that.

So there is a degree to which this expanded view of Radical Self-Reliance, from the individual to the community, makes sense and is legitimate. Worthy of further consideration and exploration.

But … but … even so … that doesn’t let me off the hook. Because even if we accept the legitimacy of self-reliance as a community process, there is still tremendous value to individuals learning to do things for themselves. Not because it’s better for the community – it may very well not be if we’re talking about a complex organization – but because the more we develop the capacity to fend for ourselves the more we practice our capacity to be better than we were before. Someone who learns to weld may never become a professional welder, but they can use that skill – and that experience learning to do something that they couldn’t before – to become more confident in their capacity to solve problems, rather than waiting for somebody else to fix things for them. Radical Self-Reliance is ultimately not about who pitches the damn tent, but who has discovered their capacity to tap into their own capacities to problem solve instead of needing somebody else to do things for them.

As the text of Radical Self-Reliance specifies: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Self-Reliance is about being able to fend for yourself, as an individual or as a community, but it’s also about pushing yourself to discover what you are capable of, rather than assuming an attitude of dependency.

All of which suggests, to me, that I haven’t really failed at Radical Self-Reliance so long as I am continuing – with no bullshit – to try. That the continued effort means as much as the successful doing (or at least close enough, more often than not). So long as I’m not treating my community like a plug-n-play camp – so long as I don’t assume that my “contributions” (whatever they are) have earned me the right not to try – then I haven’t yet failed in the big picture however much I might fail in this particular moment.

And it does seem to me that in my continued bumbling, Three Stooges, effort to do better next year (I like to think I’m Moe, but deep down it’s pretty obvious I’m Curley), that good things have emerged. I have, if nothing else, become better at admitting I need help and asking for it. Which sometimes is a small thing, and sometimes is an absolutely crucial skill.

And I realized, this year, as I was lending an ear to a virgin Burner with anxiety issues tell me about his struggle to cope with extreme heat and dust storms and both a sense of loneliness and a fear of meeting people, that my own utter inadequacies have better prepared me to say, in a way that is both sincere and believable to someone struggling to get through all this, that it will be okay. That we look out for each other, and that however daunting the struggle seems at this moment, we really can bumble through it, maybe looking stupid but far happier for the trying.  And you too will be able to contribute.

I don’t think I could have done that, at least not in a helpful way, if I hadn’t been struggling myself for these 10 years. It’s not the same thing as Radical Self-Reliance, but it’s still a good thing to be able to do, and it developed not because I was succeeding at anything but because I was trying.


Cover Photo by Mark Mennie

This is the second in Caveat’s series of reflections on 10 years of this Burning Man shit.  Read the whole series here.



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

19 Comments on “What If, after 10 Years of Really Trying, I Still Suck at a Principle?

  • PurpleKoosh says:

    I think the first year I bemoaned the fact that I felt radically UN-reliant was 2007. My health and mobility challenges have only gotten more significant since then. Thank you for saying this, Caveat – I think a lot of us needed to hear it.

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  • Sailor Doug says:

    Not quite sure how to react to this. You do need to become self-reliant. We all do. And you are truly trying. But the best thing about the core community is that we are all there for each other. For whatever you need. I just don’t want burners showing up expecting other burners to cover their deficit. I do not count you in this category at all.

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  • shazbat says:

    You’re right. You can’t stretch it that far. If you really want to get honest with yourself, as opposed to the creative rationalization of “Community” Self-Reliance, examine what your time on playa would be like if you weren’t part of the BMorg-anointed cadre, with no status or recognition, and no access to related Staff perks. (And how do your writings actually contribute to the operation of BRC itself?)

    To get real, imagine that you’re camping alone in Open Camping. Burners would still lend a helping hand setting up your tent and whatnot, but how would you fare for the duration on your own? How much do you (sub)consciously rely on others when making your preparations? Left utterly to your own resources, what would your experience be like? Would you be a burden to others? Take more than you give? Why, after 10 years, IS it still such a “struggle”?

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  • Chowski says:

    Just in time to counter the story about the commodification campers MOOPing 5,000 bicycles, comes this sad little tale of incompetence so great even a camping tent is Just Too Much Can’t Even OMG.

    Thanks for the heads up, BMORG, as this is certainly a precursor to the stream of Commodification-Apologist Blog Posts we will see over the next year. If anything, BNORG has been consistent in its never-ending support for erosion of the Principles for the benefit of the wealthy.

    Too many non-contributors flying in and leaving their bikes everywhere? Ah well, Radical Self-Reliance isn’t THAT important…..

    I even heard that Paris Hilton played The Best DJ Set EVER! Quick – expand the airport service so other non-contributors can hear her glorious GIFT.

    Radical Self-Reliance good, paying somebody else to do it for you, better!

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Please do not mistake my admission of incompetence for Burning Man policy.

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      • Chowski says:

        And yet, today, the newest post is “Some camps pay people to do stuff for them, and that’s cool, but the problem is bikes”. It’s not that YOUR post is an outlier – it’s that those whom BMORG choose to publish CONSISTENTLY display Plug-n-Play apologist ideology. We get it. Commodification camps pay for outside services, and those outside services pay fees to BMORG. The people in charge are tired and getting older and want to cash in on this before the whole thing collapses.

        Radical Self-Reliance Good, Paris HIlton DJ Sets Better!

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  • shadowcat says:

    We don’t all have the same skills.
    And we don’t need to.
    If you have 2 left hands (grins), putting up a tent may never be part of your skill set. But clearly you are well-liked and your friends are happy to help you with the camp stuff: so what?! I’m sure you have other skills to share.
    Self-reliance does not mean you have to be able to do everything by yourself: if you can trade something equally valuable to a friend who can set up a tent, you’re both winning.
    I’m a McGyver and anything mechanical is easy for me. I’ve helped many friends set up tents and quick-fix bikes and vehicles… it does not matter, since it takes no time out of my day to spend time in good company. And if they feed us something tasty or play their guitar for us or share/do something else that they’re good at, it makes us all happy. And I would not consider somebody ‘a failure’ at anything just because they’re not good at one thing.
    It is our inequality in skills, likes and temperaments that makes our world so colorful and happy.

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  • Cobalt says:

    Let me put your self concerns this way. Always do your best. Your best will be different from day to day. Clearly your best if you are not feeling well will be different from a well rested healthy you. The point remains, always do your best in the moment. If you follow this there should not be any self recrimination or self doubt. I really don’t care if you can’t put up a tent. I do care that you make every effort to do so. That alone says volumes about your character. It’s all good. Thank you for being you.

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  • Kiki EnFuego says:

    We repeat behaviors because they are rewarding.

    That said, I’ve come to understand (17 consecutive years) that part of being self-reliant is acknowledging the things you’re not good at and allowing others to BE PREPARED to help with them.

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  • Issimo says:

    Huh. I attended from 2009-2014. Newly retired, a poster boy for every physical malady imaginable attributed to fat white men and attending between chemotherapy sessions, I went alone and my original goal was not to die on playa. For nearly everything else I became a really messed up petri dish. After six years I was still crowding stuff in the dish and learning enough to identify & discard some things growing there as mental moop. It’s only been 10 years. Give yourself a fuckin’ chance. I would be back for more if my rural internet connection was fast enough to get me a ticket.

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  • JB says:

    These things are skills that can be learned, but learning on the playa is not where it’s done. You already need to know when you show up.

    How many times have you put up your tent at home in your backyward? How many youtube videos have you watched about putting up tents? How many times did you read the instructions step by step? How many times did a friend come over and walk you through it together, so you’re good at it when you show up to BM? If the answer to any of those questions isn’t like, 10, then no, you aren’t trying at all. No offense, takes courage to put this up there in public and that’s brave. But the path to self reliance is arduous and time consuming and I’m not sure many people understand that.

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  • Confused says:

    Honestly, of all the ten principles, “self-reliance” is the most illusory. If you want to be self-reliant, go somewhere that people haven’t built a city.

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  • Alice Newton says:

    This illustrates the difference between independence and interdependence. No one is good at everything; civilization developed when people stopped trying to do everything themselves and instead concentrated on what they were good at doing. They then traded for other things, thereby increasing the overall quality of items available. So you bring a tent and let someone erect it while you make tuna sandwiches for both of you. The “fail” would be to forget both tent and tuna.

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  • Kundalini says:

    I see Burning Man as a big party. The principles are an excellent theme! But it’s not a religion, it’s not a self-help psychotherapeutic sing-along, it’s not a philosphy. It’s a theme party, a really big costume, theme party. If you want something to bring, go to the party with radical-responsibility. B.Y.O.R.R. I think it’s the umbrella under which all the rest reside. As with any party you go to, just be extra responsible for your own and other’s safety and keep it real. From the time you leave your own home until you safely return there. Everything seems to go better when we keep a sense of sobriety about ourselves, even when we are totally lit. I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. It’s just a party and all anybody wants is just to make sure you’re having a good time and that you are safe. Part of responsability is taking good care of your own health and well-being, not over extending yourself or going unprepared to deal with the elements out there. It’s cool to go lite but not so lite that you lay your burden onto others. It sounds like you have a lot of good friends out there looking out for you. Stay thristy my friend, but stay hydrated!

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  • Snacks says:

    As long as you bring your own supplies and gear I could care less about your competence. It sounds like you try, which is great. Really, as long as you visibly put forth effort, it isn’t a big deal. It’s the person sitting in the shade on their phone or mysteriously disappearing during the task that is an issue. And if you truly feel like you are just failing at everything, be a fluffer to those helping you. They will appreciate it.

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  • Jones says:

    The 10 Principles is just something Harvey dreamed up while high on blue flake cocaine in 2004. None of those things matter whatsoever, aside from – clean up after yourself (which few people do nowadays anyway). Get drunk get laid. Rent a suit at Circus Circus on your way home. That’s it.

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  • Tuxedo says:

    Why do you posit (or do so by omission) that radical self reliance outweighs communal effort? The principles aren’t a hierarchy. Yes you may suck at one but others are equally important.

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  • TheDuke says:

    How many of us have gone out to the Black Rock Desert ALONE and camped for a week when the ephemeral BRC is in its 51 weeks of non-existence? Not in an RV, but you know, CAMPING, ideally not even car-camping. You could camp right at ground zero; imagine looking up at the memory of the crotch of the man as you look beyond into the cosmos. You could actually die if you couldn’t generate shade. You would pack out waste of every type. You would have to figure out how to set up your tent or you wouldn’t have it for shelter. The weight of water would become known and important. Subtracting community, you would come into an entirely new and empowering relationship with the playa, the quiet vastness of the desert, the open heart of the American West. This solo time would transform you and you would show up at Year Eleven entirely changed. You might even be able to pitch your tent.

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