What does it take to get really good at something? Folks inclined to believe pop-psycho/sociologists might cite Malcolm Gladwell’s notorious 10,000 hours figure for the amount of time one must sink into a new skill in order to master it. I’m personally inclined to doubt such a pat model, and Mr. Gladwell, though popular and insightful, is a pretty dubious authority, but if we compare this threshold to the amount of time any of us spend at Burning Man, we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that almost nobody is actually good at Burning Man. I will be attending my 20th Burn this year, and for the last seven, I’ve been fortunate enough to enough to come out for setup week as well. My back-of-the-envelope calculations put my on-playa time - after the end of next event - at somewhere around 9,000 hours, so even 2 decades in, I haven’t sunk the time needed to master this thing I keep doing.
Of course, this is nonsense. Gladwell’s figure has been widely debunked, but more to the point, attending Burning Man isn’t playing the guitar. We become “good” at Burning Man in a much more holistic way than simply learning a skill. Being good at Burning Man is a question of learning the skills we need to survive the environment, internalizing the values outlined in the Ten Principles, and discovering the boundaries of the Self on which we Radically Rely, and which we Radically Express.
The question remains then: how do we do this? How does one learn about oneself, on-board extreme survival skills, acculturate to a social structure orthogonal to the one we are all steeped in, with values and norms that are alien, if not downright antithetical to what we have spent our entire lives navigating? It’s easy to answer simply that it takes time, but as someone who has watched dozens of virgins have first encounters with the Burn, I can attest that some folks just start out being pretty good at Burning Man, and others are likely never to get there.
In my experience, which is all I can honestly comment on, what it took was doing the damned thing. There were lots of things that some folks struggle with that I found easy right off the bat. I’m the type of person that learns easily by reading, and also pretty used to roughing it, so the camping/survival part of the Burn has never been tough for me. I perused the survival guide, and used what I knew from camping and living on the road, and never really struggled with dealing with the desert (playa dust aside; nothing prepares you for playa dust.) What I didn’t understand, and struggled with for years, was how to actually GO to Burning Man; how to put my fears and anxieties, my alienation and ennui aside, and engage immediately with the people around me. It embarrasses me to admit how much of my first few years at the event was spent in my camp reading. Not because I was exhausted, or it was too hot, or cold, or rainy (it was all those things of course,) but because I didn’t feel like what I had to offer the community was up to the standard of all the amazing stuff I was encountering. I tried, I gave it my best, went out, danced, looked at art, met folks, got loaded, etc. but I never felt like I was doing Burning Man right. The people I saw around me were so much more engaged, so present, so in the moment, and I just couldn’t figure out what was broken in me that kept me from being like they were.
The thing that finally turned everything around for me was starting to Ranger. I’d made the decision that I ought to volunteer at something, after 3 or 4 years of simply partying, and that year I worked a Greeter shift, which was fun, but not necessarily my bag. I had also that year acquired my first utilikilt, in khaki, and was wearing a floppy hat, also, coincidently, in khaki. I wasn’t intending to wear Ranger drag, but I quickly discovered that that was exactly what I was doing, after several people mistook me for Ranger Crow (flattery!) I was spotted later that week by a pair of Rangers, actively mooping in my faux-uniform, and they flagged me down and told me that since I was already dressed the part and doing the work, I ought to just get trained and get a proper hat. I took the Ranger training the next year, and it was the best choice I’ve ever made at the Burn. Not only was the training invaluable, but the way in which my Ranger responsibilities forced me to get out into the city and really PARTICIPATE totally amplified my Burning Man. There was simply no way I could be a spectator, I was too responsible for what was happening around me to just observe. At the end of my Alpha shift (the first shift one does as a Ranger, which is overseen by Mentors and which ends in either an invitation to continue, or a polite declining of your proffered volunteerism,) I was told that I had what it takes, but I needed to realize that I was “one of the cool kids” now. Even though I don’t rock the Khaki any longer, I’ve never stopped feeling like one of the cool kids.
I’m not writing this as an instrument for Ranger recruitment, or even to cajole you, my dear reader, into volunteering; if you’re reading this, you certainly know my feelings on the value of volunteer work. What I’m getting at here, is that the way to get to the heart of the event, and master the broad set of skills that it takes to really do the shit out of Burning Man, is to DO. We often hear that Burning Man is a do-ocracy, and that is more than a pithy soundbite. One of the things that makes the Burning Man experience so unique is that it is all made by us, rather than for us. If the citizens of Black Rock City aren’t actively making Black Rock City happen, holding events, making art, volunteering on teams, there simply is no Black Rock City, there’s just a semicircle of roads, a lonely wooden statue, and a bunch of hot dusty folks waiting for a show that’s never going to start. So, if you want to get good at Burning Man, just get your ass out of your camp chair, follow your nose out into the city, and do something you’ve never done before.