4 Life and Business Lessons from Burning Man

What a temporary city in the desert can teach you about daily life.



After ten years of people nagging me, I finally did it: I went to Burning Man. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s quite the phenomenon. Every year, 70,000 people descend on one of the most remote, inhospitable desert playas in the world, and build a city. It’s a city made of sound, of light, of wild art sculptures, of crazy costumes. The culture has explicit principles that are different from daily life. 


One of the most famous is Burning Man’s “gifting culture.” No commerce, logos, cash, or barter are allowed. You bring everything you need and more. You can freely give gifts, but with no expectation of reciprocation or payment. While the parties were fun, I can party anywhere. For me, the art, the culture, and the environment were what left me in awe. I learned a lot from going to Burning Man. In case you ever plan to go, today’s episode will give you a few tips, that just might be useful elsewhere in life as well.


Get Out of Your Comfort Zone


I delayed going to Burning Man because I was afraid of the dust, the heat, and the sun. Within an hour of arriving, my brain simply accepted it. “It’s dusty and it’s hot. There’s nothing I can do about that, so let’s move on.” 


Now don’t get me wrong—it was as hot and dusty as everyone had said. But my reaction to the heat and dust was simply to accept it and move on. I’d spent years sure that it would be miserable, and it just didn’t happen. 


As documented in the book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, research has shown that we are very bad at predicting our own reactions to things. We think things will make us unhappy or happy, when they actually won’t. And when we’re right, we still get it wrong in terms of magnitude. We think we’ll be devastated when our home burns down, falls over, and sinks into the swamp. But we aren’t. We just sigh and start to rebuild.


What’s something you’re avoiding because you think you won’t like it? Give it a shot. You might be surprised.


For me, it’s going to be rock climbing. I bought a day pass to the local climbing gym and we’ll see if it’s a horrible maelstrom of physical agony and terror of heights, or whether I discover that my body and mind are perfectly up to the challenge.


Don’t Be a Darkwad; Let Your Lights Shine!


At night and during dust storms, the playa is a dangerous place. You need to wear lights so you aren’t run over by a bicycle or an art car. (An art car is just like a normal car, only with bleachers. Or with a full-scale replica of a Spanish galleon. Or with a disco ball and dance stage.)


Some people wear a single headlamp. Sounds like a good idea, right? After all, it’s a light! But this is an environment where there are thousands of people, art installations, and art cars that are covered with multicolored, shifting light. Compared to all that, a single headlamp looks like nothing more than an accidental sequin from Paris Hilton’s dress. You need to at least match the visibility of everything around you in order to be safe.


Bring this lesson home! Do you get noticed enough? At work, do you speak up enough? Are you part of the company social circle if there is one? Do you make sure you’re visible? You may think you’re visible, but if you’re just a single sequin on Paris’s gown compared to everyone else, you need to step it up.

On the other hand, if you’re in an environment where everyone is a sequin, you don’t want to come in as a 50-foot blazing neon octopus that shoots 15-foot jets of propane fire. (I’m not making this up.)


Opportunity Is Not a Lengthy Visitor


One of the things I most love about Burning Man is that at the end of the week, the art installations all leave. Many get burned to the ground. Others simply get dismantled and taken away. That’s intentional, and now that I’ve experienced it, it’s a good thing.


When you know something is only going to be around for a short time, you engage with it. You really engage. And you’re forced to make choices. “Tomorrow morning at 1 am, they’re going to burn down the Catacombs. Do I go watch the burn, do I go to a dance party, or do I sleep, instead?” If I miss the burn, which I did, then the chance to see it is gone forever. 


Sure, some people take YouTube videos or pictures of it, but after doing that myself, I’ve become convinced it’s a bad idea. Knowing that there will be pictures tomorrow makes it easier for me to distractedly decide maybe I’ll see it or maybe I won’t.


What’s something you’re avoiding because you think you won’t like it? Give it a shot. You might be surprised.


Engagement in life, by definition, isn’t a “maybe yes,” or “maybe no” thing. It’s deliberately understanding what you value, and deliberately using your time in ways you value. Having a backup, or having the ability to postpone something indefinitely, lets you be very sloppy about your life. 


There are two lessons from the fleeting nature of Burning Man. First, when opportunity appears, it may not stick around. So be prepared, and jump on it while the window is open. If you want to climb through the Catacombs and play a harp through the window of the Castle of Dawn, you have to do it at dawn. There is no castle of mid-morning. 


Second, live life deliberately. Many things are fleeting, and you owe it to yourself to know what’s important to you and then deliberately engage those things to your fullest. You love your kids? Then lock your cell phone in a safe whenever they’re around, so you can engage with them 100%. You love your work? Then don’t make excuses and say “I’m so overworked.” Own it. “I love my work! So I work 80 hours a week and it’s the life I want.”


Personally, I’m trying my best to engage with a billion-dollar inheritance. Unfortunately, there’s not one in sight, but if it appears, you bet I’ll deposit it!


Make It Better Because You’re There


They say everyone’s a special snowflake. I don’t buy it. I think everyone has the potential to be a special snowflake, but if you don’t make it happen, you’ll just be an unremarkable ice cube in the cocktail glass of life.


If you go to Burning Man, make some art. It can be a 60-foot sculpture of Medusa that shoots fire, or it can be a card you have printed with a poem you value. Just bring something you can share with the community so the whole event is better because you’re there.


And be that special snowflake! Make it original. You don’t know how to be a poet? No problem. Do your best. You can’t sculpt? Do your best and bring it to share. What matters is making the Playa better because you’re there. It isn’t about perfection; it’s about community that reflect everyone who shows up.


Are you showing up as a creative force everywhere in your life?


Some people show up with off-the-rack flashy clothes and Burning Man costumes. They look great, but all they are is a placeholder for the creativity of the person who designed the clothes. I needed lights for when I went out at night (remember “don’t be a Darkwad?” Guess how I learned). I improvised a piece of netting and strung some LEDs through it. I thought it looked ridiculous. Everyone else loved it. No, it wasn’t an amazing sparkly suit with color-strobing light shows. But it was something that wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for me. And that’s what counted.


Are you showing up as a creative force everywhere in your life? With your friends? With your family? At your job? If you’re going to spend your one, precious life doing any of these things, do them in a way that only you can. Don’t settle for a cookie-cutter, assembly-line life. Express yourself. Bring your creativity. Even if you just want to be a cog, be the best frickin’ cog you possibly can.


Don’t be limited by your possibly-wrong ideas of how much you will or won’t like something. Step outside your comfort zone and go for it. Make sure you stand out, so your journeys are safe and you don’t get hit by the art cars of life. Seize opportunity, and live deliberately. Choose your values and live them, because if you don’t, no one will do it on your behalf. And finally … playa dust is very alkaline. Rinse your hands and feet in vinegar, and moisturize.



Source: quickanddirtytips.com