My 5 Best Business Lessons from Burning Man
Updated: Jan 28
In 2004, a friend convinced me to go to Burning Man. I thought I was just going to a big party in the desert. I had no idea my life was about to take a turn and the "party in the desert" would usher in the greatest phase of self-exploration of my life.
I know a lot of people have a negative idea of Burning Man - a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs, sex and rock and roll far from the eyes of any legal authority. OK, there is some of that, but there's a lot more too. I can't possibly describe it to you, but for now, I'll just say it is a radical social experiment, a tidal wave of generosity, an explosion of creativity, and a challenge to the way you think about what's possible in your life.
I've been going now for over a decade and I've learned a lot from the event. Believe it or not, some if it applies to business. Those of you out there who are "Burners" will recognize these rules for a successful burn.
Find your your beacon to get back to camp your first night out: The "playa" is what we call the 7 mile-across encampment in the desert where Burning Man takes place. It’s the third largest city in Nevada for one week. The first time a Burning Virgin goes out, it's overwhelming to say the least. In the middle of the night 4 miles away from your camp, with 70,000 people, moving art cars covered in lights, hundreds of art installations, LED covered bikes and flames shooting 5 stories in the air surrounding you for miles (literally), getting home is no small task. The only way to do it is find a reference point - something you can see from anywhere, and one that is NOT going to move. As a veteran, we take our Burning Virgins out in the middle of the mayhem and help them find one light, or tower, or art installation that is not moving. And sometimes you have to find a new one because the 2 story yellow rubber ducky you thought was fixed comes driving by you playing funk music. So you find a new one. We stop and find it again several times throughout the night from various angles as we move around the playa. Where is the red ball on the tower? Now where is it?
Executives need to set clear goals and a vision and make sure everyone in the company knows where you’re going AND WHY. Describe it from many angles, using different terms and examples, and make sure everyone knows what their role is meeting that goal. Make sure everyone knows sure everyone knows how it impacts your customers and your investors. It's your business navigation point. Your homing beacon. When your people seem to forget the vision (and they will), tell them about it again. Then again. And when you come into work the next day, they will be confused, so you say it again. Then again . . .
Get out of the RV, even in the white out: Dust storms at Burning Man are called "white outs", because that's what happens, and they come fast - 50 to 70 MPH actually. Tents and chairs go flying by you, you can't see anything further than 5 feet in front of you and you think the world is coming to an end. (Makes you want to go doesn't it?) Early in the week, the Burning Virgins will run for a friendly RV and hunker down until the dust blows over. The problem with hiding out in the RV is that white outs can last several hours, and Burning Man keeps happening, dust storm or not. Very often, the most magical stuff that will happen during your burn emerges from the howling white dust. After a few days, everyone just puts on their eye googles and breathing apparatus and keeps walking. Or peddling their bike. Or dancing.
Just like in business, when the unexpected challenges hit, and they will, keep going. The hard part is finding the excitement in the white out; finding the best in your teammates. This is when the most magical stuff will emerge from the howling white dust that has engulfed your business. This is when you learn the most. When the most creative solutions come. When you define your business. Put your business goggles and breathing apparatus on and keep walking. Keep peddling. Keep dancing.
It all burns down at the end of the week: It’s amazing to see a huge wooden 10 story tall man, a beautiful, intricate, sacred temple that covers a city block and is 8 stories tall, and a 15 foot tall wooden phoenix taking flight, (and on and on and on) knowing that it all burns at the end of the week. The beauty and creativity are breathtaking, and it all gets disassembled and taken away, or turns to ash, never to be seen again. We have frequent discussions something like "Have you seen the 10 story bamboo climbing mandala? You've got to go, it's going to burn Friday night." It's all a part of the Buddhist practice of letting go. Or maybe it's just wasteful insanity.
This happens in business too. Everything is temporary and will go away, so have a constant sense of urgency about your business. Always. And when the team member, the project, the successful product line, the tradition you had since the startup days is done, it’s time to move on. Let it go and keep moving forward. And when it's time for YOU to move on from the company, take it upon yourself to let it go and keep moving forward.
Put your personal "s#*t" on the temple: My people and I go to Burning Man for the temple burn. Saturday night is the night the man burns. It’s crazy, wild, celebratory, destructive, over-the-top, loud and out of control. Everyone dances around the man to blasting music and explosions and screams and yells until the man falls, then they dance and march around the embers until sunrise. Unknown to most people, there is also a temple at Burning Man, and it burns on Sunday night. Throughout the week, Burners go out and write or place items on the temple – prayers, wishes, farewells, regrets, questions, pain, pictures, desires, love. It’s all there, and it’s one of the most powerful things you can possibly experience. When you put your stuff on the temple, it’s what we call “doing your work”. Unlike the man burn, the temple burn is quiet, thoughtful, still, gently compassionate and sacred. 60,000 people sit on the ground and are silent, filled with reverence as they watch the temple burn and crumble to the ground.
Here’s my point about business. Do your work. Build your self-awareness. Know your weaknesses and your blind spots. I tell my Executive clients that if they have a consistent problem at work, they have the same problem at home. Meaning, it's not the workplace that causing that problem. It’s really hard when we have to work with a team member who is not self-aware, not seeing their own weaknesses, not “doing their work”. It impacts everyone. Don’t hold your team back because your personal skills are not improving. Deal with your s#*t. Keep learning. Keep growing. Operate at your highest possible level. Be the very best you can be for your team, for your company, and for you.
Talk to a veteran Burner before you go: Burning Man is not what you think it is, and I don't care what you think it is. It's not that. It's not a music festival. There is no staff to fix anything. It's not about gifting. You can read all the articles or websites you want, and look at all sorts of pictures, but nothing prepares you more than talking to someone who’s done it a few times before. You get a flavor for it. They can tell you what’s REALLY important to know and you can avoid the classic mistakes. They can tell you what to pack and what to NOT pack, which is more important. Being prepared for Burning Man allows you to enjoy the ride a lot more. It lets you get beyond the physical environment shock and drop in quicker. It let's you get every last delicious, disruptive, creative, joyful drop out of your time there.
Do I even need to say it? The correlation is obvious. There's no need to waste time re-inventing wheels. Sure, you can figure out how to build your business on your own, but you’re going to avoid a lot of the typical mistakes, and you’re going to enjoy the ride a lot more if you find some old-timers who have done it before. So you have a degree in entrepreneurship or management. Great. Talk to older folks who have done what you're trying to do. Get a mentor. Ask them to mentor you. You might even create a business that is way BETTER than if you did it all on your own.
Burning Man is not for everyone, but for me, it has been one of my greatest teachers. Find yours.