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5 Unexpected Things I Learned at Burning Man

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“Where there is artistic achievement there is human dignity.”

You may have heard of Burning Man—a week-long art festival in which 70,000 people come together in the Nevada desert to create Black Rock City, only to disappear on the 7th day and leave the environment as untouched as it was upon its arrival. This year marked the 29th year of an audacious experiment that began with a gathering of a few friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco. They asked, “What would the world be like if it were radically inclusive? Radically self-reliant? De-commodified? If people gifted their talents, their passions, and their skills to others without monetary exchange? If it were fully respectful of its natural environment?”

Too curious to ignore the application of this idea, I set out to find the answers. I expected Black Rock City to be nonstop fun in a low-hygiene, “we’re adventure camping for a week” kind of way. I anticipated experiences that would be indescribable, but what I found defied my preconceptions. I couldn’t have predicted the artistic and spiritual journey that ensued. It taught me valuable lessons and a perspective I hadn’t previously absorbed as a 27-year-old workaholic*:

1. Be a giver, and learn how to receive.

Every single person comes to the festival with a gift, whether it’s offering cut fruit in the morning (our camp served fresh brewed and gingered Chai) or sharing your life’s research with a broader audience (some MIT professors were giving daily TED-like talks at their camp). Even the artists who designed the 250+ live installations—as what can only be described as the largest and most beautiful interactive gallery in the world—gift their art and don’t receive any compensation.

Being in an environment where there was no place for nickel and diming and each person contributed what they had, I learned how much more pleasant and happy life is when you’re a giver and surround yourself with them; something one of our Office Hours speakers, Wharton Professor Adam Grant, writes about in his books. Giving is only one half of the equation, though. Are you one of those people who flinches when someone pays you a compliment? Or who feels, deep down, that you don’t deserve what you have—materially or emotionally? Learning how to graciously receive a gift demonstrates vulnerability and thus creates an instant bond with the giver.

5 Unexpected Things I Learned at Burning Man

2. Talk about what matters to you most.

I’m an extreme introvert. (Watch a “Dance Between Two Introverts, part 1” in which Warren Buffett talks with us about his introversion.) For me, meeting new people is intimidating and requires an energetic outlay. After meeting hundreds of new people in the course of 72 hours, I came home energized, not exhausted, for the first time in my life. What was different about these interactions? The nature of the conversations. They were substantive and ambitious—we talked about transformative ideas, what we were passionate about, what we had learned, what we felt guilty about, what we wish we had known. We didn’t talk about commodities, complain, or peacock. In fact, I don’t know (and don’t care) how any of the people I interacted with live their lives outside of Black Rock City—we tapped into conversations that were less about the individual and more about our shared experiences as fellow humans.

3. Respect your context.

Radical self-reliance gives you a dauntingly accurate perspective of how much you consume on a daily basis and how much you waste. We had to shower over plastic containers to collect the “greywater,” dirty water that you’re responsible for sealing and disposing of safely in order to preserve the desert’s natural ecosystem. We had a contained recycling system for our whole camp that made us painfully aware of how many bottles and cans we went through in our time together.

Every person makes a huge difference. Although 70,000 people left the earth behind them relatively clean, one to two camps had cigarette butts and other odds and ends sprawled around, which to my astonishment other people were picking up (don’t worry, Mom, I joined!). My disrespect of my context falls on someone or something else—we’re all part of a closed system.

4. Let your freak flag fly.

An environment that suspends judgment is one of the most invigorating things to experience. Ordinary people without artistic backgrounds or lofty Warholian-installation aspirations created some of my favorite art. Everyday creativity has the power to move people. The most incredible costumes you could imagine dotted the monochromatic desert horizon, sported by people who you would never imagine to be so fearless and creative in any other context.

5 Unexpected Things I Learned at Burning Man

5. The only thing you own is now.

On the last day of the festival, every single piece of art and structure that has been created (such as the Man effigy or the Temple) is burned to the ground in respect of Burning Man’s “Leave No Trace” edict. My first burn was Embrace, a beautiful 50-foot structure depicting the mutual understanding and admiration between Alpha and Omega—it was hard to watch. All that hard work, passion, and beauty was gone in a little over forty minutes.

5 Unexpected Things I Learned at Burning Man

What Alpha and Omega taught me, and what the Man and the Temple reinforced, was the most powerful lesson I have taken away from this: the only thing you own is now. Those burns were a rehearsal of life’s joys and losses. Every single person you love, every single reminiscing smell, every single immutable monument, will end one day. Feeling the sting of that on a small scale, coupled with the ensuing “I wish I had spent more time in the Temple, or I wish I had made it out to that art piece that is now a pile of ashes” awakened a new sense of urgency in me. An enduring sense of urgency around enjoying people, experiences, art, everything in its moment. Our sense of permanence is relative—everything in life, including life itself, is limited. There’s no reason not to live your life with the same perspective you would apply to something you know for a fact will be burned to the ground tomorrow.

(*) Confession: Take from this what you please—this is coming from the perspective of an under-thirty-workaholic who fluctuates between being dogmatic about health routines (“I must have fruit at 4 p.m. sharp every day or the natural order of my world will descend back into the chaos I had just organized”) and being extremely flexible (“Yes yes yes, let’s change the course of our product priorities based on this new data; where do we start?), and who relishes observing all colors of the rainbow in our natural element with an anthropologist’s sincerity. Post-BRC, I would like to re-brand as an under-thirty-lifeaholic, and pledge to enjoy every element of the human experience, from artistic expression to affection, with the same inexorable, oppressive determination and focused relentlessness.

Photos: Caroline Ghosn

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