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4 Life and Business Lessons from Burning Man

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

By
Stever Robbins,
September 13, 2016
Episode #424

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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. My episode on how to self-promote without being a jerk can help.

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.)

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