A world run by artists
“If the world was run by artists it wold be like Burning Man!” I am not sure whom to attribute the quote to, but it is by far the best description of the annual festival taking place in the desert of Nevada in the last week of August.
Burning Man is an entrepreneurial institution that started with a party on Baker Beach in San Francisco on June 21, 1986. We are in the 33rd year. As the event grew fire marshals got upset about the idea of an ever increasing size bonfire, burning a human effigy, and the festival relocated to Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The entrepreneurs Larry Harvey, Harley Dubois, Marian Goodell, Michael Mikel, Will Roger Peterson and Crimson Rose went on to build an amazing institution that now attract 70,000 visitors annually and have sprouted similar festivals in such far flung places as New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and Argentina to name a few.
I am going again this year. My fifth time. Why? Because being at Burning Man is like nothing else on this planet. It is a consuming, all embracing, multi-sensory experience and a place where on one hand you can truly decompress on the other hand it is fantastically inspiring. I have met great people there who have become long-time friends, I have been fortunate to spend time with the late Larry Harvey and with Marian Goodell, the CEO of Burning Man, I unknowingly had a conversation with Sergey Brin dressed in fur and spandex (he was) and I have experienced the most stunning spectacles and works of art I have seen anywhere. I even had the pleasure to meet curator Nora Atkinson of the Craft Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. She put together the 2018 exhibition “No Spectators — The Art of Burning Man”. You can see her Ted Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xb1Wq4NA290 .
The energy and the atmosphere of the place is truly unique. But how do you organise 70,000 people, living together one week in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet? The answer is simple; CULTURE, the culture instilled and captured by the founders in the ten principles of Burning Man:
Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy
Larry Harvey, who put down the principles in writing in 2004, said:
“Well it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.”
A company is a community. The entrepreneurial journey is like heading out in the middle of the desert and setting up camp. It is a very harsh environment, there is little goodwill given. Your odds of survival are very slim. In order to survive you need to be extremely self-reliant, you need a team around you that really cares and a team that shares values of community and a “pay it forward” attitude. Everybody needs to help each other. You can’t be transactional in your relationships in your group, otherwise you will not survive! The collective efforts win. Companies grow out of a shared struggle. A struggle for survival.
A culture credo, or principles, work when leaders take them seriously. I mean really serious. Let me give an example of how serious these principles are taken at Burning Man; “Leaving No Trace”. First of all, all participants are made aware that they have to bring all their garbage and disposable items back from the desert. There are no trash cans on site, throwing cigarette butts, bottles or any other items are frowned upon, and generally participants are constantly reminding each other of not doing so. Participants bring own mugs or cups, for drinking purposes, no plastic cups or disposal items are made available. Every year there is a large contingent of volunteers for the MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) clean up. The area of the festival covers 156 mio square feet, so this is a huge effort. After the main clean-up, the core area of the camp sites where 70,000 participants stayed, a huge horseshoe shaped area, is then walked through by a line of volunteers, each at arms-length with the nearest person, each person carries a tray like sieve that they use to pick-up any tiny leftovers, a bit like gold panning.
I know many of you are grappling with culture and values in your organisations, and it is never simple to get right, it needs to change as you are growing, and if you do not nurture values or culture they wither and die. In the short run the constant reinforcing can be tiring and tedious, in the long run the benefits are tremendous. Just think about it like cleaning up 156 mio square feet of desert …
Burning Man is not for everybody. Neither is building a company, like Burning Man, it is messy, random, unpredictable, physical and exhausting and at times you get lost and disoriented (have you ever experienced a dust storm?), but it is also fascinating, life altering and hugely rewarding.
Letting some of the Burning Man principles into our every day life and work will surely make our world a better place. Maybe you can’t run your company entirely like artists would, but I am sure you can find inspiration from the journey of the entrepreneurs who created Burning Man.
Have a great week,
PS : And if you have read this far, do not hesitate to donate to the Burning Man organisation here : https://donate.burningman.org/ or make donations to some of the great artists such as David Best (David Best Temples), Michael Garlington, Kevin Clarke (Reared In Steel) or Kate Raudenbush. You can find them online, Instagram or Kickstarter.