On Leading a Burning Man Camp

IDEATE 2019 (Photo credit: Herman Gyr)

There is a famous Indian proverb where six blind men encounter an elephant. Lacking sight and never having heard of such a creature before, the men are forced to conceptualize what an elephant is by reaching out and touching it. Each puts his hand on a different part of the elephant; one brushes the tusks, one grabs the tail, one pets the back, and so on.

They each report on their findings to the group and come to a vicious disagreement of what an actual elephant is. Each has sensed an important part of the truth but also holds a limited ability to describe the entirety of the whole.

After concluding my fourth Burning Man and second year in leadership at Camp IDEATE, I am continuously in awe of the multifaceted depths and intricate layers of Black Rock City. Even though this experience has become such a large part of my identity and life, I still struggle to make sense of the mysteries I have encountered in the desert.

At best, I can say that I am one of the blind men surrounding the elephant, attempting to describe something far beyond the limits of my subjective perception. And leading in an environment when I fundamentally know I can’t see or know everything is a truly humbling experience.

Year by year since 2016, I have made the annual trek to Northern Nevada and gone continuously deeper into Burning Man. I started as a lonely newbie and went on to lead IDEATE, a social impact camp of one hundred and fifty people.

Entering this world has been an education, to say the least. When I began, I could not possibly have expected the opportunities that Burning Man would eventually give me. The playa has thrown unbelievably intense challenges at me and rewarded me in magnificent ways when I overcame them.

In this essay, I explore the leadership insights I have absorbed from Burning Man, as well as what this annual desert pilgrimage has taught me about myself.

The Deep End

During my first burn, I felt lonely and isolated. I aimlessly wandered around the playa, not knowing how to interact with the experience.

On one of my final nights, I had a profound awakening where I glimpsed the deeper meaning and beauty of the city. Despite the hardship I experienced for most of the burn, I understood that I did belong at Burning Man and that I needed to come back.

In my second year, I joined a large social impact camp, IDEATE, which I felt deeply aligned with. My burn was positively amplified by having a community, as well as the opportunity to contribute to the camp’s mission of sustainability and regeneration. I spent plenty of time sweeping dust off solar panels, processing compost, and washing dishes. On my final day, I saw the shining white light of IDEATE and realized I was ready to commit.

In my third year, a camp-wide crisis led to me being asked to co-lead the entire camp despite my limited experience. I felt entirely unprepared and unready, but if I did not step up, IDEATE would not happen. So I dedicated my all that summer, and thanks to incredible mentorship and support of other leaders and camp members, IDEATE ended up being an extraordinary success. In many ways, this was a massive activation of my personal power. I realized I could accomplish amazing things if I threw myself into big challenges that I cared about.

My fourth year, just completed, was by far my most intense and successful burn. I was joined at IDEATE by a new core leadership team in planning a very ambitious camp, and despite a number of unexpected crises, the camp was victorious. I learned how resilient I am in the face of wild challenges, and how attracting the right leaders for core positions can genuinely revolutionize an organization. I am still in awe of how far we have come.

And so, in four years, I have risen from nowhere to incredible heights. Lesson: if you are feeling alone or unchallenged, know that life will present you with the radical opportunities you need to grow — albeit, before you feel ready. Throw yourself into the deep end and trust that you will swim.

Tribe

I was attracted to IDEATE because I was looking for my people. I spent much of my life before IDEATE not really knowing where I belonged. I was seeking a tribe where I resonated with the core mission and felt understood.

IDEATE was, and is, a group of highly ambitious people looking to channel their energy into outlets that create a more intelligent, sustainable, and sane world. In IDEATE, I finally found a place where my inner fire was seen and understood. Where I could integrate disparate parts of my identity — one part ambitious capitalist, another part environmental advocate, one part hyper-analytical intellectual, another part mystical seeker. IDEATE was a space for all of this. I was home.

And the thing is, when you discover home, you just know it. You don’t have a single doubt. You can feel that this is the right place.

And that’s why I was willing to commit so deeply to the camp, even when it felt like things were starting to fall apart due to major internal conflicts. Even when the community was on the verge of collapse, and all of my efforts might be wasted. I was going down with the ship.

Thank God, the camp rallied and pulled through the crisis. It was IDEATE’s collective metamorphosis — a metaphorical death and rebirth. Through the commitment to our core values of creating a regenerative world, we lived to see another day.

Lesson: Many people consciously or unconsciously feel like they don’t belong, and are seeking their tribe. If you don’t know what that community is, keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle until it feels right. And when you do find it, commit fully, and the tribe will reward you generously.

Resilience

No matter who you are at Burning Man, the desert will challenge you. Whether you are a broke teenager staying in a mesh tent or a billionaire tech mogul sleeping in a luxurious RV, the playa will always find a way to throw curveballs your way.

The dust is the great equalizer, as they say.

The media likes to portray Burning Man as a utopian (or dystopian) playground for adults. I’m not saying this perception is wrong, but I have come to understand the event in completely different terms.

I see Burning Man as a sort of training ground for human resilience. A simulation that is designed to push your limits in radically novel ways.

Simply showing up to playa is an immediate test; the infrastructure that you typically rely on for food, water, and shelter is not available, and you must reinvent your living systems in order to make it.

But more interesting is Burning Man’s ability to test resilience at an organizational, tribal level. In a camp, a group of people invests a significant amount of time in planning, sharing resources, and builing structures, systems, and processes to ensure collective survival in a harsh environment.

The challenges are magnified by resource and space constraints, complex psychological and emotional dynamics, and limited time. There are real safety risks involved. And yet, every year countless theme camps decide to return, to build it all again, to deal with the rollercoaster of the planning process and the dusty, sweaty, builds and strikes.

Why exactly are we doing this? What is the driving force behind why so many people volunteer so much time and effort to create this temporary city?

One reason, I believe is for the learning opportunities. Extreme environments and extreme challenges allow for rapid learning. They unlock our primal instincts, our necessity of evolution, our ability to survive and thrive in competitive, harsh environments. And the lessons of building a Burning Man camp reintegrate beautifully into the default world.

I’ll share a story of resilience that I experienced this previous Burn.

IDEATE had a diesel generator onsite. One of the uses of power included refrigeration for all of our food for the week. On Monday, we completely ran out of fuel, and realized that we were not eligible for fuel deliveries because we missed an application deadline in June. Burning Man, unfortunately, makes it very difficult to acquire fuel onsite if you have not pre-registered.

We had made great progress with our build process, but without fuel, all of our food would spoil, which would constitute a total breakdown of camp. This was an existential risk that we would do anything to avoid, and suddenly other leaders and I had to dedicate every ounce of energy to solving this problem.

This led us on a mad dash around the city, leading us to ominous-sounding places like “Hell Station,” the fueling site for Black Rock City. I was able to get us onto another camp’s fuel account (thank you Elric and Heart Tribe), but we were still ineligible for deliveries.

After spending all of Tuesday asking other camps if they had diesel fuel to no avail, we felt defeated. Failure was imminent.

Kevin Blake, Kristina Traeger (both core leads), and I drove back to camp in a truck, ready to accept defeat. Kevin and Kristina would leave Burning Man and pick up a truckload of diesel fuel in Reno, while I would stand in front of camp, plead for forgiveness, and ask for help getting massive amounts of ice to protect our food from immediate spoilage.

As we arrive back at camp, demoralized, we saw a truck parked in front of camp. In complete disbelief, we start shouting. Sure enough, a campmate was able to flag down a rare fuel truck, which used our card from the other cam’s fuel account. The day was saved for IDEATE, and our refrigerators were running again.

This crisis was a painful episode, but it was also a brilliant teacher in resilience. I learned several lessons:

  1. As a leader, it is easy to blame yourself when things go wrong, but the fact is that you have blind spots, and there are ALWAYS failure points. The most important thing is to reflect and learn from your mistakes.

Divinity

Every year, in a desert on the other side of the world, millions of Muslims embark on a Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Mecca is the holiest city in the world in the Islamic faith. A Hajj is considered a mandatory religious duty that must be carried out at least once in a practicing Muslim’s life.

The Hajj, Mecca (photocredit: Gulf News)

At the highpoint of the pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of people converge around the Kaaba, the most important mosque and sacred site in Islam. They circle around and perform a series of rituals signaling their devotion and love for God. The Hajj is known to test the faith and courage of those who embark, credited to the mysteries of Allah.

The pilgrimage journey is universally recognized as an important ingredient in any religious faith. True believers venture to a site that is recognized as elevated in spirituality or significance, and make passage to it as a quest for greater meaning or truth. Christians and Jews go to the Holy City of Jerusalem, Buddhists go to Bodh Gaya, and Hindus go to a plethora of sites around India.

The pilgrimage archetype is of unquestionable psychological significance in the mind and soul of humanity.

In light of the decline of organized religion in the West, an increasing number of secular people lack the opportunity for genuine pilgrimage. They have the urge to go on a sacred journey but lack the sacred destination or a larger group of aligned people to join them there.

This is where Burning Man comes in.

Burning Man is not associated with any particular faith or deity, but it is identical in structure and intention to the classical spiritual pilgrimage. It features a long, inconvenient journey to a distant land. It attracts a wide range of seekers, misfits, and characters. It includes the symbolic sacrifice (the burning of “the man”) and the mystical center (“the temple”). It promises opportunities for elevation, catharsis, connection, and inner development.

Secular, well-educated America, and its compadres in highly affluent bubbles around the world, seems to have found a spiritual home in the alkaline soil backwaters of Northwestern Nevada.

The omnipresent experimentation with psychedelics at the event guarantees abundant opportunities for peak experiences. Attendees commonly report accessing states of consciousness that represent personal awakenings.

At a personal level, exploration of God and consideration of the transcendent Divine have become enormously important elements of my Burning Man experience.

Primarily, my leadership at IDEATE has felt very much like a spiritual journey. I was given a very rare opportunity to prove myself in a difficult set of circumstances and found myself capable enough to pull through. Though I have struggled at many points in this growth process, I always felt as though the Universe was there to meet me halfway if I was willing to put in the work and take the risks. If I was willing to do the right thing and live in accordance with my value set. If I was willing to invest and defer the reward for later.

As I reflect on my second successful year in leadership with IDEATE, it feels like I am only beginning to make sense of my deepest talents and purpose on earth.

Second, flow states. The dust is psychoactive, as I jokingly commented this year. No matter who you are or what you are doing on the playa, you are in a fundamentally different state of mind than off-playa sobriety. Things just seem to work out even when problems arise, and there is a commonly felt sense of timelessness throughout the experience. You experience radically new thoughts, behave in radically new ways, learn new things about yourself.

In flow states, we realize that many of our default world limitations are arbitrary, constructed, false. And we learn to navigate reality in a different way.

Third, psychedelics. I took LSD during my first Burn and my mind was blown in the best possible way. I saw a fascinating side of my unconscious mind that I had not previously explored, and learned new tools to explore the hardest philosophical questions in my life.

I am unapologetically in support of psychedelics as a powerful and authentic path to religious experience. Drugs like LSD, Mushrooms, and MDMA have the enormous potential to open up our hearts and minds, and allow us to fully understand our deepest gifts and the potentialities of our consciousness. The legalization of psychedelics, accompanied by widespread harm-reduction campaigns, is a moral imperative that cannot be delayed.

Burning Man may be a harsh environment, but it is also an incredibly safe place to experiment with psychedelics. This is due to the absence of stigma and the involvement of the Zendo Project, a program designed to care for and guide participants struggling with difficult trips.

Psychedelics have played an important role in my own healing, my spiritual path, and most importantly my leadership journey. Psychedelics have improved my ability to empathize with people, to tap into my intuition, and to understand my deepest gifts. I credit much of my success with IDEATE to my use of psychedelics.

The beauty of religious experience at Burning Man is that it is totally ungated. There is no priest at the door of the temple, demanding allegiance to a book, no one guilting you for non-conformity. You are responsible for defining and following your own path, and if that path doesn’t include God, then that’s okay too.

The Road Ahead

I cannot emphasize this enough: there has never been a better time to go to Burning Man. If you haven’t gone before, you haven’t missed anything. It will only get better in the years to come. It feels like the city is beginning to gain a certain new momentum that I did not feel when I first arrived. It is increasing in global popularity and probably will only get better.

As a personal testimonial, my four years at Burning Man have offered an explosion of personal growth and happiness that only seems to continue to grow. I am a far greater leader now than when I first joined IDEATE.

There are two important expressions commonly repeated at Burning Man: “The playa provides” and “you get the Burn you need, not the Burn you want.” Countless people have ventured to Burning Man and learned that A. they are supported in their journey even when things go wrong, and B. the Black Rock Desert has its own agenda for you that may not be in line with your expectations — but it is in line with your long term growth.

If you feel called to the desert, you may find that all of the jewels I discovered in the desert are also there for you, in forms perfectly tailored to your needs, goals, and aspirations.

Next year in Black Rock City.

Co-founder, Streetlight.