As each of us got into cell service, we get inundated with texts:
“Are you safe?”
“Doing ok? Heard about burning man flood and murder”
“Was that your limo on fire?”
“Did you make it out?”
Burners are resilient, joyful people. We’ve created an ephemeral city in the harsh conditions of the Black Rock desert where we willingly put ourselves through these conditions to be part of an utterly unique experience of art, community, and to belong to a place that feels like home for me since my first burn in 1999.
As a life-long adventurer and leadership coach, every experience has lessons. Fresh from this spectacular burn, I’m sharing some leadership lessons in a three part series.
1.Plan your burn, Burn your plan
A huge amount of planning goes into Burning Man from creating roads, sanitation, and much other infrastructure needed to support 70,000 people. As part of radical self-reliance, we’ve spent months planning our camp community (Illumination Village at Esplanade and 3:00) including food, shelter, showers, gray water (unlike with camping, no liquid touches the playa), and propane to power all the fire art at our camp. A massive amount of planning — and goal setting — goes into prepping for burn. As with life, it’s great to have a plan and to set clear goals for what you want to do. As a first time burner, my sister downloaded 3 apps with camp info and activities and had very useful info for all the events we wanted to hit from creating light-up flowers for our bikes, to finding the best breakfast sandwiches, to geo-location of art on the open playa, and to locating 80s dance music amidst all the drum & bass.
It’s good to have a plan and clear goals.
And… it’s even more important to remain unattached to the goals. Many things can happen from an apocalyptic rain storm to falling into deep conversation with new friends who lead you away to some other amazing activity. Remaining present and open to serendipity can lead to many new and even better goals. It’s also impossible to control the chaos of weather. so you might as well remain fluid and flexible.
2. Be the Community
Burning Man runs on 10 Principles which, similar to values in an organization, helps keep the entire 70,000 group of people following the same foundation. Three of the ten principles — Gifting, Communal Effort, and Participation — build upon the idea of No Spectators. We are all part of the community together. Much of Black Rock City is run by volunteers, from the medical staff (more about my 2am Emergency Room visit to come in part 2) to the gate crew to Recycle Camp to the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) to the Black Rock Rangers who keep some semblance of order. Each theme camp puts out offerings of entertainment, food & drink, or activities for everyone else. There is no commerce — everything with the exception of ice, is freely gifted.
And when the entire city shut down on Friday afternoon due to the storm that rendered the sticky, muddy playa impassable, the best of community effort came to light. We were trapped halfway across the city at Shaman Dome where I just cut my workshop short and the camp had people giving us the jackets off their back, setting up a tent with sleeping bags for us to stay the night, and feeding us a sumptuous meal. All across the city, everyone was helping to feed and shelter their neighbors.
There is no loneliness in Black Rock City. Everyone is open, hugely generous, and giving. I’ve never been anywhere else like this community of massive belonging, and I hope to bring this excess of generosity back into my “default world” life.
3. Cherish your Campmates
I brought my sister to the burn. She was the best campmate, both cheerful and adventurous, up for trying anything and able to keep going through all the unexpected twists and turns of weather. We also shared many hours mourning our dad and leaving his little shrines up at temple.
We camped with long-time friends in a village of veteran burners who had been coming since the mid 90s. Illumination Village had a lot of infrastructure and in the chaos of Sunday night, was one of the few camps completely up and running with our fire sculptures and sound system powered by backup propane. Our smaller camp was art support for Charles Gadeken, a San Francisco based artist who runs the Box Shop one of the only maker spaces left in SF, and who’s art installation, Elder Mother was a huge hit on the playa. Elder Mother was the gathering place for much community and the site of at least 20 weddings that we personally witnessed.
While the community of strangers (lesson 2) is heartwarming, there’s nothing like cherishing the close community of your campmates, including the camaraderie of sharing food and then eventually making a break from the playa by exchanging most of your gear to carry out a whole car load of people early on Monday morning. We needed to get people out back to jobs or childcare. The gear could easily come later on the strike vehicles breaking down the major art projects.
These campmates were like family. We forged some life-long bonds going through the shared experience of this week’s unforgettable burn.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on executive coaching full-time. I write about topics related to leadership, diversity, & design which you can follow. Feeling overwhelmed by busyness? Check out my book Make Space to Lead.