Learn more about Jonathan Lowenhar at ETWadvisors.com.
I’m fortunate to have just returned from a week at Burning Man. It was my 3rd burn in as many years. It’s a special, different, and difficult place. For those unfamiliar, Burning Man is a social experiment based on ten principles. 70k+ humans arrive in the desert of Black Rock City in northern NV, where they construct a community in which to live, work, and play together for one week each year. If you’re curious, check out this doc or glance through these pictures.
I return to Burning Man for a simple reason — it reminds me of the best of humanity. Participants look to contribute instead of consume. They share versus protect. They emote rather than hide. I walk down a street, and each and every person I pass is looking up, making eye contact, and willing to engage. It’s joyous.
I use my annual pilgrimage as a time for a reset. A chance to disappear from electronics, the normal loops of life, and from my responsibilities, both professional and personal.* Google famously found their CEO in the dust. Elon Musk, Tony Hsieh, and other tech luminaries revere the annual escape.
The time in the desert ultimately taught me a great deal, and this year was no different. One particular question that came to mind more than once for me was, “Are there professional lessons I might learn while here?”
Here are the three that came to mind.
Staying alive in the desert is not an easy feat. There is no hotel. No air conditioning. No soft mattress. Temperatures are extreme. Dust storms are ever-present. Rather than shake my fist at the elements, I’ve learned to enjoy the ride. I’ve meditated through a whiteout and napped in 100-degree heat. I can’t change the hard parts of the experience — I simply can choose my attitude. CEOs would learn well from this approach. Why rail against the unpredictability of startup life? Fundraising is hard; recruiting is hard; sales are hard. Instead, recognize that it’s all a part of the roller coaster you chose to board.
My Burning Man camp included 50 people this year. Over 2~ days, we built our camp — kitchen, shower facilities, communal shade, etc. Those structures kept us alive. No one of us could have built all of that infrastructure in so short a period of time. Over the course of the week, various members of the camp suffered small injuries, dehydration, and illnesses. It’s a hard place; we often need to lean on each other. Startups are similar. A small dedicated team operating with a common vision can accomplish the seemingly impossible.
I’ll freely admit Burning Man is ridiculous. The participants’ dedication to non-conformity often results in the opposite effect. But the truth is that there is no one experience on the playa. If your priority is meals with friends, camping, and meaningful conversation, it’s there for the taking. Does endless art walk in the desert? Sure. Dancing at sunrise? Definitely. Workshops ranging from climate change to communal living? Everyday. Glamping, shallow sexual encounters, and endless selfies? Sadly, yes.
Burning Man this year was hard, joyous, rewarding, and unexpected. I’m confident our CEOs would describe their start-ups similarly. ☺
— But vacation responsibly.