For years, the intrigue of Burning Man, an infamous weeklong celebration of collective creativity and self-expression, poked at my curiosity. Sure, I had read all about this revelry bringing together nearly 100,000 strong in the middle of the desert in Nevada but was somewhat skeptical of its meaningful impact on society. It wasn’t until three years ago, when hiking at Zion National Park that I bumped into someone who admitted it completely changed their life. This hyperbolic expression wasn’t the first time I heard of the event’s lasting influence on others, yet I was still nervous about what this experience might unveil to me.
Nevertheless, I entertained it. As I often coach advisors, we often must break from our pattern of conventional thinking and personal biases to embrace the unknown. The second we stop defending what we think we know is the same instant we open ourselves up for growth. So, I took a leap and agreed to go with a few friends who have been “burners” for many years. Now, before you start rolling your eyes at your preconceived notions about what happens at Burning Man, understand that the event is what you make it. Yes, it attracts people from all walks of life with their own intentions and aspirations. Some go for the art.
Some use it as an opportunity to escape reality. And, some, like me, go to see first-hand how a community like this is developed and how the culture is constructed out of these long-standing core principles that surprisingly make it a surprising spectacle of the human condition. This city, which is referred to as Black Rock City or as “The Playa”, takes shape within days and illustrates the vision of the Burning Man Project, which is to bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems, and inspire a sense of culture, community, and civic engagement. What I didn’t expect is just how deeply this event reflected its core principles. They were so much more than aspirational statements on a wall. Each one of these ideologies were seen, felt, heard, lived and experienced. It taught me just how powerful a purpose can be in bringing people together simply because they share an appreciation for its cause.
Anywhere I walked throughout the “blocks” within The Playa, people were inviting you in to have a conversation. Social status and ego didn’t apply here. The focus was on connection. It was impossible in this atmosphere to feel left out.
Burning Man is devoted to giving. In fact, it’s counted on to keep the community running for nine days. At one hot point during the day, I was out of water and parched when someone tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a drink—just reinforcing how the playa provides. At Carson Group, we’ve taken this idea of impactful giving and made a challenge to our 230 stakeholders. The Impact Challenge, as we called it, was launched to explore just how extensive our impact on a local, national, and global level could be. How much could we give of ourselves to support others? As it turned out, we collectively volunteered more than 241 hours over the course of the summer. An impact we felt was not only meaningful but important to the community around us.
You won’t see any commercial sponsorships or advertising at Burning Man. It really was a gathering for the sake of gathering, rather than designed to sell an idea or product. This left a refreshing amount of space for an unexpected quality I witnessed time and again: autonomy and trust. By removing this desire to have an agenda (as many of us do every day of our lives), participants found themselves in the absence of bureaucracy. And, therefore you saw this overwhelming amount of trust between complete strangers. Everyone was respected. Everyone was empowered.
When we arrived at Burning Man and found ourselves in the hot, dusty desert with no water we had to look to this principle in a very real way. We constantly heard the phrase, “The Playa will provide” and, without any instruction or request, we woke up that first morning to find that water had been delivered. It forced me to think, “What would it take to create this mentality within an organization, where everyone is self-reliant but also looks out for one another?”
You see evidence of this principle in any photo that’s ever been taken at Burning Man. The outfits, the art, the makeshift restaurants, the circuses and so much more. This reminded me of how all of us express ourselves in a different way. And the fact that this self-expression comes not from command or control but from the freedom to create.
The communal effort that goes into creating Black Rock City each year is phenomenal. It’s an incredible spectacle to witness tens of thousands of strangers, brought together by sharing a common set of beliefs, accomplish such imaginative things. Each individual was a component of this collective, making me realize that if we look to our own businesses with this same lens and attitude, we’d be shocked at what our teams could accomplish with something as simple as a powerful belief and a clear goal driving each one of us.
As Burning Man was born in the mid-80s, it was small and held no order. However, its evolution over the past several decades has included a more structured outline in order to continue to provide a safe space for the community. Think about this as the leader of your firm. How can you create an environment that is supported by trust and fed by imaginative innovation? Growth needs guide rails. We’ve learned that first-hand in our own growth as a company.
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Leave No Trace
Any “burner” will tell you this rule is among the most important. You are expected to leave The Playa untouched. After the event, groups are assigned to comb the area inch-by-inch, ensuring the environment is as pristine as you found it. Consider applying this same principle to how you leave your house every day, to how you run your business in a healthy way, to how you nurture relationships with your loved ones.
Burning Man believes that transformative change can only occur through deeply personal participation. Meaning that to change, you must do. Everyone is invited to work, to play, to act in a way that drives them forward. At Carson, we call this improving your advisor IQ (Implementation Quotient). If you’re wanting to institute change, then lead by example and close that knowing-doing gap. Do this and you’ll find that your team will participate wholeheartedly rather than observe.
The event defines this principle in a unique way: “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.” To me, this translates to being more present as a leader, a husband, father, grandpa, and friend. It means breaking down those tendencies in ourselves to disconnect from the people around us and the places we’re in. What can you do to remove that barrier when leading your firm?