Dust, Community and Dubstep: My First Burning Man

All photos are copyright Randy Pang and featured with permission

Have you heard of Burning Man? It’s a week-long festival that’s been happening in the desert of Nevada for over 20 years and unlike pretty much anything else on the planet. I went for the first time a few weeks ago and it was an amazing experience. As my friend Randy said it was:

Like being on the moon illuminated with neon, bass, and the warmth of the human spirit.

If you’re more of a visual type, check this video I made of my Burning Man experience:

Burning Man 2011 from Jason Shen on Vimeo.

I have some more to share but before reading on, here are some definitions:

  • Burners – What people who go to Burning Man call themselves
  • the playa – the name of the plot of Nevada desert land where Burning Man is held
  • Black Rock City (BRC) – the name of the horseshoe shaped city that is created as part of Burning Man
  • Theme Camp – a group of Burners who camp together in order to share the cost of shelter/food and to create a home on the playa
  • Virgin – someone who’s never been to Burning Man / is going for the first time

The Journey

My friend Kalvin had gone to Burning Man in 2010 and told me all about it, which is what piqued my interest. But with all the work happening in my startup, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have time to make it out. Additionally, Burning Man sold out of tickets for the first time in it’s 25 year history, which left people scrambling to find a way in and scalpers had a field day.

At the last minute, it looked like there was an opportunity to go. I found a ticket via a friend of an acquaintance, who was looking for help with a ride. I was able to find a ride using a site I had helped put together: Burning Man Rides, and also found a theme camp to stay with at the last minute. Burning Man has an ethos of “Radical Self-Reliance” (one of its 10 major principles) so you have to bring everything you need with you: water, tents, food, supplies.

The drive took about 12 hours total: my rideshare partner Billtron and I drove the Uhaul from 9pm to 6am, where we arrived at the Burning Man gate. It was another 3 hours waiting in line before we could finally enter Black Rock City. (This is where you see me ringing the bell as I become de-virginized.

We stayed for three full days (Monday through Wednesday) and left on Thursday morning on a plane (also found via Burning Man Rides). It’s extremely hot during the day (80’s – 90’s) and relatively cold at night (50’s). Dust gets in just about everything so you have to keep all your stuff in ziplock bags and just accept that your tent will never been fully clean again. Our camp welcomed us and it was great to help cook and eat dinner together.

There was a lot of dancing to techno/house/dubstep music, stumbling through the dark (there are no street lights so you have to rely on your head lamp for visibility at night) and amazing conversations with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. The art structures and mutant vehicles (you see quite a few in my vide) are incredibly creative.

Overall I have to say Burning Man is an amazing experience and I highly recommend it.

Takeaways / Thoughts

People are yearning for self expression

One big expression at Burning Man is “Welcome home.” Indeed, many Burners consider this event the time when they can truly be themselves and that the rest of the year is simply passing time in the “default world” until the next Burn. I think this is because they feel immensely stifled by the contraints of Western civilization on how they should dress, talk and behave.

Kindness and welcoming nature of the event

It was incredible to see how open and welcoming people are. People are extremely helpful, offer their resources generously and are effusive with greetings and praise. If you’ve ever lived in a well-run co-op, it’s sort of like that, but at least 3x stronger. It’s sort of a shock to go from hugging pretty much everyone you meet, to the (relatively) cold sterile attitudes of people in the default world.

Self-selecting communities can hold their culture through growth

Burning Man is now 50,000 attendees – and it started as a few hundred people burning a wooden man on a beach. The ten principles it espouses (including Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Leaving No Trace) still seem quite strong today. It’s amazing what how strong a self-selecting group of people can do to maintain a clear culture while growing dramatically. [1]

Obsession with fire is a primal thing

People like burning stuff. ‘Nuff said.

For more information on Burning Man – some good places to start:



[1] Granted I got a limited view of the event because I was there from Mon-Wed while a lot of the “weekend warriors” don’t come in until Friday. Apparently there are a lot more cameras and a lot more spectators (people who are not there to participate but there to be tourists).

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Love the photos and video, and really jealous you got to fly in a plane! I bet you got an incredible view leaving. What time of day was it? I stayed up all night so I could catch my ride back at 4:30am… we spent 5 hours in line waiting to merge onto the highway out. Brutal.

    The weekend was indeed different. I had been happily walking around earlier in the week in BM-appropriate getups, feeling totally at home and innocuous, and suddenly felt like there was an awful lot more staring by people in street clothes by the weekend. It’s too bad you missed the burn – are you planning on attending again?

  2.  @LingboLi The plane was awesome and I’m glad you got to enjoy the festival as well, though that wait sounded bad. I am definitely coming back for 2012, though may have to do the first half of the week again, we will see.

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