Twelve Life Lessons Learned from Burning Man

12 Life Lessons Learned at Burning Man

I recently went to Burning Man for the second time this August – it was a great experience, though very different from the first time I went in 2011. I’ve heard from veteran Burners that your first time at Black Rock City will always be your best.

I’m not sure that’s true yet. It’s definitely less mind-blowing when you know what to expect, but on the other hand, this second experienced allowed me to think more about what we all can take from the values, culture and experience of Burning Man.

1) Listen to your body

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance” and it’s a critical one when you’re trying to survive out in the middle of nowhere. The 100+ degree heat, chalky alkaline dust, reduced sleep schedule and new diet of dried fruit, beef jerky and water forces you to really be mindful of your body. If you’re not careful, you can be hit with heat exhaustion, super chapped hands and feet, or a GI issue.

But why leave that mindfulness out in the playa? Back in the “default world” there are plenty of opportunities to be more aware of what you’re eating, how well you’re sleeping and how stress is affecting your body.

2) Be more open to new opportunities

There are so many things to do out at Burning Man – send post cards, connect with camp mates, volunteer to light lamps, dance on art cars or run 5k’s. I heard someone call it “Disneyland for adults” at one point this year.

But in most cities and of course with the internet, opportunities are everywhere. You can volunteer at a local homeless shelter or take up a new yoga class or study to become a bartender or just say hi to your neighbors. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, just look around and find something that catches your eye. Opportunities to do interesting things are all around us.

3) Focus on the now

There’s a joke at Burning Man that everything runs on “playa time”. Meaning scheduled events often start late or perhaps not at all and coordinating anything is tricky (in part because of all those shiny opportunities we talked about).

In some ways that’s a hassle, but in other ways, it’s very freeing. People aren’t operating on schedules and tight timelines – instead they live in the moment. They’re not thinking about what they have to do next but focus on what they’re experiencing right now.

Obviously, we can’t all be like Arnold Schwarzenegger and work without a schedule, but if we can remember to catch our breath in a busy work day and realize that we’ll do our best work when we focus on the now, we’ll all be better off.

4) Trying times forge strong relationships

I went to Burning Man this year with my girlfriend. It was her first year and I was definitely a little apprehensive of how it would impact our relationship. I knew there’d be a lot of stressful moments (in addition to the great ones) and made sure she understood that before we headed out.

And I was right. We went through some serious highs and lows over the course of the week – but ultimately came out stronger. Every relationship goes through good times and bad times, but we should always remember that it’s the bad times that really show the fiber with which that relationship is made of.

5) Open up to others

Because the festival has such a high barrier to entry and offers such a unique culture, you often find yourself having very honest and personal conversations with people who were total strangers just 10 minutes ago. This happened to me with both the wonderful people in my camp as well as more off-chance encounters with folks across the playa. This is in part because you know you might never see them again, but also because being vulnerable with someone and trusting them can help them trust and be vulnerable with you.

I’m not saying you should start spilling your darkest secrets to the next person you chat up in line at the bank, but maybe you can go beyond chat about the weather or the news. Offer something more personal and don’t be surprised if the other person reciprocates.

6) Make cool stuff

At Burning Man, I climbed on top structures made out of steel pipes, danced on a two story art car shaped like a sail boat, strutted down a runway wearing a skin tight Elvis suit I had found in a giant pile of costumes and watched acrobats perform on ariel silks dangled from a 80 ft tall tarped structure.

The creativity and competence of Burners is always so inspiring to me – they don’t just dream up cool stuff, they go out and do it, and do it well. I’m fortunate to make stuff on a day to day basis with Ridejoy and with this blog. But there’s something extra special about making physical stuff – even if it’s just crafting a stuffed space alien.

So get excited and go make cool stuff. I promise it’ll be better than whatever TV show or game you were going to veg out on.

7) Infrastructure matters

I admire people who geek out on logistics and infrastructure because while it may not get me pumped up, it’s an important part of any great product, organization or experience. Despite the reputation that Burning Man has for being an “anything-goes, bring your own stuff” event, there is actually an immense amount of planning, regulation and infrastructure put into the event.

From marking the streets of the city to managing tickets to building of The Man and The Temple to the massive clean up project post-event — and of course the amazing infrastructure created by various theme camps and participants — this event could not be possible without a group dedication to building a great foundation. Never forget that when embarking on your own projects and adventures – invest in planning, resource gathering and system-building so that you have a better overall experience.

8) Dance more

If you couldn’t tell, there’s a lot of dancing at Burning Man. At booming theme camps, on massive art cars, deep in the middle of the desert or in the privacy of your own space – people are moving and grooving. It feels really good.

But why leave it at the Burn? I often walk to work with my earbuds in and just dance down the street. Sure I get some funny looks from people walking by, but who cares? I’m having a great time. Dancing is good for the soul.

9) We have all have loved and lost

One of the things that really hit home for me this year was the power and spirituality of The Temple. Designed as a “large central temple building sitting within a 150’x150′ walled courtyard” it just radiated spirituality, and I say that as someone most closely aligned with atheism (and perhaps a twinge of buddhism.

Each year, people bring their stories and memories of people they have loved and lost – leaving messages in permanent marker on the walls of the building or bringing letters or photos that they affix to it. I have not stayed for the Temple Burn on Sunday but from what I understand, it’s a powerful experience.

But the takeaway from all that is really this: everyone you encounter in life has had their share of struggles and pain and sorrow, so remember to be kind and forgiving whenever possible.

10) Give freely

Another Burning Man principle is the one of gifting. I was given a variety of gifts at the Burn, items like a pin or a piece of leather, to food and refreshments, to performances and more. The gifts were given freely and without expectation of return. And I gave back in various ways – enough to equal what I was given? I don’t know.

Growing up, my family had a tendency to be very selective about who we gave gifts to outside the family and if someone didn’t reciprocate, they didn’t get another one. Gifts should not come out of a tit-for-tat mindset, but one of abundance and love.

11) The journey is as important as the destination

A big part of Burning Man for me is the to and from the playa. This year, we rode from San Francisco to Black Rock City (via a driver I found on Ridejoy, natch) and about 2/3 the way through realized I had left my tickets at home. I had to do some last-minute Craigslisting to find someone who could sell us two reasonably solid tickets in Reno.

Of my two Burning Man experiences, I’ve gotten nearly as much out the journeys to and from the playa as I have in Black Rock City itself. It’s a great reminder for when we get super obssessed with our destination – to not forget that how we get there matters too.

12) Stop spectating and start participating

This is the last one. Unlike many festivals, where there are the “acts” and then “everyone else”, Burning Man is famous for barring “spectators” – demanding that everyone participate in the experience.

As a startup founder, I’m already 100% onboard with this philosophy, but it’s also great to see it underlined in a totally different place. Don’t let the world pass you by – get up and make things happen.

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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. Actually to understand the event better, I recommend to check out the history of the event first. And for that I highly recommend to watch Dust & Illusions ( and “This is Burning Man” the book! Very much worth it, and of course the documentary is a must with all its archival footage! :)

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