The Gift of Burning Man: Lessons for Business
Some years ago, someone sternly advised me not to go to Burning Man. You are a Presidential Advisor, a serious person, and it’s a bad look for you, they said. But, as an economist, I was drawn to the idea that humans could build a city out of nothing, in a desert, like a beacon on a convex hill, and tear it down, leaving no sign that they had been there at all. I was intrigued that money was useless there for ten whole days because some seventy thousand people engaged in a practice of gifting with open hearts and humor. I was seduced by the artists who flock to Burning Man to use the vast expanse of burning hot desert as their canvas. I see I was not the first economist to be drawn in. Paul Romer, the Nobel Laureate, showed up too! As an economist, I keep saying, follow the artists. They spot the future before the rest of us. I also believe that life sends you invitations. When one came to go to this culturally iconic gathering, I said yes. So, I started making the long trek to feel The Burn. I learned many useful lessons about start-ups, fundraising, visioning, art, and madness that are relevant for people in business.
This year, I felt what happens when you throw rainwater on that fire. The Burn didn’t stop. It intensified. As I walked through the inches of mud and hitchhiked for the first time in my life, I felt that this was what The Burn was about. Tens of thousands of wild, unconventional, and radically self-reliant humans adhered to the demanding principles of Burning Man. When the rain came, they were sharing, kind, and allowing the wonder of the universe and its strange ways to wash over them. Everyone, from the formidable Silicon Valley tech wizards to the famous like Chris Rock, was equally leveled by the rain and forced to rely on their intuition, their own foot power, and the kindness of strangers. We were all reminded of the value of the simplest things, like water and wheels. It is good to remember that this is normal life for refugees and that circumstances can displace anybody at anytime. The rain made empathy blossom, though we should not have to wait for personal hardship to be conscious that others have this bearing down on them all the time.
I had to wade into the sticky clay mud because I’d committed to be with the biggest clients of HSBC’s Commercial Bank in Singapore. That forced me to judge the weather. This isn’t as easy as you think, given that no phone signal exists out there. I was reminded of a book in a tsundoku pile at home about how to read water. We’ve lost the art of looking at how the wind ruffles the water’s surface and how clouds move to judge what weather is coming. It’s the physical counterpart of the economic signaling I often write about. As I brushed my teeth in the previous night’s flat champagne (conserving water), I thought, is Burning Man simply a reincarnation? Is it the Paris Salon of our era? It is the place where the edgiest and most inquisitive go to find inspiration. Does modern society ache for a place where people meet without a commercial or status-driven agenda? Yes. Could we be creating such spaces without needing to go to such lengths?
Once the sun came out and word was that another, much heavier bout of rain was coming, I started to walk. I saw a limited window to get to Asia in time for my client. Eventually, a car slowed down. A super kind Burner let me and my friend pile in the back with all their camp gear. We found ourselves with a fellow hitchhiker who had just sold his company for a fortune, having had a huge success after appearing on Shark Tank. He was humble and calm and taking events in his stride. That’s the thing about this cultural phenomenon called Burning Man. It is not a festival. It is not a party. If anything, it’s a gathering of adherents to a philosophy.
Instead of money, this is a community based on gifting. This is different from barter. You don’t exchange items here. You are given what you need, what you ask for, and what someone else offers. Nothing is required in exchange. People had set up camps to offer all kinds of things, from ramen noodle soup, hot chocolate, massages, rum chili cocktails, tarot readings, and rides on the extraordinary art cars.
The art cars are the key to the Burning Man experience. They roam around the desert,