Radical Inclusion: How Burning Man is Helping Create a New Breed of Entrepreneur
Each entrepreneur’s journey is bound to be unique, yet there’s a disturbingly common thread of disassociation and loneliness. Stepping outside of what is available, accessible and seemingly stable to forge into the unknown and create something of value is far from easy.
Yes, it can be exciting and liberating. But the stress associated with the pursuit can can have a separating effect. If the emotional weight a person amasses in the process of developing a vision for the world severs that individual from the community, how can he or she serve and support it?
The phrase “You have to do now what others won’t so that you can live later as others can’t” comes to mind. It sums up the sometimes-isolating experience of entrepreneurship.
Thankfully, support systems have been more accessible as greater numbers pursue entrepreneurial ventures and various side hustles. Co-working spaces, outsourced CFOs and an endless sea of tech accelerators all have been developed to foster new entrepreneurs. But what of the psychological costs associated with these endeavors?
Entrepreneurs and other free thinkers have found new ways to recharge and reconnect through the recent proliferation of music festivals -- and none have provided a better catalyst than Burning Man. In fact, the website describes the event as “not a festival. It is a catalyst for creative culture in the world.”
Leaving the office for the desert.
For one group of (no-longer virgin) "Burners," the event was far from an excuse to party. Entrepreneurs Austin Renfroe, Adam Nagin, Justin Choi and Brian Swichkow met in person for the first time at the 747 Camp during last year's Burning Man. They represent just a few who have stepped out of their offices and into the desert for a life-changing experience.
For the uninitiated, the 747 Camp is a community art project that brings a 747 airplane to the Playa in Black Rock City, Nev., where Burning Man takes place. The camp and its 135-foot-long (soon-to-be) moving “art car” is operated by a vibrant group of entrepreneurs, engineers and energetic supporters who have fully committed to the 10 Principles of Burning Man.
“This year was my first Burning Man experience, and it was nothing I could have expected," Choi says. "Far from anyone’s image of a 'Burner,' people rightly reacted with surprise at my intent to go. No matter how much I had heard about it, I couldn’t imagine it having any lasting impact on me. But it did. For me, it was like re-experiencing life through the eyes of a child, free of the mental burdens we give ourselves that we become numb to in our adult lives. Everything is a discovery, and every little thing that you normally take for granted becomes special. I left with new life-long friendships and more appreciation for everyday life.”
Embracing Burning Man's '10 Principles.'
Renfroe was especially moved by the notion of de-commodification within the 10 Principles of Burning Man. “I think that the vast majority of the trouble that humanity brings down on itself is from a selfish desire to 'have it all,' regardless of the negative impact it may have on others," he says.
"Socioeconomic disparities, wars, even our inability to cure certain diseases are all a result of this. I’ve always wondered what humanity would look like if we stopped worrying about getting ahead and instead acted in others’ best interests as well as our own," Renfroe says. "Burning Man presented a unique opportunity to see how that would look -- spoiler alert: beautiful -- by watching people help others, create things and give things to one another for no other reason than because they wanted to. I feel like this is the value that either drives the other values or allows them to take place.”
These entrepreneurs have stepped out of the world they've helped create -- the world in which they felt they had to have it all -- and into a new way of thinking. Swichkow describes it this way: “Radical self-expression. In business, an accidental act of self-expression became a fulcrum to my career. Behind a keyboard, with degrees of space and time to frame thoughts, I felt more comfortable articulating the true me.”
Committing acts of creative courage.
Taking part in Burning Man allowed Swichkow to embrace the radical self-expression of his writing. That act of creative courage led him to meet people he wouldn't otherwise have met. “Silicon Valley isn’t taking over Burning Man," Swichkow says. "Burning Man is taking over Silicon Valley."
You may think these epiphanies end at Burning Man, but they don’t. “Burner culture has intensified my pre-existing passions and given me renewed focus and vigor in pursuing them," Nagin says. "The uninitiated look at me cock-eyed when I tell them that I am waking up at 3 a.m. on Saturday after an intense work-week to drive four hours each way on some crazy nature adventure or to work on the 747. After the Burn, this has become my new normal. No day is to be wasted."
Bringing 'Burner' culture back to the everyday world.
These entrepreneurs and others are taking what they learn at Burning Man and applying it to other situations. They've elevated their new-found friendships beyond the Playa and into everyday conversations -- both in business and in personal relationships. They've created the 747 Camp and other projects to give form to those ideas. In fact, 747 Camp was my introduction to this group. While I've never been to Burning Man, the “radical inclusiveness” embraced in the desert carried into the “default world.” They warmly invited me to explore the project and the people behind it.
Since then, I've met many other Burners who also are entrepreneurs. They come from all over the world and include a group of Israeli entrepreneurs who are bringing the Burning Man principles and experience to a different kind of desert. The thinking appears to be the same. They share their connections, projects and experiences quickly and openly. They embrace new people and new ways of thinking. They function as a true community all year long.
Could it be that Burning Man is creating a new kind of entrepreneur? Could we be seeing a shift from the silo founder to the inclusive, community-building entrepreneur? I, for one, certainly hope so.