Life Lessons From Burning Man

Reno, NV
“Make no mistake… this is an exercise in radical self-reliance…” (Burning Man survival guide)
Howdy… No, I’m not at Burning Man this year.

Just couldn’t pull it off, because of random acts of viciousness and distraction ladled upon my poor vulnerable head by the universe.
Visited last year. Might go next year, too.
I’ll see this Burn, though, through the sky-cam there in the smoldering Black Rock desert, if I see it at all.
However, just thinking about that amazingly unique event generated a familiar thought about survival.

I call it “The Hard Knocks Lesson Of Three’s“.
It applies to stuff like attending an event like Burning Man… which is a week-long freak show in the middle of the playa, way the hell in the middle of the northern Nevada desert.

Nothing you’ve ever done in your life, to this point, can totally prepare you for the experience.
One day before the event, the desert is a wasteland, free of humans. One day into the event, it’s suddenly a Mad Max-styled city of 40,000 partiers who stay up all night torching stuff and dancing themselves into madness to blaring trance music (which goes 24 hours a day out there).

Lots of art, and street theater, and comraderie, and general naughtiness ensue, at levels you simply are not prepared for.
Man, it’s fun. But daunting fun, at first.
You gotta bring every drop of your own water and food (or barter for it from others — no money is allowed inside Black Rock City)…
… and you’re on your own dealing with the sand storms, the brain-melting heat, the absolute lack of basic resources, and all the other details of maintaining good-animal health in the middle of Hell.

Trust me, it’s a blast. People arrive from every corner of the globe, eager to get the party started again.
Burners take the self-reliance code to heart. They truck in everything they need, and truck it back out again when the show’s over. No trace is left of the massive city, or the party.
This once-a-year bacchanalia has been going on since the 1980s, with little or no mayhem or tragedy.

Self-reliant partiers. It’s a concept.

The lesson, however, applies to all sorts of new experiences. Like starting a new job. Or putting together a market launch of a new product. Or engaging in a new course or mentoring program.

Here’s what I’ve found:

1. The first time you do anything new, your senses are kind of overwhelmed. You may not even realize if you’re having a good time, or a worthwhile experience, until after you’re done and you can look back on it.
This first time is essential to the process.
Just get it done. Do the best you can, and expect nothing and everything, while allowing the experience to wind out as it will.

2. You will either have a good experience, or a bad one.
It doesn’t matter which (unless you’re a pussy and the bad experience sours you on going further into the process forever).
If it’s good, you have a benchmark for what a “good” experience is about. And you may want to attemtp to repeat it the next time out. Or top it.
If it’s a bummer, you have a benchmark for what a “bad” experience is about. And you will want to take steps to avoid it next time.

3. After you’ve had two rounds, you have accumulated a little storehouse of insight, knowledge and hands-on experience. It could be all good, all bad, or a mix.
But it’s the third time out where you can now call yourself “experienced”.
You have context, now, to judge and adjust and feel at home with the process.
I’ve lived in many different cities in my time. Had many different jobs, started many different relationships, gone on many different adventures.
And all these different experiences started out overwhelming… and got dramatically easier to maneuver through on the third time around.

I even used it as a way to build up familiarity in strange towns. The third day in a row you go to the same cafe for lunch, sit in the same place, and order the same thing… you’ll get noticed. You’re no longer an invisible face in the crowd.

You are now seen in context.

(When I first moved to Virginia City, I stopped by the Bucket O’ Blood saloon once a day on my daily walks around town for a beer. On the third visit, the bartender leans over and whispers “Are you a local? Damn, I’ve been charging you ‘tourist’ prices for that beer. This one’s on me.”)

In even the scariest new job, the third day gives you solid hints to what your daily routine will become. Getting there on time, knowing the rules, figuring out who the assholes are and who the cool kids are.

It’s a process of collecting and consciously analyzing incoming data.

At Burning Man, the dramatic self-reliance required can be shocking the first time out.

By the third year’s journey, you can probably call yourself a veteran Burner. Sure, there will always be unexpected stuff. But while alarming, the new tweaks to the experience will fit into the greater perspective you have from having been there before.

Just knowing this rule can take a lot of heat off your stress levels.
As a rookie, you’re a liability to the people around you. You’re encountering everything for the first time, and you have no context for how you’re going to react.
The next time, you’ll do better.
And by the third go-round, your comfort level with the very stuff that may have alarmed you before will be astounding.

It may occasionally take more than three attempts to “get” any given situation or experience down pat.
You certainly will not be an “expert” at it yet.
But you will have some history, good or bad, and that allows you a little internal reference library of experience to draw on.

During those stretches in my life where I was constantly experiencing upheaval, radical change and emotional turmoil, keeping this simple rule of 3’s in mind helped a lot.
I never put pressure on myself to excel right out of the blocks. I took it slow, kept copious notes, and built upon every minor success while correcting the mistakes.

People fear change and new things. It’s in our DNA.
The key to beating fear is to acknowledge it, and engage in the experience anyway. Know that you’re probably not going to ace it this first time out… but what you learn will give you a foundation to becoming more confident and comfortable each successive time.
I’ve been a rookie, a lot. I welcome most opportunities to try new things.

And I’m a grizzled veteran of nearly everything I’ve experienced and liked (or needed to like, to further my goals).
I’m also a pro at dealing with a lot of the bad shit that can come crashing down on you. Been there, done that.
It’s a process.
Just a little advice to help you navigate the dusty road.
Stay frosty.

Source: John Carlton

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