by Ramie Abu-Zahra (WG ‘15), Daniel Azoulai (WG ‘15), Jeff Zhou (WG ‘15)
DISCLAIMER: If you really want to understand what Burning Man is like, GO! Until you taste that playa dust for yourself, you’ll never really know.
Still, we wanted share our experience, and personal takeaways. We were drawn to Burning Man community values, many of which are espoused by the Wharton community, and found the experience itself parallels our bschool life in peculiar ways.
Burning Man is an annual ~70,000 person, volunteer-run, weeklong community event in the Nevada desert (aka “the playa”) that espouses radical self-reliance, and giving of yourself to others without expectation of anything in return (ok — that last part, not so Wharton). It is described as an experiment in community, art, and radical self-expression that takes its name from the burning of a large wooden effigy.
Yes, there are hippies. Yes, there are parties. And yes, there are plenty of mind-altering substances.
But! If you decide to go to Burning Man for sex, parties and drugs, rest assured, you will leave disappointed and are better off at Coachella. Because at Burning Man, it’s hot, sunny, dry, and dusty. Showers are rare, you use port-o-potties, and you labor for hours constructing your camp.
So why subject ourselves to this?
Because there is nothing else like it. The open-minded, judgment-free Burner community encourages you to push boundaries, and see what comes of it in a low-risk environment (sound familiar, bschool?). Burning Man is an escape from the social norms and expectations that keep us from truly free expression. You know that crazy side of you that’s hiding just under a $1,000 power suit? That’s who you set free at Burning Man!
The three of us were members of camp Old Gregg, run by Daniel (a nine year veteran) and his leadership team. For first time burners (virgins) Jeff and Ramie, this experience was transformational.
What should I know about burning man?
The Magnitude is Extraordinary
We read up on burning man, but nothing prepared us for the moment we ventured out into the open playa on our first night out. Being surrounded by a mile diameter, 360 degree art show of light and sound erected over just a few days in the middle of a desert feels like an intergalactic highway that never ends. It’s difficult to describe but incredible to experience.
There is no bartering; really! It’s about gifting
There is no money exchanged on the playa. And no, it is not “gifting” masquerading as bartering, trading, (s)exchanging or anything of that sort with expectation of return. In fact, everything you see, experience, and enjoy throughout burning man is a gift to you from the burning man community. From the jolly Japanese man giving out marshmallows to roast, to those who run huge “sound camps” laden with bombastic speakers and mind-blowing lighting, burners give to the community in their own way, without expectation of anything in return. The only expectation is that you come prepared to give. Adam Grant would approve!
Burners are huggers
Skip the formalities. Bring it in for the real-deal, two-armed, heart-to-heart hug. No half-ass handshake bro-hugs accepted here. Here, there is a genuine sense of trust and openness among the people that have self-selected into this experimental community that is hard to match. It’s comparable to the Wharton community in this aspect — well, at least among post-job offer 2Ys.
What lessons did you take away from the experience?
Make yourself vulnerable to others for the sake of developing authentic relationships
In some Wharton communities, we refer to this as “Go Deep Fast,” and we try to execute this tongue-in-cheek philosophy in our daily lives to quickly build deeper and more meaningful relationships. Meeting hundreds of easy-to-trust, non-judgmental, and willing-to-help burners from all walks of life reminded us of not only how much we have in common with people who appear from different from us on paper, but of the value in making yourself vulnerable. When you open and give of yourself to others, they frequently open up to you.
In our academic, professional, and frankly, social lives (think about how far ahead we had to sign up for ski trip), we plan, plan, plan! But what happens when plans don’t work out? Stress, tears, and even self-doubt.
But ambiguity has value! After a few days at Burning Man, we decided to play the “yes game” — one in which we would stroll around aimlessly from camp to camp and do just about anything we were asked to (Do I hear stretch experience?). Our days spent as playa nomads were fun and sublime — we raced down big slides, played with flamethrowers, bladed at a roller-disco, and performed backflips on trampolines for audiences. These spontaneous, unplanned experiences reminded us that truly living in the moment is liberating.
If you seek an immersive, novel experience, where you can give of yourself completely, and experience liberty in new ways, consider Burning Man. And one pro tip: drink lots of water!