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4 lessons a ‘Techie’ learned at Burning Man

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Joshua Zloof's Blog

4 lessons a ‘Techie’ learned at Burning Man

Joshua Zloof

Also found on Medium

Enough with the stories about how the tech industry is changing Burning Man, I want to talk about something positive — Burning Man’s impact on me (and hopefully lots of others).

2014 was my 4th year at Burning Man, and for all the talking I do about it, it’s about time I wrote something. Every time I mention it to someone new, I get asked “Wow, was it totally life changing?!” Now, I can decidedly say YES, Burning Man has impacted my life. I’m not a drastically different person, but each trip to Burning Man has taught me a different lesson — making its way back into how I approach the world, people around me, and my work.

Whether or not you believe Burning Man has been changed by the tech industry, I’m here to say that Burning Man changes people in tech (and every other industry) just as much. Those lessons that we all take back into the rest of the world are what we should strive to cultivate. If veterans of the community make it their mission to help every virgin burner take home one lesson, we’d continue to have an impact that far exceeds the playa.

So what were my life lessons? Below are a few examples from the last 4 years.

Year 1 — Passion is a real thing

Adventure

The first year I went, I had just wrapped up 3 years working as a management consultant in Boston. My life was a series of calculated tradeoffs geared towards maximizing a goal. Anything outside of that goal seemed like a bad use of time. When I got to Burning Man, I saw all these people who were giving away free food, services, labor, talents, etc. Some examples:

  • A camp dedicated to giving free haircuts to anyone who came by
  • A chef who set up a camp serving gourmet paninis
  • Groups that built 4-story nightclubs, complete with lighting, speakers, bars, DJs
  • Free lectures on math and science

My view at a TEDx talk in the middle of Black Rock City

A couple things really surprised me about that first year

  1. The magnitude is mind-boggling — these aren’t just casual interests; people spend months, even years, preparing to show their talents and skills. They may invest $100,000 or more of their personal savings to build something bigger than the year before
  2. It’s a canvas to try new things — in most cases the craft or skill the person gave away is not something he/she does in their day job. Rather, it’s the secret passion, a pure interest
  3. As much as participants give these things away for the community, they are also doing it for themselves. The person giving haircuts enjoys the satisfaction he/she gets from giving haircuts

Takeaway

Before, it seemed strange to me to spend real time or real money doing hard work…for fun. Work was for working; bars, restaurants, and vacations were for fun. I learned that it can be totally normal to make a serious commitment to a passion, just for fun. It showed me that people aren’t uber-rational economic actors, rather people do things because it feels good or it’s just fun (obvious I know). This drastically changed my approach at work — instead of thinking about how to help clients make more money or save time, I realized it’s as valuable to help clients ‘feel good’ or ‘have fun’.

Year 2 — Great things are worth waiting for

Adventure

In year 1, I passed by an interactive art installation/ ride — ‘The Tesseract’. You get in a giant box and get ‘transported to the next dimension’…well sort of. I walked by in year 1, saw a giant line, and figured ‘Meh it’s not worth it’. In year 2, I met a couple who worked on the Tesseract. They told me that I totally missed out and had to ride it this year. I went with them, this time waited 30 minutes, and tried it out. Turns out, I stayed in this dimension, but it was still a fun experience to talk about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1txVyyLkb6g

Takeaway

French Quarter camp — a source for amazing cocktails (at the end of a long line)

I used to get really frustrated waiting in line for things. If there was a line outside a popular restaurant, you could count me out. I realized that my aversion to lines made me miss out on a lot of potentially great experiences. When there’s a long line for something it usually means that it’s worth waiting for. After that trip, I found that I was ok waiting in line and made the line a fun part of the experience.

 

Year 3 — Commerce is also about human connection

Adventure

Many people go to Burning Man to meet new people. Personally, I’m not great at this — I still feel uncomfortable introducing myself to strangers. It’s always difficult for me to meet other people. In year 3, I figured out a trick.

It was the first year I actually gave back to the community, albeit in a very small way. We spent a couple hours blending smoothies and giving them to people walking by on a hot day. Armed with a cold drink to offer, it was easy to approach people. Everyone had the same reactions:

  • Receiving something made everyone SMILE
  • Most people immediately opened up and shared their story — where they came from, what they were interested in
  • A lot of times the conversation ended with an invitation to hangout later or something was given in return — it feels natural to complete the transaction

Takeaway

Giving away smoothie cocktails during a bar night at my cam

Giving away smoothie cocktails during a bar night at my cam

This experience taught me that when we go out into the world to go shopping, to restaurants, to bars, etc, we aren’t just there to buy something; every time we exchange a good/service we also exchange a human interaction. Those moments are opportunities to open up to another person. As someone who ‘makes apps’ this was a big realization for me — while all our apps make life efficient and comfortable, there will always be a gravitation towards exchanging goods and services in person — it makes us human. After year 3, I realized I wanted to build products that enhance human interactions and help people connect with others rather than ones that eliminate contact with people. For those that know me, this was a major shift in my thinking.

Year 4 — Building stuff is fun

Experience

In 2014, I had to outdo my previous accomplishments. I didn’t just want to hand out smoothies — I wanted a whole smoothie bar! I wanted to build my own camp and meet way more people in the process. With the help of a bunch of friends, I built a bar out of wood and put together the physical infrastructure for a modest camp (canopies, generator, etc). It was a really intense process. I spent 60 + hours a week in the weeks prior working on the camp. I exerted myself physically in ways I never had before — I’m not usually one for heavy lifting. I also picked up/ improved on a bunch of real skills — soldering, woodworking, designing structures, logistics & planning. Guess what? It worked. Year 4 was the best year yet. Our smoothie bar was a great hangout, we met amazing people, and all 15of us survived (that took some effort!).

The dinosaur we built for Burning Man

The dinosaur we built for Burning Man

Takeaway

For me, the act of figuring out how to build something new and put it together was really enjoyable. I didn’t just enjoy the time at Burning Man but also had fun in the weeks before while I was building. I also realized I can accomplish a lot with the right focus. Year 4 brought things full circle — I finally became one of the people I observed in my first year, spending countless hours building something. Going forward, I realized I need to continue to push myself to learn and build new things to be happy.

Taking it off the playa

These 4 stories aren’t mind boggling revelations. Some were small revelations about me as an individual, others were about humans as a whole. They don’t connect to form a larger plan and I’m sure other experiences could have led me down the same path. However, I can say that Burning Man played a significant part. If you’re thinking about going, I highly recommend it — it’s the only vacation where I feel like I’ve taken back real souvenirs.

More importantly, as the debate soars on about techies, plug n play camps, and the rest, it’s important for us to remember that as much as Burning Man changes, evolves, twists, and turns, it has a meaningful and lasting impact on all kinds of people. These lessons make their way into how people shape artwork, products, businesses, TV shows, and yes even Wall Street. (I frequently wonder if the idea of Google products being free came from ‘gifting’.) It’s hard to see; it’s not overt, but Burning Man has had a positive impact on the underlying consciousness of the US and dare I say the world. So — rather than being critical of new comers, we should take the opportunity to teach Burning Man lessons to as many people as possible — it can only get better!

Thank You!

I must end with a couple thank you’s for making it 4 years —first to my friend Zak who made sure I didn’t die my 1st year (quite literally a couple times).

“Come at me bro!!!” -Datgirl & Zapper

“Come at me bro!!!” -Datgirl & Zapper

Lastly, this post would not be complete without a big thank you to my sister Serene aka Datgirl andZapper who took me under their wing and introduced me to Burning Man. It’s her birthday the day I’m publishing this — Happy Birthday!! — and she’s launching HEADLINERS — a web series show, so watch it (shameless plug)!!