In August-September 2017, I had the amazing opportunity to attend my first Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City (BRC) a couple hours north of Reno, Nevada.
Burning Man is: ‘A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers.’
Looking back, I could never have fully imagined what I was getting myself into. And, I can never fully articulate into words what my experience was like. But, I do know that when I talk about it, I light up and people add Burning Man to their bucket list! Ha!
I am a life-long learner and strongly believe that leadership development is enhanced by knowing ‘self’ at deeper and deeper levels. In fact, I believe conscious and explicit efforts to know self is foundational to leadership development. For me, leadership development can look like a full range of efforts. It can be a training program, a workshop, formal education, etc. but more often than not for me these days it involves non-traditional activities and it often takes place outside of my professional field of public health.
By the end of Summer 2017, I found myself burned out and in need of something to shake things up in my life or give my life LIFE back! My values of freedom and adventure were being ignored and I wasn’t leading my life, personally or professionally, in a way that felt life-enhancing or life-giving. I purposefully chose Burning Man as the next experience to take my leadership to a new level. It was the perfect learning and growing opportunity!
From 10 days in the hot, dusty desert, I learned many things. I’m sharing my top lessons learned below. I’m still integrating these lessons into my life and imagine I will be for quite some time or at least until I return to my next Burning Man and secure a whole new set of lessons!
- There is much to learn from the land on which we live, work, play, and pray. The earth is Sacred and each one of us is part of the earth! From the almighty and powerful Black Rock Desert, I learned that I am strong, centered, grounded, and powerful. I learned this through my body, meaning that I viscerally felt my own strength, centeredness, groundedness and personal power over and over again!
Leadership Implications: Experiential learning is powerful! When I don’t feel like a leader in my life, I can easily remember/relive this experience and come back to this strong and powerful expression of myself.
- To have compassion for the human condition. We all (many or most) want to be seen, met, loved, and supported. We all love, laugh, play, cry, hurt, feel joy, and want to belong to self, each other, in community, and to something greater than self.
Leadership Implications: Compassion for self and others always changes, for the better, the way I choose to communicate with the people in my life.
- It is possible, fun, and interesting to try to live by a beautiful and explicit set of guiding principles. In BRC, there are 10 guiding principles: radical self-reliance, radical-inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation, and immediacy.
Leadership Implications: Within a guiding set of principles, there is much room for freedom of interpretation and this space for creativity allows magical things to happen! The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
- Even in a place where radical self-expression is expected and encouraged, there is still pressure to fit in and be like everyone else. In BRC, you see everything but there is still pressure to fit in with the BRC culture. This is one of those things that is difficult to put into words. You have to experience it for yourself.
Leadership Implications: Being true to self is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The pressure to follow the masses is strong. The opportunities to lead the way are many and they all take courage. It feels empowering to let yourself be yourself even when you look different than everyone else. This reminds me of Brene Brown’s work on Braving the Wilderness.
- Following the alive path is just that – ALIVE! One day I wandered into my camp’s kitchen because I was feeling a bit lost (not connected to myself). I found a man who needed help peeling a 10-pound bag of onions. During the course of our onion peeling and conversation, we started talking about contra dancing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_dance), one of my favorite activities. He told me about the contra dance camp in BRC and the scheduled contra dance that night. I, and a campmate, wandered over to the dance that night and I had one of my best camp experiences there! I have not contra danced much in my life but I’m a good follower when I have a strong lead (I’m also a good follower with a not so strong lead! Ha!). The fun and carefree memories of that night are etched into the fabric of who I am now.
Leadership Implications: Opportunities open up when you trust yourself and follow the alive energy. I knew I needed something, and so I wandered into the kitchen and found exactly what I wanted but didn’t know I needed. This experience changed my overall Burning Man experience and resulted in one of the highlights of the entire trip. If something feels challenging or is not easy or not so great, you may need to find a new path or strategy. In my experience, the path of ease is always the most alive path and it results in great things happening! I’ll take that path everyday.
There are so many more lessons I’ve learned from Burning Man; however, I find myself FULL at this point in writing about them. The final lesson for this posting is that when you are full, you are full. It’s not possible to add more. It is time to relish, be grateful, and integrate so more can be added. I may add a sequel to this posting at some point in time. Stay tuned.
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