Three lessons everyone can take from Burning Man — even those who’d never go
I’m going to just come out and say it: I think Burning Man is the most important — and revealing — phenomenon of this generation. It’s important because, as its values spread across the globe, it has the potential to influence the course of history. It’s revealing because it shows us what we lack: like bright putty filling in the holes of a rusty bucket, it highlights what’s missing in society.
Lately, Burning Man has been subjected to a range of criticisms: recent press has depicted the event as lacking diversity, as wasteful and excessive, and as overrun by tech bros. But even if some of these critiques have a grain of truth, they by no means undermine the value of Burning Man as a whole, which remains a unique celebration of individuality and community, of creativity and self-reliance, with no equivalent in the modern world.
Indeed, the lessons of Burning Man are so powerful, and resonate so deeply with the human spirit, that they can be a source of inspiration to anyone, regardless of whether they would ever actually attend.
Let’s examine for a moment what lessons Burning Man can provide, even to those who would never step foot inside its dusty gates.
1. The Value of Authenticity
People often subordinate their own desires to the whims of the crowd. This sort of behavior can take many forms: biting one’s tongue to appease a boss, curtailing one’s fashion sense to adhere to a particular dress code, or tolerating unfair treatment from a friend.
Sometimes people act this way for social survival; for example, a working mother may remain silent when she disagrees with her manager for fear of losing her job. But in other cases, it may arise as the result of people craving approval from their peers, or out of a fear of social rejection.
Being authentic is about resisting these influences. To achieve authenticity, people must engage in critical self-reflection: a process requiring them to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses and understand who they are — as well as who they are not.
This is no easy task. Honest and thoughtful self-reflection demands that people face unpleasant truths and shed positive illusions about themselves. Furthermore, those who have successfully engaged in critical self-reflection may face another set of challenges, as they open themselves to criticism from others who feel threatened by those who speak up or go against the social grain.
However, once achieved, authenticity can yield tremendous benefits.
On an individual level, authenticity leads to a healthier and more integrated sense of self, which may open opportunities for happiness and success.
Even more importantly, cultivating personal authenticity can have a positive impact on one’s community. When people set a tone of openness and self-expression, it encourages others to follow suit, ultimately creating a more inclusive and tolerant space. In this way, even those who face great challenges, or even danger, in expressing their authentic selves — for instance, transgender people in the midst of transition — may, over time, find it easier to achieve self-integration and inner peace.
Burning Man sets an excellent example in this regard, as it creates a safe space for people to place all of their wonderful eccentricities on display. But this celebration of human diversity need not remain confined to the desert. Indeed, everyone, whether or not they ever step foot on the playa, can embrace the values of authenticity and self-expression.
2. Communal Engagement
Communities depend on active participation from their constituents in order to thrive, and nowhere is this sort of engagement more apparent than at Burning Man. Walk in any direction and you’ll see ample evidence of the labor and the love that people have invested in their various projects: large-scale art installations, elaborate theme camps, stimulating social gatherings, and creative art cars. Each of these endeavors makes Burning Man a richer, more vibrant, and more beautiful experience.
The tremendous human effort that goes into each Burn should be a model for people’s participation engagement with their respective communities in daily life.
This needn’t only occur at the macro-level of national politics (though voting in elections is a good first step); it can also occur in the smaller, more intimate communities in which people spend the majority of their time: their neighborhoods, offices, school systems and friend circles.
By investing even a small percentage of their time and energy in their macro- and micro-communities, Burners and non-Burners alike can make these spaces more vibrant and nurturing environments.
3. Faith in Humanity
One of the most salient features of Burning Man is its incredible ability to sustain wildly different norms for interaction. Indeed, the outpouring of warmth, sincerity, and mutual respect that emerges during this event often leaves attendees with a lasting faith in others.
These feelings don’t arise spontaneously — rather, they are actively cultivated. Not only do the attendees make a conscious effort to demonstrate kindness to others in the community, they also decide to expect this kindness to be reciprocated. And time and again, they find that their fellow Burners meet — or even exceed — these expectations. In this way, the decision to be kind to one another becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, as everyone in the community consciously works to live up to others’ expectations.
This notion of self-fulfilling prophesies is by no means novel in behavioral science. Indeed, some of the most important psychological effects — including both detrimental conditions, like depression (in which pessimism breeds bad outcomes), as well as positive ones, such as the placebo effect (in which believing in a drug actually improves its efficacy) — are examples of self-fulfilling prophesies. Applying this principle to social interaction, by choosing to have faith in themselves and others, people may, quite literally, “realize” a better world.
Overall, one need not suffer through dust storms to appreciate the value of authenticity, to meaningfully engage in one’s community, or to reaffirm their faith in humanity. It is incumbent upon everyone — both the long-time Burner and the biggest skeptic — to apply these lessons both on and off the playa, since in doing so, they might improve not only their lives, but the lives of others as well.
This essay originally published at The Qualiast, a blog on mind, behavior, and society.