A Message for First Time Burners

9 Lessons Learned After 10 Tours on the Playa

Edward Sullivan
Aug 18, 2016 · 8 min read
The author at his 6th Burn in 2013.

Dear Virgin,

I know at this point you are more concerned about buying all the shit you need to “survive for a week in the desert” than anything else, but I want to tell you that of all the things you bring, the right attitude and expectations are absolutely the most important. It’s not about the outfits, the e-wire, the duct tape, or the rebar. It’s about your head and your heart.

So, after 10 trips to Burning Man since 2002, I’ve put together 4 Spiritual Tips and 5 Practical Tips to help you have the best first Burning Man experience possible. Every single one of these tips came out of me doing the exact opposite at one time or another and suffering the consequences.

Having only been to Burning Man ten times over a span of 17 years, a lot of people might think they are more “qualified” than I am to write this piece by virtue of sheer experience. Others will think any kind of “beginners guide” to the playa is completely stupid. But then again, some of them are also exactly the people I’m writing this piece for.

Four Spiritual Tips for First Time Burners

1. Open, Open, Open to the Unknown

No matter what you’ve heard, you really have no idea what to expect at Burning Man. In fact, the more expectations you have about what kinds of experiences you will have, the more likely you are to be disappointed.

At the end of the day, Burning Man is about connections and interactions. It’s not about walking around having as much free booze, music, sex, and pancakes as possible.

Just by virtue of being there, you’ve hung a sign around your neck that says, “Talk to Me” and so has everyone else.

So, talk to them. Ask questions. BE CURIOUS! Share a laugh.

But please don’t bring your stuck-up “Why are you talking to me?” wannabe cool guy or hot girl attitude to the playa. That’s not why the rest of us are here.

Burning Man was based on an ethic of radical inclusion. Own it.

2) Accept (Almost) Every Experience and Condition the Playa Presents

There are really only two kinds of people who have a bad time at Burning Man: 1) Those who can’t accept the discomfort, obscenity, and absurdity of it all, and 2) Those who do stupid shit and hurt themselves.

Don’t be either.

Acceptance on the playa includes being cool with:

  • Playa dust getting literally everywhere and staying there all week
  • Rain turning the entire playa into a sticky quagmire in 10 minutes
  • Random hot people playfully flirting with your boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Creepy people staring at your own gorgeousness
  • Your campmates making disgusting messes and not cleaning them up
  • Blinding dust storms that make you cough and wheeze
  • And a bazillion other things you aren’t used to back home

Just roll with it and say YES* to whatever the playa gives you. Fighting WHAT IS is total madness and is a great way to have a bad time.

And as for hurting yourself, just don’t be stupid.

*NOTE: There is one major thing you do not have to accept, and that’s unwanted sexual advances. Yes, friendly flirting and even direct propositions happen, but outright harassment and uninvited contact should not. I’ve only heard a few instances of it happening, but I’ve also heard of dozens of people rising to assist when anyone has asked for help avoiding a bad situation.

3) Give Something Back

Remember that aside from Center Camp, the Man, the Temple, the porta-potties, and other infrastructure, which are paid for with your entry fee, EVERYTHING YOU SEE AND EXPERIENCE out there is a gift from someone else. All the music, all the booze, all the free late night hotdogs and crepes, all the yoga sessions, all the art…someone else created that so YOU could enjoy them.

Burning Man is not a “barter” economy — it’s not about trading things. It’s a GIFT economy. People will give you things all week. That system breaks down if you don’t then bestow your own gifts on others. It’s a virtuous circle.

But what if I’m broke and don’t have anything to give?

Sorry you’re broke, but you don’t have to give material objects, food, booze, or music. You can give your time. Your support. Your healing hands. A dance lesson. A compliment. A smile.

If you keep your focus on what you can give to elevate everyone else’s experience every day you’re out there, you will have a MUCH more enriching experience yourself — much more so than those folks who are simply there to take, and sadly there are a lot of them.

4) Repeat the Cycle: Open > Accept > Give

The more you open to the experience. The more you accept whatever the playa has for you. And the more you give back… The deeper and richer your experience will become. You will notice more people opening, accepting, and giving to you. It’s a virtuous cycle.

But at some point, you will get tired of all the opening, all the accepting, all the giving. You will want to say, Fuck this shit. Or fuck my friends. Or fuck this dust.

And that’s exactly when you will need the practical tips below…

Five Practical Tips for First Time Burners

1. Drink More F-ing Water Than You Ever Thought Was Possible

Everyone will tell you this, but you’ll still forget. So I’m telling you again. Water is your best friend out there. Not Jack Daniels or that crazy girl Molly. Take a CamelBak with you day and night, and suck on it all the f-ing time.

Some camps will let you refill it if you ask nicely. Others will lecture you on self-reliance and tell you to go home and get your own. Either way, fill ‘er up, and stay hydrated.

  • Angry? Drink water.
  • Disappointed? Drink water.
  • Jealous? Drink water.
  • Wondering why all your friends can’t stand you? Drink water.

I’m serious. No water = no fun.

2. You Don’t Have to Stay Up Every Night Till Sunrise

In fact, I think it’s stupid.

On my fifth Burn, I suggested to a friend we take a “Pub Crawl” of the playa around 12 noon. She was aghast. “Is anyone even awake at 12pm?”

I had to laugh. That’s basically like a nightclub bartender in Manhattan asking if anyone is awake at 9am on a Wednesday.

You see, she was a “Westside Girl.” A burner who has only ever camped near (and only ever explored)the 9 o’clock side, whose day normally started around 4 pm at Distrikt and ends at 8 am at Robot Heart, and who spends the rest of her time recovering in her air conditioned RV. (Love all my friends at Distrikt and RB, but you know what I’m talking about ;)

Which is totally cool for a few nights, but there is SO MUCH MORE to Burning Man than a few dance parties.

My favorite experiences, conversations, and connections at Burning Man have come from “DayPlaya” explorations. Like the time I left my tent at 10 AM to pee, met a couple random people at the Purell station, got invited back for mimosas, helped them make omelettes, rolled over to their neighbors’ place for a few spins on their Wheel of Fortune, wandered down the street to climb the ladder of a fire truck….

…and then suddenly realized the sun was going down after I’d been lost for an entire day in a whirlwind of serendipity and human connection — two things you are less likely to find at 5am zoning out to tropical house in front of an art car.

3. Talk to People Who are Different From You

If you spend the entire week with people you already know or looking for people to hook up with, you’re kinda missing the point.

Some of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had at Burning Man have been chatting with people a generation above or below me, people I wasn’t attracted to in any way aside from being curious about their story — their successes and their hardships. The real Burning Man experience happens when we stop looking at people’s ephemeral outward expressions of beauty and find the infinite inward ones.

Yes, you might happen upon some pretty people out there. Yes, you might want to rub various body parts together with them. But there are 10 times as many people you will miss the opportunity to rub mental and spiritual parts with if you make “finding hot guys/girls” your sole mission.

4. Make Plans, but Don’t Expect Them to Happen

If you went with friends, of course you’ll have to make plans. And if you’re in a huge camp, you’ll probably have specific chores to do at certain times, although I only stay at camps of 20 people or less specifically to avoid that shit (Update: I’m now at Pineapple Motel, and they make chores fun. 😘)

But aside from that, let go of the idea of making plans, meeting people at certain times, etc. etc. Nothing screams VIRGIN more than saying, “Let’s meet on Thursday at 3pm at the Man” and actually expecting it will happen.

I mean, would YOU get off of a bar stool hanging off the edge of a motorized grand piano hurtling across the playa while you and ten strangers sing Great Balls of Fire at the top of your lungs, just to go meet someone you’ll see back at home next week anyway? Neither would I. Neither would she.

So, yeah… Make plans. But don’t expect them to happen.

5) Have Your Own Burn

At the end of the day, you just have your own experience. Throw away the list of “must see” camps your friend made for you, throw away the schedule of events, throw away the little app that tells you all the camps where all your friends are. Hell, throw away this article.

Have your own Burn.

Sure, maybe you have 100 friends going to Burning Man. But all that means is there are 69,900 potentially new friends out there waiting to meet you. And if your friends are smart, they will read #4 above and have no real expectation of seeing you on the playa anyway.

Look, if you do see your friends and have some cool experiences that others have told you about, awesome! But being fixated on those things happening at the cost of opening, accepting, and giving back to the cool new people right in front of you would be a fucking shame.

Ok, that’s it. Let the tirade of snarky “what does this guy know?” comments begin. And god willing, see you on the Playa sometime. :)

If you liked this story (even a little), please click the little heart below. It will help other people read it, and it will mean a lot to me.

Edward Sullivan is the CEO and Managing Partner of Velocity Group — a boutique coaching and training organization that helps start-up CEOs and corporate executives navigate the challenges of leadership with authenticity. With offices in San Francisco and New York, Velocity Group helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at edward@gainvelocity.com.

Edward Sullivan

Written by

I’m an entrepreneur and executive coach. Let’s talk. edward@gainvelocity.com.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade