I poked my head out of my tent. I was in the middle of the desert and I was dangerously dehydrated. Hundreds of miles from the nearest recognizable city, I was surrounded by 50,000 other people. Burning Man is an event unlike anything else I have ever experienced. It is liberating, shocking, uncomfortable and unrivaled. It is also the most important thing I do for myself every year.
The Burning Man project is an experiment in temporary community living. It is located in the middle of the Nevada desert and attracts about 50,000 every year. It is a week long and culminates with the burning of a wooden statue who stands in the center of the enormous temporary city. The temporary city contains a working airport, a hospital and an incredible amount of original art. The general idea is that no one is allowed to buy anything. The entire city works off of a trade economy, not a currency.
That morning I left my tent, took a long pull from my water bottle and went to go find some place to cool down. On the way to my favorite nap spot (an enormous half sphere full of hammocks), I passed the portapotty station. It was mid-afternoon so it was busy as people were waking up. A man was standing about 20 feet away with a big smile on his face. Something was up.
He waited for a normal looking woman to enter one of the portable restrooms and gave a signal with his hands to a group of nearby people. I stopped walking and smiled excitedly. I had no idea what was about to happen but I knew it was going to be fantastic.
Excitedly, people carrying supplies ran out of their tents and rolled out a red carpet outside of the portable toilet the woman had entered. Another group of people rolled out a stage and put it at the end of the carpet. People started to take notice. More people dressed like paparazzi arrived and took out flashbulb cameras. The group of onlookers was up to 60 at this point and everyone had an eager smile on their faces. Three guys dressed in security uniforms pushed their way through the crowd and set up a parameter around the red carpet roll out. They were part of the act. Everyone stayed quite and looked in the direction of the water closet.
The random woman was completely unaware of any of the events happening on the other side of her warm blue privacy wall.
The crowd continued to grow and streamers were passed out into the crowd. At this point there were about 150 people outside of the blue shrine waiting for what was going to happen next.
The door creeped open and the woman walked out. Instantly the crowd erupted into full bodied applause. The security guards motioned for her to come onto the stage. Flash bulbs were going off and someone put a pageant sling around the woman’s neck. Two people brought a 6 foot trophy (6 foot!) out from a tent and gave it to her. Meanwhile the applause and cheering attracted even more people.
There were about 200 people encouraging the woman as she walked down the red carpet toward the stage. “Speech, speech, speech!”.
The woman got on the stage and was handed a megaphone to address the crowd. Everyone instantly quieted down and waited for her to speak. Between tears of laughter, she said to the crowd of 250 “all I did was pee!”
My friend, Ian Lauth, describes Burning Man as his way of turning the chessboard sideways. It is a time and a place for a huge group of smart and passionate people to fully release their inner kids. While the pranks like the one mentioned above are common, art and smiles are even more abundant.
This year will be my fourth time to the event. Each time has marked a small turning point in my life. For me it a spiritual journey as well as a party. I spend most of my time during the day walking around and randomly meeting people. I have met UN officials, hundred-millionaires, homeless people, tax accountants, successful record producers and one person who was oddly like myself. At night, I dance for as long as I can stay moving. The next day, I repeat the process.
The event is different for everyone who attends. I have gone with people who have been bitterly disappointed and I have gone with people (like myself) who made it an anchoring event for their year. There is drugs, sex, theft and public showers. There is also technology competitions, poetry sessions, political debates, and religious ceremonies.
For me, the event puts my life back into context. Being completely inundated by bizarreness for a week helps me realize what is important and what is noise. I carry this perspective back with me when I return to real life.
I am a strong believer in the idea that ignorance is bliss. Some of the smartest people I know are also the unhappiest. While some people build walls in their heads, those who are unlucky enough to earn 4.0s and 1600s, build castles.
This belief has been reinforced as I have been traveling. Consistently, the people I see with the biggest smiles are also the least educated. It is the same reason that nature’s simplest beauties make people the happiest. Beaches, sunsets, mountains are plastered the world over on the desktops of very smart people.
I’ll stop here to make my point. I don’t think that intelligence is the enemy of happiness. Far from it. In fact, I argue that intelligence is the force that drives humanity in the direction of happiness. The problem is that spending all of of ones time being intellectual is a bad thing. The mental walls, moats and defenses that we construct are inherently very difficult to remove.
Sometimes it is necessary to get out of your head and embrace your inner, stupider, child.
Burning Man is my way of rebooting myself. It is a week where I can stop worrying about real life and embrace the bizarreness that makes life worth living. If you haven’t already found your reboot button, please feel free to try mine.
You can buy Burning Man tickets at burningman.org.
Hope to see you there!