I adore stories of the average Joe who finds his place in life through some completely unexpected experience. I love hearing wisdom and original ideas expressed by those who are living on the fringe of life. When I find a simple, yet completely unexpected, transformation story, I just have to share it.
One day I went to Starbucks to write. I soon realized that I wasn’t doing any writing because I was captivated by the conversation occurring next to me. Two young men were enthusiastically describing their transformational experiences at a recent Burning Man festival. There was a weird sort of reborn confidence in their speaking. I found it very hard to ignore. I quickly glanced at them and caught a glimpse of real joy — there was not a shred of willful cheer in their expression. Their experience was clearly more than a camping trip to the windy, hot and very dry desert.
But what caused that magical transformation? Did Burning Man cause their peak experience, or was it just their moment in time? And, most important, if there is some secret to Burning Man, can a comfort addict like me get it in a climate-controlled Hyatt ballroom?
I silently asked those questions in my mind, hoping that they would telepathically answer them. But they just kept reminiscing and talking about all the changes they made in their life since they left the desert.
I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I’ve heard some pretty negative things about it– sex, drugs, and all things forbidden are common themes. But I’ve learned that so-called dark people and events often have a golden shadow. And these two guys seemed to have found that shadow and rode it for all it was worth. What I heard in between their words was a testimony to the power of freedom of expression, the guts to be completely authentic, and the ability to trust your heart. That was nothing new. You can hear it in any new age workshop or business seminar. So if we are all talking the talk, why is radical transformation such a rare event?
When I find interesting stories from employees, I look up the owner’s story. When I find interesting followers of a teacher or guru, I look up the teacher. You can always find the fuel for the fire in the mind of the leader. The beliefs of the one in charge either support or deny the desired result. So I did some research on Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man.
Larry Harvey started Burning Man on a beach in San Francisco with a handful of friends. It was the two-year anniversary of his breakup with an old girlfriend. He was mourning the loss of the relationship and reminiscing about a very romantic solstice celebration that they attended together. For some reason, he wanted to recreate the fire at that solstice celebration. Apparently, they threw a couple of mannequins into it. That was a strange thing to do; and he didn’t say why they did it. But for Larry, the mannequin in the fire was like a calling.
Two years later, the phone of destiny rang again; and this time he decided to answer the call. He said to his friends, “Let’s go burn a man.” Fortunately, his friends were as crazy as him. They didn’t go practical on him and explain why that would be foolish or bad. They built some sort of wooden man-like character, and headed to the beach. Then they lit it on fire. But then an unexpected twist turned a spontaneous event into a career. When they lit the wooden man on fire, people came running toward it from all over the beach. They impulsively joined Larry’s informal burning man celebration like moths drawn to a flame. He realized that fire attracts people, creates community, and brings something out in the participants. People danced, talked, and sang around the fire. They contemplated their life. The concept of a fire-centered community literally ignited Larry’s passion. Larry did what any good entrepreneur would do, he turned that passion into a business.
Today tens of thousands come to Burning Man’s current location in the Black Rock dessert of Nevada. Men and women that don’t feel they have a place in the real world, find a sense of belonging. As one writer said, “At burning man, you aren’t the weirdest kid in the classroom.” Having been the weirdo in the classroom, I resonated with those words. I too have been drawn to places and events where I could fit in if only for a weekend. But fitting in is not a catalyst for transformation so I kept looking for more.
I found some shadow gold in a video interview of Larry Harvey that was filmed many years after the first burning man. He was now a success. He sat comfortably slouched in a beach chair, smoking a cigarette with an I-know-something-you-don’t-know smirk on his face. Larry was a late bloomer; and he shared the pain of people constantly reminding him that he just might never bloom. He had been fired from a whole string of jobs before he answered the call and discovered his unique place in life. I suspect he was thinking about all those assholes that thought he was the ultimate loser and would never, ever amount to anything. Here he was before the camera tossing out his pearls of wisdom. Ah! Nothing is sweeter than redemption.
Larry shared that he was taught that:
“There are so many slots (in the world) and you better shove yourself in one of those slots.”
But he was never happy living in a slot. He was never good at it. That advice just wasn’t true for him. And Larry is not alone. So many fringe dwellers feel exactly like him. Eventually, he discovered that this was his truth:
“The trick is to find that point where what you are coincides with the world in some way — where you could possibly fit in and suddenly your dream is there. You just step into the frame and everything is meaningful and you were born to be in it and everything is animated and you belong to it. Now how are you going to figure it out? You just keep doing stupid things. You don’t care if it doesn’t make sense.”
I loved his analogy of stepping into the frame of your life. I find hope for everyone in the notion that the meaningless past becomes meaningful within the frame of your world.
Larry goes on to compare the people who don’t fit in to the weeds in the garden. And he is right. We pull the weeds out and label them worthless. Likewise when a person doesn’t fit into society’s A-list, people pluck them out and toss them into the compost of life. Like the weed, they feel they have no value.
What Larry said was powerful. And it explained the insights that I felt when I overheard the two guys in Starbucks. Larry is certainly not a positive-thinking, motivational speaker kind of guy. Based on his appearance, Larry is the kind of guy you’d expect to drive a pick-up truck and drink Slurpees at the 7-Eleven. Maybe that is why he seems to reach others who feel they don’t belong. He didn’t have to lose his edge to be who he was meant to be.
He talked about his long list of failures. Obviously, they hurt him deeply at the time. But now looking back, he saw all of those failures as successes in disguise because they fit perfectly in his frame of life. In my business days, I attended lots of management seminars that said the same thing. But it felt really authentic from Larry Harvey because he lived it and knew it as his truth. His words weren’t spoken to pump me up or get me to perform.
Once the seed for Burning Man was planted, that fire inside him had meaning. He said it led him to do “one stupid thing after another.” I found his use of the word “stupid” endearing. From the world’s perspective, building men and burning them is probably pretty high on the stupid scale. In addition, it is impractical and potentially dangerous. But for Larry those fires warmed his heart. Larry didn’t know where he was headed, and he didn’t have the whole picture. But it felt good to move in that direction. His heart was leading his head. Maybe he followed his heart because his head had failed him so often, or just maybe his time had come. For some reason, he didn’t argue with his heart this time. He followed like a duckling waddling behind its mama.
When asked about the meaning of the act of burning the man, Larry said they never assigned one. He allows the people to define it as they wish. Like many people whose lives have been transformed in simple ways, he creates the canvass but leaves people room to paint whatever they want on it. In a world where so many events have an agenda, that alone is a sign of true desert oasis.
Without knowing it, Burning Man has taken on Larry’s view of life. And people do paint on his canvass. He allows the beholder to judge the outcome. And people do judge the event. But that doesn’t stop him. As soon as one festival is complete, the preparation begins for the next one.
Participants follow their hearts, create their art, and express their truth. And at the end of the week, they remove it all, destroy it, or toss it in the flames. There is another layer of wisdom in the destruction. No matter how enduring our creation, at some point, it will return to the dust of the earth. Even the pyramids of Giza will one day be nothing but a bunch of stones. And if the joy is in the creating, then you don’t care much. The destruction allows for the chance to create anew.
I’ve often been guilty of wanting transformational moments. I catch myself trying to make them happen. But then I mysteriously run across another story about a simple moment when everything wrong was made right. So I stop trying, and start following my hunches. I turn my ears toward my heart, and take one step at a time. But now, thanks to Larry Harvey, I’m going to add one more ingredient to my journey. I’m going to allow myself to do stupid things.