Beyond the Dust and Dance:
A ‘Jobs to be Done’ Approach to Understanding how Burning Man changes Lives
Burning Man - the name often conjures images of a wild party in the desert, an event sprinkled with eccentric attire, and an audience drawn to the unconventional. However, those who have had the privilege of dusting their boots in this unique gathering know it's much more than that. In this article, I’ll reframe Burning Man as a solution to six relatable situations most of us have, or will, encounter.
In the “default world,” I help startups better understand their customer by finding underlying patterns that help founders build more effective solutions. The patterns are called “Jobs to be Done,” for anyone familiar with the framework. Leveraging this skillset, I thought I would apply the same techniques to find the patterns underlying Burning Man. I interviewed a diverse group of people who have attended over the last 10 years. While the insights that emerged might not be entirely groundbreaking for seasoned Burners, I aim to present a fresh perspective that could resonate with newcomers and veterans alike.
Here are the six situations that Burning Man can help with that I've identified from the interviews:
Facilitating personal transformation
Restoring perspective during tough times
Expanding social circles
Assisting in finding a partner
Deepening bonds with friends and partners
Providing a platform for giving back
Surprisingly, my research showed Burning Man as an effective solution in all of these scenarios.
For those marking their calendar for the 2023 Burn, this article could provide valuable insights to enrich your experience, particularly for those in their first few years. And for the skeptics out there, this deep dive might offer a fresh perspective on a frequently misunderstood phenomenon.
As I prepare for the 2023 Burn, I aim to share 6 powerful stories from my interviews that correspond to the six situations listed above. These are real people who've used Burning Man as an effective solution. Each narrative encapsulates an individual's journey. The specific details of your journey might be different from theirs but I hope you are able to empathize with them and see how their scenario might be analogous to a situation in your life.
One note: These stories are self-contained so if any of the scenarios above resonate with you, you can skip straight to the corresponding story below.
Story 1- Facilitating Personal Transformation
At some point in your life, you might come to the realization that your parents, societal norms, or the community you were born into have caused you to live, act, or work differently than feels right for you. You might be working a job that feels chosen for you. You might feel shame for expressing yourself sexually. This is a powerful realization that is liberating but also fraught with the anxiety of the new and unknown. In general, you know what you’re not but you don’t yet know exactly what you are. What you are will take some exploration. This is where Burning Man can help you.
To illustrate this Job to be Done, allow me to tell you about Tony who fully embraced the transformational power of Burning Man.
Tony, like so many others, grappled with low self-esteem as a gay man who had not come out yet. A successful tech professional, he was just an echo of the strong, confident man that resided within him.
"I had very low self-esteem. I was not confident in my sexual prowess. I felt like I was behind," he shared. While he was struggling with his identity, Tony was not one to shy away from introspection and personal growth. He had been to therapy and relocated to progressive San Francisco. Even so, he was unable to break through and become his full authentic self. He suffered deeply. As he slowly learned more about Burning Man, he started to envision the possibility that it could be a catalyst for his transformation. He yearned to "shed who I was in the real world and become this person who I thought was possible."
You may wonder, why not simply unleash this newfound self in San Francisco? San Francisco constituted his community and Tony was “still scared to turn that part of myself on publicly.” Who might he run into? What if he tried something new and felt judged? San Fransico was not safe enough.
As he prepared for Burning Man, buying the clothes and the gear, Tony’s desire wasn’t to adopt a new persona entirely but to illuminate a facet of himself that had long been shadowed by fear and convention. In Black Rock City, Tony’s intention was to be this “wild version” of himself for the week. He needed to “play house and see what sticks.” A metamorphosis was taking place. Dressed in clothing he would never normally wear, surrounded by people who celebrated his freedom of expression and self-exploration, Anthony tested the boundaries of his new self. He wanted to learn how he wanted to interact, talk, dress, play, and be intimate as a gay man.
Burning Man gave him the freedom to do this because of two of the Burning Man principles of radical inclusion and radical self-expression.
At Burning Man, you uniquely feel loved for whomever you are. Being different and being accepted for your difference is embraced. You are not shamed for anything you want to explore.
In actuality, some people arrive at Burning Man in one of the other five situations but the embodiment of these principles creates a spark. It stirs something deep inside and suddenly people find themselves exploring a personal transformation at Burning Man.
As you think about transformation, your transformation may or may not be as expansive as Tony’s. Some people explore just a small facet of themselves. What’s an area that is worth exploring for you? Look for places where you struggle with self-confidence, where you second guess, where you have even small pangs of anxiety. Where might you be curious to test some boundaries?
Burning Man is a perfect place to explore these areas of self in a safe container.
Story 2- Restoring perspective during tough times
At some point in your life, you might find yourself in a situation you don’t like but you’re not able to or ready to make a change. You might have a lucrative job that isn’t inspiring but you are not ready or able to give it up. You might be in a bad family situation. Whatever it is, you’re unhappy and your mind keeps spinning on the unhappiness. The pressure and pain are enormous.
On a serene beach vacation, you’d just stare at the ocean and spin on these issues, answer emails, and barely be able to disconnect. The only thing that will help you at this moment is the ultimate distraction. An asylum from your life. Your brain needs to break its negative loops and only then will you be able to gain perspective and come back to these endeavors with a better mindset. Burning Man is a great solution here too.
Enter Sam. By the latter half of 2017, Sam had come to embody the beleaguered founder. As an entrepreneur in San Francisco, he'd traded in dreams of digital disruption for the harsh reality of the daily grind. What was once an exhilarating mission had become painful and endless 80-hour weeks.
His entrepreneurial journey was complete with friction between him and his co-founder and his investors. The nascent business was floundering.
Home was no haven. His sister and mother, both navigating through their own hardships, had moved in with him. Sam found himself supporting them too.
Sam had no time for relationships, friendships, or his own well-being. He hadn't taken any vacation in years and he “was pretty unhappy with [his] life.” Sam's mind was in overdrive and as unhappy as he felt, a significant shift in his life was not feasible.
Even though he was burnt out, the serenity of a beach would not offer the kind of distraction that Sam needed. His mind was caught in a relentless loop, it ran on autopilot, stubbornly refusing to deviate from the path it had become accustomed to. He needed something disruptive, something that would defy normalcy.
He needed to be unmoored from his present, unreachable, wholly immersed in something that was “as far away from [his] life as possible.”
Burning Man, he realized, was the unique space he needed. The playful chaos of Burning Man would provide him with the constant overstimulation he required to pull him out of his head. Whether it was putting up tents, fetching ice, dancing at dawn, or simply riding a glowing bike in the night, each action was a distraction, a momentary refuge that allowed him space to breathe, to think, and to exist for himself.
Sam returned to the default world, ready to endure the harsh reality he'd momentarily escaped. In the desert, Sam recaptured a little part of himself that he had lost. Optimism and perspective regained, Sam left with a newfound understanding. The playa had sowed a seed of change, and while he wasn't ready to nurture it just yet, he was able to regain his sense of self and push on because of Burning Man.
Work stress is a common theme that many attendees seem to escape from at Burning Man. For instance, one of my interviewees worked a finance job she despised and attended the festival for six consecutive years. Interestingly, the year she transitioned into a less financially rewarding but more fulfilling career, she didn't feel the need to return to the festival. The festival had done its job.
Story 3 - Expanding Social Circles
Have you ever moved to a new place or been in a life situation where you didn’t have the social life you were hoping for? This might mean you don’t have enough friends or too many of your friends are not “your people.” In these situations, your social life might revolve around one or two people who you appreciate but you also end up clinging to. Getting out of this situation is not easy. It takes time to make close friends. According to a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Associate Professor Jeffrey Hall from the University of Kansas found that it takes 90 hours to make a friend and 200 hours to make a best friend. Burning Man can speed up this process as it did for Tara.
Tara moved around a lot as a child and graduated high school without a core group of friends. She notes sadly, “I had problems making friends. I didn't have a way to connect with people.”
Her social sphere was largely built around Erica, a middle school friend who had moved back to her hometown during her senior year. While Tara cherished her friendship, she felt that “I only have one friend right now and I’m super clingy to her and that didn’t feel great.” A discomforting and emotionally precarious reality.
Her friend Erica invited her to her Burning Man camp. Tara overcame her deep anxieties and decided to go. What Tara experienced there was life-changing. “There were no cliques. Everyone was super friendly and was willing to get to know and be friends with anyone no matter their differences or hobbies. I didn’t have to present myself in a different way to be friends. I felt good enough. That was the first time in my life I felt good enough.” This feeling enabled her to step out of her shell.
Over the course of the next four years, Tara attended Burning Man. “Even though it was a week-long event, I felt like I had a year-long community. The planning process created the community.” For her, the challenges involved in preparing for the event, from setting up the camp to rehearsing a group fire-spinning act, were integral aspects of the experience. Without such preparations, she would lose the consistent connections she needed to make friends.
Between the planning and the Burn itself, it's easy to hit 90-200 hours of connecting. You'll have a blast together, you’ll suffer together, you’ll help each other. This is how friends are made and this is why friends and best friends are a consistent output of the Burn.
The Surgeon General recently declared loneliness an epidemic in the United States. For perspective, being lonely is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In this way, Burning Man can quite literally save the lives of lonely people in just a week.
If you are not satisfied with your social life, seek out locals who are headed to the playa. You’ll meet the friendliest people on the planet and you might be able to significantly improve your life in a very short time.
Story 4- Assisting in Finding a Partner
Dating in the modern world can be hard. Dating apps, with their endless swiping, tedious planning, and often anticlimactic dates, provide little relief. Physical-world dating has become harder as remote work, video games, and social media have made in-person serendipitous meetings less common. Anecdotally, men might not be approaching women as frequently as before. And even when stars align and two people agree to meet, the logistics of coordinating can feel as complex as a tactical military operation. I remember all too well this uphill battle and my attempts to self-motivate through the process. This was my dating life in 2022.
But imagine a place where you could encounter a thousand eligible singles within a week. A place where initiating conversations was as natural as breathing and everyone radiated a welcoming warmth and exuberance? A place where potential date activities were everywhere you looked and new to you both? That seemed infinitely more promising than my existing dating process. Welcome to Burning Man.
On the second day of the 2022 Burn, I found myself at a TED-style talk on the topic of how we censor ourselves in our daily lives at Camp Mystic. (Yes, there are a lot of incredible speakers at Burning Man!) And I saw a beautiful woman sitting in a corner as I walked into the room. I strategically sat next to her. I wondered about how to ask her out at a place like Burning Man. Remembering the boundless friendliness of the community, I realized all I needed to do was say ‘hi’.
Post-talk, I asked if she'd like to join me for a bike ride - our first informal date. If things felt off, we could easily part ways and continue our separate adventures. But instead, we ended up taking shelter under a sculpture, engrossed in hours of conversation. She requested a kiss and I happily obliged. Later that evening, for our next date, we went dancing. More accurately, she introduced me to a rave, with all the trimmings. With the pace and variety of Burning Man, we must have engaged in another 15 distinct adventures during the week. It was, by far, the best dating experience of my life.
Burning Man, in essence, is an outstanding alternative to traditional dating apps - a place teeming with attractive, like-minded individuals, ready to embrace novel ideas, demonstrate compassion, and enjoy new experiences. If you are single, ask yourself: does this sound like a good addition to your current dating strategy?
Story 5 - Deepening bonds with friends and partners
In 2015, a woman named Brittany embarked on her first journey to Burning Man, accompanied by her boyfriend. Similar to Sam, she hated her job and was looking for a break and a gain in perspective. Upon her return, Brittany found herself feeling invigorated yet unable to articulate her experience to her friends. She could envision the incredible moments they could create together at Burning Man, but found herself tongue-tied when trying to persuade them to join her the next year.
Rather than battling with words, she came up with an ingenious plan. Brittany decided to host her wedding at the 2016 Burn. This was not due to a romanticized vision of saying her vows amidst the Burning Man spectacle but a strategic move to ensure her friends would come. “I’ll be honest, having my wedding at Burning Man wasn't really about the wedding. I would have been just as content with a courthouse ceremony. But, I was looking for a surefire way to bring my friends to Burning Man,” Brittany admitted.
While it's a universal desire to create cherished memories with friends, one may wonder what sets Burning Man apart as the perfect platform for this.
Reflect on the tales of adventure and misadventure you often share during dinners with old friends. I’m willing to bet they possess two defining characteristics: an element of surprise and a wave of emotions. This might explain why we tend to venture out of our comfort zones while on vacation with friends, consciously or unconsciously seeking out those memory-making moments. On a holiday in Greece, for instance, with some effort you might experience a few unexpected or emotional incidents. But at Burning Man, these elements are not the exception - they are the rule. Unpredictability is woven into the very fabric of the experience.
Last year, as I was riding through the desert, a close friend and I stumbled upon a working piano with keys made entirely of staplers. There was nothing within five hundred yards of this hilarious piece of art. My friend, a talented musician, played a song on it. How absurdly delightful! The beauty of Burning Man is that we didn't need to do anything daring or risky to stumble upon such a treasure; it was just there, waiting to be discovered.
At Burning Man, you'll have the chance to craft not just one or two, but potentially hundreds of meaningful memories within a week. These experiences will serve to deepen your bonds and fuel countless stories you can retell for years to come. Of course, some of these memories will spring from sheer fun, while others might be born from challenging situations that become comical in hindsight. But rest assured, the memories you create will be abundant and enduring.
Story 6 - Providing a Platform for Giving Back
Occasionally, we are so profoundly moved by an experience that we feel a strong urge to reciprocate. This is driven by a desire to preserve, magnify, and propagate the joy we've derived. This is common amongst college alumni who, despite having paid substantial sums for their education, continue to contribute both financially and personally to their alma maters year after year.
This same sentiment is embodied in the Burning Man community, albeit manifested in distinctive ways. Attendees of Burning Man often undergo profound personal metamorphoses, discover love, or forge lifelong friendships during their week in the desert. Full of gratitude, they develop deep emotional connections to the festival and a yearning to give back.
For Burning Man, this generosity takes shape in the form of time, resources, and creativity, with tens of thousands of people constructing art installations, curating musical performances, and crafting experiences that continually elevate the festival year after year. The scale of these contributions is staggering, with surreal creations like a giant musical, flame-spewing mechanical octopus. The event is a labyrinth of such awe-inspiring spectacles, so dense that you can only see a small fraction in a week.
After a meaningful experience of my own last year, I am giving back by unveiling these 'Jobs to be Done' at Burning Man this year at a talk centered around this very article (Camp Ideate located at 3:45 &D. Time TBD).
For those who are not going this year, if your circumstances align with any of the situations illustrated in this piece, then Burning Man might just be a solution worth considering for 2024. Alternatively, if these narratives don't ring true for you, then this might not be your time. Burning Man is not a prescription for everyone.
As we draw this exploration to a close, my aspiration is straightforward: I hope that you've unearthed a nugget that stimulates a fresh perspective on why individuals are driven to specific actions or choices, be it at Black Rock City or elsewhere. Burning Man, much like life, is an intricate and tangled dance of experiences, encounters, and emotions that can be difficult to unravel.
Jobs to be Done is how I approach making sense of things, but it’s not the only approach.
To those planning to journey to its dusty embrace, I encourage you to lean into the unexpected. Armed with a clearer grasp of what you might be there to accomplish, perhaps you'll say 'yes' to that very experience that seems off your beaten path. You may just find that these moments of ‘yes’ pave the way for your most profound progress. Safe travels and transformative burns to all.
And, I almost forgot, remember to drink lots of water!
If you are inspired, please tell me what you think of this piece: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re interested in learning more about how I go about deciphering patterns like this using Jobs to be Done, you can read about it at www.laser.ventures.