The sun rises over the playa, silhouetting the temple in white light. The dust rises off the flat earth. As the first light hits, I run off, skipping up to a stranger for a bear hug.
The Burning Man festival is held every year in the Nevada desert, where 70,000 people bring RVs tents, food, water, and their most outrageous costumes for eight days of exploration and realisation.
No money is exchanged at the festival, instead everything is based on a gifting economy. One moment I’m reclining on a saloon porch slurping a triple shot margarita, then the next I’m receiving an invitation to camp with 15 year burner veterans.
Burning Man is just one way to experience what could be, an opportunity to dive into our dream world where we abandon the shackles of our little everyday selves. Here are six things I learnt about visioning from this unique festival.
1. Irrational rainbow magical visioning creates innovation, so don’t try to apply teeny tiny logical thinking to the process.
Innovation, revelation, and creativity come from letting go of limitations and exploring what could be in a limitless environment.
Once you give yourself permission to see limitless possibilities, then you can carve off a minuscule slice from limitlessness and mould it into something.
The ‘thing’ you create — whether that’s a business, a product, or an idea — is an imperfect reflection of your limitless dream.
Many people misattribute the source of that creativity, that amazingness, by using linear thinking. They point to the ‘thing’ they’ve created and say — ‘ah ha’ that’s where the creativity comes from. They confuse the crumbs on a plate and then think that’s how they baked the cake.
True innovation is extracting from a limitless and holistic space, rather than creating a new idea from a bounded linear mindset. So take that roll in the mud, that zipline into the jungle, the trek across the desert, follow that unexplainable feeling to the very end, light candles in your darkness, and walk to the edge of your controlled world.
2. Trying to vision in ordinary spaces doesn’t cut it. You need to disrupt the senses.
Visioning is not often done in daily life — except perhaps at work, where once a year they bundle you into an off-grey room with stucco walls, with one flashing neon light in the corner, thrust little colored Post-Its at you, and say: “now innovate”.
By contrast, the Nevada desert is about as far from your office as you’ll get. The earth is cracked, and the wind, corrosive. Playa dust is like getting a massage from carwash paddles painted with sandpaper. People walk by with tape on their breasts, or their penises swinging against thighs; there are metal crows, a talking whale, a tiny rainbow tent, an ATM machine dispensing life advice, and a giant boar you can ride.
If it doesn’t sound like it makes sense, then you’re starting to get it. It’s not supposed to make sense.
In that environment, my physical self is in shock, such that I’m no longer navigating by my usual reference points. (At what other time in life could you say — “I’ll meet you just past the orgy tent where you can see the flaming octopus passing the purple dragon” — with a straight face?)
But this is precisely the point. Creating an environment where previously unexplored taboos are now permissible, gives us the opportunity to explore new areas of thought and potential. It disrupts our usual thinking patterns of expectation, and allows us to see new sides to ourselves and others.
3. Creating visions is not about creating a utopia.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Burning Man is that it’s an unrealistic representation of how the world really functions.
Sure, yes, in the ‘real’ world we don’t have a total gifting economy: I can’t walk up to a bar and get a triple shot margarita for ‘free’, I can’t stumble into someone else’s living room and join them for tacos, and I can’t go around hugging people I don’t know in the street (although I would very much like to at times).
Finding your vision isn’t about finding utopia. There are still douchebags at Burning Man (to the person who stole my bike, I’m talking to you) — but they are at the edges of their own douchebaggery. Each of us gets the chance to expand a little more, and to breath into both that which scares us, and that which inspires us.
Vision is both seeing limitations/challenges and seeing opportunity together — and expanding your understanding of both areas.
4. Visioning is in direct proportion to how much permission you give yourself.
Have you ever been at a dance party, flailing your arms and jumping to the beat, when you spot that person lurking in the corner staring with a mixture of longing and horror?
The amount you see bigger opportunities in the world is directly connected with how much you allow permission for those bigger visions to emerge within yourself. We often confuse our subjective perspective of limitation with what is ‘true’ and ‘real’ — even when we can acknowledge someone else is having the exact experience we seek. We separate ourselves from our dreams and say: ‘the dream I have could only happen to someone else.’
Of course, dreaming can be scary, because it involves the unknown. And the unknown I’m speaking about here is not a new flavor of ice cream, or travelling to a new country, I’m speaking about the deep unknown inside of ourselves.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Burning Man, which creates this possibility, is the principle of radical inclusion. By using ‘and’ as an organising principle, rather than ‘but’, possibilities are no longer seen in opposition to one another (e.g ‘I’d love to travel overseas but I don’t have the money’), they are seen in compliment to each other (e.g ‘I’d love to travel overseas and I’ll do it with the money I have/and I’ll find a way to get the money/and many other possible solutions’).
5. Visioning the deepest truest version of yourself is the most powerful thing you can do.
Over the years I’ve worked with many clients on communicating their messages. As time passed, I grew more frustrated with the communications industry, largely because it encouraged ‘faux authentic’ storytelling — half truths, omissions, and exaggerations designed to impress the audience and give them the false sense that they ‘need’ X product to be successful.
Deeper visions are much more diverse, nuanced, and involve both difficult challenges and beautiful triumphs.
Festivals like Burning Man allow those deep explorations to occur, by providing opportunities to share, try on, and create anything you’ve ever dreamed of doing. And interestingly, in a place where I can play at being anyone I like, strangely, the person I most want to play — is myself.
6. Visioning is about connecting to a bigger ecosystem, not finding a direct path to where you want to go.
In our direction oriented culture (‘what are your goals?’, ‘what have you achieved?’, ‘how productive were you in the last five minutes?’) we have a major imbalance between our ‘me’ oriented thinking and our connection to bigger ecosystems.
We are so worried about getting enough for ‘me’, and charging through life to find it, that we don’t even realise that everything is already available — if we stop and take a look at the bigger picture.
Now when I say eco-system I’m not talking about the environment (trees, piglets, stars, basil plants), I’m talking about our connective eco-system. This means the relationships, attitudes, and viewpoints of how you connect with yourself and others around you.
On the final night of Burning Man, we witnessed the temple fall with thousands of others in the silence. Inside were mementos, keepsakes, and photos from burners’ friends and families who had passed away. We breathed into the darkness.
As the night drew inward, and the flames licked the skyline, I saw the intersection of so many stories, dreams, and thoughts about life. This is vision. Sensing and noticing the bigger picture, that something much greater than you is unfolding, is the best way to understand where you need to go and what you need to do within that bigger story.