4 Business Lessons Learned from Burning Man in Africa

Afrikaburn burning man dust storm sandstorm

I spent nine days in an African desert together with 12.000 idealistic people in an experimental attempt at creating a utopian society from scratch. The African edition of the Burning Man festival stands out as one of the most interesting weeks of my life, filled with amazing art, world class electronic music, DIY culture, indescribable absurdity and loads of nude people. In short, it was fantastic and weird and utterly unforgettable, and we’re already planning our return next year.

While running around in an Alice in Wonderland-esque, community built playground for adults is so much fun that it makes the trip worth it in and of itself, I knew before the burn that I also wanted to gain new perspectives to bring back to my regular life at home. Therefore, a nagging question (together with the thumping bass of the neighbour camp) kept me awake in my tent at night – what can I learn from this experience that can be useful and applicable in our business back home?

1) Creativity thrives on freedom and autonomy (..and constraints!)

AfrikaBurn is the most free, open and accepting place I have ever experienced (maybe only rivalled by the United World Colleges community?). It is also the most creative place I have ever seen. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

When people are given the freedom to do and create whatever they want, just for the grand old fun of it, good and fascinating things happen. Somebody decides to spend months building a massive cobra out of wood, put a strobe light in its mouth and invite 25 of the world’s best DJs to perform on its stage. Somebody else builds a table lamp in the size of a high rise building, kits it out with an incredible light show installation, and lets the public turn the entire thing on and off by pulling a rope, just like a bedside table lamp. Then the whole art piece is set on fire on the last day of the week to celebrate the ephemerality of just about everything in life.

Unchegila in Flames – Cobra art afrikaburn 2019
Would be fun to build a massive cobra art piece, play world class music from its stage, then burn it to the ground after a week, right?

That being said, the flip side argument must also be mentioned here – that creativity needs constraints to flourish. A blank canvas is useful to the artist partly because of its limited space – she is constrained by the canvas’ four edges. A film producer limits the length of his film to fit within the 2-3 hour window of a cinema grade movie. An entrepreneur must work around constraints on his time, capital and other resources in order to innovate and deliver value to customers. As Thomas Oppong writes, “innovation is the creative person’s response to limitation”.

Again, Burning Man events are potent examples of creative yet constrained endeavors – everything that happens at a burn is constrained by the extreme environment in which the events take place. The desert is unapologetic, with sandstorms, fine dust everywhere, dazzling heat during the day and shivering cold weather at night. It provides no water, no stores, no money and no shelter beyond what you bring and build for yourself and your camp friends. Everything from food to artists building materials must be brought out to the desert, across rocky roads that eat car tyres for breakfast. That is a constraining environment for you if you ever go looking for one.

The business lesson here is obvious – let people experiment, and give them the real autonomy needed to pursue interesting paths out of sheer curiosity, at least within the constrained canvas of your organisation’s overall mission and raison d’être.

While the financial books certainly need to be balanced (another constraint right there!), the relentless focus on maximising shareholder value, budgeting every last penny and centralised ROI-driven decision making in many organisations crowd out all opportunities for experimentation and fun (aka “innovation” in business lingo). Creativity thrives on the paradoxical cocktail of freedom, autonomy and constraints, so if you want to foster some of that magical c-word in your organisation, intentionally set your people free to create, experiment and explore the canvas’ edges.

2) Trust is priceless

To get to AfrikaBurn, we had to fly in to Cape Town, rent an offroad-friendly car and drive 7 hours north east into the Tankwa Karoo national park. We had a few days in Cape Town before and after the burn, and one particularly stark contrast between the city life and the dust-induced daily life at the burn event was the level of trust at the societal level in the two places.

Cape Town is a dangerous place to be, statistically speaking. With an average of 62 homicides per 100.000 inhabitants each year, it takes the dubious honor of being the 2nd most dangerous city in the world outside South America, only beaten by St. Louis in the United States. This fact was evident in how people live their daily lives in Cape Town. Every house that can afford it has an “armed response” security service, which we accidentally got to try out when we set off the alarm at our Airbnb. Within 90 seconds, we had a big man with a fittingly big gun at the door asking if we were okay. Another time in Cape Town, the car next to ours was broken into during the night, which validated the advice we got from locals to never EVER leave anything of value in the car, not even a white USB cable, which could indicate the near presence of an expensive, thief-attracting Apple device.

Cape Town is a low-trust environment, where the high costs of security are worth every penny. Now enter Tankwa Town, where AfrikaBurn takes place. This is an event where 12.000 people gather to create an unforgettable experience for themselves and for each other. Everyone assumes that everyone else is there for the same reasons as themselves – to create, learn, explore, meet fascinating people and have fun. As a result, trust is sky high. I left about $3000 worth of photography equipment in my tent all day long without hesitation. We walked around in the dark for hours on end every night, never feeling the slightest bit of worry. Compared to Cape Town, where we had to take an Uber when we wanted to go to another bar 5 minutes down the road, the contrast couldn’t be starker.

The economic and psychological costs of securing and insuring oneself against viable threats are high. The value of being able to trust other people without hesitation is priceless. Returning to our Norwegian business climate, I have found a new appreciation for the trust levels we often take for granted here. It is truly amazing to not have to look over your shoulder for fear of being robbed (or worse!) at all times, both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Furthermore, I believe trust begets trust, virtuous cycle style. That is why we, for example, actively promote an “anti-NDA policy” when working with clients – we trust our partners to make judgment calls on which of our “trade secrets” to share with others (and nudge them to share a bit more than what they usually would).

Wedding at burning man afrikaburn
That time I became an impromtu, accidental wedding photographer.

3) (Real) Team Diversity is Key

Advocating for diversity is the most politically correct thing you can do in 2019. According to the prevailing identity politics rhetoric, we should all apparently aim to have teams that look diverse from the outset, comprised of folks of different colours, genders, sexual orientations and so on. I tend to disregard all of that as “faux diversity”, most often played as a virtue signalling game. The only forms of team diversity I care about are diversity of thoughts, strengths, personalities and skills, which may or may not be correlated with typical faux diversity metrics. Magic happens when you combine people with differing ideas and skillsets, regardless of how different or similar they look, what gender pronoun they assign to themselves, or who they love.

This was incredibly evident at AfrikaBurn. In our camp, for example, we had roughly 40 people who embarked on a mission together, without knowing each other from before. The mission was to make an awesome theme camp for the camp members, and to provide valuable gifts to the other members of the burn community – specifically, to build a sauna in the desert (!), provide people with a place to shower off the dust that is everywhere on the playa, and to provide a spa-like massage experience to people who dropped by our camp. This worked out incredibly well because people brought their whole selves and their entire range of skills to the mission. Some folks were awesome sauna builders, while others were great chefs, meal planners, masseurs, shower builders, tent erectors, DJs and camp decorators. Some were at their best when the heat was on and things had to get done right then and there, while others had their time to shine in the prep phase before we even got to Africa. Some people were what I would call “invisible heroes”, always scouting for things that needed to be done on a regular basis, and just simply doing them, mostly unnoticed by anyone else.

Again, the business implications I bring back home are obvious. Get people who can bring real diversity of thought and skill sets together, and let them play to their strengths. Some will niche down and specialise on building a fantastic sauna (or your business’ equivalent of awesomeness and customer centric value creation), while others will be generalists who help out with just about everything else. Some will do their share in advance of an event, some will be there to clean up afterwards, and some keep the wheels spinning on the backend day and night. Just make sure you bring doers on board, and let them – well – do. The collective will be stronger for it, and great things can happen.

Rhino art car afrikaburn burning man car
The Result of Doers Just Doing Stuff: A massive rhino car with a DJ booth on top and a flamethrower in its horn

4) Embrace Ephemerality

Ephemerality (from Greek “ephemeros”), is the concept of things being transitory, existing only briefly.

Preparing for AfrikaBurn takes months of hard work. The actual event lasts for a week, then it’s over.

Incredible art constructions take months or even years to complete. After a mere few days of admiration, they are set on fire, never to be seen again.

Deep interpersonal relationships are made on the playa, often with no contact happening post-burn at all. The playa friend or the burn romance might only exist for a few hours or a couple of days, then it’s gone (if Dr. Juicy or Claudia reads this: hey, let’s actually stay in touch in the real world though!). No phones makes it hard to stay reconnect even throughout the week – it is largely up to serendipity whether you meet the person you bumped into on day one again sometime between day two and seven.

All of this highlights the nature of ephemerality that is so present at a burn (this year’s AfrikaBurn theme was “Ephemeropolis – the ephemeral city”).

“Nothing lasts forever” transforms from being a cheesy shabby chic wallpaper quote into being a tangible reality. At the playa, living in the moment is of the utmost importance, because “doing it tomorrow” is seldom a viable option. One must strike while the iron (or some big burning object) is hot.

After returning from the burn, I came to understand that ephemerality is the modus operandi in the real world as well, even though we work so hard to hide or deny that fact through the design of our institutions (“Harvard – established 1636”, implying “will last forever”), rituals (marriage), consumerist aspirations (“Diamonds Are Forever”) and lifestyle choices (“life is long, I’ll exercise tomorrow”).

Embracing ephemerality in business means getting comfortable with the fact that good things won’t necessarily last. Ultimately, on a long enough timeline, everything will be gone anyway, and being okay with that is an inherently useful way to go through life (for more on this, see Stoic Philosophy, or the modern version of the same ideas presented in the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck).

Your best employees will leave, sooner or later, due to better options elsewhere, or retirement, or falling in love with a New Zealander, or whatever. 50% of the S&P500 index will be replaced within 10 years. Similarly, your startup will ultimately disappear, in a bankruptcy, acquisition, hostile takeover, earthquake or some random black swan event. Your current skill set will become outdated, your job might disappear, the next 2008-style crash could wipe out all your assets, tomorrow or in 2032 or whenever. And all of that is okay.

The artists at Burning Man and AfrikaBurn understand that there is freedom, beauty and growth to be found in letting go, through the ritual of burning the results of their hard work to the ground, and creating something new in its wake. Similarly, in business there is growth to be found and lessons to be learned from every failure, fuckup, crashed venture, faulty hire, shitty boss and smelly basement office you ever encounter. The good stuff may be ephemeral, but thankfully, so is most of the bad stuff – “this too shall pass”.

Let go of the expectation that things will last forever, and enjoy them while you can. Sooner or later, there’s a proverbial last day of the burn coming your way. Then, sit down with a glass of Stellenbosch wine with a close friend or two, enjoy the flames, the fire and the heat – then, have a nap and get back to building the next great thing.

burning man people watching a burning art piece
This too shall pass. See you next year, fellow AfrikaBurners!

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Want to learn more about AfrikaBurn? Check out this incredible aftermovie!

Also published on Medium.