Issue #7 - Breaking Out of the Mold: My Unconventional Journey to Burning Man 2023

I am a product of societal norms, conforming to appearance and values. Yet, I defy predictability by embracing counterculture, like Burning Man, over traditional vacations. My choice reflects my unique perspective and expectations for life. Burning Man, born in the '80s from a solstice bonfire, embodies this unconventional spirit.

What was someone like me doing in Burning Man 2023?

I am a person 100% molded in the way that society expects.

The way I dress the value I give to jobs, education, careers, and professional success, among several other things, make me another entirely predictable, boring human, or even better, another "brick in the wall" perfectly portrayed by Pink Floyd.

How does someone like me decide not to spend a holiday in a beach resort or a romantic spot with my wife but invite her to join me in attending what is considered the epitome of counterculture events?

The answer to this question may be simple or highly complex, depending on how you see your life and what your expectations are about it.

This is what I will try to explain, at least in my case. But before that, let me give you a bit of context.

Burning Man goes back to the 1980s in the solstice bonfire celebration at Baker Beach on the outskirts of San Francisco, very close to the Golden Gate Bridge. At that time, instead of lighting a traditional fire, they made it using scrapped wood in the format of a man to be set on fire that night.

The First Man on Baker Beach, 1986 (Photo by Jerry James)

Over the years, this solstice celebration became so popular that crowds packed the beach to see it. With the lack of capability to manage the crowd and the limitations of campfires, the National Parks Service denied the permit for the event to keep happening.

At the same time, the founders of the Cacophony Society, a society rooted in Dadaism that describes itself as a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society, were planning an event in the Black Rock Desert in the US state of Nevada. With Baker Beach closed for Burning Man, they decided to bring the symbolic "Man" to the event and used neon lights to help people locate each other at night.

It was the birth of Burning Man as we know it today.

It is essential to highlight that Burning Man is NOT a music festival, as most people think. It is much more than that. It is an event where art, music, radical inclusion, self-expression, and communal living take place for ten days. The event has a powerful culture and ethos that can be described in the 10 principles of Burning Man.

For me, it is a 10-day event where people attending (called Burners) get together to experiment with a different type of society.

And this is what I was looking for.

Aerial view of the 2023 Burning Man festival (Satellite image by Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

You Need to Get out of your Golden Cage

One of the first reasons I decided to go to Burning Man was to get out of my golden cage. To leave my comfort zone.

If we want to get inspired, see things differently, foster new ideas, and boost creativity, we must seek something out of the box. If we always meet and coexist with people who think exactly like us, if we always eat the same type of food and partake in the same activities, how can we expect something new to come out of it?

It is like doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Different results will not come.

On my journey managing projects, creativity is critical to finding new approaches to overcome risks, rethink procurement, and craft new ideas for the scope of the product.

Improving creativity is truly challenging if you experience almost the same things every day.

At Burning Man, I was able to see people dressing completely differently from what you see on the streets of many cities. From dystopic clothes to Santa Claus, from a desert prince to someone wearing no clothes at all, people were free to express themselves the way they wanted.

The crowd of bikes at the "Playa" at night

I never saw such a diversity of bikes in my life.

Yes, I am talking about bikes, that transport tool with two wheels, a handlebar, a pedal, and a seat. At Burning Man, they take on another role. They are an extension of people's lives. Some of them look like boxes. Some look like carriages, some have huge wheels, some have just one wheel, and all are so colorful that it is impossible to imagine where people discovered this level of creativity.

Sunrise with my "conventional" Burning Man bike

The same happens for the mutant vehicles. They are the public transport of Black Rock City. And they are wildly creative. Some are dragons, some are giant puppets, some are cars coming straight from the movie Mad Max, and some are pure neon flashing through the night, carrying people around the city for free.

Mutant vehicles

By the way, there is no money inside Burning Man. The only thing you can purchase when you are inside is ice. Everything else is provided for free as an act of giving. However, it is not offered by the organization of Burning Man. It is provided by the Burners, by those attending the event like myself (sadly, I did not meet too many people looking for a project management class.

You can take tango classes, learn how to juggle with fire poi and listen to the best DJs on the planet. There is no agenda. There is no official calendar. Things just happen. You can hear about the events through the grapevine or the iBurn app, a mobile app developed by Burners as a gift to the community. If you are around any of these events, you can just enter and enjoy.

And if for any reason you get sick, there is a camp hospital. Better yet, there are three camp hospitals. The doctors are not paid doctors. They are also Burners attending the event that decided to organize themselves in shifts to support other participants.

In my camp, I was part of the breakfast team for two mornings. It was a unique experience to prepare breakfast for 100 people with no running water and in the middle of the desert's dust (or the mud). I became a pro at making scrambled eggs. In these two days, I prepared more than 250 eggs.

Disconnected and Open to Making Friends for Life

Another challenge for me in experiencing Burning Man was to be disconnected. There is no phone signal, no internet signal, and no external communication.

I do not recall the last time I was entirely disconnected for such a long time.

Initially, I was always looking at my phone, expecting a magic signal to come up to connect me to the world. But after the instinct of doing that passed, I accepted that this would not happen. Then, I just relaxed and enjoyed being connected only with the present and away from the paranoid obsession most of us have with being permanently connected.

It was magical.

I felt connected to the present moment in a way I had never felt before. It allowed me to connect to people in a much more profound way without checking if a WhatsApp message was coming in or finding out that some tragedy had just happened somewhere on Earth.

I was brought to Burning Man by my dear friend Manoel Lemos. We have known each other since 2010, when we were both at MIT. We don't meet frequently, but we experienced that magic "click" of friendship 13 years ago.

When we met in São Paulo in October 2022, he had just arrived from Burning Man and was planning his 2023 trip that would be his fourth time and the first time his wife Isabella would go.

I told him Zelia and I would join them in 2023.

I met my travel companions just one day before Burning Man in Reno. My wife Zélia had never met any of them, including Manoel.

It made me remember one of the most popular Brazilian songs from my adolescence called Eduardo and Monica from the band Legião Urbana. The lyrics say, "Festa estranha com gente esquisita". This means "Strange party with strange people" in plain English.

Anderson Thees, Tati, Isabella, Eduardo Lins Henrique, Adrian, and Manoel, together with all our colleagues in our camp, became our family. We had fun together, and we experienced the mud together. And now we share a storage space in Reno for Burning Man 2024

Getting ready to depart to Burning Man in Reno

Less is Less, But It May be Enough

I am obsessed with organization. My office is neat, my computer folders are organized, and my wardrobe has shirts divided by colors in shelves with printed labels.

Suddenly, I saw myself inside a yurt, a tent made with insulated material that my wife and I had to assemble ourselves with the support of our friends. All of this was built on top of the desert dust.

I struggle with sand and dust. It is hard for me to enjoy the beach because I spend almost the entire time removing sand from my skin.

At Burning Man, the dusted desert was my home for a week.

The yurt: My Home Sweet Home

During the week, I showered only three times. The shower water (a luxury feature of our camp) was restricted to 8 liters per person per shower. To provide some perspective, this is a bit more than a full toilet flush.

Shower cabins

Believe it or not, it was more than enough for a full bath, including washing my hair.

In the end, I became so concerned about how I rationed water and other resources that I was working on reducing the amount of water to brush my teeth to a single handful of water.

And I survived. I learned that we often do not give the correct value to the resources we have in hand.

It is like in projects. It is easy to do a lot of things with a lot of resources. It is not very easy to do the required things with the minimum amount of resources.

The Unexpected Happened. The Rain Poured in the Desert

From the day after my arrival on Sunday until Thursday night, my wife and I watched the sunrise every day.

It was one of the most magical moments. To be able to see the full moon setting and the sun rising on the other side at the same time was an experience I had never had in my life.

After watching the sunrise, we went to sleep (usually, we slept more during the daytime because it was hotter outside, and we enjoyed the evenings when the temperature was cooler and all the magic lights from bikes, camps, artwork, and mutant vehicles were on).

One day, we woke up because we heard noises. Sounds of rain. Yes, it was raining in the middle of the desert, where rain is absolutely scarce.

And it rained for hours and hours. My friends and I got a two-way radio to talk among ourselves (risk management is always in place in my life. After some communication among us, I became terrified and started thinking: oh my gosh, I am trapped. Why did I do this? I am such an irresponsible and inconsequent person.

It was a perfect flashback of my time at the United Nations.

My wife Zélia walking through the mud in the camp

My only thoughts involved how to get out of there.

Then Saturday morning came.

I was on my second breakfast shift. I remember asking my wife Zélia: "Should I go prepare breakfast? I am on this morning's shift."

I started thinking that people may be stranded in their yurts. All sorts of terrible thoughts came to the mind of a paranoid project manager.

I finally left the yurt.

It took me maybe 10 minutes to walk to the kitchen through the dense mud, which would typically take less than a minute without the mud. I had mud up to my shin. And it was not typical mud. It is mud that looks much more like cement than ordinary mud. It sticks to you and does not leave. I arrived in the kitchen with 30% more weight just because my boots were now covered in heavy mud.

Mud everywhere

I felt desolated. Then I saw my campmates, and everything changed.

I saw everybody talking about the Friday night party and what they would do that day. People were relaxed, and the rain and the mud were just a minor setback.

Friday night party? During the rain? Are these people crazy?

I listened to the noise at night, but I could not imagine that people were there. For me, it was just one brave Burner putting music on to uplift all their depressed colleagues.

But nobody around me was in panic. The only person dominated by fear was myself.

Of course, people were not happy with the rain, but everybody accepted that there are things you cannot control and you cannot fight.

You just need to accept it and move on.

That moment completely changed my perception of what was going on. I prepared probably one of the happiest scrambled eggs of my life while listening to the stories of colleagues who moved to the communal area with all their stuff because their yurts were entirely covered by water and mud and stories of passersby from other camps who just decided to sleep in our campsite's main tent instead of trying to navigate through the mud at night.

But all of them were happy. The main conversations were not about the mud, the rain, or how to get out of Burning Man. It was all about the party and the music from the night before.

After breakfast, we all came to the camp's main tent, and we started singing. One of my dear friends started playing his guitar, and suddenly, I became a backing vocalist for him.

And I never sing.

Then, Amy Ruth, another Burner, came and started singing peaceful indie music and playing her piano.

As if it wasn't enough, people from other camps started to get closer and join us. In the end, we had the camp pizza team making pizza for hundreds of people from many camps, another DJ playing, and a concert by the Ukrainian Rapper Alina Pash.

It was a twelve-hour-long party and probably the best party I had been to in my life.

In a few hours, my panic had faded into an opportunity for me to see things differently and enjoy the moment.

The next day, we left Burning Man to return to Reno and then San Francisco.

To return to our position as another brick in the wall of our society. But at least a different brick this time. Maybe an orange brick, perhaps a pink brick, but a different brick.

I am sure this experience is not for everyone. It was great for me. It may or may not be great for you, but you need to find opportunities to look at things through different lenses. It will not only make you a better project manager or professional but also a better member of our society that is comprised of bricks of all colors, shapes, and formats.

It is time for you to go out and find your Burning Man.

PS: If you want to see some of the photos and videos of my time at Burning Man, check my Instagram.

What Has Been on My Radar Recently?

More on Burning Man

After reading my newsletter above, I am sure you are curious to learn more about Burning Man. I would recommend a fantastic documentary about the event called Burning Man: Art on Fire. You can buy or rent it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus, or YouTube.

Take a look at the trailer.

PM World Journal September Edition

One of the best resources about Project Management I know is the PMWorld Journal, led by my dear PMI Fellow David Pells. The Journal is published monthly, and it has exceptional content this month, with 32 works ranging from project management case studies to book reviews and articles. This resource is free, and you must check it out. It is a valuable resource for all of us that is available at our fingertips!

Cybersecurity and AI

McKinsey just released a concerning report about the increased cybersecurity risk companies are facing when implementing AI. This will bring risk management to the central stage when implementing AI projects.

Quick Announcements

My LinkedIn Course on Generative AI in Projects Reached 23k Students and Now Issues PDUs.

My LinkedIn course on Generative AI in Projects reached 22,500 students. To make things even better, I received the information from LinkedIn that the course was now part of the LinkedIn ATP agreement with PMI and that you can report PDUs to renew your PMI credentials.

See more information about the course here.

Ricardos Events

I always receive questions from people about where I will be speaking and at what events. I would like to invite you to visit my agenda and see all the events I have already confirmed in my calendar for the upcoming year. This remaining year, I will be in Brazil, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, the USA, Lithuania, and several other places. It will be an excellent opportunity to meet face-to-face if you are attending one of these events.

Brazilian Roadshow

From September 30 to October 11, I will be in Brazil for a project management roadshow. During these days, I will be in Recife, Vitória, and Porto Alegre, talking at their project management events and also delivering my workshop Uncertainty Cycle.

After Porto Alegre, I will go to Florianópolis to deliver the PMDome workshop and the keynote of the 2nd Government Seminar on Project Management. You can also check all these events out in my agenda.

Your Voice Matters!

Access the previous issue here.

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