Global Leadership for a world of amateurs

I’ve crashed about half of the Burning Man Global Leadership Conferences (including back when it was the “Regional Network Conferences) and can not think of any higher praise than this: as a person who frequently tries to come up with new things to say about Burning Man, I always leave thinking “Wow, there’s so much to talk about.”

But sitting in on a few (just a few) of the presentations and round-tables the other weekend, I was often less struck by what was said than by the way it was said.

For all that Burners are in no way lacking in aesthetic and technical know-how, the GLC is about as far away from a TED conference as you can get: it’s so far from slick it’s dusty. Presentations frequently have all the sophistication of colored markers on white paper, and the state of the discourse is often basic compared to what’s out there.

I meant all this in a good way.

One of the smartest things I think I ever wrote about Burning Man is that it is “for amateurs” – that Burning Man is so amazing in large part because it is full of ordinary people trying to push their capacities to do new things, rather than a professional class of “producers” and “entertainers” doing what they know how to do over and over and over again. It is this fact, this eternal amateurism in the best sense, that keeps Burning Man an engine of possibility rather than a slickly produced Vegas show.

Attending the panel on community outreach through art highlighted this distinction for me. There was plenty there worth writing about for on its own terms (which I hope to get around to later), but for the moment I’m going to highlight just a small piece of it to make a point:

In a discussion of how to revitalize un-and-under used urbanspaces, advice developed by and given to participants included:

  • Find out who owns the building;
  • Find out if it’s safe;
  • Find out what’s nearby;
  • Be conscious of gentrification and the impact on property values

And as someone who has covered community and economic development efforts in multiple environments across a number of years I can tell you: this is almost sadly basic. The level of discourse among economic development professionals is more advanced. Burning Man BLC participants weren’t just reinventing the wheel: they were trying to figure out what “round” is.

Which sounds like it should be a case for professionalizing, until you hear what these wheel-less bands of amateurs and volunteers have actually accomplished.

As someone who has covered community and economic development efforts in multiple environments across a number of years I can tell you: the things volunteer Burners have accomplished are often as impressive, if not more so, than many of the well-funded and promoted efforts out there. There are economic development offices with paid staff across the country that would beg, borrow, and steal to get the results that essentially unfunded Burners with a “let’s put on a show” mentality have made.

Suzuki Roshi once said that “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” I think that’s a reflection of what’s happening here: experts quickly develop, and become very good at, best practices, and there’s a tremendous advantage to this if and when you want to do the same things to get the same results over and over again. But it also means that possibilities get closed off: while any given experts may be innovative, the existence of expertise as a class closes creativity off. You experiment less, and the experiments you engage in are less imaginative, because you think you already know what’s going to happen.

In an area like civic engagement and development, where frankly success is not correlated with following a formula but is exquisitely sensitive to local conditions, this may actually be a better approach. Professionalism has its place: I know many exceptional economic development professionals who could teach us a lot, and there may very well be certain factors that are required but insufficient to get a community engaged.  But all the exceptional economic development professionals I know would kill to have a bunch of dedicated amateurs saying “this sounds like a fun way to build and engage our community, so we’re going to do it.” That’s the dream.

A counter-example was found at the GLC’s “Innovation and the Burnerverse” presentation, about how Burning Man encourages technical innovation and the development of new apps.

Unlike the community engagement presentation, where I think literally no one in the room was an economic development professional, virtually everyone in the room for this presentation made their living in tech. The differences were stunning.

Whereas the community development and art group had to cover and establish basic concepts – even find a common language – everyone in the innovation group was already fluent in the language of tech. There was no need to find common ground: they glided over the various (impressive) things that Burning Man does to make third-party app development possible, showed some of their favorite examples of apps that had been developed, talked about where they hoped to go next, and then opened the floor for a long series of highly competent questions about technical and logistical issues.

This made for a much more impressive presentation in a lot of ways – and someone who couldn’t attend but read the transcript would surely get a lot more out of the innovation presentation than the community engagement one. But whereas Burning Man is actually quite cutting edge in terms of community engagement (the world is looking to us to ask: how do they do that?), Burning Man is not actually a leader in the direction of new technologies. It clearly appeals to people who are, but they’re asking “how can we apply what we already do to Burning Man?” For all that the business of tech claims “innovation” as its private property, it seemed to me the amateurs in the community engagement room were actually doing far more innovative things in the world than the professionals in the innovation panel.

This is not to say that everything should be run by amateurs. Tech infrastructure, like porta potty maintenance, strikes me as an area where we do in fact want competent professionals doing exactly what they know how to do rather than trying to invent something new or test their capacities every time.

But the GLC reinforced for me that it is Burning Man’s refusal to professionalize where it doesn’t have to – its open invitation for amateurs of all kinds to come and try making a difference in a whole new way – that makes it so uniquely engaging and effective.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

2 Comments on “Global Leadership for a world of amateurs

  • Yono says:

    It’s nice that there’s a lot of time and flexibility for amateurs within the organization. However there is a real and serious place for professionals when working jobs that concern health and safety issues, particularly concerning the line at Will Call. Elderly and disabled persons were left to bake in the sun for many hours. The events industry is a professional industry, and the amateur approach to the execution of Will Call could have easily been avoided by putting professionals on the job (yes, that means paying them for their services). Simply because there are amateurs willing to volunteer for the job, you wouldn’t put them in the med tent administering IVs if they didn’t know what IV even stands for… That’s what we had at Will Call last year.

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  • Caveat Magister says:


    I do agree that there are some areas that should be “professionalized” – treated with the expert’s mind, rather than the beginners. Health and safety top the list.

    That said, I do think it’s worth pointing out that in the original sense of the term “amateur” doesn’t mean “incompetent.” It means someone who doesn’t make a living doing. And there are extraordinarily talented people, around the world in our community, who are capable of doing things at an extraordinarily high level, but don’t do it for their rent money. Their efforts are often more imaginative, and more engaging, for it.

    But the key is to keep that “beginner’s mind” strong in Burning Man. That doesn’t have to correlated with what people do for money, but I think given the nature of the world we currently live in, it’s no surprise that it currently does.

    Thanks for responding!

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