Trust Your Team to Laugh: How “Burning Man Education” Works at Retreats and Symposiums

In my first post about what “education” and “learning” means in Burning Man culture, I focused on the big questions — on what this is philosophically, and psychologically. Now (because apparently I want to write about education far more than people necessarily want to read it) I’d like to look at a specific kind of “educational” event that happens in Burning Man contexts.

Over the years, the Burning Man Project has run a number of “internal facing” educational events: things that are specifically intended for smaller cadres of volunteers and staff. (They recently held one, which might be why it’s on my mind). Over the years I’ve participated in a number of these, and created content for a few.

Recently those events have become more numerous, officially more important, and — to my mind, at least — become a lot less interesting. So it seems like a good idea to evaluate what about these events works with the Burning Man Project staff’s unique population and culture, and what doesn’t. (Note that, as is often the case in a Burning Man context, “staff” can and should refer to both paid and volunteer personnel.) We don’t, we can’t, expect uniformity. There will always be things that blow some people’s minds while they make other people roll their eyes. But we can design for more of the former and less of the latter. What do we know about how to bring the best out in ourselves?  

This is, of course, only my take: your mileage may vary. But I think the act of having a discussion about what works and doesn’t will be useful, even if I’m wrong. Maybe especially if I am.

The Closest Thing We Have to a Magic Formula Is Fun

Based on my participation and observation, it seems clear there is actually a relatively simple dynamic that works with our people to bring out their creative engagement. We are at our best when we:

  • are in small, cross-departmental groups
  • staying at least loosely on topic, but 
  • having fun and going off script.

This shouldn’t be a surprise: surely we of all organizations understand the degree to which authentic engagement is both a cause and an effect of fun, and that creative impulses take us unexpected places that are no less helpful for being unpredicted. The people we have in our community do not need a significant superstructure laid over our gatherings in order to make this work. In fact, the heavier such a superstructure gets, the more it generally gets in the way.  

The Challenge of Trusting Our Team

Having a great team seems like it should be a strength we can coast on, but in fact it’s a responsibility to live up to. The challenge with an ordinary group of volunteers and staff or random collection of seminar attendees is to motivate them — but Burning Man Project volunteers and staff are already strongly, intrinsically, motivated, and are here because they want to help. People who are intrinsically motivated need to be challenged. People who are geared towards going beyond the lowest common denominator need to be given the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Asking them only to display minimum competence, instead of challenging them to make a meaningful contribution, leads to the sense that their time is being wasted.

Exercises designed to inspire creative thinking — as though dealing with a team of jaded corporate managers and not intrinsically motivated creative thinkers — are counter-productive. In fact, Black Rock City participants are groups that have responded extremely well to having advanced homework, discussion topics, and even complicated reading lists, provided that they are in fact serious attempts to address significant issues that will come up for discussion.

There is a positive hunger to be up to speed, to have access to tools, and to be able to engage. The population we invite to these events is far more worried about not being prepared to be a serious contributor than they are about engaging with something that is hard or complicated. They may not be subject matter experts on any given thing, but they want to be able to discern good ideas from bad, and important from trivial, when it counts.

Obviously we must respect people’s time and be judicious with it, but the more we try to save their time at the expense of their being able to engage at a high level, the more we misunderstand our own motivations. They’re not afraid of doing the work, they’re afraid of being left out because they didn’t know what would have been helpful to read or do.

The Difference Between “Training” and “Retreats” or “Symposiums”

The implication is clear: we are at our worst when we engage in pre-packaged content designed to bring us up to minimum competence, and at our best when we are challenged to solve meaningful problems using the best tools and expertise we have access to. Pushing the envelope brings out the best in us.

This is not to say that minimum competence in any number of given areas isn’t important — it can be vital. But if minimum competence is important enough for all staff and volunteers to have, it should be addressed as part of routine onboarding and operations, instead of taking up precious time when we can all push ourselves to go farther. The purpose of routine “training” is to make sure everyone’s up to speed.

Events like retreats, conferences, and symposiums are opportunities to address our biggest challenges; discover new challenges we haven’t recognized; access and interrogate outside experts with knowledge we don’t have; and have “long talks” (to use Harley K. Dubois’s phrase) with our cultural elders and heroes to better understand who we are and how we got here.

The use of “unconference” approaches fits into this well, not because it is democratic and open (though those are virtues) but because it allows people to present the most difficult challenges that they are struggling with, and the best solutions they have come up with, and get feedback from people across the institution and culture who also care.  

It’s Not a Real Conference Without Follow-Up

Even our best ideas and insights are of limited use without follow-up — and it seems to be part of our regular practice to focus on designing the retreat, symposium, or small conference, without designing an equally detailed plan for development and follow-through. Burning Man “education,” as I noted before, is fundamentally about learning as part of a process of “doing together.”

Not including a robust connection between “what we’re learning” and “what we’re going to do next” is therefore an unforced error that turns time well spent into time wasted, and we need to make detailed follow-up plans a part of our standard planning process for these events:  

  • Assume staff time will be spent on it. 
  • Create goals and milestones for follow through.
  • And report on them to event participants at designated intervals after the fact.

It may even be desirable to create a document detailing major ideas (both actionable and conceptual) that came out of events for both participant and full staff review, so as to clearly illustrate to anyone interested what was developed, and so that future events can review what’s been previously done and build on one another.  


Over time we have developed clear best practices for our internal conferences, which are not standard best practices for every organization. Our basic road map is:

  • Recognize that having a high-caliber staff, and trusting them, means that your content has an additional burden to live up to high standards.
  • Focus on issues, topics, and conversations that are our most challenging and important. Clearly separate the routine issues and minimum competency trainings out. They should be handled separately.  
  • Recognize the intrinsic motivation participants have to make a difference, and give them the tools they need to really engage the problems we have. Don’t be afraid of giving them homework or asking them to listen to a lecture: as long as it’s relevant, they would much rather be given the chance to do the work than risk being left out of the discussion where it counts.
  • Once everyone has the key information and trainings, put people into cross-departmental small groups, give them a clear sense of the issues, and a lite superstructure, and let them discuss.  
    • Let them have fun. When dealing with motivated people who want to engage the topic, laughter and frivolity are actually a sign of creative engagement, not time spent or a lack of seriousness.
    • Let them go off script. Trust them to make it relevant. If a moderator says “let’s bring you back on topic” and they respond “no, we’re really on to something here,” trust them.  
    • Shift teams periodically to cross-pollinate discussion.
  • Avoid off-the-shelf approaches to problem solving, designed for organizations that have to motivate their teams, at all cost.  If our people are not motivated to address these challenges, we’re already doing something wrong.  
  • Map out follow-through expectations, be explicit about them, and understand that they are an important use of staff time

Top photo: Thunderdome fight, 2017 (Photo by Mark Nixon)

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 “Trust Your Team to Laugh: How “Burning Man Education” Works at Retreats and Symposiums

  • Lesa Kramer says:

    Really GRAND! I do professional training and coaching, and have participated in some WINNERS and Losers. This is so easy to understand. No surprises when going in, right? Share away, I say… x.
    Burner from 2001-2013, most years:) Thinking about a ticket for next year:)

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  • Steve Hunt says:

    Thanks for the post Caveat. Deep dive events like Climate Change discussions are what keep me coming back to Playa. I wish the What-When-Where book had a category for educational sessions. Placement seems to be getting more than its share of attention. I hope we can be more outward looking. Where can I find a list of the off Playa events like the ones you are endorsing here?

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