My Experience at Burning Man 2014: French Manila Air will be Boarding in 10 Minutes

fire poi spinning at burning man

A Burner swings balls of fire in a circular motion. This art form is called Poi.

It’s been about a week since returning from Burning Man (BM), an annual art festival in the Nevada desert, and my brain is still trying to digest what exactly happened. To say that my reality was rocked would be an understatement.  I’ll do my best to sum up what I learned from the event while also trying to make sense of what I just experienced.

Before diving into the insights I learned from BM, I want to give a brief explanation about what exactly is Burning Man.

Burning Man is User Generated Content (UGC)

neon circular disks at burning man

An example of Burning Man UGC – Someone brought these light-up neon disks to the desert. Truly amazing.

This is something I wish I understood before, as it would have helped me understand the ethos behind BM. UGC stands for User Generated Content and it’s the metaphor that helps explain BM. Whereas music festivals and concerts are curated content, like Netlflix or Hulu, BM is user-generated content, like reddit or YouTube. The former, Netflix and Hulu, consist of content that the publishers have specifically curated for you, the viewer. Same with music festivals — they curate the bands, the food, and the merchandise. It’s a conscious choice made by a small group of promoters to provide a tailored experience according to the intended audience.

embrace in love on fire at burning man

More artwork – This piece, entitled Embrace, is of two people in love, made of wood, and now on fire.

But BM is different. The content at BM is not curated. In fact, it’s the opposite. The content at BM is almost exclusively user generated. The attendees at BM create their own content, in the form of wild costumes, traveling art cars, elaborate camps, and so much more. Answering the question, what can you find at Burning Man is like answering the question, what type of content can you find on YouTube or reddit. This question can only be answered in one way – whatever you can imagine. Some content is simple, short, and pleasant. While other content is grandiose or makes you ask, what the fuck? It’s truly fascinating what the bounds of the human imagination can create.

When discussing Burning Man, keep in mind this very important fact – Burning Man is created by the people for the people as a non-profit organization.

A Gifting Economy

I witnessed the best of human nature. It gave me hope. Burning Man survives on a gifting economy. Nothing can be bought or sold.  People lend each other a hand without thinking of themselves. This is much different than the default world of bullies, swindlers, and evil dictators in just about every community of the world.

L-O-V-E letters made of metal.  This was a huge hit for photos.

L-O-V-E letters made of metal. This was a huge hit for photos.

Laser-like Focus or Entertaining Distrations

More flashy distractions at Burning Man

More flashy distractions at Burning Man

It was incredibly easy to get distracted at Burning Man. There were countless number of times where I’d venture out with a general destination in mind, only to find myself immediately distracted by another shiny object. There were an infinite amount of distractions – poi fire throwers, enticing art, incredibly bright sculptures, you name it. Although I intended with good purpose, to eventually end up somewhere, I never made it straight there. My attention was always diverted.

In life, extreme focus is essential. All the great visionaries have laser-like focus on their goals and drive hard to fulfill that vision. They ignore the flashy lights and endless amount of loud noises.

Preparation is 80% of the Battle

selfie at burning man

I always brought my backpack and handkerchief when I would venture out.

Never leave home without a backpack of your essentials. This includes water, snacks, goggles, masks, lights, map, camera, sunscreen, headlamp, this list goes on. Of course you could walk away from camp with absolutely nothing but the adventure you are entering has just become infinitely harder. Being prepared and having the right tools/gear saved my butt many times.  Without the proper equipment, I wouldn’t have been able to have as much fun as I did – I was able to adventure further, party harder, and stay out longer.

This lesson applies even more in life. Find out what tools you need before beginning your venture. Your venture becomes infinitely easier when you are prepared. I cannot stress this enough. This also includes mental preparation. Get a solid education, research the area, learn as much as you can before proceeding.  It makes the battle infinitely easier.  To me, having the requisite knowledge is half the battle. As my grandfather always said, education is a shortcut to success.  Don’t be afraid to spend a bit extra time preparing yourself before launching your life. In the long run, you will be thankful to have a full bag of tools instead of being half-packed.

The People who you Surround Yourself with Define your Trajectory

french manila wooden pins at burning man

Our official French Manila Air pins

I was lucky enough to be part of an amazing, well-prepared, and open-hearted BM camp. French Manila was originally organized over three years ago and continues to gain strength each year. The camp consists of kind-hearted and well-organized people. Whereas the former is necessary when camping at BM, the latter is a great benefit that makes the experience 10x times better. Our camp had dinner cooked every night with leftovers for guests and friends. We had a dome structure for partying and temperature-controlled yurt for napping. Everyone contributed something.

right before at burning man

Fireworks proceeded the burning of the Man

wooden man on fire at burning man

Once the fire took over, there was no going back.

fireworks and man on fire at burning man

Fireworks eventually simmered and the flames started to build.

Having these amazing people around amplified the experience. So many of the essentials – water, food, shelter – were already taken care because of the preparation of the camp leaders.

Why am I telling you this?  Because their preparation was a contribution to my experience.  So much so that it drove me to give back in any way I could.  It was altruistic because I felt so grateful to have such a strong team.  This helped me realize why they say your team is your #1 asset. The people you surround yourself with – friends, family, coworkers, – defines your trajectory.  I like to be with people that are so good at what they do, it is almost intimidating.  I am generally impressed by people who have their shit together and contribute great things to society.

Departing Words

aerial seflie at burning man

Seflie at Burning Man 2014 atop the French Manila Sky Dome

As you can tell, Burning Man was a true eye opener for me. I learned a lot about myself and pushed myself to the bounds of uncomfortability.  I also learned a lot about human nature and happy that I got to witness that side. It was definitely reassuring and makes me optimistic about our future.

About Benjamin

My name is Ben and I am the Director of Growth for Neighborly. I like to write about startups, tech, growth hacking, and product marketing. I hope you enjoyed reading my posts and I'd love to hear from you on Twitter (@benhoffman_).


  1. You think Burning man is fun, you should try nick’s crispy taco’s on a tuesday night!

    Jk/ glad to see you had fun. Seems your heads in the right place for success, good on ya.

    • Haha. Glad you made an appearance here. I’m honored.

      Haha okay I love tacos. Tuesdays are tough though. But the 23rd is looking promising. Let’s link up next week as my schedule is still being filled in.

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