So, You Want to Become a Billionaire… Maybe You Should Go to Burning Man

Burning Man appeals to a wide range of ages and these young women with their floppy ears are on the lower end of the spectrum. Children are rare at the event. Only 1.3% of participants are under 20.


I’ve been perusing the 2016 Burning Man census. The organization makes a serious effort to know who comes to Black Rock City each year and I am always curious about the results. Today I will share some of the data. It may surprise you. I will also post photos that Don Green and I took of Burners who attended the 2015 event. (I didn’t make it last year.) In addition to providing a small sample of participants, the pictures demonstrate another aspect of Burning Man’s creativity: costumes.

Costumes are an important part of individual creativity at Burning Man. Captain Jack, for example, looked a lot like Johnny Depp. Maybe he was. Hollywood has discovered Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

Before starting, however, I want to summarize a news story that NBC ran in February. It’s relevant.

In 2001 Google was searching for a new CEO. While Larry Page and Sergey Brin had taken Google to dizzying heights in five years, its board had decided that the 20-something entrepreneurs needed an older, more steady hand around to help run the ever-growing company. A massive search had been undertaken using a variety of metrics ranging from education, to experience, to the ability to crack MENSA-like brain tests— all to no avail. As Brin would tell the press, “Larry and I managed to alienate fifty of the top executives in Silicon Valley.”

There were mountains of talent available in the Valley, but Google needed a special mix that could bring an element of discipline to the company without reigning in the genius and unique approach to work that are the secrets to its success.

My son-in-law, Clay, works for Google in Charlotte, North Carolina and I’ve been to his office. The visit provided an insight into how Google works. All employees, regardless of position, share a common space where both individual contribution and group participation are encouraged and inspired. Creative ideas and problems are thrown into the hopper and anyone with suggestions from throughout the Google world is invited to participate, from the newest employee up to Larry and Sergey. There is a constant flow of action and reaction. It seems like a recipe for chaos; instead, it has proven to be a key to the company’s ongoing success.

When Clay returned to his office after a trip he had made just before Christmas, he found that every object on his desk, including his computer screen, had been wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s the type of hijinks you can expect at Google, where play is taken seriously.

The challenge that Larry and Sergey faced was finding someone who fit in. They decided that desperate measures were necessary to finalize their decision. When they discovered that one of their top candidates, Eric Schmidt, a Berkeley PhD computer scientist from Sun Microsystems had been to Burning Man, they modified their rankings to bring him back in for another interview. Here’s the thing: Brin and Page loved the creative, communal chaos of the event. Their office building in Silicon Valley was filled with photos of employees who had been to Black Rock City and were decked out in Burner costumes doing Burner things, like twirling fire. Each year, Google provided a free shuttle from the Bay Area to its participants who wanted to go. Google’s first Google Doodle was a stick figure of the Man, the symbol for Burning Man.

Page and Brin were a mere two years away from leaving their Stanford dorm room and founding Google when they headed off to the Nevada desert for their first trip to Burning Man in 1998. To let people know that they were out of the office and had gone to the event, they put the stick figure of the Man behind the company’s name, thus creating their first Google Doodle.

They liked what Schmidt had to say and decided to give him the acid test: they would take him to Burning Man with them and see how he reacted. How would he handle the heat, the noise, the dust, and the 24/7 activity? Would he fit in and become part of the team? Would he go with the flow and contribute? Or would he withdraw into himself? The rest, as they say, is history. Eric passed the test and became CEO of Goggle. The company at the time was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. In 2011, when Larry resumed his role as CEO, the company was worth around $40 billion.  Today, Larry and Sergey are listed among the world’s richest people. And Schmidt? He, too, has become a billionaire. Not bad for a group of Burners.

So, what about the rest of us, the ones who don’t qualify as the one percent of one percenters.

The majority of folks who attend Burning Man aren’t exactly poor. In 2016, the average income for all participants was $60,000. 29.5% had an income of between $50,000 and $100,000 while 24% made between $100,000 and $300,000. 3.4% made over $300,000, up from 2.3% in 2013. The education level and age of Burners reflects the income. 74% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median age was 34. Only 1.3% of Burners were under 20 while 32% were over 39.


It isn’t unusual at all to find people in their 50s and 60s, and even 70s, attending Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

This fellow had been around long enough to grow a fine set of horns.

39% of the participants in 2016 were virgin Burners, first timers. Only 13% have been more than 8 times, which, at 10 times, happens to be the category I fit in. Not sure what that makes me. Maybe my synapses are covered in Playa dust; I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve certainly had enough up my nose and in my eyes and ears.

Men outnumber women by 56.8% to 41.4%, leaving a couple of percentage points for ‘other.’ I was amused that the census listed its gender figures under current gender— like it might change at any moment. Ethnicity-wise, close to 80% are white. 20% 0f Burners come from countries other than the US. Within the US, 48.5% of the participants came from California, which isn’t particularly surprising given its proximity and population size. It is a bit more curious that the number two state was New York with over 8%, given that New York City is some 2700 miles from Black Rock City via Interstate 80.

Men outnumber women but it isn’t really obvious at Burning Man. This Burner’s costume was his tattoos.

I discovered this woman with her smile writing at the Center Camp Cafe, an activity that I like to pursue. It is fun to sit there and watch the world flow by while making an occasional note.

This man intrigued me. Although my photo wasn’t as clear as I like, I couldn’t resist including him with my galley of Burners.

My sense is that the diversity of people attending Burning Man has been increasing, but it has been a slow process. (Photo by Don Green.)

The most interesting figures to me are those that relate why people decide to run off to the desert and play in the dirt for a week. Participants were asked to check the reason or reasons they came to Burning Man from a prepared list. I was pleased to see that my reason— wanting to see and experience the art—was marked by 62.5% of the participants, the highest percentage received. Next up was to be with friends or to share an experience with like-minded people. 44% said they wanted to experience freedom and play. Considering you can wander wherever and do whatever— assuming you aren’t doing any harm to another person or the environment— that’s a lot of freedom! Go ahead and parade around naked if that has been your deepest desire forever. You’ll have company. 28% wanted to escape the world for a week. (That number may go up significantly this year.) Contrary to what many people think about Burning Man, only 3.7% said they came to consume intoxicants. But then, would you claim that if it were your reason? 21.6 % mentioned spirituality among their reasons for attending. I discussed the spiritual factor in my post on Burning Man’s temples. While only 6.1% of Burners marked that they belonged to a specific religion, 46.5% in 2016 claimed they were spiritual.

Enjoying and appreciating art is a major reason why people go to Burning Man. Creating art is another reason. This man was standing next to a dragon sculpture he had made out of recycled and repurposed materials.

People also come to watch and participate in performance art. Hula Hoops have always been popular at the event, as is fire twirling.

The opportunity to share the Burning Man experience with friends is one of the top reasons people give for going to the event. (Photo by Don Green.)

Couples are common.

These folks were just down from where we camped and were busily giving away oranges. They told me that they had a large orange tree in their back yard in Southern California that they harvested each year just before coming to Burning Man.

This skinny pair was glad to pose for both Don and me.

Over 20% of Burners listed that they attended Burning Man seeking a spiritual experience. A visit to the Temple at any time of the day or night confirms this.

Enough on figures! If you’ve managed to make it this far, congratulations. On the other hand, if you want to learn more, check out the 2016 Burning Man Census data here. My thanks to the Burning Man volunteers who worked so hard to gather and analyze this data.

A few more photos of the people of Burning Man.

Costumes are important, and expected at Burning Man. Some photographers will go to any extreme to get pictures. Wait, is that a whip?!

One of my favorites. This man works for Burning Man’s Department of Public Works and helps build the city.


Cute smile.

Green feather.

And how could you resist this smile? He gave me a CD from his band.

NEXT BLOG: Back to Pt. Lobos on the Central California Coast.



39 thoughts on “So, You Want to Become a Billionaire… Maybe You Should Go to Burning Man

    • $500 Andrew, which may seem high but isn’t bad for a whole week, considering what concert tickets cost now days, not to mention a week’s vacation. That assumes, of course, that you can get a ticket. I paid more. The price of admission plus the cost of getting there is certainly enough to discourage people without much money although Burning Man offers help. Thanks. –Curt

  1. Creative people gather for a very unique collection finding fun, enlightenment, and camaraderie. .Another great job, Curt – you never fail to please!

  2. So not for the light of wallet a trip to Burning Man. I can see by the time one pays for the travel there, tickets, gear, etc it is likely not an inexpensive endeavor. I’m looking forward to your blogging camp at Burning Man. 🙂

      • See how this year goes. 🙂 There has to be at least six months notice because of tickets. As for cameras, good question. I trashed one my first year. There are times when the desert is beautifully clear without a speck of dust in the sky. Other times, not to good. I keep my camera well-protected. It can slip in a large zip-lock and then my case. My small, less expensive camera is allowed out for limited excursions in more dusty conditions, but I am still careful. –Curt

  3. Great Post Curt. Some of the photos of the people are beauties. The guy with the hat is wonderful even if it is a bit fuzzy, and the one of the Public Works guy – that’s a really good shot.

  4. What do people do for eating? Do they cook themselves, are there restaurants or cafes?
    If own cooking, it means taking provisions there or perhaps they have shops that sell produce? I see a number of people getting about on bicycles. Is the wearing of helmets enforced?

  5. As always, when I read your accounts and see your pictures from Burning Man, I keep wondering when I’m finally going to go! It all seems so surreal, in the most wonderful way. Interesting to read the demographics of the group. They don’t surprise me; it seems like a serious passionate pursuit, and those often require money.

    Loved the story about Google, too, and the way they used Burning Man to recruit a CEO. Their playful concept is one that I think most of the corporate world thinks they should try to emulate, but few actually do. Maybe we should all go looking for our next creative geniuses at Burning Man!

    • I’ve been thinking about a one time blogger’s camp at Burning Man, Juliann. It would be a kick. Not sure I have the energy to organize one… Maybe WordPress would help. –Curt

  6. Great post. Really intrigued by the info on Google, including the pranks and Burning Man Google Doodle. Since you’ve been so often to Burning Man, that puts you in a top category — perhaps Oldtimer Burner or something like that. I’d love to go, and I’m over 70. I figure if Bert and I wore our usual boring clothing, everyone would think we were in costume. And we’d definitely stand out among all the creative creations you picture so often on your blog. But around here, we’re just another middle class boring couple wearing clothes from Jos A Bank and J Jill! What a hoot we’d be at Burning Man!

    • There are a number of us ‘OPEs’ up there Rusha. And I am sure that you and Bert would fit right in with your obvious love of adventure. As for costumes, they can be quite elaborate, or quite easy. Otherwise I’d never fit in. 🙂 –Curt

  7. Always so happy to find a Burning Man photo/essay by you, Curt. They are just a hoot and so well done. Looking forward to the next…..Thank you.

  8. So glad I didn’t Delete my WordPress Inbox! This is such a cool story about the Google search for their CEO. My husband feeds me with countless interesting stories about the high tech world. But I don’t remember yours. True that in 2001 I was busier with bedtime stories 🙂
    Your photos are always incredible. At Burning Man it is maybe easier as the people make for amazing portraits. Still. You got talent.
    Love your son-in-law’s wrapped desk and accessories. Google can annoy us with its ways, but I recognize their genius and hardworking ethic.
    The financial success of the high tech world is extreme but also a sweet revenge when engineers were not taken seriously in the past.
    Great post that again I’m glad I kept!

    • Geeks of the world unite! 🙂 I’m always fascinated with the high tech world gurus and what they are up to, Evelyne. Partially because it is interesting, but also because of the incredible impact their activities are having on our lives. And thanks so much for your generous comments. –Curt

  9. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked what you wr6ote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


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