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.

Dapper.

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.

 

 

The People of Black Rock City… Who Goes to Burning Man?

I chose this man to kick off my blog on the people of Burning Man partially because of the character shown in his face and partially because he is a veteran Burner who works with the Department of Public Works that helps build Black Rock City.

I chose this man to kick off my blog on the people of Burning Man partially because of the character shown in his face and partially because he is a veteran Burner who works with the Department of Public Works that builds Black Rock City.

When I first travelled out to Burning Man in 2004 the perception was that Burners were a group of modern-day hippies who travelled out into the desert, got naked, and smoked a lot of pot. I was okay with that. I like new experiences and adventures. Besides, I could go out into the desert, not get naked, and not smoke a lot of pot. What I quickly discovered, and have since advocated over and over however, is that Burning Man is much more than a hippie party in the desert; it is a hot-bed of creativity and a huge outdoor gallery of world-class art. Many of the costumes shown in this post are another aspect of that creativity.

Bright, colorful costumes have been a tradition at Burning Man since the event started. They are a way that individuals contribute to the overall atmosphere.

Bright, colorful costumes have been a tradition at Burning Man since the event started. They are a way that individuals contribute to the overall atmosphere. (Photo by Don Green.)

Naturally I was curious about who my fellow Burners were. As it turns out, so was Burning Man. BMO (the Burning Man Organization) began carrying out an annual census or survey in 2002 of who participated. What I discovered, as I reviewed the results of the annual surveys, was that the everyday average Burner looked a lot like me.

Burners come in all ages and many come well-costumed. I've always been a bit suspicious that them of them are also aliens.

Burners come in all ages and many come well-costumed. I’ve always been a bit suspicious that some of them are also aliens. I like the eyes staring out from behind. There is a good chance that Susan Sarandon tacked them up. (Photo by Don Green.)

Here are a few results from the 2014 census (the last date for which complete details are published) that I pulled out to share with you:

  • 58.2% of the participants are male and 40.6% are female. (Some don’t respond.) Of these people, 64.9% had been more than once and 35.1% first-timers (virgins in Burner speak). Only 5.5% fit my category of having been to the event 11 times or more.
  • People are older than you may think. 33.9% are 40 and older and 35.2% fit the category of 30-39, leaving only 30% for the under 30 crowd. My esteemed age (grin) puts me in the one percent category.
  • Income-wise, the majority of Burners are well above the poverty line. 2.7% actually make over $350k a year. Over 50% make between $50k and $299k per year.
  • 27% of Burners have advanced college degrees and 42.6% have bachelor degrees meaning that almost 70% of the people at Burning Man have graduated from college.
  • Not too surprising, 87% of the participants are white, a fact for which BMO has come under some criticism. 84.8% of Burners come from the US and 15.1% from other countries. (And yes, I realize that leaves 0.1% hanging out there. My theory is that these people are aliens from outer space. Who would ever know?)
  • The political view of Burners is somewhat left of center, especially on environmental and social issues. Only 4.8% registered as Republican. 34.6% registered Democrat and 34.3% Independent. Other parties got the rest. In the last election 72% voted. Of these, 75% voted Democratic.
  • Two final results: 69.4% of Burners consider themselves heterosexual. 71.8 % do not belong to an organized religion.

So now, to put a face to these numbers, here are some photos of Burners from 2015. I owe a special thanks to my friend Don Green for many of these pictures. Don is much less shy than I am about going up and asking people if he can take their photo.

It's not all youngsters at Burning Man. As the woman's glasses suggest, the majority of Burners are of a more liberal persuasion.

It’s not all youngsters at Burning Man. As the glasses suggest, the majority of Burners are of a more liberal persuasion. Most would go along with the old saying: Make love, not war.

Burning Man has a rule about not wearing feathers. They tend to escape onto the Playa and have to be cleaned up. That never stops people from wearing feathers. I thought they looked good on this woman. (Photo by Don Green.)

Burning Man has a rule about not wearing feathers. They tend to escape onto the Playa and have to be cleaned up. That never stops Burners from wearing them. I thought they looked good on this woman. (Photo by Don Green.)

This woman has been coming to Burning Man as long as I have and never looks a day older. I want her secret.

This woman has been coming to Burning Man as long as I have and never looks a day older. I want her secret.

Burning Man People 6

I captured this man twirling fire. While 87% of the participants at Burning Man are white, my sense over the past several years has been that the ethnic make up of the event is changing, be it ever so gradual.

I identified with this woman as she sat alone and worked on her journal, capturing her experience at Burning Man. It could have easily been me.

I identified with this woman as she sat alone and worked on her journal, capturing her experience at Burning Man. It could have easily been me.

This young couple stood next to me as we watched a burning piano be tossed 50 or so yards up the Playa. Glasses form an important part of Burner's costumes.

This young couple stood next to me as we watched a burning piano be tossed 50 or so yards up the Playa. Glasses form an important part of Burner’s costumes. He had a large fork as a staff. Why not…

Great eyelashes. (Photo by Don Green.)

Great eyelashes. (Photo by Don Green.)

Some Burners are abnormally tall.

Some Burners are abnormally tall with surprisingly small feet.

And some have wings, large wings.

And some have wings, large wings. (Photo by Don Green.)

I really liked these "wings."

I really liked these “wings” caught in the early morning sunlight. Is she ready to fly?

This woman had learned how. (Photo by Don Green.)

This woman had learned how. (Photo by Don Green.)

Our next door neighbors had a huge orange outside there RV and boxes of oranges that they were giving away. They told mer they had an orange tree in Southern California that bore fruit right about Burning Man time every year. They would pick the fruit, bring it to Burning Man and give it away.

Our next door neighbors had a huge orange outside their RV. They told me they had an orange tree in Southern California that bore fruit right about Burning Man time every year. They would pick the fruit, bring it to Burning Man, and give it away. They had been doing so for several years.

The hat and unique look guaranteed that this man would make it onto my blog. He really liked like someone I would like to know.

The hat and unique look guaranteed that this man would make it onto my blog. He really looked like someone I would like to know.

Here is how I like police people to tell me no. This woman was a member of the Black Rock Rangers, BMO's group of volunteers who help maintain order in Black Rock City. She was telling me I had gone about as far as I could go.

Here is how I like police people to tell me no. This woman was a member of the Black Rock Rangers, BMO’s group of volunteers who help maintain order in Black Rock City. She was telling me I had gone about as far as I could go.

Every party needs a pirate, right. Could it possibly be... (Photo by Don Green.)

Every party needs a pirate, right. Could it possibly be… (Photo by Don Green.)