Founded in 1986, Burning Man is an annual weeklong event in Nevada's Black Rock Desert at which some 50,000 people build a temporary city and celebrate with art, music, and a burning of a 40-foot effigy known as "the Man." Created by Larry Harvey, it has become an institution and, as it happens, a valuable business. As told to Issie Lapowsky.
I suffer from an excess of idealism. Ideals are great. They orient you. But you can't live on a star. You have to be very realistic about the human condition.
My five partners and I were all of an age when you begin thinking of the future without you. Burning Man was like our child. We wondered what would happen to it when we were gone. None of us wanted to sell it, and there was no guarantee our heirs would be as purpose-driven as we are.
So we decided that over the next few years, we would give the assets to a nonprofit, the Burning Man Project. We came up with the idea that as individuals, we would "profit enough" from the deal. The problem was: What's enough?
It became all about who should get credit. Everyone remembers their own contributions, but we abbreviate what other people do, and there were hurt feelings. No one got into Burning Man for the money, but money can become a placeholder for people's sense of value. We had lots of angry meetings.
But we figured out the money. People were only struggling with each other because they were struggling with themselves. They were trying to balance what makes life worth living with how much money they needed to enjoy life. But we looked down into the abyss and saw what could happen if we proceeded selfishly. We'd betray everything we believed in and injure one another, and for what? To gain the world and lose our souls?