Are You Radically Self-Reliant? Burning Man is Good for the Body, Soul…& Business

On the Playa, Believe is a call to action. Self-reliance fuels self-expression. Remember. Lest we sink back into passivity. Burning Man 2013, Black Rock City.

On the Playa, Believe is a call to action. Self-reliance fuels self-expression. Remember. Lest we sink back into passivity. Burning Man 2013, Black Rock City.

“Hey! Get off the Esplanade!”

Right by my window, up pops a guy wearing goggles, a T-shirt, and a tutu — sans tights. Blue neon wrapped haywire around his torso.

He raps his knuckles against my truck door. He’s coated in fine white dust. Like an angel. Or a corpse. Maybe a cop-corpse.

I think my eyes bug out. I’m so neurotic.

“I’m lost,” I say. “I have a crap sense of direction.”

He leans in.

“Get off as soon as you can. Okay? You’ll find it.”

His voice is now kind.

August 29. It is almost midnight. Dust stings my eyes. I drive my cherry red metallic pickup, loaded down like the Beverly Hillbillies, smack through the main street of Black Rock City, Nevada.




Only bicycles, pedestrians and art cars allowed.

Who knew? I’m utterly panicked.

I putter forward at 5 mph, seeking my street.

Girls in body paint, fur and underwear glide along on glow-lit bicycles. A metal octopus belches balls of fire. Men wearing zebra heads pass in a herd.

Techno thuds so strong they shake the truck.

A double-decker boat festooned in neon floats by on the Playa.

Are we underwater? Am I dreaming?

I’m driving down the Esplanade! What a maniac. Tired and stressed as I am, I smile.

I am now part of the wondrous absurdist theater that is Burning Man.

My friends didn’t think I’d make it.

“You don’t camp!” they laughed. “You hate tents!”

It’s true. There’s a reason we created hotels.

“Porta-Potties,” they cried. “Porta. Potties. Hello!”

Lalala, I said, plugging my ears.

I was committed.

Who could deny the lure of a pop-up city? 68,000 people. A freewheeling arts-filled urbanscape that springs up out of one of the harshest environments known to man. Born, built — then destroyed in the course of a week.

This was a grand social experiment in radical self-reliance and radical self-expression. The whole thing hinged on a gift economy. So you’d better come prepared to take care of yourself — as well as serve others.

Thus, the tent. The rebar. The ratchet ties and Camelbak swollen with drinking water. Notebooks and pens for all.

And the purple platform boots.

Burning Man torched my comfort zone. Something I find necessary to keep my spirit fresh, and my imagination revved. I will be writing more in the coming weeks about the experience. For today, what I want to share is this:

Self-reliance fuels self-expression.

Everyone is an artist at Burning Man. Everyone takes part. Helps create the community, the city, in their own special way. There is the Zipper Man, who’ll fix any type zipper. The Dream Interpreter. The sexual healer. The gourmet soup-maker. The glitter ponies (that’s another story!)

And everyone is ready, always, with a warm embrace. Talk about community. Talk about currency.

We are a nation narcotized. Passive. Consumed with consuming. Entranced by the Society of the Spectacle. Unable to stop texting while driving. Hungry. Yearning. Yet alienated. We spin, we post, we splat out endless newsletters — yet do not connect.

We forget to act.

I know as an entrepreneur, it has taken time to focus. To distill the skills, streamline the message. To get clear that taking simple actions is what yields big results.

All the self-expression you can muster — fancy blogs, Abouts, Bios, articles, even speaking from the stage — means naught if not married to self-reliance. To action.

Your action.

And your invitation to others to take action.

There’s no time to lament about lack of sales if you’re not on the phone, calling people, three hours a day. If you’re not out networking and letting people know what you do. If you’re not performing the Art of the Ask. Repeatedly. Consistently. Confidently.

Later in the week at Burning Man, I stood before this sculpture on the Playa. BELIEVE. And I finally got it. On a cellular level.

We are interdependent, sure — we are also supremely self-reliant. Each one of us a glowlit artist — offering our unique services and wares on the world’s Playa.

Yet I wasn’t always self-reliant. I was reckless, in debt, entitled. I dreamed of arts patrons. I chose lovers who’d whisk me around the world, pay bills. I sought publishers who’d fete me.

Confession — for years, I was dedicated to literary writing. I thought if I devoted myself, sacrificed for my craft, lived my life like I thought writers should — I would be taken care of. Someone would save me.

I hid in the folds of my talent. Infantilized. This hurt my art as much as it kept me small.

I did not claim my self-reliance. Not on the deepest level. Not until two years ago, when I embarked on this entrepreneurial journey, to activate my dormant left side of the brain. It’s like I’d been exercising only one half of my body for years.

Recently, I’d been starving the right-side of the brain. Imagination deprivation. That is why Burning Man became imperative. I knew I would live my own narrative there. I’d experience a good trip, or a bad one. It was my choice. My expanding story.

So I invite you. Take that first step onto the Playa. Tell us how it was. What did it feel like to finally take an action you’ve been avoiding? To mesh it with your self-expression?

We’d love to hear your stories, your failures — and your successes. Share, and take inspiration and comfort from the voices gathered here. You are not alone. We can forget our own entrepreneurial city. We can add dust and flames to our messages — and know it’s all theater. It’s all experiment. Part of being human. Part of driving down the Esplanade before we find home.

We take the actions first, and the feelings follow.

Yrs in truth,


P.S. Enroute to Burning Man, I had the great honor and pleasure to appear on Devorah Spilman’s powerful and rich Storytelling Summit called “Stories Sell:  Tell Yours Well.” This is more true — and timely — than ever. I urge you all to join and listen, to soak up the inspiration and tips she’s gathered with an all-star line-up of experts. I’d love your support, and love to know your thoughts on my interview and the others. It’s only up for another week so take advantage! Here’s the link:




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14 Responses to Are You Radically Self-Reliant? Burning Man is Good for the Body, Soul…& Business

  1. Elaine Wellman September 6, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    I love the idea of adventuring off to this surreal edgy art and love fest in the desert to ignite your biz and creativity. (I’ve been eyeing Awesome Fest for a few years now.) As a happiness coach I know, stepping out of the box most of us keep ourselves locked up in, and having adventures, is a key to joy, confidence and success. I’m so lucky that I get to benefit from your bravery as we work together. Thanks for taking me along on the trip.

    • Rachel September 6, 2013 at 10:03 am #

      Happiness Coach divine!!! I kept thinking of you as I felt the happiness there, on the Playa. Inexplicably. Toward the end of my time there, I was coated in dust, had entered the dreaded, stench-filled abyss and horror of the Porta-Potties countless times, was sunburnt and disoriented — yet happy. Smiling. So many kind gestures, human encounters. Moments of delight. Wonder. Even space travel. A liquid embrace, and safety — made all the sweeter through the ordeal. Through committing, then going beyond comfort into renewal. And connection. I feel I have so much more to give now, and can enter September fiery and able to hold the space — psychically, narratively — for all of you. I’m honored to be working with you – and in awe of your talent, your neon-glow growth around message clarity and voice — and how you’re stepping into your power. You inspire.

  2. Wendi Kelly-Creative Clarity Coaching September 6, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    Self-reliance is a key entrepreneurial skill for sure!

    However this post exemplifies another key skill beautifully and that is COURAGE. You swallowed a big dose of courage to go through this adventure. Blasted through your comfort zone, wrestled your excuses, tossed them aside, tuned-out the naysayers, and radar-focused on the mission with a courageous fierceness that is breathtaking in the midst of the palpable fear.

    Wow! This is what makes you Rachel! Blasts through walls of fear in a single bound! Hero!!!

    • Rachel September 6, 2013 at 9:57 am #

      Ah Wendi, once again — you move me. Bring tears to my eyes. Your insights are so sharp, wise and warm. You have that uncanny ability to see me, see others — and clear away the brush to reveal the core.

      You’re right, of course. I was terrified. Had that list of 1,000-plus pack items and kept working through it. Batteries, Check. Water for a week, Check. Headlamp, Check. Could taste the fear. I grew up in survival mode so must watch things that trigger me too much. Just enough can be exhilarating. Can renew — not without inducing the skin-shedding. There were so many excuses, so many nay-sayers. True that.

      In the past, I’ve vowed to do something each year that petrified me. Not so much I couldn’t do it — yet so I’d be stretched to my limits. Burning Man reminded me more than anything of India — another place that defies the senses, another ordeal that yields constant theater, dreamscapes, explodes old perceptions.

      I shall take that on! Hero!!! Usually I’d let it go — and yet, this was heroic. For me. And the gifts I received from facing and moving through that fear, the tales I came back with — I’ll be unpacking for some time. I know I can reach people in a new way.

  3. Kerry Swetmon September 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    Ooooooooh, Rachel. This is so honest and raw. I like it, my friend. And, why have I not heard of Burning Man? It sounds completely and utterly intriguing. Hearing you describe it actually makes me want to plan my own trek there and run far, far away at the same time:)

    • Rachel September 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      Love that ooooooooooh opening! Psyched you respond to the honest and raw, Ms. Swetmon. Where do you live that you haven’t heard of Burning Man?! Glad to be the Messenger. That is spot on, the attraction-repulsion the festival inspires. Interestingly — it’s the sharp contrast — the harsh environment and self-reliance — counterpoint with absurdist theater, silliness and SUPER uncool and thus fresh and lovely self-expression — is what makes it zing. And it’s the combo of the two that somehow creates the alchemy. Shall we see you there next year?! Maybe I’ll throw down a dare to the entrepreneurial gang!

  4. Pamela Wills September 8, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Rachel, your courageous foray into this vast unknown is terrifically inspiring! Congrats to you for seeing it through. I love the idea of planning to do something terrifying each year. It seems to work out that way for me without a plan…but I’m thinking a strategic plan would make it even scarier, lol. In fact, I just agree to two scary propositions for next year, in addition to a couple I’ve already set before my Self. Here’s to BIG shit!!! xoxo

    • Rachel September 9, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

      Ah, Pamela, you are such a warm support. Post-Burning Man, I flash on a Playa sculpture — these giant hands popping up from the ancient lakebed dust, cupped and supportive. Holding sunlight and shade. I so appreciate you along with Wendi K seeing the courage (when I couldn’t see it myself) — along w/the follow through! Isn’t that latter such a huge component of success in biz and more? I swear — planning AT LEAST one thing (ideally travel) that terrifies me is a surefire way to nose me into change. Keep us posted what you decide to do! Will you share the scary propositions?! And the other couple?! Or shall we guess…and use our wild imaginations!

  5. Don September 10, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    Hi! Loved your total immersion beginning: driving on the esplanade! Thanks for the story. Wasn’t my first time but it was my first time *solo* so I had to find a new level of self-reliance.

  6. Fay September 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    You got me with this one…”There’s no time to lament about lack of sales if you’re not on the phone, calling people, three hours a day. If you’re not out networking and letting people know what you do. If you’re not performing the Art of the Ask. Repeatedly. Consistently. Confidently.”

    And the other part that touched me is “So I invite you. Take that first step onto the Playa. Tell us how it was. What did it feel like to finally take an action you’ve been avoiding?”

    So, what would it finally feel like to confidently step forward and connect with people 3 hours per day? I’ll work on imagining that! Thanks!!!

    • Rachel September 15, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      Fay! Delighted to welcome you here to Writers On Fire land. So appreciate your time, and careful reading and response to the posts. Glad you picked out that bit on sales. It’s sobering. It’s taken me quite a while to suss out the hard truth of it. I am on a deep path myself of exploring issues around self worth and self value — all dovetails with business. How I show up, make things flow. Powerful indeed.

      Glad too that the Playa invitation touched you.

      Fay — rather than imagining all that — how may we invite you to take action — and then share with us? Just Do It. Then let us know. Because there is a synergy in all this. When we take imagination — and pair it with commitment — then take action — we are unstoppable.

      Wonderful to have you here!

  7. Jennifer Truesdale September 23, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    Rachel, I think we so often think (or at least I so often think) that being courageous means looking outside of ourselves, “putting ourselves out there” when in fact sometimes the most courageous and terrifying thing we can do is to look within. We all have such incredible gifts to share and so much untapped strength but digging deep can be scary!! Thank you for such an inspiring story 🙂

    • Rachel September 25, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      Jennifer, thank you for your thoughtfulness, depth and insight. After writing a full memoir, I learned firsthand how terrifying and potentially healing going deep into personal narrative can be. What particular courage it requires, and demands. True, it’s another kind of travelling…and challenge. Pretty wild all us entrepreneurs now must dig into personal narrative, else perish! If we don’t access and explore our true voice, let that inform our story, we won’t be able to inspire others let alone ourselves. Indeed.

  8. Jim Hohl August 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    Great post, Rachel! You (almost) made me want to go to Burning Man which is a near impossible task. Definitely going to look for more opportunities to take action outside of my comfort zone, though I’ll look for opportunities with hot showers. 🙂

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