Why this former floor trader keeps returning to Burning Man

October 21, 2017 12:14 PM

The first Burning Man festival was held in 1986. “The Burn” has since grown to 70,000 attendees as the essential annual mecca for performing artists, cultural iconoclasts, and Silicon Valley icons gathering in Black Rock City—a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. In 2004 Larry Harvey, the festival’s visionary and co-founder, detailed 10 principles meant to evoke the cultural ethos that emerged from the event (see “10 principles,” below).

The rep of the desert festival has evolved from a playground for artists, libertines, unicorns and sparkle ponies to become the must-attend event for celebrities and the Technorati elite. Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been coming to Burning Man consistently for well over a decade. Jeff Bezos, Tony Hsieh, and Mark Zuckerberg have made the trek. Elon Musk has declared that Burning Man is Silicon Valley.

Modern Trader’s editorial team was determined to provide our readers a first-hand account of how Burning Man has become the Davos of the dessert for venture capitalists and tech titans. But, our spouses would not let us go. So we turned to one of our own, a former trader, to provide us with his perspective on why he keeps going back year after year.

I spent decades as a commodity trader on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). In 1975, I started work at the CBOT as a runner and was extremely fortunate to have had opportunities to work with the best. Early on, I was an assistant for Lee B. Stern who was one the largest grain traders at the CBOT. After that a wonderful guy, Leonard Eiseman, hired me to work for Continental Grain Co. Len assigned to me one of Continental’s corporate memberships and in 1977 I became a member of the CBOT. In 1983, I went solo as a trader and enjoyed the freedom and, flexibility it gave me to explore the world’s different cultures. By the mid-2000s electronic trading began the end of the pits. At the same time, I was going through a medical scare. After a few years of a type of mental illness I decided I had to re-invent myself and I jumped into the deep end of the venture capital pool.

I always felt that adventure travel was the perfect medicine for restoring balance after the intensity of the trading pits. Whether it was hitchhiking across Tibet in 1987 or hiking in the Peruvian mountains or drinking “the tea” with Amazon Shamans, I always felt I had to get as far away from the tensions of the trading pits as possible; both mentally and physically. I loved trading but I believed there was a bigger world beyond the pits. Recently, I read the book, “Stealing Fire.” Authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal focus on Man’s search for “ecstasis,” the intersection between altered states and peak performance, the optimal state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best (see “Stealing Fire”). As traders, we know that place. There are times when it seems every trade is a good one and the money flows.  We also know when it seems like we’re so out of step with the markets that our mojo is in serious question. My father used to say to me, “Having money is one thing, not having money is one thing. Having money and then not having money is a whole other thing.”

Learning how to tune our focus towards flow states is an industry. Stealing Fire refers to what’s called “The Altered States Economy,” which totals out to roughly $4 trillion a year.

Burning Man has been the defacto incubator for experiments in individual and mass creativity. Burning Man is a cosmic magnet attracting universal crowds from around the globe. The Burn welcomes a mixture of, A-list actors such as Johnny Depp and Leo Dicaprio, technology stars like Elon and Kimbal Musk,  along with Navy Seals, authors, painters and  the top electronic dance music DJs. Two years ago Skrillex and Diplo were on stage together at Opulent Temple. The world’s top artistic and business talent comingle in an off-the-charts synchronistic play for one week a year in the hostile desert environment. In respect to Satoshi, I’ve read that, Bitcoin was born at Burning Man.

To quote Albert Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The BUILDERS of Burning Man are the power source behind the experience.

Ancient early adopters used meditation, dance, and mind-altering substances to empower themselves to see and understand the deeper connections of beliefs and their consequences. From ancient Greece to the jungles of the Amazon the message is the same, you have to step outside yourself to find yourself. Only recently has technology become available to scientifically measure consciousness, according to Stanislav Grof author of “The Adventure of Self-Discovery.”

My first “Burn” was in 2004 and I vividly remember the sights, sounds, and the thoughts racing through my mind. I rode my bicycle through the streets and every few minutes I’d announce, “That’s the craziest fricking thing I’ve ever seen.” After repeating that a dozen times I made a personal decision to suspend judgement and take in the experience. It reminded me of the first time I walked onto the CBOT trading floors. Hundreds of people running around screaming and yelling at each other. Grown men in shirts and ties, smoking cigars were acting out a no holds barred form of business: Radical self-expression.

The truth was I really didn’t want to go to Burning Man. Dana Kennedy a reporter for the New York Times invited me to go. After researching articles about the Burn I said no way, I’m not going out there, it’s not the place for me.

Dana was persistent and she had an ace up her sleeve. The year before, she and I travelled to Venezuela and hiked up Mt. Roraima. Mt. Roraima is the backdrop for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, “The Lost World.” As we camped and hiked Dana read “The Lost World” and wrote an article about our experience that she sold to the Times. After she sold it, she told her editor to reach out to me for photos that I took documenting our adventure. The Times ran seven of my photos along with her article. Dana hooked me into going to Burning Man telling me we could repeat the plan, her article and my photos. That was her only Burn and I’ve been back every year but one since. It’s funny how things work out.    

Camp mate and Engineer/Artist Richard Wilks says his first thought in 2007 was, “he walked into the bar scene from Star Wars.”

The 2017 Burning Man reached a new milestone with the volume and sophistication of art installations and camp engineering. Places included a soap suds filled plexiglass shipping container for cleaning off, and Alumina: a huge, hour-glass shaped, interactive, visual sound experience. The Playa is populated with a large contingent of the baby boomer generation that includes me. Also, more children show up year after year and with the creativity and freedom of expression what generation will they morph into?

Many of them have watched Burning Man explode in popularity. There are more and more resources being dragged into Burning Man, and it’s the age old question that gets asked: “What’s the purpose in all this?”

The answer can be found in Stealing Fire. “[Burning Man] is the single greatest concentration of state-altering technology on the planet, designed by everyone together and no one in particular.”

That brings us to the final and most important category on our assessment: the astonishing amount of innovation this event consistently inspires. Attendees treat the playa as an oversized sandbox-a place where ideas can be dreamed up, tested out, and, as often as not, shared freely with everyone.

I tend to go out earlier every year before the event opens. The best parts are more open and direct. I love to engage with the workers, the builders and the ones setting up the show.

The effort that makes Burning Man work, is what attracts me back and there’s a synchronicity vortex that’s attractive to me. And the truth is Sparkle Ponies don’t rule. 

This year a 41-year-old man evaded security and ran into the fire on Saturday night’s “Burn.” He died shortly thereafter.

About the Author

Alan Matthew, former floor trader, is the CEO of the venture capital firm Tribal Ventures LLC