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4 Lessons I Learned from Self-Publishing and Burning Man

The two experiences pushed me out of my comfort zone, and reminded me of the importance of pursuing change.

Charlene Li in front of "The Folly"​ at Burning Man 2019
Charlene Li in front of "The Folly"​ at Burning Man 2019

This fall I did two things that pushed me far out of my comfort zone: self-publishing my latest book and going to my first Burning Man. These seemingly unrelated adventures have some surprisingly common challenges. Book publishing is an arduous process that requires seemingly unending days of solitary focus, laboring over words that won’t come. Burning Man requires a journey to a lifeless desert and enduring dust storms and freezing nights. 

But the rewards are similarly glorious in the end. I hold a beautiful bestselling book in my hand that has moved people to become more disruptive. And I hold inside me a renewed sense of wonder from the time I spent at Burning Man. 

It’s taken me some time to distill what I’ve learned and how it applies to the disruption journey. Here are four insights that I hope you can apply to your own disruption journey. 

Structure creates a safe space for disruptive growth

One of the most interesting things I learned in my research for my book, “The Disruption Mindset,” is that disruptive organizations are incredibly well structured and ordered. When you don’t have to worry about how to get things done, then you can focus on achieving extraordinary, disruptive growth. You need to feel safe to take on risk, to be both vulnerable and confident in your ability to try and either succeed/fail. 

When I started to self-publish my book, I realized that being able to do anything I wanted to was crippling me into inaction – there were simply too many options and choices to make. My editor helped me whip my chapter structures into the same formula (tell a great story, do some analysis, explain how someone can do this). And I worked closely with IdeaPress who knew how to print and distribute business books. 

And at Burning Man, almost 80,000 people gather for a week in the desert without any police or security force. Contrary to some perceptions, the event was incredibly orderly, people were highly respectful and I did not see a single altercation. There are “10 Principles” that serve as guidelines. They were “crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture”. As a result, I felt physically and emotionally safe to open up to complete strangers and to push myself out of my comfort zone. 

The takeaway is that you need to create just enough structure in your organization or community for people to feel safe space taking the first step out of their comfort zone. Your role as a leader is to ensure that this space remains steady for them, that it doesn’t wobble when they push off hard against it to take off on their disruption journey. 

Use setbacks as opportunities to slow down and “see”

As I was nearing the end of my writing, something kept nagging at me—the title. I originally called the book “The Disruption Agenda.” I’d get little comments here and there that it wasn’t the right title, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As I was hurtling toward my deadline, I did some research using a tool called PickFu, where you can test titles and covers—and get detailed feedback on what worked/didn’t work. And yes, the original title tested poorly—and I started to finally understand at a deeper level what would resonate instead. If I hadn’t taken the previous time to slow down and listen, I would have never learned a crucial lesson. 

At Burning Man, one of the fun things to do is to get on one of the “art cars” that circulate around the camp. Unfortunately, we got on a car that was headed in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go and faced a long, dark, cold walk back to our camp. Setting off, we soon came upon an art installation that we would never have seen or explored if we had been in a car or on a bike. By going slow, we had a chance to see our environment in a completely different way.

The takeaway is that as fast-moving disruptors we need to leverage setbacks as opportunities to slow down, take stock, and see the world from a different perspective. It’s not necessarily a virtual picture that will quickly jump up and be in your face. 

Less is more

Burning Man is the epitome of FOMO or “fear of missing out.” Where is the grandest art? When is the best party? What are the best workshops to attend? I quickly realized how futile it was to try to optimize for the perfect Burning Man experience so instead of trying to do more, I started each day with a single goal, like looking for the Vietnamese coffee stand or biking. 

Similarly, I didn’t feel compelled or pressured to write a typical business book, typically defined as 10 chapters and 300 pages. Nor was I shooting for a bestseller—been there, done that. And besides, self-published books are never considered for lists like The New York Times bestseller list. I ended up with a book with just six chapters because I needed just those six chapters to get my point across. My editor and I worked hard to whittle the book down to the bare essentials, out of respect for the reader’s time and attention.

The lesson I learned is to constantly simplify, focus, and refine down to what is most important. Because doing less and doing it really well is always going to be better than doing more in a mediocre way. 

Finding the “a-ha moment”

One final lesson is how important pursuing change is to you. What’s the underlying motivation to create that change? For me, it’s the “a-ha moment,” that time when the world looks different from before. With my work on disruption and the book, I hear from people how it has helped them look at disruption in a different light and to have confidence that they can make exponential change happen. That is a very powerful motivator. 

At Burning Man, that moment was much more personal—I was searching for a newed sense of awe and wonder. I found it the first night when I walked out of my camp and came upon a sea of a thousand neon-lit bikes spread out over the area of a football field. I stopped completely in my tracks, awestruck with wonder by the sight. Twinkling like stars against the desert darkness, each one marked an individual’s creativity blending together into an ever-changing work of art. 

The final takeaway is this—don’t lose sight of why you pursue change. The reasons are both personal and bigger than you, and it’s what will carry you through the darkest moments and provide hope and solace. 

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

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