A recent Fast Company article, Leadership Lessons from Burning Man, caught the eye of Big Spring Director, Mike MacDonald because, as he said, “We already DO these things.”
“It starts with culture”
During a program interview prior to camp, I will ask staff about their “secret nerd hobbies” and their “passion areas.” These are often jumping off points for many creative activities we share with campers. Maybe a staff member knows how to crochet, or he is a campfire culinary master, or she is just really into Harry Potter. By immediately trying to integrate our staffs’ interests into the summer program offerings, we are harnessing their creativity and creating buy-in for the creative, inspirational community culture of camp.
Additionally, once our staff are familiar with the day to day camp schedule, we regularly solicit new ideas for activities and trips to add variety and richness to our program offerings. This inspires others to “think big” and also creates an opportunity for positive reinforcement that benefits the entire organization.
“Add a dose of trust and positive reinforcement”This summer at camp, overnights and trips like The Pirate Overnight, The Yoga/Horse Five Day, The Ghost Hunter Overnight, The Locavore All Day, and The Assault on Mt. Doom (formerly known as The Pikes Peak Bomber), made for memorable, creative, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the campers and staff on the trips. Themed hikes featuring X-Men adventures, 80’s attire, fairies, and Ninja hijinks were both new on sign-up sheets—and full of the creative spirit of the staff whose idea inspired the activity. Nature activities like PoeTREE and Guerilla Art were both unique and enhanced the campers’ Sense of the Earth, while The Junkyard Art All Day will, undoubtedly, be the catalyst for the next generation of Burning Man artists. The newly created “Costume Class” competition during 2nd Session’s Gymkhana was a fantastic addition to a long-standing tradition, while our traditional ceramics program was a hit for many of the campers—with some of the pieces they created out on overnights being glazed and fired for an end of camp show that was enjoyed by the whole community.
We don’t always know how a new trip or activity will work out. And sometimes they DON’T work. Yet as an organization we trust the efficacy of the entire experience because that type of experiential, creative learning is enormously beneficial for both campers and staff. Campers provide real-time feedback to adults, often directly “challenging the process” and “inspiring a shared vision”, while staff members are able to analyze their triumphs and potential missteps in a supportive, creative community environment where feedback is often solicited as much as it is given…because personal success should be celebrated.
“Motivate with autonomy”What should one do on Xanni and Grace’s Rugby and Parkour Adventure Hike? Whatever Grace and Xanni decide to do. In this case, campers did a lot of running around, jumping off/over/around rocks/bushes/trees, and practicing the fine art of “scrumming”—all while hanging out with a couple of REALLY OUTSTANDING female role models.
Utilizing the talents, interest areas, and latent creativity of staff members allows for autonomous professional and personal growth. Even if staff members don’t necessarily know what the heck “Treehouse Madness, Fairy House Building, and Cloud Watching” might be, they have to craft an activity that is fun, campercentric, and fulfills the mission in some way. This also helps them create opportunities for camper excitement, ownership, and autonomy because the campers themselves often have great ideas about where to build the best fairy houses, what to do at the treehouse, and which valleys/high points have the best cloud watching potential.
Autonomy can be terrifying: “What if I mess up? What if this doesn’t work out? What if it does? What will people think? How will I feel?” Yet in the camp environment, campers and staff ask themselves versions of these questions every day. By making independent choices and dealing with the real time outcomes, our campers and staff develop stronger, authentic selves.
In our camp environment, like the larger Burning Man community, there simply isn’t room or time for micromanagement. The mission and community shape the camp culture; the people and the 6,000 acres of space create the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience we share each and every summer.
“Reward people with appreciation rather than money”People don’t often get rich through creative expression alone…and we also know they don’t get rich working as summer camp counselors. Yet the value of the experience IS truly multi-faceted: an enhanced confidence in one’s own creative ability, the recognition found in self-expression in a community, and the freedom to learn, grow, and challenge oneself to create something unique that positively impacts the campers and their camp experience.
I truly appreciate the creative efforts and inspired thinking of our Sanborn staff members…and I challenge any and all of the participants of Burning Man to see if they can sustain and maintain their creativity for the duration of a summer camp contract…you do remarkably great things in the desert for seven days, but our staff do AMAZING things for 72 days.
Oh yes. The Sanborn Staff are en fuego.