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When Wal-Mart meets Burning Man

September 19, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • The crowd cheers as the Burning Man topples to the ground at the close of the Burning Man festival Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004, at Black Rock Desert, Nev.
The crowd cheers as the Burning Man topples to the ground at the close of the… (AP Photo/The Chronicle,…)

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers, Wal-Mart workers and Burning Man personnel. Maybe your hopes and dreams aren’t so different after all.

A couple of weeks ago, traveling in Arkansas, I stopped in at the Bentonville storefront where the Wal-Mart empire began. It’s a visitor center now with exhibits on corporate history. I picked up a brochure listing Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s 10 rules for building a business. All very sensible and offered in six languages. I stuffed the brochure into my pocket.

Then a few days later, visiting San Diego, I heard a speech by Chip Conley, who is, among other things, a board member of the Burning Man Project. That’s right, the annual later-summer tribal party in the Black Rock Desert outback of northern Nevada, where about 50,000 artists and revelers unite amid throbbing music, body paint and an ignited effigy or two. Not only does Burning Man have a board of directors, those directors have business cards, and on the back of the business cards are  10 guiding principles. Conley gave me a card, and I stuffed it in my pocket.

So now I’m back from the road with one list (printed on orange paper) to my right, and another (printed on blue paper) to my left. This is a nice reminder that travel will mess with your mind as thoroughly as any drug or management-training program. It also shows that human beings love lists, and the number 10, and making plans for other people, whether we’re moving merchandise in a suburban big box or dancing naked in the desert.

But surely, it’s easy to tell Burning Man’s principles from Wal-Mart’s rules, right?

Not so much. I’ve combined the two lists into one, alphabetically ordered. Go ahead. Sort these out.

-- Appreciate.

-- Celebrate.

-- Civic responsibility.

-- Commit.

-- Communal effort.

-- Communicate.

-- Control.

-- Decommodification.

-- Exceed.

-- Gifting.

-- Immediacy.

-- Leaving no trace.

-- Listen.

-- Motivate.

-- Participation.

-- Radical inclusion.

-- Radical self-expression.

-- Radical self-reliance.

-- Swim (upstream).

Ok, so a few were easy -- “control” and “decommodification,” especially. And you can eventually figure it out, because one organization prefers verbs and the other likes nouns. (By the way, Burning Man was born in the late 1980s, when Wal-Mart was in its third decade. Sam Walton died in 1992.)

Here’s a little more on Burning Man’s principles, and here’s a little more on Walton’s rules.

We can agree, I think, that nobody playing at Burning Man and nobody working at Wal-Mart lives up to all of these ambitions every day. But, hey, it’s good to have goals. Maybe some district manager out there will adopt all 20 here and create the grooviest big box ever.

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