Why I Love Festivals

Article by: unknown author

Tue January 15, 2013 | 00:00 AM

tumblr_m8h0wiuqfq1rdub5po1_1280Joy at Burning Man

In the first part of 2012, I was on a book tour speaking to a group about the powerful intersection of psychology and business. The first question asked during the Q&A was from a super-sleuth who’d done her homework. She asked, “I’ve read that your favorite place in the world is Bali and that you’ve recently joined the Burning Man Board. Why do both Bali and Burning Man light you up?”

Beyond the fact that this is one of the more provocative questions I’ve been asked on a book tour, this query led to a public epiphany, one that felt divinely inspired. I responded quite simply, “Bali and Burning Man both revere the idea of collective joy. One of the most pleasurable experiences for human beings is to lose ourselves in the ‘collective effervescence’ (credit sociologist Emile Durkheim from 1912 for that phrase) of a festival, ritual, or pilgrimage. I would love to become the world’s leading expert on festivals.” The next thing I knew a good portion of the audience was giving me a standing ovation, but, more importantly, this felt like a revelation that was to become my new calling.

After founding my own boutique hotel company, I spent a quarter century growing the business to more than 3,000 employees. Along the way, I wrote books based upon rethinking the idea of our work – such that we strive for a calling, not an “occupation.” I’d like to spend the next 25 years rethinking our idea of “vacation,” a word that is just as ill-defined as occupation. While the origins of the word “vacation” come from the time when aristocratic families moved to a summer home leaving their usual home vacant, for most tourists, holiday is the time you “vacate” yourself and your innocuous day-to-day life.

Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison wrote an insightful Op-Ed in the New York Times that speaks to this important distinction between vacation and discovery: “Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge….We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.” We trade our living room LaZ-Boy in for a beachside bar. It’s a small world after all. And, yet, for me and so many of my friends, the peak experiences in life are when we’re on the road traveling to some exotic place with a fresh sprig of curiosity in our elixir of life.

Whether the ritual relates to the cycles of the season or the cycles of life, or the ceremony is about donning a mask or stripping one’s identity down to its essence, festivals represent the ultimate celebration of our experience together as humankind. Upon first glance, India’s sacred Kumbh Mela pilgrimage may seem to have little in common with Rio’s Carnival. And, yet, that’s what most excites me, becoming the armchair Margaret Mead learning why the Whirling Dervishes have been twirling annually for nearly 750 years or the thrill-seekers of Pamplona have been dodging bulls in their narrow streets each summer. Beyond that, which festival is most likely to create a transformation in me, and (now my hotelier background emerges) how does one experience the sojourn to and from this festival – and their time there amidst the crowds – in a manner that produces maximum joie de vivre?

The more digital we get, the more ritual we need. I feel such fervor for festivals that I’d like to start a movement (I’ve had dreams of Derek Sivers’ TED talk about how to start a movement which ironically uses a festival as a visual backdrop). So, here we go…one festival a year. That’s all I ask of you. Make a commitment to visiting one festival a year and being open to becoming more culturally curious. Who knows what might sprout from this fertile ground?

For me, Bali’s festivals woke me up to the fact that most of the world sees their happiness or victory in the context of a group or village experience, not based upon their individual achievement. And, my annual sojourn to Burning Man reminds me that money isn’t everything especially in the “gift economy” on the desert playa where art, love, and spirituality are the common currency. This is why it’s perfectly appropriate that I started my “Man of Fest” Destiny with trips to Bali and Burning Man at the end of this past summer with three-dozen other festivals on my itinerary in the next year.