As the Communications Manager/Regional Network Manager of Burning Man, the annual festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance, to many, Andie Grace had an amazing job.
“From the outside, it seemed like a job that no one would ever leave once they got it,” said Grace. And indeed, for a long time Grace, too, thought she would never leave. She felt fervently about the mission of Burning Man, dropping out of college and eagerly joining the team when she was invited to transition from volunteer to paid staff in 2000. Within a few months, she became a full-time employee, one of the earliest in the organization, and before long, she was occupying a seat in the boardroom with the event’s executive staff.
“I wasn’t planning on being a festival organizer when I grew up, but I felt that Burning Man was a force for good in the world, and so, of course, when they offered me the job, I took it.”
For 13 years, Grace adeptly handled all communications for the organization, from the website and other external communications materials, to managing the many incoming requests for interviews and permission to film at the event.
“It was a super rich and very exciting job,” said Grace. “ I got to travel, go to fun conferences and speak at events representing Burning Man. I was able to build and expand the program for the regional Burning Man groups, and because there’s significant press attention in the festival, it was always very fulfilling in terms of professional growth.”
The job was very high profile as well. With Silicon Valley captains of industry and Hollywood illuminati coming to the festival as well as every media outlet from Time magazine to CNN and Rolling Stone covering the festivities, Grace’s time at Burning Man was exciting … exciting and busy.
The attention and prestige that came with the job were alluring, but a flip side began to rear its head about eight years into the job.
“It was dreamy in a lot of ways, but it was also a bear. For about five years before I actually left I would tell my closest friends, ‘I think I’m done.’” But she never was. The round-the-clock nature of the job and the social community – an innate part of the job – kept her close.
But then a few things happened. Grace and her husband’s five-year-old daughter, who had been traveling to Burning Man with them for four years, was due to enter kindergarten in the fall of 2012 … the same week as Burning Man. Grace had also been experiencing asthma-like symptoms for some time and, while she was sentimental about missing her first festival, the joy of seeing her daughter on the first day of school won out, as did the hoped-for relief her lungs might get being away from the dusty desert air.
Thinking of staying home that year proved to be a turning point. “I felt like I was hearing some other music elsewhere, and I had the chance to finally really ask myself, ‘who was I before I did this?’”
The stress and intensity of the job had reached a breaking point, and she was anxious to see who she could be “on the other side of Burning Man.” In June of 2012, the year she turned 40, she quit, although she was not able to fully extract herself from her role until January 2013 (in fact she still actively participates with the organization – once again as a volunteer). With no other work prospects lined up – “a scary but amazing feeling” – Grace took a few months to catch up on the rest of her life and “let the Burning Man wash off me.” “I knew I would go back to full-time work and that there would be lots of opportunities – because of my role people were always offering me jobs — so I was anxious but not really panicking. And I knew, if worst came to worst, the door was always open to go back to Burning Man.”
Grace’s husband was a supportive force. Having also once worked at Burning Man, he “was very eager for me to get out from under the weight of the impact it was having on my life,” said Grace.
While the feeling was scary, she was also happy to see where the open space in her life would lead her and which opportunities would present themselves. To line up some immediate work, she hung her own shingle offering communications consulting work.
But when the opportunity came along, she immediately recognized it for what it was – the job she had been waiting for. A close friend asked if Grace wanted to partner with him on his new venture, launching an independent film distribution company, Devolver Digital Films, the arm of an already successful video game firm. Having spent much time at Burning Man supporting independent filmmakers’ needs at the festival, Grace had developed a passion for the art. “I always loved working with film, but I had no idea I could turn it into a career. But now I had the chance finally to say yes.”
For Grace, a slow transition was key to her success in the new field. She started part-time so she could maintain some paying communications clients on the side as she and her partner built the Devolver business. But she trusted the move implicitly. Her partner, Mike, was a long-time, dependable friend, and the new venture was being supported by a profitable arm of his company. The industry was dynamic and there was a lot of opportunity for growth.
A year and a half into her new life, Grace is thrilled. She’s focused on giving filmmakers a chance to see their film come to life which is incredibly gratifying to Grace. “At Burning Man, my work with filmmakers was often about limiting them – no, you can’t film that here, no you can’t use that image, lots of legal wrangling. Now, I get to say to little filmmakers, ‘yes’. It’s a positive spin on the art of filmmaking. And she and her partner have what she never had at Burning Man, a semblance of a work–life balance.
While the change has fulfilled her soul, she and her husband did have to make some practical changes. They gave up their apartment in San Francisco and private Montessori education to ensure a free, public school spot in Berkeley, where they can also afford to rent a house with a yard for their daughter. She and her husband both gave up a competitive salary and benefits package for the chance to partner on startups of their own.
Regrets? “I miss the people and the camaraderie of working in the nexus of something so big and wonderful, but no, not a ton of regrets.”
Grace is thinking of returning to Burning Man this year as a participant, but she’s still not sure. “Not only does the first day of school interfere every year, but I’m not sure I know how to go there and just be a participant. I can’t imagine not jumping in with my old cohort, and being where the action is – I love production too much not to be at the center of it all. I also value my perspective on it from “the outside” now, although having grown up alongside and within the organization, I don’t think I’ll ever stay away completely or quit caring about what happens for that culture. It’s still my friends and my community, and that’ll probably never change.”
- Grace, whose husband is also now working for a start-up, says the only thing she would change is timing so that both spouses were not in start-up land at the same time. When they both lost health insurance at the same time it was scary, but fortunately, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, this has since been resolved.
- Don’t rush to form a limited liability company (LLC) when going out on your own. You can freelance without the time and money spent forming an LLC, especially if you are still exploring other options.
- Be open to opportunities and allow yourself to be nimble – that can lead to a career path. Leaving Burning Man was scary but Grace knew that if she didn’t leave she wouldn’t know what else was out there, so leaving without committing to something immediately was key.
Have you ever left a job without having another one lined up? Was it worth the risk?