Career 08 April 2020
Burning Man. Coachella. Lightning in a Bottle.
My love for the shared sense of community, freedom of thought, and the general nonexistence of judgment at these festivals runs as deep as the ocean in me.
So, how does a festival-loving mermaid end up entangled in the red tape of a government institution? And what takeaways from that path ultimately led to running a multi-million dollar business without crushing the party girl in me?
Well, despite my lifelong reluctance to conform to the status quo, upon setting out after college to find employment, I fell directly into society's sticky net by taking a position in waste management at Los Alamos National Labs. Higher degree, check. Gainful employment, check. Total lack of freedom to express my personal creativity, double-check.
Instead of spending my days by the ocean de-trashing the beaches and bettering the environment, I found myself up to my eyeballs in something (in many ways) equally as off-putting: government-issued "trash." I was completely adrift. To put it bluntly, it sucked. But thankfully I was able to tread water and endure it long enough to gain some perspective that would ultimately help shape my personal and professional belief system to this day.
The lab was systematic and rigid. Everyone implicitly understood that they existed to fill a slot in the deep-seated and "time-honored" hierarchy, and no one dared step out of line. But constrained daily to crossing the i's and dotting the obligatory t's, ensuring that signatures were strictly executed in the proper order of seniority, I began to feel horribly claustrophobic. It became clear to me that I needed a change, and fast. Enter the festival world.
Burning Man could not have been more starkly contrasted to the lab if it tried. It was an experience grounded in the authentic expression of self through the creation of art, music, food, and dance. The magic of the community coming together to immerse itself in this environment allowed all of the walls that we fortify ourselves with to fall away. It was actually shocking to me at first to see how incredibly talented we are as humans; and at Burning Man, the full extent of this human capability was exposed for all to see. For me, that was it. I promptly quit the lab, packed my skis, and headed to Whistler, intent on utilizing the crisp air and fresh powder to clear my head and allow me to consider my next step.
View this post on Instagram⚡️ The power of choice ⚡️ I spent much of my time at #burningman reflecting on the power of choice. Our decisions are the most powerful thing we own. And what we choose, every second of every minute, is the sum total of how we show up in the world. When we are in a relationship, every day we wake up and choose to be with that person. I see this as active choices, rather than just submitting to the daily inertia of our decisions. Every minute, we can either recommit to that choice, or choose a different path. And it only takes a small choice to put your life on a completely different path. A 1 degree change in direction may not seem like a big difference, but as time continues on, that 1 degree change ends in a very different result. Burning Man is an amazing place to test new theories because it is a magnified representation of the world. Everything on the playa happens to an extreme, there is no middle ground. If there is any internal struggle you are dealing with, you better bet your ass it will surface in a big way. So it was in this land of hyperbolic existence I asked myself, “Am I actively choosing my decisions or just letting previous programming (pre-existing neuronal connections) make them for me?"
A post shared by Emma Rose Cohen (@emmasirena) on Sep 8, 2019 at 7:16pm PDT
But best-laid plans often have a way of going sideways, which is precisely what happened upon my arrival to my mountainous escape. I found myself immediately entrenched in the development and launch of a new company — FinalStraw, the world's first reusable, collapsible, "totally badass" straw. I was completely unprepared for its instant success. And in April of 2018, when the product's campaign went viral, my life changed forever. I was the CEO and Founder of what would become a virtual juggernaut. And this was just the start.
The purpose of the product was clear. The mantra and mission statement behind it, a no-brainer. It was everything I had always been about.
But establishing and running the business side of things quickly brought back the memories of a lab and its inherent tedium. And that was not a trap I wished to entangle myself in again. So with the festival-inspired perspective fresh in my mind, and the cold, Canadian air filling my lungs, I endeavored to discover a way to infuse my deep-seated belief system into both the creation of the company as well as the development of its culture and team.
As for the core principles of operation, I began closely contemplating what I'd learned at the lab and comparing it with the philosophy from "the burn." In a sense, it was a virtual synthesis of opposing theories.
In the desert, there was a heavy emphasis on freedom of expression, a need for self-reliance, and a tremendous amount of mutual respect for one another. Whereas the lab — as dry and bureaucratic as it was — relied on a system of coordinated functions and a hierarchy that reliably worked in concert with each member of the team. As "lifeless" as it was, it produced results, and undeniably predictable ones at that.
And so it began: a systematic establishment of the business model and a scientific approach to inner workings and infrastructure. While at the same time, and in direct contrast to the lab, a company culture that emphasized creativity, radical inclusion, autonomy, mutual respect, self-care, and civic responsibility — all mantras that had become deeply ingrained into my daily life and work. And all of this, of course, approached with a modern-day mentality that would support the free-spirited, globetrotting girl in me.
As one who innately seeks alternatives to the norm in everyday life, it was a natural progression for me to build a team that values imagination and independent thought, where every voice of every individual on the team is given equal consideration, and where a bit of wit, a hint of humor and sass is not only welcomed but encouraged as we address our deadly-serious mission to reverse the damage to mother Earth.
But perhaps the most important realization from my years attending festivals like Burning Man is the idea that we have to be present and appreciative of all that we have been given to the fullest. Because as cliché as it may sound, the reality is that it just may not be there one day. And that's something for all of us to consider.
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Help! My Friend Is a No Show
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.
Dear Sadsies,I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.
I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!
- The Armchair Psychologist