Timothy Alexander Phillips - Conversations with Artists


What is the art of what you do?

My favorite thing to do is to create the space for other people to be expressive. Everyone has a voice - maybe they haven't realized it yet, or haven’t explored it.  Giving people the security that they need to express themselves, is when the good stuff happens.  That's when people learn about themselves most deeply.  It's when they connect really profoundly with their collaborators and meaningful conversations happen.  It's where I find purpose and meaning in life, and being recognized for a creative effort that’s come out of somewhere deep inside - is the most beautiful thing in the world.

How do you connect people to their potential?

I think there's a toolbox that’s different for every person.  Some people think that they don't have anything to share and you have to help them see it.  Others are just too shy to share and in that case you try to make them feel safe.  Some people aren’t connected to their purpose and if you give them structure or a framework, suddenly ideas flow. 


Talk about your collaborations.  

More and more what I'm trying to do is to get people to collaborate and recognize great ideas in each other.  The best things happen when you get people to collaborate.  That's when you get the intersection of different sets of skills and ideas.  It’s where innovation actually happens. 

In essence you’re creating a safe space.

Yes - the safe space for vulnerability.  If you think of it,  the artistic effort is the most vulnerable place you can be.  You're expressing that inner thing that wants to come out and you're scared to give voice to it.  Creating the space for that to comfortably come out is everything.


Why is that important to you?

I know how long it's taken me to find my voice, how hard that was, and what it meant for me to do that.  I've also witnessed others searching for and finding their own voices, and that's been incredibly beautiful.  

Did someone provide a safe space for you or did you find it on your own?

I was encouraged by people over the years in lots of different ways.   It took me a while to find the voice that resonated most deeply, all the way to my core. That became the embodiment of my values.  I think in some ways I'm just now getting to that.  I also think that I've learned so much because I've been very articulate about the choices I’m making in order to get to this place.  Now I think I can clear that path for other people.

What are artists’ vulnerabilities?

I think it's a type of authenticity.  When you verbalize the thing that feels so close to your heart that it's hard to say, that's being vulnerable.  And when it's the thing that you're most afraid to be criticized for but feels like it's really, really true, that's everything.  There has to be truth in that.


Why do you think artists feel so vulnerable?

I think it's cultural and I can only speak for my generation.  We exist in this post-industrial world where our education system and everything around us was designed to make us a cog in a wheel.  Standardized testing is a perfect example.  You're supposed to understand and repeat, understand and repeat - there's very little room for interpretation. I think inherent in that is also a dislike for newness or difference.  Anything that's weird or aberrant is very quickly punished.  We're in this really interesting moment in time because there's no version of that post-industrial-cog-in the-machine that’s ever going to be better than AI. That’s a failed strategy for us as a species.  Finding ways to reward and encourage creativity and collaboration  — that’s the future for all of us.  I think it's incredibly important.

How do you create that safe space for people?

We start by encouraging meaningful dialogue. There are a lot of different ways that you can do that.  I remember the first time I went to Burning Man.  I had no idea what it was.   I had spent many years as a hard core type-A, had-to-win everything kind of guy.  I grew up as a poor kid and my idea of success was essentially get an education, get a job, get money.  I got to a point where I had done those things and felt profoundly unfulfilled.  Discovering Burning Man - the early days of Burning Man when it was way more fringe, way less socially acceptable, was so compelling to me.  There was freedom in it.  I had never heard music like that— and to go somewhere and just dance and dance — losing myself in movement and sound was incredibly liberating.  I had never imagined myself being so expressive.  That led to a road of self-discovery and  I wondered if I were to create a more authentic identity, who would I be? That was  a really long journey, but it was so liberating to suddenly create an aspirational version of myself and then work towards being that.  There was no way I was ever going to put myself back in the box after that.  Helping others get out of the box has been incredibly rewarding.


Is vulnerability an asset?  

I think so.  Isn’t it terrible to go through life pretending you're something you're not?  I've done that and It sucked.  I think who you are evolves.  I continue to learn more about myself and find new things that excite and energize me.  Having increasing courage and momentum to work towards that is a gift.  That's what I hope to do for other people and it’s the core of what  Lightning Society is about; allowing people to discover and fully be who they are.  Creating awesome parties around community is a bonus.


Where did it all start?

The thing that actually led me to start Lightning Society was that during that first trip to Burning Man, I discovered community.    I went through  a difficult year, and that difficulty brought opportunity.  I think the really hard times are the moments when you get knocked so far out of your orbit that you look at your life with objectivity. That happened for me and it helped me to see that I was in a career that I didn't enjoy and there was no version of that path that was ever going to lead to me living up to my potential.  So I asked myself: ‘what’s the five-year plan?’   I quickly realized that the 5-year plan just doesn't work.  If you think about who you were five years ago — that’s a person you probably don't even recognize.  The world is so different — technology is changing and culture is changing.  Five years ago smart phones were a new thing, Uber didn't exist, and so on.  So the idea that you know what five years from now will be like is really crazy.


So how does one pick a path?

One very profound day I realized instead of thinking about where I want to be, I should think about who I want to be.  I thought if I could do that as loudly and as authentically as possible,  opportunity would come to me because people would be seeking out the thing I represented on some level.  So that was where Lightning Society came from.

Who is it you want to be?

I was a bronze sculptor in undergrad and then I got a Masters in architecture and I was hired as a lead designer.   I didn't like the idea that I was going to be stuck in a cubicle for life.   I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t want to just make beautiful things for rich people to collect.  That's not interesting to me.  So I was searching and I came to an understanding.  I asked myself, what if I just do the thing that actually makes me happy.  Is that ok?  Because it seems like I'm an architect and I have advanced degrees — and to throw that all away and be the guy that creates parties, seems really unusual.  


What is the work you're doing? 

I have lots of different projects now.   Thankfully people are willing to trust me enough to let me be their leader and we're building teams that can manage and run large parties.  I can be involved thematically and they can handle all of the massive amounts of organizational things that need to happen.  That’s the events part of Lightning Society.  We also built a co-living space and I have 16 roommates and two dogs.  That’s been another really life-changing experience of which I'm excited to do more.  We've developed incredible tools for people to interact meaningfully and we have very sustaining and nourishing relationships that make life better.  Imagine, instead of leaving your super high-stress work-life and coming home to an empty box, you can come home and be part of beautiful conversations with a group of remarkable people who are all doing interesting things in the world.  It’s an incredible, robust conversation that you get to be part of every day. 

We also have an event space in the building and we have almost two or three events a week -  wellness and speaker series, men’s circles, women's circles,  yoga.  Those things are so great and are really exciting to be a part of, and it's just right upstairs - there’s always something awesome happening.


What is it about you that is able to start these things?

I just have lots and lots of ideas.  I've gotten very adept at organizing events to the point where it doesn't require a lot of thought to execute.  Now I can just focus entirely on the good part, which is making something that's different and beautiful. It's so possible and doable to make the world more magical — so let's.  How could you not be excited to get up for that?

What is a successful recipe for living?

I think feeling a sense of purpose is everything.  If you can find a meaningful way to interact with the world — to meaningfully contribute to a group of people that you respect and care about, then purpose comes from that.  That might mean different things to different people.  We’re all part of different communities, but at the end of the day, I think that's what we're all really looking for — some level of recognition and appreciation.  What I try to do is create a really positive version of what you can be recognized for so that you have a meaningful and beautiful contribution to the community. That sets up this feedback loop that's super positive. 


Timothy Alexander Phillips is a photographer, entrepreneur and community builder based in New York.

Learn more about Lightning Society here, and see some of Timothy’s work here.