Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis
Wanting is a transformational deep dive into the origins of desire. In it, Luke Burgis shows us how we come to want certain things in life and how we can transform our relationship with desire in ways that allow us to live a more aligned, fulfilling existence with other people. Burgis’s work builds off of the philosophy of René Girard, a French philosopher who spent his life understanding and writing about the human condition.
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Mimesis, Models, and the Romantic Lie
The Romantic Lie is the common belief that we have full agency over what we want and do in our lives. It is the belief that we are rational and independent people who create and pursue the desires we choose.
The reality is that most of what we find desirable or undesirable is formed by modeling the desires of the people, cultures, and other hidden forces that shape our lives.
“Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models – not our “objective” analysis or central nervous system – that shape our desires.”
Mimesis is the sophisticated and often secret form of imitation that determines much of what we want and do in this world. It explains phenomena like why Ivy League students who enter college with varying backgrounds and desires ultimately converge on going into finance, consulting, medicine, and law as their career of choice.
Especially in a world where a growing number of people have their basic biological needs met, we now spend our lives striving for the things that we desire – whether that’s a thriving career, a good family, or having a fun time with friends. So to live a good life in this world, we must learn to understand where our desires come from and how we’re influenced by the models in our lives.
Once we recognize how much what we do and believe is influenced by others, we can better identify what’s working and not working for us. From that point of awareness, we can start to create a life that’s more aligned with how we actually want to live. If we don’t do this, we simply float through life in under the current of the desires that are unconsciously and consciously embedded within us.
Goal of the book: “By the end of this book you will have a new understanding of desire – what you want, what others want, and how to live and lead from a model in which desire is an expression of love.
Part 1: The Power of Mimetic Desire
“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” – Milan Kundera
Where does desire come from?
All of our desires come from other people who served as models to shape what we want. Often, these people endow these desires in us by showing them that they want these things. People often don’t think about models that have influenced them or how they have served as models.
They think the world works like this: Person → Desire → Object…
But it actually works like this: Person → Desire → Model → Object
A good way to visualize the influence of others on our desires is to imagine you’re at the bar with a friend. You order a beer. Your friend then orders a margarita. You suddenly “realize” that you want a margarita too. You came in wanting a beer, and even ordered one, but because your friend ordered a margarita, you have adopted his model for what is the best drink in that moment.
In part, the way in which we mirror others helps form social bonds and cohesion. If someone sticks out their fist for a fist bump, it would be rude if we did not return the gesture. These types of mimesis permeate many elements of our social life and help us connect with one another.
Advertisers prey on our subconscious desire to imitate others all the time. Why do brands have influencers use and recommend their products? Well…if someone I trust or think is cool is doing something, I’m more likely to do it to be more like them. They are a model of desire in my life and can heavily influence purchasing decisions.
You’re not immune
Many people think they’re immune from the influence of the desires of others. A hipster is a good example. Perhaps the hipster rejects what everyone else is drinking, eating, and wearing.
They feel pride about being “inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis,” but it’s this exact pride that “blinds them to their complicity in the game.” And so you find lots of hipsters in tight pants, drinking kombucha and listening to niche podcasts that make them feel more cultured or smarter than other people. But they’re simply following models of desire too, just not the ones they try to reject.
Two kinds of models
There are two types of models, those that come from people far removed and external from us and those that come from people inside our world with whom we can compete. Those models in our external world are exemplified by the role of celebrities in our lives. The models in our inner world are more like how you felt in high school with the various cliches of people around you.
These two types of models exert a somewhat different influence on us:
- Celebristan (external) – These models are distant in time, space, or social status. We feel comfortable openly imitating these people and can acknowledge their influence on our lives. We don’t feel like we’re competing with these models because they’re far from us in status, wealth, or some other marker. It’s possible for these models to have a positive influence on our lives.
- Freshmanistan (internal) – These models are close to us in time, space, or social status. We often don’t recognize the influence of these people in our lives as we’re quite similar and secretly imitate them or compete with them. There is often negative mimesis with these models as we struggle to understand the role they play on our desires and the role of our desire on theirs.
In The Alchemy of Finance, investor George Soros talks about the principle of reflexivity, which basically states that there is a two-way interaction between what people think and the situation in which they operate. For example, if investors believe the market will crash, they may behave in ways that cause the crash. The same principle applies outside of financial markets:
“People worry about what other people will think before they say something – which affects what they say. In other words, our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity.”
Mimetic desire and social media
One of the reasons social media is so addicting is because like a slot machine, it leverages the power of variable rewards. Every time we refresh the page, something interesting or alluring might pop up. This possibility keeps up refreshing the screen more times than we’d like to.
While variable rewards are powerful, Burgis argues that “mimetic desire is the real engine of social media.” By exposing us to the desire of billions of people across the globe, we become infected with their desires in ways that we otherwise would not have.
In this context, we likely can’t avoid being influenced by the desires of the people we engage with, virtually or in-person. But we can figure out what desires will lead to fulfillment and not disruption.
Two cycles of mimesis
- Cycle 1: The Negative Cycle – “Mimetic desire leads to rivalry and conflict. This cycle runs on the false belief that other people have something that we don’t have and that there isn’t room for fulfillment of both their desires and ours.
- Cycle 2: The Positive Cycle – “Mimetic desire unites people in a shared desire for some common good. It comes from a mindset of abundance and mutual giving. This type of cycle transforms the world. People want something that they couldn’t imagine wanting before – and they help others go further, too.”
Values and desires
If you’re driven by desire, you’re more subject to mimetic behavior. You may jump from thing to thing as you gravitate toward the endless shiny objects in the world. An antidote to this problem is to have values, which are pillars that can help transform and organize your desires.
For example, imagine you value time with your family above everything else. When a buddy invites you to a cool party, but you’ve already promised your kids you’ll be home for game night, you’re going to choose game night every time and not be as compelled by a cool party as you would have if you were operating purely based on your desires.
What it means to be anti-mimetic
“Being anti-mimetic is having the ability, the freedom, to counteract destructive forces of desire.”
Being anti-mimetic is the antidote to being controlled by mimetic desire, which is “the unwritten, unacknowledged system behind visible goals. The more we bring that system to light, the less likely it is we’ll pick and pursue the wrong goals.”
Mimesis in College
“College is where the teleology grows even less clear. Is the goal to get a good job? To get into grad school? To be a well-rounded person who is able to think critically? To be a good citizen? When I started at the Stern School of Business as an undergrad, I. had no idea. So what did I do? I looked around to see what everyone else was doing – what everyone else seemed to want. There was a clear object of desire: Wall Street. So I fought for it, and I got what I thought I wanted. And that’s when I began my miserable fifteen-month career in Advanced Excel and Powerpoint.”
I had a very similar experience at Princeton.
Sympathy, Empathy, and Mimesis
Sympathy is mimetic. Empathy is anti-mimetic.
Sympathy: “Sympathy means ‘feeling together.’ Our emotions fuse with those of the person we sympathize with. We see things from their perspective. A certain degree of agreement is implied. Sympathy can be easily hijacked by mimesis.”
Empathy: “Empathy is the ability to share in another person’s experience – but without imitating them (their speech, their beliefs, their actions, their feelings) and without identifying with them to the point that one’s own individuality and self-possession are lost.
With empathy, we can understand how someone might want something when we ourselves don’t want that thing. We can step into their shoes without adopting their desires.
The illusion of prestige
Prestige is an illusion. The more you seek it, the more time you’ll be looking for the next mark of respect or admiration from others, and the less time you’ll spend on what actually fulfills you.
Calculating thought vs. meditative thought
- Calculating thought: “Constantly searching, seeking, plotting how to reach an objective: to get from Point A to Point B, to beat the stock market, to get good grades, to win an argument.” This is the dominant form of thought in modern society. “It leads to the endless pursuit of objectives – usually without having analyzed whether the objectives are worthy to begin with.”
- Meditation thought: “Patient thought. It’s not the same thing as meditation. Meditative thought is simply slow, nonproductive thought. It’s not reactionary. It’s the kind of thought that, upon hearing news or experiencing something surprising, doesn’t immediately look for solutions. Instead, it asks a series of questions that help the asker sink down further into the reality: What is this new situation? What is behind it? Meditative thought is patient enough to allow the truth to reveal itself.”
In a world dominated by calculating thought, it’s a competitive advantage to be able to regularly engage in meditative thought.
What is love?
Love is wanting what’s good for another.
15 Tactics and Key Takeaways
- Name your models. Identify the people or forces that most influence you in life and at work. This means the people who influence how you think about your career, politics, buying decisions, views on romance, health goals, leisure activities, and so on. By naming your models – for both healthy and unhealthy behavior – you can begin to have a higher degree of control over their influence in your life.
- Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis. Look for information that has stood the test of time (e.g., certain philosophical or ethical ideas) or that comes from reliable methodology (e.g., studies that have been replicated multiple times and show a significant result with a high degree of confidence.) Be weary of people who claim to be experts, but only have credibility because they share your worldview (confirmation bias) or have accolades that give them fo credibility (e.g., being published in the right place.)
- Create boundaries with unhealthy models. Whether it’s a thought leader, a friend, or a former classmate, there are people who model behaviors and ways of thinking that are not healthy for allowing you to operate as you want to be. Once you identify these people, find ways to distance yourself from them (unfollow them on social media, don’t check in regularly, and look for new models with healthier behaviors.)
- Use imitation to drive innovation. Often, the path to innovation and original thinking is accelerated by first imitating what already exists. If you constantly try to only do new or differentiated things, you will miss the opportunity to start with what’s working and innovate by improving that. That’s the more common path to innovation, versus some stroke of insight that leads to an idea that no one else has previously considered.
- Start positive flywheels of desire. “Desire is a path-dependent process. The choices we make today affect the things we’ll want tomorrow. That’s why it’s important to map out, the best we can, the consequences of our actions on our future decisions.”
- Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values. Values are the things in your life that you prioritize. Things like family, integrity, honesty, doing your best, and so on can be values. Living by your values often leads to a life that feels aligned and fulfilling. To do that well, you need to stack-rank your values so that you can make decisions where there are tradeoffs. If family always comes before work, it’s a no brainer decision when you have to choose between a late night at the office and making it to your kid’s important soccer game. The final step to utilizing values is communicating them to others. You can’t assume other people who value different things than you can magically know or see the importance of what you’ve prioritized.
- Arrive at judgments in anti-mimetic ways. If you were answering a poll and knew in advance how other people had responded, it would be very difficult for you to not be influenced by the existing results. Where possible, try to arrive at your beliefs about something in an independent way. For example, you could give up reading the news. In doing so, if you were told about a big event that had happened, you may be in a better position to form an independent judgment about the topic than if you had read an article that had some agenda or point of view expressed. Especially as it relates to making decisions in your personal and professional life, it’s helpful to try to come to decisions that represent what you want. After all, you’re the one who has to live with those decisions.
- Map out the systems of desire in your world. An important step in becoming anti-mimetic is to model the systems of desire that exist in your world. They may be at your family level, from the school you attended, or the industry in which you operate. Becoming aware of these systems of desire by mapping them out is the first step to understanding how the world around you may be shaping your desires. From there, you can better decide if those are the desires that you want to adopt in your life.
- Put desires to the test. If you’re torn between two choices, take 48 hours to play out those choices in your head. Spend the first day on the Choice A, imagining what your life will be. Spend the second day on Choice B. Which of these imagined realities seem best to you? Does your answer change if you envision yourself on your deathbed? Which of these choices will lead to fewer regrets? You won’t always know the answer, but playing these scenarios out in your head helps.
- Share stories of deeply fulfilling action. Think back on your life and write down the things that you did or that you experienced that you remember as fulfilling. As you write these stories down, try to notice any patterns that you can apply to what you’re pursuing now.
- Increase the speed of truth. The truth can be painful, but it’s useful in ensuring that people are aligned and moving toward the right destination. In an organization, you want to create an environment in which the truth moves as fast as possible to the people who need to know it. If it gets siloed in the head of a politicking executive or is never expressed by someone who fears the truth, you may not know about problems or opportunities until it’s too late.
- Invest in deep silence. Try creating space for yourself to uncover what’s important. Take a few days off without any screens, talking, or music. Perhaps you do this activity in a special place. Spend your time reading and writing. See what bubbles up. You will likely come back to reality more energized, grounded, and productive.
- Look for the coexistence of opposites. As you try to develop better models for the world and systems of desire for yourself, pay attention to situations where something you think shouldn’t exist does indeed exist. For example, you may notice that someone is both bold and timid, something that you would not expect based on your mental model of the world.
- Practice meditative thought. To escape the tendency that most of us have to incessantly plan and engage in calculating thought, try staring at a tree for one hour. Let your mind continue to wander and resist the urge to do anything but look at the tree and let your thoughts flow. The more you can learn to engage in meditative thought, which has no aim, the better you’ll be able to discern what’s important and not important in your life.
- Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want. We can help other people in their desires in one of three ways – “we help them want more, we help them want less, or we help them want differently.” On our journey in life, it’s important to remember that we influence other people. We can choose to use that knowledge for good.
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