Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life


What if the desires you harbor, the aspirations you strive to fulfill in life, do not genuinely stem from your own inner subjective preferences or unique paths you've chosen, but are rather "mimetic" in nature?

What if your desires are not as instinctive, exceptionally original, and personal as you perceive them to be?

How might your goals be affected if you were to discover that they are driven by a desire to emulate someone else's?

Would your determination remain unwavering? Would you begin to view the other party as a rival or competitor?

The Book in 1'

"Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life" is about why you want what you want and how realizing that your desires are "mimetic" will make it easier for you to achieve them.

The main assumption is as follows: you want what you want because you're attempting to emulate someone. This phenomenon is referred to as mimetic desire.

The peril inherent in mimetic desire is termed mimetic rivalry – the conflict among those who compete for the same desire. Given that a shared desire can only have a single victor, this triggers a mechanism by which those engaged in the competition will regard each other as adversaries. Ultimately, there will always be a loser who perishes.

You've likely already realized it: This is a René Girard-story written by an entrepreneur, Luke Burgis.

He applies Girard’s mimetic theory in entrepreneurship and elucidates how and why failing to recognize that our desires are mimetic can transform the journey towards your goals into an exceedingly adversarial, distressing, zero-sum game, which could potentially prove detrimental for both you and your competitors.

But he goes further. He extends the theory and conceives an escape from the zero-sum realm spawned by mimetic desire: if you attain awareness of the mimetic origins of your desires and comprehend the reasons behind your pursuits, your journey can transition to being smoother, more fulfilling, and positive-sum.

The takeaway lesson is that it is possible to shift the mechanism of mimetic desire from something potentially hostile and extremely competitive to a situation where people can achieve together, work collaboratively, and view each other not as competitors but as partners.

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"Mimetic desire is like gravity. It is always at work. It causes some people to live in constant pain when they don’t develop the muscles in their core and around their spine to be able to stand up straight and face the world, to resist the downward pull. Others experience that same gravity and find ways to go to the moon."

The Romantic Lie

I know exactly what you're thinking now because that was the same reaction I had when I began reading Girard.

"That's not true!"

"My desires are solely mine; I possess and nurture them spontaneously, without any external influence."

Or even, "My desires are loftier; no individual embodies them."

This is the Romantic Lie that Luke Burgis refutes.

In reality, there isn't a straight line between you and your desires. The path curves due to your desires being filtered through various models. Figuring out what you truly want isn't as straightforward as deciding to put on a coat in the winter.

Admitting this can be difficult, especially since it strays far from the notion of each of us being atomistic individuals—constantly unique, always exceptional. While we, as individuals, certainly are distinct, it's possible that our desires might not be.

If you look hard enough, you will find a model (or a set of models) for almost everything—your personal style, the way you speak, the look and feel of your home. But the models that most of us overlook are models of desire.

Luke Burgis presents us with a decision: either recognize the mimetic nature of your desires, thereby transforming mimetic theory into a constructive force, or disregard it, leading the mimetic mechanism to become detrimental to you.

The negative alternative

When individuals deny being influenced by the desires of those around them, they become highly susceptible to being ensnared in an unhealthy cycle of yearning, often without realizing how to counteract it.

By firmly believing that their desires are solely their own, they begin viewing individuals who happen to share those desires as adversaries—enemies attempting to hijack their aspirations. The perceived authenticity and personal nature of their desires render the mere thought of someone else pursuing the same objective unbearable.

The resulting sensation of threat from those who share similar aims eclipses any concerns about those who hold divergent desires. This tendency can significantly contribute to strained relationships with colleagues, classmates, and even friends. Consequently, a cycle of "negative desire" is triggered, where mimetic rivalries culminate in conflict and disharmony—an unfortunately common occurrence.

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Try to do this little experiment: Ask yourself, honestly: whom are you more jealous of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or someone in your field, maybe even in your office, who is as competent as you are and works the same amount of hours you do but who has a better title and makes an extra $10,000 per year? It’s probably the second person.

The positive alternative

It's possible to initiate a positive cycle that channels energy into creative and productive endeavors serving a common purpose. This becomes achievable only when you recognize that your desire is mimetic, similar to the desires of others. You realize it's entirely normal for certain individuals to share the same aspirations.

There are 2 ways to do so:

  • Develop empathy: Just stop seeing the other person as a rival.
  • Develop thick desires instead of thin desires: With a thick desire, you align with a model, yet your desire surpasses the model, abstracting further. A potent desire makes others' pursuits of the same goal irrelevant, for you possess an unwavering "core motivational drive" within. You possess a vision, perceiving fellow goal-seekers as partners. You stand united with competitors.
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Positive Mimetic Theory applied: When there was risk of an all-out war with Elon Musk’s rival company, X.com, Peter Thiel merged with him to form PayPal. He knew from Girard that when two people (or two companies) take each other as mimetic models, they enter into a rivalry for which there is no end but destruction—unless they are somehow able to see beyond the rivalry.

My Take Today

If we were all these atomistic individuals, it would be detrimental to innovation.

The zero-sum mentality is always lurking around the corner.

When we transcend our goals, looking forward instead of sideways (who might potentially compete with me for that position?), we can evade stagnation and hostility. We'll break free from the pattern of imitating others and our models, whether current or past.

When everyone imitates everyone else, conflicts arise, as there can only be one original. The others are all losers.

As no one wants to be labeled a loser (BOOOOOO), the stakes rise, competition turns more aggressive, and rivalry spreads.

Competition is positive sum when people collaborate towards a common goal (from Latin, cum + petere). We do not pretend to be hypocritical or pacifist, disliking violence, but by working together we gain knowledge more rapidly, learning from our partners' successes and mistakes.

Isolation - as we fear other people reaping our insights - hinders this process; I lose the chance to benefit from others' errors and evade repeating them. Progress would drag, and stagnation would result due to the lack of knowledge transfer and learning. These pitfalls exemplify the perils of negative mimetic desire.