Luke Burgis: Knowing Why We Want What We Want

One of the questions that we ask ourselves often is what we want. 

This takes many forms. From new year resolutions to weekly to-do lists, we constantly think about what we want to achieve and who we want to become. The one question that we never ask ourselves is why we want what we want. 

That’s something Luke Burgis took a long time to realise. He’d gone to business school, worked on Wall Street, founded a start-up, but realised that none of these pursuits were making him happy. The problem was that these desires weren’t truly his – they were imprinted on him through mimesis.

Mimesis makes us do things we normally wouldn’t. It makes us lie to ourselves. It makes us unhappy. It is probably the most insidious force that’s guiding our decisions in everyday life.  

Luke’s book, Wanting, is an exploration of this phenomenon. It’s an introduction to the work of Stanford professor Rene Girard, and the same time, an exploration of how we can overcome mimetic desire in everyday life. I’ve distilled the most important lessons here, but if you want to learn more about mimesis – including the role of scapegoats and free markets – you’ll definitely want to grab this book.

Table of Contents

Mimetic Theory 101

Perhaps the biggest lie around today is the lie of individuality. 

An unbelieved truth is often more dangerous than a lie. The lie in this case is the idea that I want things entirely on my own, uninfluenced by others, that I’m the sovereign king of deciding what is wantable and what is not. The truth is that my desires are derivative, mediated by others, and that I’m part of an ecology of desire that is bigger than I can fully understand.

This lie is perpetuated because it’s convenient. People get uncomfortable when they discuss mimetic theory because it challenges their identity. It’s especially telling when even contrarians like Peter Thiel refrain from exploring it in depth. 

To write about mimetic desire is to reveal a bit of your own. I ask Peter Thiel why he didn’t explicitly mention Girard in his popular business book Zero to One, even though it was packed with insights from his mentor. 

There’s something dangerous about Girard’s ideas,” Thiel says. “I think people have self- defense mechanisms against some of this stuff.” 

He wanted people to see that Girard’s insights contain important truths and that they explain what is going on in the world around them, but he didn’t want to take his readers all the way through the looking- glass.

And once you see it, you never look at the world the same way again.

Mimetic theory isn’t like learning some impersonal law of physics, which you can study from a distance. It means learning something new about your own past that explains how your identity has been shaped and why certain people and things have exerted more influence over you than others.

Mimesis Leads To Conflict

Imitation is how we learn new languages. It is how culture spreads. It is how societies develop norms so that people can live together. Which is why it’s fascinating that imitation is seen as a taboo and frowned upon. 

Nobody wants to be known as an imitator— except in very specific cases. We encourage children to imitate role models, and most artists generally recognize the value of imitating the masters. But imitation is totally taboo in other circumstances. Imagine if two friends started showing up at every social gathering wearing matching clothes; if a person who received a gift always reciprocated by giving the other person the same gift they were given; if someone constantly mimicked the accent or mannerisms of coworkers. These things would be considered strange, rude, or insulting, if not infuriating. It’s as if everyone is saying, “Imitate me— but not too much,” because while everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.

This fear of sameness creates strong rivalries, which then persist under the guise of a difference in opinion or values. 

When mimetic rivals are caught in a double bind, obsessed with each other, they go to any length to differentiate themselves. Their rival is a model for what not to desire. For a hipster, the rival is popular culture—he eschews anything popular and embraces what he believes to be eclectic, but he does so according to new models. 

According to Girard, “the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.”

We’ve known this since at least the time of Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, we are taught that the two lovers meet a tragic end because of the bitter rivalry between the two houses. You’d think that the two houses would be different in the same manner that the bourgeoise and proletariat are opposed, but in truth, they could not be more the same. Indeed, the opening of the play begins with these words: “Two housesholds, both alike in dignity”. 

One of his earlier students, Sandor Goodhart, now a professor at Purdue University, remembers Girard opening the very first session of his class Literature, Myth, and Prophecy with these words: “Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.” 

This idea features not only in fiction, but in business as well. 

Models of desire are what make Facebook such a potent drug. Before Facebook, a person’s models came from a small set of people: friends, family, work, magazines, and maybe TV. After Facebook, everyone in the world is a potential model. Facebook isn’t filled with just any kind of model— most people we follow aren’t movie stars, pro athletes, or celebrities. Facebook is full of models who are inside our world, socially speaking. They are close enough for us to compare ourselves to them. They are the most influential models of all, and there are billions of them. Thiel quickly grasped Facebook’s potential power and became its first outside investor. “I bet on mimesis,” he told me. His $500,000 investment eventually yielded him over $1 billion. 

When people say that we’ve never been more connected, they often mean it in a positive sense. But it’s worth considering whether that’s actually true. 

We live at a time of hyper- imitation. Fascination with what is trending and going viral is symptomatic of our predicament. So is political polarization. It stems in part from mimetic behavior that destroys nuance and poisons even our most honorable goals: to develop friendships, to fight for important causes, to build healthy communities. When mimesis takes over, we become obsessed with vanquishing some Other, and we measure ourselves according to them. 

We are exposed to the same bits of information now, which is why we’ve become more culturally alike. But that leads to conflict because of the narcissism of small differences. 

Equality is good. Sameness is generally not—unless we’re talking about cars on an assembly line or the consistency of your favorite brand of coffee. The more that people are forced to be the same— the more pressure they feel to think and feel and want the same things— the more intensely they fight to differentiate themselves.

Escaping Mimetic Conflict

If you’ve wondered why seemingly small and innocent actions can lead to conflict, the answer lies in mimetic theory. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is— and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” 

There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw— probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “

We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.

If mimetic conflict is driven by imitation, the fastest way to end the cycle is to stop playing the imitation game. 

Mimetic rivalries don’t end well unless one of the two parties involved renounces the rivalry. To understand why, just imagine coming out on top of a rivalry. The act of winning paradoxically brings about defeat. It signals to us that we picked the wrong model in the first place. In the purported words of Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” And neither do we. 

When one of the two parties to a rivalry renounces the rivalry, it defuses the other party’s desire. In a mimetic rivalry, objects take on value because the rival wants them. If the rival suddenly stops wanting something, so do we. We go in search of something new. 

This requires empathy. Which is simple, but not easy. 

Empathy disrupts negative cycles of mimesis. A person who is able to empathize can enter into the experience of another person and share her thoughts and feelings without necessarily sharing her desires. An empathetic person has the ability to understand why someone might want something that they don’t want for themselves. In short, empathy allows us to connect deeply with other people without becoming like other people. 

Types of Models

If our desires are not truly ours, it’s important to know where they come from. 

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. With these models, people engage in a secret and sophisticated form of imitation that Girard termed mimesis (mi- mee- sis), from the Greek word mimesthai (meaning “to imitate”). 

This begs the question – why do we copy? Who do we look to for models?

We are tantalized by models who suggest a desire for things that we don’t currently have, especially things that appear just out of reach. The greater the obstacle, the greater the attraction. 

We often attribute a person’s magnetism to some objective quality about them—a manner of speaking, intelligence, tenacity, wit, or confidence. Those things help, but there is more. We are generally fascinated with people who have a different relationship to desire, real or perceived. When people don’t seem to care what other people want or don’t want the same things, they seem otherworldly. They appear less affected by mimesis— anti- mimetic, even. And that’s fascinating, because most of us aren’t. 

Some of these models are obvious. We call them “role models” – people we we admire and want to emulate. But others are less obvious. 

Take fitness. A personal trainer is more than a coach— she is a model of desire. She wants something for you that you do not yet want for yourself enough to do what you need to do.

Not all models are equal, and I don’t mean in the role model sense. Having a bad role model leads to the development of bad habits at worse. But if you have bad models of desire, you may end up trapped in a cycle of rivalry and conflict.

We’re more threatened by people who want the same things as us than by those who don’t. 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. 

What you need is a model from the right category – what Luke calls Celebristan. 

Celebristan is where models live who mediate — or bring about changes in our desires — from somewhere outside our social sphere, and with whom we have no immediate and direct possibility of competing on the same basis.

In Celebristan, there is always a barrier that separates the models from their imitators. They might be separated from us by time (because dead), space (because they live in a different country or aren’t on social media), or social status (a billionaire, rock star, or member of a privileged class).  This brings us to an important feature of Celebristan models: because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly.

And the surest way to be unhappy is to have the wrong type of model – a model from Freshmanistan. 

Models who live in Freshmanistan occupy the same social space as their imitators. We’re easily affected by what other people in Freshmanistan say or do or desire. It’s like being in our freshman year of high school, having to jostle for position and differentiate ourselves from a bunch of other people who are in the same situation. Competition is not only possible, it is the norm. And the similarity between the people competing makes the competition peculiar. 

Freshmanistan is the world of models who mediate desire from inside our world, which is why Girard calls them internal mediators of desire. There are no barriers preventing people from competing directly with one another for the same things. Between social media, globalization, and the toppling of old institutions, most of us are living nearly our entire lives in Freshmanistan. 

Picking Your Models

We’re told to run our own race, but this is hard when someone has already laid out the tracks for us. Understanding the game you’re playing is the first step to getting out of Freshmanistan.

Back in 1994, at the age of thirty- two, British chef Marco Pierre White was the youngest chef ever to be awarded three stars. In 1999, only five years later, he retired. “I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself,” he explained. “I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week, I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove or I could give my stars back, spend time with my children and re- invent myself.” He was the first three- star chef in history to shut down and walk away. 

Each of us has our own version of a Michelin star system. We can easily find ourselves, like a French chef, wanting “stars”— marks of status and prestige, badges of honor. Naming the mimetic forces at work in the systems in which we operate is an important first step toward making more intentional choices. Every industry, every school, every family has a particular system of desire that makes certain things more or less desirable. Know which systems of desire you’re living in. There’s probably more than one. 

We look for models everywhere. If you can create a new model, you’ll be able to change how people behave and think –  even established norms like going to college. 

Peter Thiel instituted the Thiel Fellowship in 2011 to pay promising entrepreneurs to start businesses instead of going to college. The fellowship was able to make its value proposition attractive in part because it intentionally hacked mimetic desire: getting a fellowship was harder than getting into Harvard. (The first class of fellows had an acceptance rate of around 4 percent, and in subsequent years it went down to around 1 percent.)

Among the dropouts funded by the fellowship were brilliant, ambitious kids like Vitalik Buterin, co- creator of the decentralized open-source blockchain Ethereum, and Eden Full, inventor of a technology that enables solar panels to follow the sun. These entrepreneurs modeled something even more important than a Harvard degree to many young people; they modeled a different track.

The economic principle of reflexivity states that people don’t base their decisions on reality, but on their perceptions of reality. How they view something, including how other people might react in future, affects how they act.

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. 

The principle of reflexivity has been unexplored in the domain of desire. We might reformulate Soros’s definition of reflexivity like this: In situations where desirous participants have the possibility of interacting with each other, there is a two- way interaction between the participants’ desires.

This makes sense because none of us exist in a vacuum. Our lives have meaning because of shared beliefs and norms.

Many relationships are held together by mimetic bonds: between players who compete for a coach’s respect, colleagues who compete for status, and academics building out their CVs. Mimetic tension is present even in relationships that are, on the whole, healthy: between spouses, parents and children, or colleagues. Even your relationship with your best friend might be — and probably is— tinged by mimesis. Healthy competition can be good; here, we’re talking about mimetic rivalry. The key is recognizing the ways in which a relationship is marked by mimetic rivalry, and confronting them.

Mimesis and You

When people speak of being contrarian, they mean to say that they don’t follow the crowd. But that’s a low bar. All you have to do is the opposite of what everyone is doing regardless of whether it makes sense. What you really want is to be anti-mimetic; to not be affected by what other people do.

Being anti- mimetic is having the ability, the freedom, to counteract destructive forces of desire. Something mimetic is an accelerant; something anti- mimetic is a decelerant. An anti- mimetic action— or person— is a sign of contradiction to a culture that likes to float downstream. 

This isn’t something that can be achieved by external forces because there is something fundamental about human psychology that makes us look to others.  The history of Zappos tells us that much. 

Holacracy replaces traditional management hierarchies with self- organizing teams of people working on a specific project. Zappos had eliminated the management hierarchy, but they couldn’t eliminate the network of desire and the need that people have to be in relationship to models. There is always a hierarchy of desire from the perspective of an individual: some models are worth following more than others, and some things are worth wanting more than others.

We are hierarchical creatures. This is why we like listicles and ratings so much. We have a need to know how things stack up, how things fit together. To remove all semblance of hierarchy is detrimental to this fundamental need. When Zappos moved to holacracy, what disappeared aboveground— the visible roles and titles— reappeared in different ways underground. “The environment became more political,” journalist Aimee Groth, who wrote about holacracy for Quartz, told me. “People were less secure in their jobs . . . less clear on how they could hold on to their roles and their jobs. However, you still had a few people who had infinite power because they had a strong relationship with Tony.” There was a hidden web of desire that nobody could decipher.

Which is why you need to start by looking inward.

Don’t take desires at face value. Find out where they lead. Sit with competing desires and project them into the future. Let’s say you have two competing job offers: Company A and Company B. If you have two days to make the final decision, spend one day with each company in your imagination. On the first day, imagine with as much detail as possible that you’re working at Company A and fulfilling the desires that come along with that position— maybe it’s living in a new city, interacting with smart people, and being closer to your family. Pay close attention to your emotions and what’s going on inside your gut. The next day, spend the entire day doing the same thing, except at Company B. Compare.

Once you do that, you’ll find that there are intrinsic forces which drive you. Forces which would exist even if there’s no one for you to imitate. Call these thick desires.

Core motivational drives are enduring, irresistible, and insatiable. They are probably explanatory of much of your behavior since the time you were a child. Think of them as your motivational energy— the reason you consistently gravitate toward certain types of projects (team versus individual, goal- oriented versus ideation) and activities (sports, arts, theater, forms of fitness) and not others. There are patterns in your motivation. If you can put your finger on what specifically they are, then you will have taken a major step toward understanding your thick desires.

Humans understand things through stories, and the best way to understand yourself is to deconstruct your own narrative.

The best way to uncover the patterns is by sharing stories. The storytelling process that I use involves sharing stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. A Fulfillment Story, as I call it, has three essential elements:

1. It’s an action. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, as opposed to passively taking in an experience. As life- changing as a Springsteen concert at the Stone Pony might have been for you, it’s not a Fulfillment Story. It might be for Bruce, but not for you. Dedicating yourself to learning everything about an artist and their work, on the other hand, could be.

2. You believe you did well. You did it with excellence, you did it well— by your own estimation, and nobody else’s. You are looking for an achievement that matters to you. If you grilled what you think is a perfect rib- eye steak the other night, then you did something well and achieved something. Don’t worry about how big or small the achievement might seem to anyone else.

3. It brought you a sense of fulfillment. Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfillment, maybe even joy. Not the fleeting, temporary kind, like an endorphin rush. Fulfillment: you woke up the next morning and felt a sense of satisfaction about it. You still do. Just thinking about it brings some of it back. 

But narratives are hard to discover if you’re not looking for them, which is why we often hear about people having regrets when they’re old. It’s only on the deathbed that we finally sit still and reflect on what really matters.

We’ve all met older people who realized too late that their desires were thin— for example, a person who looked forward to retirement for decades only to find out that attaining it left them unsatisfied. That’s because the desire to retire (not widely adopted until after World War II, by the way) is a thin desire, filled with mimetically derived ideas about the things one might do, or not do, in this ideal state. The desire to invest more time with family, on the other hand, is a thick desire— and the proof is that a person can start to fulfill it today and continue to fulfill it into retirement. It grows with compound interest over many years. It has time to solidify.

What most of us do is grasp at the newest and nearest thing instead. That inevitably puts us on a path where there is no end because we don’t know what we’re looking for.

Mimetic desire manifests itself as the constant yearning to be someone or something else (what we called metaphysical desire). People select models because they think the models hold the key to a door that just might lead to the thing they have been looking for. But as we’ve seen, this metaphysical desire is a never- ending game. We cycle through models faster than we cycle through clothes. The act of winning, of gaining possession of the thing that the model made us want, convinces us that we chose the wrong model in the first place. And so we go in search of another one. Mimetic desire is a paradoxical game. Winning is how you lose. Every victory is Pyrrhic.  

There’s a saying that we must either suffer the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Luke has a version of this for mimesis, and we’d all be happier if we remembered it.

Our choice is to yield to the mimetic forces making claims on our desire at every moment or to yield to the freedom of our single greatest desire: doing the one thing that we were made to do, all of the time, over and over and over again, until we’ve developed a desire thick enough to stake our life on. In the meantime, and probably at all times, we have something warm to sink our teeth into: wanting what we already have. 

If you liked any of this, you’ll love Luke Burgis’ new book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life