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Mimetic Desire with Luke Burgis
An interview with Luke Burgis, author of Wanting
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“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.
By embracing the lie of my independent desires, I deceive only myself. But by rejecting the truth, I deny the consequences that my desires have for other people and theirs for me.”
One of Those Rare Books
I can count on one hand the number of books that have had a profound impact on the way I view the world. It’s a rare joy to burn through the pages of a book; finding it difficult to put down. I had this experience this year when reading Wanting by Luke Burgis. The book was passed along to me by my father-in-law, and I never thought much more of it until I packed it for a trip to India. I would sit on the balcony in the mornings, the blissful heat hugging my skin, mosquitos nipping at my ankles, and spend the first few hours of the day reading. Before the week was done I had finished, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since.
Luke’s dissection of mimetic desire, the hidden imitative force that controls how and what we want, allowed me to see in a colour I never knew existed. Aspects of my life suddenly began to make sense. I was now equipped with the context to explain why certain things were the way they were. Shortly after, I began to make subtle changes in my life to confront mimesis. In other areas, I was bestowed with an awareness of its presence. Like the genie emerging from the bottle, I can’t unsee what I now see. I eventually reached out to Luke to express my gratitude for his book. I would also explain that I had some questions I wanted to ask him, and wanted to do so in a way that would help share the learnings with others. Luke kindly accepted my request, and here we are.
Have you ever read this quote from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One?
“Advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away; it exists to embed subtle impressions that will drive sales later. Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived”.
I didn’t know it at the time, having read the book years ago, but Thiel consistently refers to mimetic desire throughout Zero to One; despite not explicitly stating it. Through Wanting, I later discovered Thiel was a student of René Girard; the father of mimetic desire whose ideas are referenced heavily throughout Luke’s book.
Humans are prone to fostering unhealthy desires; which they misinterpret as needs. Have you ever wondered why someone can go from earning $100k per year to $250k and still feel like they need more? Burgis might say this individual is spending less time in the world of needs and more time in the world of desires. We have a select few needs that are dictated by our physical basis for wanting. You don’t need external validation to know that when you are famished, you eat, and when you are dehydrated, you drink. Past a certain point, most of our desires are fructified through imitation. We want things because someone else does. The mediators of those desires range from friends, family, celebrities and historical figures. These desires exist within a spectrum; ranging from the innocent goal of starting a family or purchasing a particular brand of handbag to the exuberant display of wealth that is acquiring a Lamborghini.
Luke, a veteran entrepreneur, has led an interesting life. After graduation, he would wind up in private equity and then investment banking, before realising that his career was bounded by “thin desires” (more on that shortly). In his own words; “after attending NYU Stern and making my way through Wall Street and the start-up world, I felt that something was missing”. Readers will know I have a fascination with connecting human nature to the stock market, and I believe the takeaways from Wanting will enrich that understanding for any reader. But more importantly, it will help you understand yourself and those around you.
I believe everyone ought to read Luke’s book. You will begin to see mimesis everywhere around you; as though they were microscopic particles suddenly visible to the eye. Luke also continues his work over at Anti-Mimetic, his newsletter, which I enjoy greatly.
Question 1 - What is Mimesis?
Conor: Good morning Luke, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions today. I spent a lot of time contemplating where I would start with these questions, and eventually thought to myself; “let’s just dive right into it”. To kick things off, I think it would be really helpful context for readers, and will set the groundwork for the questions I ask today if you could give a succinct synopsis of what mimesis is, and briefly explain the concept of Freshmanistan and Celebristan.
Luke: Mimesis (from the Greek word for “to imitate”) simply means a hidden form of imitation—unintentional imitation, the kind that we engage in when we’re on auto-pilot. There’s tremendous mimetic power to buy when others buy, sell when others sell, or adopt the ideas of others like fashion. Mimetic desire is a particular kind of mimesis that goes deeper than just surface level things; it means we’re actually imitating the desires of other people. We want what they want because they want it. Shakespeare summed this up: “Oh hell, to choose love by another's eyes!” Hermia says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We like to think that we choose love, and everything else, with our own eyes. But because we’re social creatures, embedded in a world of desire, that’s just not the case.
We rely on models of desire to help us know what to want. “'Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” wrote the social theorist René Girard, who coined this phrase mimetic desire. According to Girard, there are two major kinds of models: the ones that come from within our world (internal mediators of desire, in Girard’s terms), and the kind that stand outside of our world (external mediators of desire). I call the world dominated by the first kind (internal mediators) Freshmanistan because it’s the feeling of being a freshman in high school or college. Everyone is affected by everyone else. It’s like we’re all on the same trampoline; one person jumps, it exerts a force upon us. The other world of external mediators is a world I call Celebristan—the models there are outside of our world, like Michael Jordan to a young basketball player. The imitator and the imitated don’t affect one another the way they do in Freshmanistan. This is a critical distinction.
Question 2 - How do People Alter Their Lives After Discovering Mimesis?
Conor: Since reading your book, I have made some changes in my life; which I will come back to later. I am curious, what are some of the most common changes people have told you they make after reading the book?
Luke: Re-evaluating the relationships in their lives by looking at the mimetic dynamics and diagnosing toxic mimetic desire, whether in romantic relationships or friendships or on social media; stepping back from career tracks that they may have been drawn into for purely mimetic reasons; re-thinking education; taking religion seriously, if they don’t already, because nothing safeguards around unhealthy and rivalrous mimetic desire than a transcendent perspective.
Question 3 - Litmus Tests for Determining True vs Incepted Desire
Conor: To say that desire is mimetic, is to say it’s deeply imitative. We look to models; others who can show us what to desire. How can we identify these mediators of desire, and how do we know if our desires are truly what we want versus what we are told to want? What is the litmus test for discerning what is raw desire and what is inception?
Luke: There is no one litmus; there is a battery of tests. A typical five-step process that I often help students move through involves:
1) Evaluating the desire through foundational moral or ethical frameworks;
2) Giving desires time to unfold and reveal themselves;
3) Engaging these desires with other people, talking about them—nothing gives fuel to unhealthy desires quite like keeping them hidden in the dark, and pornography is a prime example of this;
4) Looking at the continuity of the desire in the context of your total life (is it a “thick” or a “thin” desire?);
5) Most importantly, where does that desire ultimately end, what is its telos? If we follow that desire to the end, where do you end up?
Look, I don’t think there is a clear dividing line between the desires given to me and the ones I choose. It can be both/and. We are born into a world. I didn’t invent the world of desires that I’m born into. I do have the agency to choose to embrace them intentionally, though. One example: I was given the desire to have faith from my parents, but it took me 20+ years of wrestling with that desire before I fully embraced it and chose to cultivate that desire. I owned it. Others reject it. Sooner or later, we have to choose. And the choices we make matter.
Question 4 - Is Borrowed Desire Inherently Bad?
Conor: Someone might conceive that borrowing desire from another person is bad. Is that always the case? What are the signs we can look for to ascertain the health of a model’s influence on us?
Luke: It’s not always bad. There are tremendously positive mimetic desires! While it may be a bit cliche at this point, Robin Williams in the film Good Will Hunting is a story about an educator who positively infected students with a desire to learn—and that seems like a good thing to me. Ultimately, the way you ascertain the health of a model’s influence will come down to what you value. If you have a clear set of values, and more importantly a hierarchy of those values, it’s not hard to tell whether someone is pulling you up and drawing you into more alignment with those values, or pushing you further away.
Question 5 - Can We Alter our Hardwired Desires?
Conor: To follow up on that, you often talk about this idea of thick versus thin desires. Thin desires are those which are highly mimetic and ephemeral. By contrast, thick desires are those which are deeply ingrained into our being. You once said they are like “layers of rock that have been built up throughout the course of our lives”. Putting desires like hunger, thirst, and shelter aside, would it be right to say that thick desires are fructified in a similar way that people often say “we are the product of our environment?”. They are hardwired. What dictates our thick desires, and is it possible they change over time?
Luke: Environment does heavily influence our thick desires, but we’re not merely a product of our environment. Some of the most important thick desires of my life were not part of my childhood. I developed a thick desire to make classic literature part of my life in my late twenties, because I thought it was important in the shaping of my imagination (which might be the real thick desire; with the literature being a kind of instrument.) Had I not chosen to cultivate that thick desire, I don’t think I ever would’ve been able to write a book. How could I, if my writing had been limited to business-speak? So everyone can decide how they want to develop, and it’s never too late to start forming a new thick desire. There is finite room, though, so some of your thick desires will have to go. There’s tremendous freedom in letting them go. Most people I know who have given up the nightcap bourbon (or whatever they like) don’t even miss it after a month or two. Their real desire may have been to relax and unwind before bed, and there are many ways to do that that don’t necessarily involve bourbon. Maybe it’s a thin desire. So sometimes, knowing what our thick desires are—what we’re really looking for when we engage in an activity—is a great way of bringing the thin nature of other desires to the surface, so we can decide what to do about them.
Question 6 - Finance and Human Nature
Conor: I discovered a natural love of business from a young age; it was the first class I took in high school where I studied the subject outside of schooling hours. I later discovered an endless curiosity for microeconomics and the psychology of an individual’s relationship with money. This eventually transcended into a passion for the stock market. While the goal of creating a wealth accumulation vehicle is certainly one I adopt, I believe my passion for the stock market stems from a fascination with humans. To me, the stock market is a bedrock for studying human behaviour. It’s fluid and everchanging, yet exhibits repetitive tendencies. Observing how retail participation spikes at the peak of every asset bubble, witnessing the power of mimetic desire in the luxury industry, and noticing how investing is an exquisite library from which to study the extensive number of biases and how they inflict us.
I was wondering, did your transgression from finance to the study of human nature follow a similar path? I know you have described that your early career, which led to you becoming an investment banker, was directed by thin desires, but was there a correlation at all in your interest in finance that led you to where you are today?
Luke: What you’ve described is very similar to my own interest in markets—I’m not just an investor in them, I’m also a student of them (and not just in an instrumental way, to make as much money as possible, but in a way that transcends that goal: I have a genuine interest in human nature.). Markets are a lab. I think I would have been a lot happier had I not been on the investment banking side but on the trading floor.
The longer I’ve studied the stock market, the more I see how mimetically-driven it is and how ridiculous some of the fundamental analysis is when it comes to predicting short-term trends. In some sense, I think it did me a disservice to go to a really good undergrad business school like Stern because every explanation was over-rationalized, and behavioural economics and behavioural finance was just not something I was exposed to until later in life, when I began to put the pieces together on my own.
Question 7 - Harnessing Mimetic Desire
Conor: Desire can sometimes leave people down the wrong path, but on the whole, I believe desire is good. It’s what makes us human. To paraphrase you, if the desire is orientated in the right way, it can be immensely powerful. You once illustrated this using the two wolves parable; there are two wolves inside you and you must figure out which one to feed, and which to starve.
I believe that one of the skills your book gives to its readers is the ability to identify when mimetic desire is in play. I can understand why some may construe an abundance of undirected desire as undesirable. What are some of the most practical ways to harness mimetic desire to your benefit?
Luke: Desire is a beautiful thing. We wouldn’t be human without it. I realize that some religious traditions equate desire with suffering, or say that desire is the source of all suffering; where I differ is that I don’t believe that suffering should be avoided at all costs, and the attempt to do so is the root of many problems on a personal and societal level. For instance: if I’m sick and I desire to be healthy—but for some reason I am unable to get healthy—it doesn’t mean that I would be better off had I not desired health at all. On the contrary, my desire tells me something important about the nature of being human, and about myself, and it is perhaps an opportunity to get better at living a life that doesn’t require the complete satisfaction of all of my desires, all of the time. Maybe that’s not the goal of life.
To answer your question: one practical thing you can do is find one positive model of desire that you wish you had in life but do not—someone who wants something that you want to want—and draw nearer to that person. Be infected by their desire. I did this with a friend who is much better than I am at rest and vacations, who has a healthier work/life balance. If all of my friends are just hustlers who are running themselves into the ground, it’s very difficult for me to do any different, to want to do any different. I think each of us could probably find at least one positive model and take steps to make them a greater part of our lives in the coming month.
Question 8 - We Can’t Avoid Freshmanistan
Conor: "We should choose our enemies wisely because we become like them". This is something you once said that I feel perfectly captures the essence of Freshmanistan. I think about soccer teams and how the manager of a team wants an understudy in each position on the field so that the 1st pick feels pressure to improve and retain their spot. The understudy is also motivated to improve, to clinch that first-team spot. In a sense, they are competing in Freshmanistan, but when done right, this benefits the squad. Is Freshmanistan always something that should be avoided?
Luke: We can’t avoid Freshmanistan. We have to learn to live well within it. The example you give is a great one. Any healthy sports team has to learn to harness mimetic desire in positive ways and avoid rivalry. Only a great culture can do that, where each person understands who they are and what the team is, and how the two work together.
Question 9 - Dealing with Unhealthy Rivalry
Conor: After reading Wanting, I began to realise where I was embroiled in Freshmanistan conflicts. However, I found that the individuals whom I’d normally be in Freshmanistan with; if I had connected with them on a deeper level, those feelings of animosity would be replaced with feelings of support, not competition. Is that normal in your findings?
Sometimes that won’t be possible, so I am curious. What are the best practical ways to deal with unhealthy Freshmanistan conflicts; mute them out of your social sphere? Seek to remedy them?
Luke: Making an attempt to connect with these people on a deeper level is a great first step. It’s possible to break through the thin desires and the misconceptions that might color that relationship. But it doesn’t work every time. Some people will not be open to connecting in that way at the time you want. At a certain point, you have to consider shaking the dust off and creating some distance. Maybe they’re not ready today, but they will be in the future. Or maybe you aren’t. There is a time and a place for everything. It’s important not to force it. If you’ve ever been in a serious rivalry with another person, going to them having first made some act of good will usually offers the best pathway to success. You have to be able to give something up.
Question 10 - Contrarian for Contrarian’s Sake
Conor: One of the actionable learnings from your book is this idea of becoming ‘anti-mimetic’. I believe the wrong way to interpret this is to become a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian or the refusal to imitate anyone; period.
What do you think drives contrarian-for-contrarians-sake thinking? And what, then, is the true meaning of anti-mimetic, and can one go too far the opposite way in their decision to avoid mimesis?
Luke: That’s right—being anti-mimetic does not mean being a contrarian just for the hell of it. It means being able to think for yourself; it means knowing the environment that you’re in and how it is affecting you. It means knowing the nature of the relationships that you’re in and how they affect you. Girard once quipped: “Everyone leaves the beaten path only to fall into the same ditch.” Think of the hipsters who reject the mainstream culture only to end up looking all alike. The only real way to become anti-mimetic is to move vertically where others are trying to get you to move horizontally, on the 2-D plane. If you just look to your right and left and then try your hardest to “differentiate” yourself you’ll always end up looking pretty ridiculous, because you’re really just a product of the very models you’re trying to be different from. This is most politics today. There simply has to be a transcendent principle at work which naturally leads to anti-mimesis. You don’t lead with it; it just happens when you’re pursuing the right things.
Question 11 - When are We Rational?
Conor: Figuring out authentic desire. You gave this great analogy once. Not making decisions on extremes of emotions. Like deciding you want to leave a job when an MD asks you to pull an all-nighter. Conversely, deciding you want to stay after being paid a large bonus.
The middle ground. Talk more about that. How do we know when we are being rational?
Luke: Experiences of extreme consolation or desolation color all of our reality. Most people have a baseline state in which they feel most “free” to act, and they aren’t operating from a place of fear or overconfidence. The old maxim “calm, cool and collected” comes to mind: it’s actually a very important state to be able to achieve. And we have to know what pulls us out of it. You’re more likely to be rational if you are not overly attached to one specific outcome. Think of a young man who is pursuing one specific woman: if he thinks his entire life will be over if he doesn’t win her over, he’s simply not thinking rationally. While it’s natural to want certain outcomes, at some point there needs to be a detachment of desire during the most critical stages of the decision-making process. Excellent traders are good at this.
Question 12 - Hard Truths
Conor: I have two questions on relationships now. In a previous essay, you talk about the courage of truth. I am someone who deeply values honesty. I think at times this principle can be a detriment, as I prefer to be candid, even when it might create awkward situations. How can we balance our desire for hard truths with respecting the environment we are in?
Luke: There is the truth, and then there is the way that truth is communicated, and then there is the capacity of the other person or people to be able to receive the truth in the particular form you’re communicating it in. There is goodness in meeting other people where they’re at. This actually makes your passion for the truth all the more effective—because it turns it into the kind of energy that knows when and how to expend itself wisely. An obvious example of the wrong way to expend that energy would be dropping “truth bombs” on Twitter to people who don’t care. Likewise, in private conversation, the integration of truth is a process; it goes through many stages. Many people wouldn’t be able to just get up off the couch and run a marathon. We don’t usually think of truth like this, but it’s not entirely different. Sometimes we simply don’t have the capacity to take in everything at one time. Everything requires order, and perspective.
Question 13 - Friendships
Conor: Friendships. There are some people who you almost instantly develop those deeper connections with; others when it's always a surface layer of friendship that proves difficult to penetrate. Despite attempts to break those barriers, it never works.
For someone who values deeper connection, are these relationships lost causes?
Luke: There is someone I tried to befriend for twenty years until we had a break-through. Patience has probably never been in shorter supply, given the effect that social media has had on all of us. The patient will accomplish great things. There are no lost causes when it comes to people. I certainly would never want anyone to think that I am one! My high school principal treated me like one—and that was a very negative experience. Life is so much more exciting and rewarding when we hope against hope because we learn that what is possible can exceed our expectations in unimaginable ways. I could give you many examples of this just from my own life, but that would take more space than we have.
Question 14 - Nurturing Inspiration
Conor: A question on writing. This one is for me. Years ago, at 22, I started writing about companies I was following as a form of feedback generation and to improve my writing. As I grew more comfortable, and the audience grew, I leaned more into the catalyst of my interest in finance; the psychology which underpins it all. Now at 26, the nature of my newsletter has evolved over time.
You will know that inspiration for writing is mysterious. Sometimes my flow state arrives at 7am, coffee in hand, as I think back to an off-hand comment a friend made. A few hours later and I have constructed the skeleton of an idea that would usually take me days. Someone once told me that this kind of inspiration is impossible to manufacture, but there are things we can do to create environments conducive to its fructification.
How do you find inspiration?
Luke: I honestly do not have a way to conjure it up on demand. I know what typically kills it or prevents it from happening (too much social media, etc). There is no doubt that nature and silence play a big role for me. Conversely, and paradoxically, I also find a lot of inspiration from being in public spaces alone where I can observe human interactions. I wrote a large portion of Wanting at coffee shops and bars. Yes, I was the guy with the laptop in places where it probably looked crazy to have one out. So maybe, for me, it’s the alternation between silence and nature and the immersion into the stream of life in non-traditional places where I can just listen to how people talk and behave. It’s often an exercise in an MFA/writing class to go observe conversations (hopefully, in a non-creepy way) and try to reproduce dialogue that sounds real. I think it was David Foster Wallace who said that a lot of good writers and artists have to sort of be creepy in this way in order to become really keen observers of human life. I find inspiration in the real, not in the abstract.
Last Question - Augmented Reality and Human Interaction
Conor: Last question, and one that is potentially ephemeral, but I wanted your perspective. Apple recently unveiled its mixed reality headset which they suggest is the beginning of their entrance into the next iteration of computing; “spatial computing”. Like the newspaper, the radio, the telephone, and the smartphone before it, there will be many who talk about the dangers of this level of connectivity and how it removes us from the reality we ought to be experiencing. Equally, as there are dissenters, there are those who see the beauty in connectivity. For instance, I am grateful for Facetime which allows me and my partner to communicate with family in Asia on a daily basis. I can see a world where those meetings occur with spatial awareness being a step up in mimicking presence.
That said, these things rarely pan out how we expect them to. I am comfortable admitting I plan to just let the universe do its thing. Do these advancements in how humans interact scare you, excite you, what are your thoughts?
Luke: I think technological innovation is happening faster than we can handle or adapt to at this point. I am pro-innovation, I’m just being very careful about how I bring these new technologies into my life and my family because, contrary to what some will say, there is no such thing as a neutral technology. It’s not just about “how we use it.” No, they all alter the structure of our contact with reality. Think about Twitter. It’s not just about how I use it; it has a particular structure and it has been massively transformative on a societal and personal level. I don’t get to impose myself that much on this technology; it operates beyond me and has a kind of formal power that we don’t fully even understand, and yes…that’s dangerous. We are always backward looking when it comes to the effects.
I don’t know that I have a particular stance on the Apple headsets at this point. I’d try one. I’m sure it’s cool. My main criteria for evaluating these new technologies always comes back to whether or not it leads me to the real. My wife and I started our relationship heavily reliant on Facetime and texts for years; but now that relationship is very real, and we have a baby girl on the way. That’s technology I’m grateful for. I can’t say the same about a lot of other stuff right now.
Conor: Luke, thank you so much for your time.
Thanks for reading,