Understanding human nature isn’t about understanding others as much as it is about understanding ourselves.
Human beings are complicated. We do, say, and want stuff as a result of a range of mechanisms we hardly understand.
Here are seven concepts that will help you grasp a little bit better your own nature, why you do what you do, and why you are who you are.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Theory of Mimetic Desire
- 2. The Status Game and the Winner Effect
- 3. The Sacrifice and the Scapegoat
- 4. The Archetypes
- 5. The Shadow
- 6. The Hero’s Journey
- 7. Antifragility and Robustness
1. The Theory of Mimetic Desire
While working as a literature professor, René Girard noticed that most heroes in the stories he read were shown what to value by other characters.
These heroes didn’t seem to have intrinsic wishes. Rather, they got their desires and ambitions based on what other people had wanted at some point in their lives.
This strange observation seemed to replicate in real life.
If you ask a class of 100 first-year university students what job they want to do later, you’re likely to find 50-80 different answers.
If you ask the same question three years later to the same students, you’ll get fewer than 10 different jobs.
Desires are not inherent. They’re copied. It’s hard for the ego to accept in the beginning, but we’re not born with desires. We learn what to want as we grow up.
Remember your school years and the trends (cards, figurines, beads) that every kid jumped onto after the cool ones introduced them?
This principle still applies today.
Whatever movie everyone has watched, you will want to watch it too. Whatever new fancy restaurant everyone has tried, you will want to try it too. Whatever holiday destination everyone is talking about, you will want to go there too.
Our desires aren’t inherent; they’re copied.
Once you recognize that, you can ensure to surround yourself with people who have healthy and noble desires.
You are the average of the five people you hang out with is not exactly.
You desire the average of what the five people you surround yourself with is much truer.
2. The Status Game and the Winner Effect
Google defines status as “the relative social, professional, or other standing of someone or something.”
Status is the driving force behind the sales of luxury brands and expensive cars. Status is why we’re all on social media competing for likes and follows.
And status is why some people drive with open windows and loud music.
Status isn’t merely an idea, or a child’s play – it’s a real measure of social standing with biological and psychological ramifications.
In the book The Winner Effect, Ian Robertson highlighted that:
- Actors who received an award lived longer than actors who did not.
- Civil servants who got high in their job hierarchy lived longer than the ones who did not.
- Football fans whose team won had more testosterone than the fans whose team lost.
The effect of status on psychology is comparable to the effect of money. The more you have it, the more confidence you have, and the worst losing it all will feel.
In the 14th century, Philippe IV sent an emissary to slap Pope Boniface VIII over political disagreements. Shaken to the core, Boniface died a few weeks later. It’s not that nobody slaps the Pope, but that the Pope does not get slapped. He who is slapped can no longer be the Pope.
When Cortes captured Moctezuma II, the symbol of the living god he embodied shattered in the eyes of the population and the empire collapsed. Ideas are powerful. Status, even more so.
Sociologists noticed that revolutions were never undertaken by the lower classes because their complete lack of status did not give them the strength, vigor, and confidence they needed to overthrow the government.
Rather, revolutions were undertaken by the middle class.
These stories are only a few of the hundreds of anecdotes that highlight how important social status is, both at the psychological and sociological levels.
Status is a matter of life or death.
The more status you have, the more stuff you get. In 2014, the top model Cameron Russell spoke on the TED stage during a talk entitled “Looks Aren’t Everything” where she proceeded to explain that looks are, in fact, definitely everything.
Russell explains how her beauty (an important sign of status for women) opened the doors of a prolific modeling career, enabled her to meet powerful people, and get free dinners, clothing, and countless materialistic advantages.
This is the Winner Effect, a virtuous-like principle conceptualizing the idea that the more status you have, the more stuff you receive.
High-status men earn more money, date more people, live longer, have more friends, and have better health. They’re winners, and winning helps them win more.
Unfortunately, the same is true of the loser effect. Low-status men earn less money, date fewer people, die sooner, have fewer friends, and worse health.
Status is a matter of life and death, and far from the mainstream conceptions that you should not “think about what other people think of you” or you should not”acquire status goods”, the empirical evidence tends to the contrary: yes, you should definitely seek to raise your status.
So, how do you do so?
- Dress well.
- Look good.
- Know stuff people want to know.
- Do stuff people want to do.
- Have stuff people want to have.
- Climb as high as you can in the social hierarchy.
And above all, exploit all of your potential.
Much of our internal frustrations come from our dissatisfaction with where we are in life. When you do your best and are your best, you don’t feel bad about yourself.
While status is ascribed by other people, high-status people are usually one or several of those compared to the people they are with in the room:
For women, it’s often based on beauty, age, or popularity (this girl is so nice!!).
It’s no wonder that the top of each hierarchy hangs out together. The best musicians hang out with the best authors, the high-ranking politicians, and the local billionaire because all of them, compared to the broader society, are high-status.
One last tip: in the absence of Internet, status is locally-measured. You may be low status in a big city, but high status in your village because you “live in a big city”.
In that case, it would be better for you to move back to your village as long as you can maintain your high status.
Status is locally measured. Don’t forget.
3. The Sacrifice and the Scapegoat
Since the dawn of time, human societies have been performing sacrifices of all sorts: humans, animals, materials, you name it.
Plenty of anthropologists have written about the topic and while we know that sacrifice is inherent to the human psyche, we don’t exactly understand its underlying mechanisms.
Joseph Campbell wrote that the concept of sacrifice came from the observation of nature.
When a tree dies, for example, it enables a wealth of other species to live in it (compost is a great fertilizer.) It seems then that death leads to life. By the same token, what lives inevitably dies. Life leads inexorably to death.
Ancient societies developed the concept of a life-death as a never-ending cycle, one creating more of the other.
In a time when one required more life, the logical thing to do was to create more death – that is, to kill.
And that’s how sacrifices came to be.
Sacrifices were often offered to the gods in order to receive something in exchange, as if suffering created joy.
René Girard had a different theory.
Jumping back on the theory of mimetic desires, Girard explains that on a long enough time scale, everyone desired the same thing because, as a reminder, people copy each others’ desires.
When you want what someone else wants too (a job, a partner, a house, a car), you fight with them.
And when everyone fights with everyone, the safety and integrity of the group are threatened. Girard called this the mimetic crisis.
From this point on, groups have two choices:
- They go through with it and all kill each other. In our modern society, this is the civil war.
- They blame it all on one scapegoat and sacrifice it. In our modern society, this is the genocide.
For survival reasons, most tribes that survived chose option 2.
A scapegoat was designated as the unilateral cause of the fight and killed during a sacrifice which diffused the mimetic crisis and enabled everyone to go back to their daily life, in peace – until the next mimetic crisis, at least.
Where does this need for sacrifice come from? According to Girard, from the inherent human need to blame others for their misfortune.
The peculiarity of the sacrifice is that it’s always carried unconsciously. We always believe that by sacrificing X or Y, our lives will get better – without realizing the scapegoat mechanism at play.
While it’s not hard to take a step back and recognize the scapegoat mechanism when carried at the group level, it’s much harder to do so at the individual level – especially when the individual is none others than ourselves.
I, for example, have sacrificed many friendships on the altar of ease and laziness, thinking that cutting ties would enable me to “feel better” in the long run according to the following (flawed) mainstream logic.
The author does not realize he’s stuck in a scapegoat mechanism and that sacrificing his friends only enables him to have the illusion that he’s improving his life.
But he isn’t – which is why he launched a career as an influencer in the first place.
“Cut down the people you don’t like” is probably the biggest unconscious scapegoat mechanism at play in our current society.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Few of your problems have an external cause. Most of them are your fault.
Sacrifice has been the way human beings have dealt with difficulty for hundreds of thousands of years.
Beware of its cost. Some sacrifices, like sacrificing pleasure on the altar of happiness, are certainly positive.
The opposite isn’t true.
4. The Archetypes
An archetype is a psychological image of a character universally present in the human psyche. Introduced by Carl Jung, archetypes are recognizable because they end up in the myths and religions of all cultures that did not have contact with one another.
Joseph Campbell explains that myths, stories, and religions are to humans what the pouch is to a newborn kangaroo.
Humans, like kangaroos, are born too soon. As soon as it’s born, a calf can already walk and eat and take care of itself.
Not humans. They only reach adulthood after a good 18 years of life, and are extremely fragile for at least the first 4 or 5 years of their existence. And then they need clothing, fire, and tool to survive in the wild.
Human intelligence makes them also fragile to the chaos of the world.
Animals are not conscious – they live according to the need to fulfill their basic biological needs.
But human beings are. Human beings have the power to choose what to do upon waking up.
Of course, the million dollars question is: how do you choose?
You choose to do what you deem valuable. How do you decide what’s valuable?
If you go ask people what they want to do/are doing with their lives, few of them will give you a specific answer.
This problem is as old as the world and most (if not all) cultures worked on it in the same way: they told stories and embedded them into the myths and religions.
Religions have a bad rap nowadays because they’re associated with the so-called Dark Ages in the case of Christianism, and the terrorist attacks in the case of Islam.
Yet religions are nothing more than stories of incredible sophistication with a wide range of applications (psychological, social, anthropological, social, etc).
Stories were first made to explain how the world works. They complexified as time went by, fulfilling an increasing number of social functions to the civilizations they contributed to build.
One of these social functions was to give people a verified value structure onto which they could build a meaningful life.
Part of the current nihilism inherent to Western societies comes from the fact that we have long stopped looking within these stories for guidance.
When we compare religious narratives from all cultures, we notice they all use a range of archetypes such as the Hero, the Mentor, the Mother, or the Shadow. These characters should not be understood from a materialistic perspective, but from a symbolic perspective.
When Herakles defeats the Hydra in the Greek myths, Herakles isn’t actually defeating a Hydra because Hydras don’t exist. Herakles is a symbol of the Hero (you) and the Hydra is a symbol of the things in your life that cause you multiple problems (two heads spring out of one when Herakles cuts it).
The relevance of these stories is often psychological. They symbolize psychological problems universal to human beings.
The meaning of these stories should rarely be searched in the real world – but rather be searched in the inner world.
The discussions questioning the existence of God or Jesus walking on water, for example, are completely irrelevant. Nobody can walk on water. The purpose isn’t to discuss physics, but to understand the meaning of water, and the symbol that Christ represents.
Atheists love to talk about the material relevance of religion, which is the equivalent today of discussing whether the Earth is round or flat. These types of discussions should not be engaged with because they start from a wrong base.
Anyone who considers a religion from a material perspective does not understand what they are talking about.
Religions exist to help you orientate yourself in life. It’s a basis old of several millennia, enriched by the knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy of extremely smart people. They’re a map to life, for there is little difference between the life you lead in real life and the life you lead in your head.
Every story has a Hero, which represents your conscious mind in your psychology, and yourself in real life; and every story has a villain, which is your unconscious Shadow in your psychology, and your own nemesis in real life.
The Shadow is an important archetype.
5. The Shadow
The Shadow is both an archetype and the name ascribed to the part of the psyche where we put what we repress.
When a baby is born, he is born whole. As he grows up, his parents teach him that there are things that he must do and things that he cannot do.
When a child runs around the house screaming, and one of his parents seizes him by the arm and tells him this is not an acceptable behavior, the desire to run and scream around the house is repressed into the child’s shadow. The child will no longer do that.
By the time we reach 20, our Shadow is full of the stuff we’re repressing.
The problem is that we are not aware of it because the Shadow is located in the unconscious part of the mind. We don’t know what we put in there.
This is where stories and archetypes intervene.
Archetypes and stories are psychological symbols that vehicle meaning between the conscious and the unconscious.
They act as a bridge, as a language between your conscious and subconscious.
Dreams is one of their forms.
What are dreams, if not stories where a series of symbols interact with one another?
A dream is a message from your subconscious – and sometimes, the dream comes directly from your Shadow.
Jung believe that the purpose of life was to integrate the Shadow in order to become as whole as we were when we were born.
Shadow integration is the process of understanding what we put in it and rendering it conscious as we do so. There are two reasons why you want to integrate your shadow.
First, while it’s unconscious, the shadow is a direct part of who you are. It expresses itself through the mechanism known as projection. Projection is the ascription of a shadow practice or quality onto somebody else.
For example, you may accuse others of talking behind your back because you’ve repressed the fact that you’re talking behind other’s people’s backs and you won’t admit it if someone makes you notice. In fact, you can even be angry.
Unjustified anger at something minor is often a sign of something you’re repressing in yourself.
Same goes for projection. If you’re overly caring about your friends and family’s health, you’re likely not taking care of yours.
Noticing your own projection is one of the best ways to become conscious of the things you repress in yourself. What are you obsessed with? What are the things that irrationally anger you?
I, for once, tend to project malicious intentions on others, likely because I have not come to grip my own tendency to be malicious.
In my case, the capacity for malice is a Shadow quality, repressed in my subconscious. I am hardly capable of malice. I cannot lie and become incredibly red if I do so. Meanwhile, other people lying to me or being malicious with me make me extremely angry.
Conclusion: I likely repress the fact that I am lying and being malicious.
Becoming aware and practicing your Shadow qualities will, in time, help you integrate them to develop a “more whole” personality.
The second reason why you should uncover your Shadow is that it contains a lot of (creative) potential.
Think of it as a part of your personality you don’t have access to. When you unearth it, you discover new qualities and skills about yourself that had always been there but hidden…in the shadow.
For example, it has long been my opinion that introversion isn’t a personality trait but simply a result of extroversion contained in the shadow.
Because we were raised to be sociable, the Shadow most often contains asocial traits of characters such as violence or murderous rage (or worse).
When you make these traits conscious, you help yourself not only control them, but also take back the energy that comes with them and of which you had been depraved since you put them in your Shadow.
The size of someone’s Shadow is easy to spot because it corresponds to how repressed they are.
According to the principle that one’s body represents one’s psychology, any move away from the mean will usually tell you a lot about somebody’s hardship in life.
One of the things I learned in theater classes was Laban Movement Analysis applied to walking.
The idea was that a confident executive would likely walk differently than a postman, or someone who’s just been left by his wife.
The body is a direct reflection of one’s psychology.
Not always, but often.
So, how do you integrate your Shadow?
As we have seen, you first need to be aware of the things that are likely to be in your Shadow (you do so by analyzing the things you project on people). They’re not necessarily negative skills.
I’m very good at projecting “skills” onto other people and equally good at not doing so for myself. Feeling skilled is likely in my Shadow.
The second step is to practice what you are repressing.
If you are afraid to be violent because violence was something you were taught you could absolutely not do, then it could help to join a boxing, kickboxing, or Krav Maga class.
But isn’t violence bad? No. Violence is a tool and should be utilized in certain situations for defense purposes.
Furthermore, repressed violence means uncontrolled violence. You don’t ever want to lose control, so it’s important to unstuck your potential for violence to be able to control it.
In the myths, Villains are often violent because violence is often contained within the Shadow.
Most stories present the Villain and the Hero as two separate persons, but some (Star Wars for Darth Vader or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) do not and more accurately portray the positive and dark side of the human psyche.
Other heroes like Batman, plainly embrace their Shadow to the point that it eclipses their positive sides.
This is what makes Batman so compelling. He had repressed his good side because his childhood had made him use usually repressed negative qualities.
Either way, the Villain and the Hero should be understood psychologically as the conscious and the Shadow of one’s psychology.
A Hero cannot be a Hero without a Villain because the Shadow is inevitable.
And the best way to understand that is by studying the Hero’s Journey.
6. The Hero’s Journey
The archetypes we’ve spoken of above can only be understood in the context of the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey (also called Monomyth) is a narrative structure identified by Joseph Campbell in the mid-20th century.
Campbell noticed that all religious and mythological stories had the same meta-structure, the same characters, and the same lessons.
We said above that the myths were to humans what the pouch was to the kangaroo. The Hero’s Journey is the super-pouch, the meta archetypal narrative that renders human beings happy, fulfilled, and successful.
It’s important to understand that the Journey is as much a physical adventure as it is a psychological one.
We wrongly assumed due to self-development material that psychology could precede real-life changes; that you could become confident by visualizing and repeating mantras.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing. That’s why Frodo didn’t read Atomic Habits; he journeyed to Mordor.
Transformation, the Monomyth teaches us, happens as a result of doing something. The only way to be ready for a long walk is to take the walk. The only way to have enough muscles to carry the weight is to carry the weight.
Psychology isn’t different. In fact, it’s complementary. The only way to become confident enough to ask a girl out is to ask her out.
Nothing’s free in life (except for this website…).
This is why the old stories are so fascinating. They’re metaphorical, psychological, *and* real.
The dragon represents as much your Shadow as it represents that person at work that you hate, the fear you have of launching a business, stepping on a stage, or writing online. The dragon is a metaphor for an obstacle in your life.
And when the Hero slays the dragon, he shows you exactly what you have to do with the obstacle.
Here lies the power of stories. But not many people know this nowadays.
So, what’s the structure of the Monomyth?
The Hero’s Journey starts with the call to adventure. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf comes to talk to Frodo. In Harry Potter, a letter arrives through the post. These are calls to adventure.
The Hero is called to leave his world to journey into a place he doesn’t know in order to fulfill a quest that will bring him many rewards (a prince, a princess, wealth, revenge, peace, immortality, etc).
But the Hero doesn’t want to leave, so he refuses the call. A mentor appears, prepares him, and convinces him to go. The adventure has begun.
Our Hero soon crosses the first threshold into the new, unfamiliar, and scary world. In Harry Potter, this is the arrival at Hogwarts. At this point, the Hero has no choice but to go forward – no way back to Privet Drive.
He slowly progresses into that new world, fighting battle after battle, each of them more complicated as he’s nearing the object of his quest. In the Lord of the Rings, the quest is Mordor. In Super Mario Bros, it’s the Princess Peach.
The Hero approaches the inmost cave that will prepare him for his final challenge. He fights, dies, and is reborn into the person he needs to become to succeed, and succeeds, thereby completing the transformation into the best person he could ever be. This is the climax of the story.
The Hero receives a reward for his success and it’s now time to go home. Originally, he refuses to do so, but eventually obliged. The road back isn’t easy. The Hero is tested and must apply all of the knowledge he’s learned in the adventure to remain alive.
In the Illiad, Odysseus will take 10 years to rejoin Greece after fighting in Troy (and when he finally arrives, everyone is trying to marry his wife).
The Hero arrives home with all of the knowledge, wisdom, and reward he learned during his adventure.
He’s at peace, too. He can now grow old and look back at what he has achieved, enjoying his reward.
His adventure is over.
So, what can we learn from the Hero’s Journey?
First, that everyone is called to an adventure at some point, and that success in life will depend on whether or not you answer that call.
The call can be a surprising acceptance letter from a university; the chance to participate in a singing tournament; or simply the opportunity to move to a foreign country.
Sadly, most people don’t answer the call.
Many who do, don’t finish the adventure and go home empty-handed.
Only a very small number of people go through to the end. They receive their rewards and live happily ever after.
The Hero’s Journey is a map of life. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a map of meaning.
If you have read interviews of athletes, entrepreneurs, or artists, you may have noticed a similar pattern to the one we have outlined above. A call to adventure, followed by the first threshold, the death (many slept in their car at some point because they were broke), the rebirth, and the eventual triumph and rewards.
The Shadow (the person who is after the same thing as you), the Mentor (an older person that will help you along the way), and the Maiden (the cute girl you date and that tries to get you off your adventure) all eventually appear in real life.
It’s peculiar. We’re told that the world is mostly random, but very few people succeed without going through some sort of Hero’s Journey.
That, in essence, is one of the many wisdoms of myth and religious stories.
7. Antifragility and Robustness
The last concept has little to do with the previous six we’ve talked about but is nonetheless important to highlight.
Most people are already acquainted with the concept of antifragility, so this will be short.
Antifragility describes the quality of an agent that becomes stronger when subjected to destructive stimulations, and that becomes weaker in the absence of these stimulations.
- A glass bottle is fragile: when you try to destroy it by smashing it on the ground, you succeed.
- A pillow is robust: it’s hard to break, even if you smash it on the ground.
- A muscle is antifragile: when you go to the gym, small tears appear inside of it which compels your body to create more muscle. The more you seek to “destroy” your muscle, the stronger it becomes (with a certain limit). By the same token, when you stop using your muscles, they shrink.
Antifragility is a principle very much at play in human life, expressed by the quote “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
Of course, the process of strengthening that which is antifragile bears a certain cost: pain.
It’s only through pain that the antifragile becomes stronger. By the same logic, comfort inevitably makes us weaker.
This explains why “destructive” practices like cold water, sports, weight lifting, or simply being out of your comfort zone make you stronger (and happier).
This is the unspoken truth of humanity: pain leads to pleasure; and pleasure leads to pain.
Beware who you’re hanging out with, as their desires will eventually be yours. When that happens, a mimetic crisis arises which, if you’re not careful, will lead you to perpetrate a sacrifice.
A part of the reason why we want what others want is that those desires confer a certain social status, mandatory for living a happy and prosperous life.
Beyond status, the old stories and myths are priceless sources of information you can use to know what’s valuable in life. The characters from these stories are Archetypes, and will appear in your life as much as they will appear in your own psyche.
There aren’t 68282 ways to have a good life; you need to go on an adventure. The Hero’s Journey is a map that tells you how your adventure will unfold.
You may be wondering what’s the point of doing all this. The antifragile nature of human beings demands that you put your mind and body through hardship if you want to be stronger, happier, and wealthier (not necessarily in a monetary fashion).
The Hero’s Journey is the meaning of life. Antifragility is why it works so well.
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