Short Summary: 3 min
Summary: 43 min
Book reading time:
Book published in: 2021
- Mimetic theory states that everyone copies everyone’s desires. When someone wants something, we naturally want it too.
- With enough time, desires converge. Everyone wants the same thing.
- As a result, people enter into competition with one another. Fights break out.
- To resolve the situation, a scapegoat is designated as the cause of the disputes. People stop fighting and unite against the scapegoat.
- Peace comes back once the scapegoat has been punished. The cycle restarts.
- People don’t fight because they’re different, but because they’re the same.
- People cannot destroy things that they don’t also desire on another level.
What Wanting Talks About
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Wanting is a book written by Luke Burgis. It explains that human beings are wired to imitate each other’s desires, which leads to rivalries and fights resolved through a scapegoat mechanism. The book explores meaningful and meaningless desires, where we get our desires from, and how to choose our desires well.
A few pages into the book, I knew it would jump to the top of the most influential books I have ever read.
I wasn’t mistaken.
Wanting speaks of mimetic theory, a theory of desire (highlighted above) developed by a French philosopher called René Girard.
Girard has been popularized lately by people like Peter Thiel. When Thiel speaks about competition or university students’ mimetic behavior, it all comes from Girard.
I am sure you will find many examples in your life explained by mimesis (here’s one from my own life).
Learning about mimetic theory is akin to taking the red pill. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
Yet mimetic theory isn’t interesting because you can understand other people.
It’s super interesting because you can use it to understand yourself!
As someone who is hyper-influenceable and who has been struggling with finding his own desires (besides writing), mimesis helped me see that I modeled my life based on other people’s work.
It helped me see that in absence of a model to copy, I would hardly know what to do; and that in the presence of good models, I would invariably mimic them.
Mimesis is therefore a tool for more originality, more self, and less copying. Once you realize you’re wired to imitate others, you can start to control it.
While Wanting is one of the best books I have ever read, I do have two reproaches to make.
First, Burgis didn’t clearly define his audience.
Is Wanting a self-development book? Is it a business book? A psychology book?
We don’t know. Burgis talks to businessmen at times, but he also speaks to individuals looking to be less mimetic most of the time.
Second, the book lacks precision. Burgis gives different names to his cycles and concepts.
These are, of course, luxurious complaints. Had I read this book at 18 years old, God knows where I would be today.
So there you go. Wanting is in the top 3 of the most influential books I have ever read, taking place next to The Millionaire Fastlane and Skin in the Game.
I suggest you buy the book. Mimetism is such a delicate and important topic that you will have much more value this way than if you just read this summary.
Short Summary of Wanting by Luke Burgis
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Mimetic theory is a theory of desire authored by the French polymath René Girard. It states that people naturally imitate one another’s desires without necessarily realizing it.
Girard observed that humans’ desires weren’t innate, but that they came from other people, who themselves got their desires from other people. These people we get desires from are called models.
There are two types of models: models we meet in daily life (friends, parents, teachers) called internal models of desire. And models we know of but that don’t necessarily know us (philosophers, movie stars, religious characters, etc) called external models of desire.
Because people don’t like when others imitate them, mimetic desire leads to two possible outcomes (called cycles) in relationships:
- The destructive cycle.
- The creative cycle.
Let’s first speak about the destructive cycle.
Mimetism invariably leads to people imitating each other’s desires, which leads them to compete for the same thing. When people compete, they end up fighting.
To avoid having a complete breakdown of the social order, past societies developed a mechanism that resolves mimetic rivalry: the scapegoat mechanism.
The scapegoat mechanism, which took the form of sacrifices, enabled people:
- To unite around one same desire, hereby breaking the smaller mimetic rivalries.
- To transfer their sins onto the scapegoat, thereby redeeming them.
- To experience catharsis (the release of trauma) by assisting to the sacrifice.
The scapegoat mechanism worked until the invention of Judaism and Christianity. The two religions introduced a new idea that made sacrifices morally reprehensible: empathy.
What’s particular about the Bible is that it was the first book telling the story of a sacrifice not from the eyes of the actors, but from the eyes of the scapegoat.
Once people felt pity for the scapegoat, they could not stop doing so. The scapegoat mechanism ended – partly, but the sacrifices ended.
It was replaced by the market economy where people channel their energy from mimetic rivalry into the invention of products and services rather than wars.
That’s the first cycle, the destructive cycle.
There is fortunately another way to avoid it: the creative cycle.
The creative cycle is engineered by leaders who introduce a positive, non-zero-sum game desire that everyone can rally around instead of competing for each others’ desires.
That desire is called transcendent because it transcends the destructive cycle to get people out of their mimetic rivalry and onto a communal adventure, all marching towards the same transcendent purpose.
Our society has been disenchanted, decadent, and violent because we haven’t had any transcendent desire to unite around since…a long time.
Being too mimetic will not help you in life. Find below some strategies to decrease your mimetic tendencies.
- Name your models
- Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis
- Create boundaries with unhealthy models
- Use imitation to drive innovation
- Start positive flywheels of desire
- Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values
- Arrive at judgments in anti-mimetic ways
- Map out the systems of desire in your world
- Put desires to the test
- Share stories of deeply fulfilling action
- Increase the speed of truth
- Invest in deep silence
- Look for the coexistence of opposites
- Practice meditative thought
- Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want
Table of Content
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Part I: The Power of Mimetic Desire
- Chapter 1: Hidden Models: Romantic Lies, Infant Truth
- Chapter 2: Distorted Reality: We’re All Freshmen Again
- Chapter 3: Social Contagion: Cycles of Desire
- Chapter 4: The Invention Of Blame: An Underrated Social Discovery
Summary of Wanting Written by Luke Burgis
Note to the Reader
This book is a book about why we want the things we want.
The author spent his twenties chasing financial freedom. Disillusioned with his life choices, he began to read René Girard, a French academic who had moved from France to the US (died in 2015).
Girard’s theory is that desire is mimetic – that is, we desire the things other people desire, and that don’t fulfill us, in a never-ending cycle.
Fortunately, it is possible to break this cycle.
Prologue: Unexpected Relief
The author tells the story of how he built a health e-commerce company that was almost acquired by Tony Hsieh.
As he was celebrating the acquisition, he got a phone call: the deal was off.
Weirdly enough…he was relieved.
This pushed him to find out more about where his entrepreneurial desires came from in the first place.
Introduction: Social Gravity
Mimetic theory (…) 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.
Girard uncovered the theory of mimetic desire when he was offered to teach a class of literature – which he knew nothing about.
To save time, he’d look into patterns in books so he wouldn’t need to read them entirely. He found out that characters in almost all novels relied on other people to show them what was worth wanting.
They don’t spontaneously desire anything. Instead, their desires are formed by interacting with other characters who alter their (…) desires.
Understand: desire does not stand on its own. Our desires are influenced by other people’s desires.
Girard understood that the novels he taught weren’t based on a plot, but on the desire of the hero, which was the lead in the story.
If most of what we desire comes from someone else desiring it, how does it take form?
Abraham Maslow attempted to answer the question.
According to him, love, esteem, and self-actualization were coming respectively after physiological and safety needs had been fulfilled.
In reality, there isn’t a hierarchy. Love isn’t necessarily above or under esteem. Once basic needs have been fulfilled, any desire can come out.
Knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need. To do so, we use models.
Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting.
Mimetic theory explains that people engage in mimesis (imitation) of these models by wanting what they want.
Mimetic desire, because it is social, spreads from person to person and through a culture.
Mimetic desire gives birth to two different cycles.
- The competing desires cycle: It leads to tension, conflict, and destruction. This is the default cycle.
- The creative cycle: the cycle that arises when you transcend the default cycle.
People’s desires define our world. This is why businesses and politicians are obsessed with it.
History is the story of human desire.
The mimetic nature of desires cannot be ignored because:
- Mimesis can divert us from our path: instead of going after our own desires, we become obsessed with “beating others” in a mimetic competition.
- Homogenizing forces are creating a crisis of desire: the more people are pressured to be the same, the more they fight to differentiate themselves. Technology is amplifying conflict this conflict because it is bringing our desires closer together.
- If people don’t find positive outlets for their desires, they will find destructive ones: people don’t fight because they want different things. They fight because they want the same things. A few days before the 11th of September 2001, terrorists were hanging out in bars in Florida. Understand: you can’t destroy something if at some level you don’t desire it. The more people fight, the more they look like what they’re fighting.
When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model, they can never truly escape that model because doing so would mean destroying their own reason for being.
Mimetic theory hence asks people to answer three important questions:
- What do you want?
- What have you helped others want?
- What will you want tomorrow?
Part I: The Power of Mimetic Desire
Chapter 1: Hidden Models: Romantic Lies, Infant Truth
People often mistake their own desires with the desires of somebody else.
Eg: I want to run a marathon.
People don’t randomly want to run marathons. The truth would sound more like: I want to run a marathon because my friends did too.
The belief that one genuinely wants to run a marathon is called “a Romantic Lie”.
People think there is a direct link between them and what they desire, but there isn’t.
There is a model in between.
The model mediates and shows people “what to want”. If you don’t know who your model is, he’s probably wreaking havoc in your life.
Who do models get their desire from? From other models. We all get our desires from models (they don’t necessarily need to be alive).
Models have always been there, up to Eden. Eve would not have eaten the fruit had the snake not suggested it to her.
The fruit appeared desirable after it was modeled as a forbidden good.
Mimetic theory states that we want things others have that we don’t have yet. The harder it is to get these things, the more we want them.
It’s a problem because all we know about these things are what our model tells us. We don’t know how we would feel if we had those things.
Furthermore, if desires are only introduced by models, then…
Our universe of desire is as big or as small as our models.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What’s bad is not recognizing who has what influence on us. When we don’t, models exercise too much of an influence on us. They become secret idols.
Secrets Babies Keep
Science has revealed that babies’ capacities to imitate others are beyond what any adult can do. These capacities develop before birth.
A few weeks after birth, babies with Mandarin-speaking mothers cry differently than babies with German-speaking mothers.
We don’t learn to imitate. We’re born imitators.
Babies naturally look at the things their mothers look at. They understand what adults want.
Why isn’t important. We want things before we care about why we want them.
Babies, infants, and children are particularly altruistic. They care about helping others get what they want. This changes when they reach adulthood. Instead of helping others get what they want, they compete for the same things.
How deep does this imitation of desire go?
Deeply. Science discovered that when a child looks at an adult being touched by an object, the child’s brain parts responsible for being touched activate too.
Mimesis is everywhere. If your friend tells you he got a promotion and will make €10 000 more, you start thinking:
- “Shouldn’t I get a job like his too? Did I choose the right career? Will he still want to be friends with me if he’s making that much money?”
Your friend has become a model for you.
Mind that imitation can be done in a mirrored way too. Eg:
- If your friend goes on holiday to Thailand, you may decide to “never step a foot in southeast Asia because that’s what everyone does”.
- If he loses his job, you’re happy. If he gets it back, you’re envious.
In the passage from childhood to adulthood, the open imitation of the infant becomes the hidden mimesis of adults. We’re secretly on the lookout for models while simultaneously denying that we need any.
The author tells the story of Edward Bernays. Grandson of Freud, Bernays basically invented PR.
He got a pork company to sell more by convincing doctors to tell Americans to eat eggs and bacon. He got a truck company to sell more by convincing the government to build more roads.
And he got women to smoke by convincing them it was a rebellious act of freedom.
Models are most powerful when they are hidden. If you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own.
He always used models to tell Americans what to desire. Doctors told Americans to eat breakfast; fancy women began to smoke; etc.
People know about mimetic desires without being able to name them. Let’s find out which games they play.
When Girard was a student, he was dating a girl he was madly in love with. When she suggested they get married, attraction disappeared.
When she began to date another guy, Girard tried to get her back. She said no, so he wanted her even more.
It was as if her lack of desire for him affected the strength of his desire for her.
People don’t only model the desire for other things. They also do so for themselves by playing hard to get.
Anti-mimetic tactic 1: Name your models.
-> Naming things give us more control over them.
– Name your models. Who are they? Who influences your decisions?
– Some are easy to name. Others aren’t, like a fitness influencer, or a superior at work.
– Then there are the bad models, the ones we don’t want to have as models. These are the people you don’t want to see succeed.
Mimesis can hijack relationships. Eg:
- People become obsessed with their partner’s lovers
- Insecure people become obsessed with what their friends think about who they’re dating. (Aure’s Note: aphorism 81: Young guys don’t seek sex with women for its own sake, but mainly to tell their friends).
And if your former partner dates someone who you always dreamed of resembling, you’ll want them back in a minute.
Chapter 2: Distorted Reality: We’re All Freshmen Again
No one wants to think of themselves as imitative. Yet we all have models we imitate. Even geniuses have.
There are two types of models:
- Outside models: models we don’t meet on a daily basis. Eg: a singer, a philosopher, an athlete.
- Inside models: models that we see on a daily basis. Eg: our friends, parents, teachers.
While humans are really good at imitating, the concept of imitation is weirdly considered.
- Open imitation isn’t well received. People get angry when you imitate them too much.
- Nobody wants to be known as an imitator yet we compel children and artists to imitate role models.
- It’s annoying to find out someone has the same haircut or piece of clothes as we have.
-> being copied too much feels threatening.
We’ll look at mimetic desire in two worlds.
- Celebristan: the place with models living outside of our social sphere (coming from the word “célèbre” meaning “famous” in French). We cannot compete with people living in Celebristan. They are “on another level”. Celebristan is characterized by the impossibility of a direct conflict. Eg: you can’t rival with Ronaldo.
- Freshmanistan: our world, where we live, with people that are and have the same desires as us. Rilvary exists, and is often unspoken. Freshmanistan is defined by the possibility of direct conflict.
We’re more threatened by people who want the same things than the opposite. Think about it. Do you feel threatened by Gates, Musk, or Bezos? No.
Now, do you feel threatened by your colleagues or neighbors?
Rivalry is a function of proximity. We don’t view models in Celebristan as threatening because they probably don’t care enough about us to adopt our desires as their own.
Girard calls Celebristan models external mediators of desire.
A barrier always separates us from our model in Celebristan:
- Time (Abraham Lincoln)
- Space (they’re in another city)
- Social status (they’re out of your league)
These barriers ensure there’s no threat of conflict, hence these Celebristan models are imitated freely and openly (Eg: people dressing like Elvis Presley).
Many artists established these barriers to give a feeling they are “out there” by not revealing their identity (Satoshi, Banksy, Daft Punk). It gives them more status.
Models in Celebristan don’t compete with those who imitate them. It’s a rather safe place to be.
Girard calls models in Freshmanistan internal mediators of desire. People compete directly for the same things because nothing separates them from their models.
We’re all living in Freshmanistan.
- Models are harder to identify.
- They constantly change because we ran into a lot of different people.
- Imitation is secret, and there can be conflicts between imitators and models.
Eg: a friend introduces a new hobby to another one. They spend more time together to get better at it, which reinforces their friendship. If they start to rival, though, the mimetic desire (being good at the hobby) will destroy their friendship.
Distortions of Reality
Distortion 1: the misappropriation of wonder
People exaggerate the quality of their models, especially those in Celebristan. If a model happens to move from Celebristan to Freshmanistan, the dynamic changes right away. Now that they occupy the same social sphere, they compete for the same things.
As a result, the imitator cannot openly admire his model anymore, but has to do it secretly.
Girard differentiates the desire for an object from the desire for a way of living – which he called metaphysical desire.
Meta means after. Metaphysical = beyond the material.
Girard thought all true desires were metaphysical.
Eg: you don’t want the Louis Vuitton bag. You want the identity that goes with it.
Desire is not of this world, (…) it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.
The metaphysical nature of desire leads to distortion in how we see other people.
Anorexia and bulimia, for example, highlight how metaphysical desires (being “pretty”) can overpower physical needs (not discounting the fact that these are psychological diseases).
We are more likely to take someone as a model if they don’t suffer from (our) desires.
Eg: the cat. Egyptians worshipped cats. This may be because cats don’t seem like they need anyone, or anything. They don’t seem like they have any desires.
Distortion 2: the cult of experts
In the past, a Ph.D. had more knowledge than the common people. The Internet closed that gap. Some will say that a Ph.D. today may even be at a disadvantage.
With the ubiquity of information, things like the value of a degree is mimetically driven (everyone does it because everyone does it).
As a result, anyone who can stand out from the crowd, anyone resisting mimetic desire, is likelier to succeed.
There are positive and negative consequences to this.
We live in a “liquid modernity”, meaning that there are no “one path” to follow, no models, no “one way” to do things.
The world has complexified. We need to rely on models if we hope to understand it – maybe more than ever. But where will these models come from?
In the past, they came from priests and philosophers. Today, they come from “experts“.
Experts are the ones who help mediate desires, who tell us what is worth wanting and what is not.
Tim Ferriss tells you what to read, Marie Kondo tells you what to throw away, etc.
Only experts know what to do. Everything boils down to choosing the right one.
We’re model addicts, and the model of the moment isn’t the priest or philosopher. It is the expert.
But how do we judge the authority of an expert? Who says someone is an expert? Usually, an expert becomes an expert because other people we respect called them experts.
There’s an expert for everyone and everything – and lots of them are charlatans.
Anti-mimetic tactic 2: Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis.
The best way to know how wise a source of wisdom is is whether they’ve been around for a long time or not (Lindy effect). Experts in the hard sciences (math, physics, etc) are usually real experts because their expertise can be verified. But experts in productivity? Self-development? Don’t trust a source before doing the work.
Distortion 3: Reflexivity
Georges Soros explains that reflexivity is “a two-way interaction between thinking participants and the situation in which they operate”. Taking the example of markets, if a reputable investor sells a certain stock, more investors will likely follow.
This principle is at play in many other domains:
- People worry about what other people will think about what they want to say -> affects what they say.
- The spiral of silence: people’s likeliness to speak their mind depends on how popular their mind really is. In the case it’s not, they’re more likely to remain silent, hence highlighting the idea that indeed, no one thinks like them.
- Clothing also changes how we view the world depending on what we wear.
Our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity.
People think they want things for spontaneous reasons without realizing that they’re influenced by the people around them.
In situations where people with desires interact with each other, their interaction also impacts their desires. Eg: if you want what someone else has, both of you and your desires become reflexive -> none of you can want something without affecting the other’s desire.
Mimetic rivalry is like two people trying to race each other inside the same car – no one gets ahead.
When the rivalry is strong enough, rivals forget what they were fighting for in the first place and the feud only escalates.
Mirrors flip the side on which things appear. Your left hand is on the right, and your right hand is on the left -> mirrors reflect the opposite.
Mirror imitation is therefore an imitation that does the exact opposite of what it imitates.
If two rivals are caught in a mimetic rivalry, they will try to differentiate themselves at any cost.
Their rival becomes a model for what not to desire.
Eg: a hipster will do the opposite of what popular culture does.
The effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.René Girard
Mimetic rivalries rarely end well, unless one of the rivals drops the rivalry. Doing so, the other one also drops his quest since he was after it only because the former was after it too.
The short-term cure to mimetic rivalry is to shield yourself from it.
Anti-mimetic tactic 3: Create boundaries with unhealthy models
We all have unhealthy models: an acquaintance, a former colleague or classmate, a romantic rival. You go see what they’re up to on social media… It’s critical to stop.
Social media is not only media, but a mediation. It hits us with the desires of billions of people in one place, bringing all of our models into our world.