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July 1, 2021
Psychology
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Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire

Table of Contents

Author: Luke Burgis
Full Title: Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire
Rating: 8/10

Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world. —Aristotle

We want what other people want because other people want it, and it’s penciled-in eyebrows all the way down, down to the depths of the nth circle of hell where we all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift, over and over again. —Dayna Tortorici

Note to Reader

Wanting well, like thinking clearly, is not an ability we’re born with. It’s a freedom we have to earn. Due to one powerful yet little-known feature of human desire, that freedom is hard-won.

Girard discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic (mi-met-ik) or imitative, not intrinsic. Humans learn—through imitation—to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged.

Introduction: Social Gravity

Girard discovered that we come to desire many things not through biological drives or pure reason, nor as a decree of our illusory and sovereign self, but through imitation.

In the universe of desire, there is no clear hierarchy. People don’t choose objects of desire the way they choose to wear a coat in the winter. Instead of internal biological signals, we have a different kind of external signal that motivates these choices: models. 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”).

Models are the gravitational centers around which our social lives turn. It’s more important to understand this now than at any other time in history.

As humans have evolved, people have spent less time concerned about surviving and more time striving for things—less time in the world of needs and more time in the world of desire.

If you look hard enough, you will find a model (or a set of models) for almost everything—your personal style, the way you speak, the look and feel of your home. But the models that most of us overlook are models of desire. It’s deceivingly difficult to figure out why you bought certain things; it’s extraordinarily hard to understand why you strive toward certain achievements. So hard that few people dare to ask.

Chapter 1

Hidden Models—Romantic Lies, Infant Truth

We don’t want things that are too easily possessed or that are readily within reach. Desire leads us beyond where we currently are. Models are like people standing a hundred yards up the road who can see something around the corner that we can’t yet see. So the way that a model describes something or suggests something to us makes all the difference. We never see the things we want directly; we see them indirectly, like refracted light. We are attracted to things when they are modeled to us in an attractive way, by the right model. Our universe of desire is as big or as small as our models.

Name Your Models

Naming anything—whether it’s emotions, problems, or talents—gives us more control. The same is true for models.

Who are your models at work? At home? Who are the people influencing your buying decisions, your career path, your politics?

Some models are easy to name. They are what we typically think of as “role models”—people or groups we find exemplary, people we want to emulate in a positive way. We’re not ashamed to acknowledge them.

Others we don’t think of as models. 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. The important shift is seeing people in more than their professional role but also in their role as an influencer of desire. This applies to your children’s teachers, your colleagues, and your friends.

Harder to name are the people who come from inside our world and who might be modeling rivalrous or unhealthy behaviors—the people around whom we orbit without knowing it, who affect what we want.

A friend and collaborator of Girard’s, the psychoanalyst Jean-Michel Oughourlian, recommended a shocking tactic to people who came to him in his clinical practice complaining that their spouse no longer seemed interested in them: he would suggest they find someone to compete with the spouse for their time and attention. Even the remote suspicion that someone else might be competing for a spouse’s time can be enough to arouse and intensify desire. (I’m not suggesting that anyone intentionally try to make their spouse jealous—although it seems to be a tactic that many people already use, quite naturally.)

Romance can feel like a roller-coaster ride because that’s how mimetic desire moves.

Mimetic models lie in wait every time we glance at our phone. The families of childhood friends post photos in which every day looks like a Christmas card, and Instagram models with bleached white teeth show us how they eat their nutritious breakfasts. The universe of desire is dotted with billions of stars who appear to shine brightest at the exact moment when we find it hardest to see.

Models That Move Markets

Desire is not a function of data. It’s a function of other people’s desires.

Chapter 2

Distorted Reality—We’re All Freshmen Again

During the 1972–1973 school year, three years before the first personal computer was introduced, a freshman at Reed College in Oregon was looking to make some cash. He learned a lesson that would help him one day become the greatest showman of his generation.

Steve Jobs had arranged to sell his old IBM Selectric typewriter to a fellow student named Robert Friedland. Like Jobs, Friedland was an undergraduate—but he was four years older than Jobs. He had been kicked out of Bowdoin College in Maine and sentenced to two years in prison for possessing $125,000 worth of LSD. After he made parole, he enrolled at Reed and made plans to run for student body president and travel to India to meet a Hindu guru. But first he needed a typewriter.

Steve Jobs didn’t know anything about his buyer. He arrived at Friedland’s room to deliver the goods and collect his cash, but nobody responded to his knocks on the door. He tried the handle. It was unlocked. To save the trip, he considered leaving the typewriter inside and collecting the money later. So he opened the door.

When he walked in, he was mortified by what he saw: Friedland was on the bed having sex with his girlfriend. Jobs tried to leave, but the stranger invited him to sit down until he was done. This is kind of far-out, Jobs thought.

Who was this creature who appeared to lack any sense of taboo, any sense that his behavior would make normal people cringe? Who seemed to do exactly what he wanted and make no apologies?

Fellow student Daniel Kottke—who went on to become one of the first employees at Apple—would later remark on the influence Friedland had on Jobs. Friedland “was mercurial, sure of himself, a little dictatorial,” he remembered, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. “Steve admired that, and he became more like that after spending time with Robert.”

By the time he started Apple, Jobs had become known for his own quirky behavior. He walked around the office barefoot, rarely took showers, and enjoyed soaking his feet in the toilet.

“When I first met Steve he was shy and self-effacing, a very private guy,” says Kottke. “I think Robert taught him a lot about selling, about coming out of his shell, of opening up and taking charge of a situation.”

Jobs had not realized it, but at the moment he walked into that room in college, Friedland had become a model to him. Jobs would later come to see through Friedland, but Friedland’s immediate impact on the young Jobs was formative. He taught Jobs that strange or shocking behavior mesmerizes people. People are drawn to others who seem to play by different rules. (Reality TV exploits this.)

As Jobs became a skilled practitioner of this behavior, his colleagues described him as having a “reality distortion field.” Jobs seemed to be able to bend everyone in his orbit to his will—that is, to his desires. The reality distortion field extended to anyone in close proximity to him. To what can we attribute his effect on people?

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.

Two Kinds of Models

Nobody likes to think of themselves as imitative. We value originality and innovation. We are attracted to renegades. But everybody has hidden models—even Steve Jobs.

There’s something strange about our relationship to imitation. Aristotle recognized nearly 2,500 years ago that humans possess advanced capabilities of imitation that allow us to create new things. Our ability to imitate in complex ways is why we have language, recipes, and music.4

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.

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.

That’s because rivalry is a function of proximity. When people are separated from us by enough time, space, money, or status, there is no way to compete seriously with them for the same opportunities. 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.

Celebristan

René Girard calls models in Celebristan external mediators of desire. They influence desire from outside of a person’s immediate world. From the perspective of their imitators, these models possess a special quality of being.

Freshmanistan

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.

Distortions of Reality

Distortion 1: The Misappropriation of Wonder

In Greek, the word meta means “after.” Aristotle had studied the physical world and learned all that he could learn about it. Then he asked, “What now?” He applied himself to the study of what would later be called metaphysics, which literally means “after the physical.”

Girard believed that all true desire—the post-instinctual kind—is metaphysical. People are always in search of something that goes beyond the material world. If someone falls under the influence of a model who mediates the desire for a handbag, it’s not the handbag they are after. It’s the imagined newness of being they think it will bring. “Desire is not of this world,” Girard has said, “… it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.”

Distortion 2: The Cult of Experts

One hundred years ago, there was a much wider gap in knowledge between someone who had a doctoral degree and someone who didn’t. Today, with the world’s information at nearly everyone’s fingertips, the knowledge gap between people with a great amount of formal education and those with less has narrowed. In fact, holding certain degrees, such as a PhD or an MBA, can count against you if you’re pursuing jobs at companies that view them as a sign of one’s complacency. We are witnessing an inversion of value.

Find sources that have stood the test of time. Be wary of self-proclaimed and crowd-proclaimed experts.

It’s less likely that experts will be mimetically chosen in the hard sciences (physics, math, chemistry) because people have to show their work. But it’s easy for someone to become an overnight expert on “productivity” merely because they got published in the right place. Scientism fools people because it is a mimetic game dressed up as science.

The key is carefully curating our sources of knowledge so that we are able to get down to what is true regardless of how many other people want to believe it. And that means doing the work.

Social Mediation

What we commonly call “social media” is more than media—it’s mediation: thousands of people showing us what to want and coloring our perception of those things.

Tristan Harris, a former Google ethics executive and leader of the Center for Humane Technology, speaks about the danger of addictive design in tech. He claims that smartphones are like slot machines. Both work through the power of intermittent variable rewards—pulling the lever of a slot machine gives you a highly variable reward, which maximizes neurological addictiveness; your smartphone does the same thing every time you swipe down to refresh your Instagram feed, never knowing when something interesting might show up.

I respect Harris for being an advocate of human-centered design, but he misses a fundamental problem. Better design would help, but it only addresses part of the problem.

The danger is not that we have a slot machine in our pockets. The danger is that we have a dream machine in our pockets. Smartphones project the desires of billions of people to us through social media, Google searches, and restaurant and hotel reviews. The neurological addictiveness of smartphones is real; but our addiction to the desires of others, which smartphones give us unfettered access to, is the metaphysical threat.

Mimetic desire is the real engine of social media. Social media is social mediation—and it now brings nearly all of our models inside our personal world.

Chapter 3

Lamborghini versus Ferrari

“I don’t invent anything,” Lamborghini bragged. “I start where the others came from.”

Use Imitation to Drive Innovation

There’s a false dichotomy between imitation and innovation.

They’re part of the same process of discovery. Some of history’s most creative geniuses started off by simply imitating the right model.

I sat down with Naresh Ramchandani, a partner at Pentagram, consistently ranked as one of the most innovative design firms in the world. They’re the creative force behind projects such as the Harley-Davidson Museum, the set and on-screen graphics of The Daily Show, and the One Laptop per Child initiative.

“You can do innovation at any stage,” Naresh tells me. “We sometimes start by saying, ‘What’s out there? What can we copy?’” The innovation comes at a later stage of the creative process.

If someone’s primary objective is innovation for the sake of innovation, they usually end up in a mimetic rivalry with everyone in their field to compete primarily on the basis of originality. By devaluing all forms of imitation, they play a game of differentiation to get noticed. Being different for the sake of being different is the ethos behind shock-value art and academics whose salient feature is making outlandish claims to stand out from the pack.

As the fastest way to humility is not thinking more about humility but thinking less frequently of oneself, the safest route to innovation is also an indirect one. “There’s great stuff out there,” Ramchandani says. “Why wouldn’t we learn from it? Why wouldn’t we use it as an example, and build something on top of that rather than alongside it?”

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, put it this way: “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

Bullfighting Lessons

Girard explains the tragedy: “A man sets out to discover a treasure he believes is hidden under a stone,” he writes in his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. “He turns over stone after stone but finds nothing. He grows tired of such a futile undertaking but the treasure is too precious for him to give up. So he begins to look for a stone which is too heavy to lift—he places all his hopes in that stone and he will waste all his remaining strength on it.”

Memes and Mimetic Theory

In 1976, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his book The Selfish Gene. He was attempting to explain the spread across time and space of nonmaterial things such as ideas, behaviors, and phrases. He called these things memes: cultural units of information that spread from person to person through a process of imitation.

The Creative Cycle

Aristotle invented the word “entelechy” to refer to a thing that has its own principle of development within it, a vital force that propels it forward to become fully what it is.

Desire is a path-dependent process. The choices we make today affect the things we’ll want tomorrow. That’s why it’s important to map out, the best we can, the consequences of our actions on our future desires.

Start by thinking seriously about what a positive cycle of desire might look like for you. Start with a core desire. It might be spending more time with your kids, having more leisure time, or writing a book. Then map out a system of desire that makes it easier to bring that core desire to fulfillment.

The Destructive Cycle

Desire is part of the web of connectivity. When people deny that they are affected by what other people around them want, they are most susceptible to getting drawn into an unhealthy cycle of desire that they don’t even know to resist.

Under The Anthill

Most people gauge their happiness relative to other people.

C. S. Lewis called this invisible system the inner ring. It means that no matter where a person is in life, no matter how wealthy or popular a person is, there is always a desire to be on the inside of a certain ring and a terror of being left on the outside of it. “This desire [to be in the inner ring] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action,” Lewis said. “It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement.… As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want.”

Chapter 4

Saving People from Themselves

The English word “contagion” comes from the Latin word contāgiō, meaning “with touch.”

Safety in Judgment

Anger metastasizes and spreads easily. In a study conducted in 2013 and published in 2014, researchers at the University of Beijing analyzed influence and contagion on Weibo, a popular social media app in China. They found that anger spreads faster than other emotions, such as joy, because anger spreads easily when there are weak ties between people—as there often are online.

Part II: The Transformation of Desire

David Foster Wallace once mused that to live in a world in which the internet encompasses more and more of our lives, with increasingly sophisticated porn (like a virtual reality version), “We’re gonna have to develop some real machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this.”

Chapter 5

Moving Goalposts

Author James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones that “we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.” From the standpoint of desire, our goals are the product of our systems. We can’t want something that is outside the system of desire we occupy.

The obsession with goal setting is misguided, even counterproductive. Setting goals isn’t bad. But when the focus is on how to set goals rather than how to choose them in the first place, goals can easily turn into instruments of self-flagellation.

Most people aren’t fully responsible for choosing their own goals. People pursue the goals that are on offer to them in their system of desire. Goals are often chosen for us, by models. And that means the goalposts are always moving.

Some trends in goal setting: don’t make goals vague, grandiose, or trivial; make sure they’re SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based)2; make them FAST (another acronym: frequent, ambitious, specific, and transparent)3; have good OKRs (objectives and key results)4; put them in writing; share them with others for accountability. Goal setting has become very complicated. If someone tried to take all the latest tactics into account, it would be a wonder if they managed to set any goals at all.

Don’t get me wrong: some of these tactics may be helpful. If I want to lose weight, it would help to set goals that are specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based. But it’s not immediately apparent that losing weight is a good goal for me to begin with. Why do I want to lose weight? What if I am at an ideal weight and I want to lose weight simply to look more like someone I saw on Instagram?

People set goals and make plans to arrive at a future point called “progress.” But will it be progress? How can we be so sure? Some goals—even good ones—overstay their welcome.

But it’s worth asking where goals come from in the first place. Every goal is embedded within a system.

Mimetic desire is the unwritten, unacknowledged system behind visible goals.6 The more we bring that system to light, the less likely it is that we’ll pick and pursue the wrong goals.

Being Watched and Rated

Entrepreneur and VC Marc Andreessen, in an April 2020 post on his company’s website titled “It’s Time to Build,” wonders how so many Western countries were unprepared—from a production standpoint—for the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. At one point, there were serious shortages of ventilators, test kits, cotton swabs, even hospital gowns. The complacency and malaise seemed to extend to many other domains, even before the pandemic—to education, manufacturing, transportation. Why were Americans no longer building the things of the future? he asked.

The problem is not capital or competence or even a lack of awareness of what’s needed. “The problem is desire,” Andreessen wrote. “We need to ‘want’ these things.” But he acknowledges that there are forces in place that prevent us from wanting to build the things we need: regulatory capture, industry incumbents, stalemate politics. “The problem is inertia,” he continued. “We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things.”

If you understand the systems of desire that color the choices of people around you, you’re more likely to see emergent possibilities by daring to look in different directions.

The One Less Traveled By

Don’t take desires at face value. Find out where they lead.

The ultimate way to test desires—especially major life choices such as whether to marry someone or whether to quit your job and start a company—is to practice this same exercise but to do it while imagining yourself on your deathbed. Which choice leaves you more consoled? Which choice causes you more agitation? Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, noted, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” The deathbed is where unfulfilling desires are exposed. Transport yourself there now rather than waiting until later, when it might be too late.

Chapter 6

Disruptive Empathy—Breaking Through Thin Desires

The only true voyage of discovery … would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. —Marcel Proust

Thick Desires

Discovering and developing thick desires protects against cheap mimetic desires—and ultimately leads to a more fulfilling life.

Thick desires are like diamonds that have been formed deep beneath the surface, nearer to the core of the Earth. Thick desires are protected from the volatility of changing circumstances in our lives. Thin desires, on the other hand, are highly mimetic, contagious, and often shallow.

I wish I could say that desires necessarily become thicker as we age, but that’s not always the case. At least it doesn’t happen without intentional effort. 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.

But the tension between thick and thin always remains. Every artist has experienced it. They may have had a lifelong desire to tell the truth, to make art that expresses something important. Yet they have a competing desire to sell their work in the marketplace, to be accepted, to be praised, to get reviews, to stay on top of trends that can change from year to year, month to month, day to day. The latter are superficial desires that, if allowed to accumulate, can completely obscure the thick ones.

Shaking the Dust

The word “prestige” comes from the Latin praestigium, which means “illusion” or “conjurer’s trick.” (The 2006 movie The Prestige, which depicts the mimetic rivalry between two magicians, was well titled.) People seek professional prestige—respect or admiration for their talents—without realizing that the pursuit of prestige is the pursuit of a fata morgana.

Fulfilment Stories

The American author and educator Parker Palmer writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

I like the definition of spirituality by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes that spirituality is simply “what happens when we open ourselves to something greater than ourselves.” He continues: “Some find it in the beauty of nature, or art, or music. Others find it in prayer, or performing a mitzvah, or learning a sacred text. Yet others find it in helping other people or in friendship or love.”8 It could be described as a sense of connectedness to self and to others and to the universe.

Chapter 7

Skill 1: Shift Gravity

“The goal of early childhood education should be to cultivate the child’s own desire to learn,” Montessori wrote in The Montessori Method. And elsewhere: “We must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child.”

The desire to grow into mature adults—not the desire to earn A’s or win Little League games or get a sticker for good behaviour—is each child’s primary and most important project, the thing each of them secretly cares most deeply about.

Good teachers awaken dormant desires and generate new ones. Montessori likens the role of the teacher to that of a great artist teaching another person to see. “It is very much as if, while we were looking absent-mindedly at the shore of a lake, an artist should suddenly say to us, ‘How beautiful the curve is that the shore makes there under the shade of that cliff.’ At his words, the view which we have been observing almost unconsciously, is impressed upon our minds as if it had been illuminated by a sudden ray of sunshine.”

Skill 2: The Speed of Truth

The health of an organization is directly proportional to the speed at which truth travels within it. Real truth is anti-mimetic by its very nature—it doesn’t change depending on how mimetically popular or unpopular it is.

Skill 3: Discernment

The word “decision” comes from the Latin word caedere, which means “to cut.” When we decide to pursue one thing, we necessarily cut away another. If there’s no cutting, we haven’t made any decision at all.

The word “discernment,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin root discernere, which means “to distinguish”; it refers to the ability to see the difference between two paths and to know which one is the better way forward.

Discernment is an essential skill because it’s a process for making decisions that includes but also transcends rational analysis. It’s critical for deciding which desires to pursue and which ones to leave behind.

Filmmakers love to depict these situations because they’re so common in human experience. One memorable scene occurs in the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. The Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. One is carrying convicted criminals; the other is carrying ordinary citizens. Each ferry has a detonator that will blow up the other. The Joker tells the people on board each ferry that if they don’t blow up the other one, he’ll blow up both by midnight. The clock starts ticking.

This is a classic game theory problem. We could generate a chart of possibilities and even probabilities for which ferry gets blown up first. But life isn’t lived as a math problem. Even if Kahneman, Tversky, and Thaler themselves had been on board, it wouldn’t help us know with confidence what to do.

The best way to understand this problem is to see it as a dilemma of desire. If you pay careful attention to how these situations resolve themselves, even in film, you’ll see that they come down to what the person making the decision wants the most. There is no time for serious rational analysis.

In the scene’s climax, one of the prisoners on the criminals’ ferry demands the detonator from the fear-paralyzed warden. “I’ll do what you should have done ten minutes ago,” he says. The warden relinquishes the detonator. The convict tosses it into the river.

A man on the other ferry who had been thumbing the trigger of his detonator recognizes that the criminals on the ferry have not acted. He decides against detonating the bomb. This buys enough time for Batman to save the day.

The Joker assumed everyone would act based on self-interest. He was wrong. Something happened that transcended the game the Joker wanted to play—something that transcends rational analysis.

Many books have been written about improving one’s ability to discern well. Here is a distillation of some key points: (1) pay attention to the interior movements of the heart when contemplating different desires—which give a fleeting feeling of satisfaction and which give satisfaction that endures? (2) ask yourself which desire is more generous and loving; (3) put yourself on your deathbed in your mind’s eye and ask yourself which desire you would be more at peace with having followed; (4) finally, and most importantly, ask yourself where a given desire comes from.

Desires are discerned, not decided. Discernment exists in the liminal space between what’s now and what’s next. Transcendent leaders create that space in their own lives, and in the lives of the people around them.

Sit Quietly in a Room

Silence is where we learn to be at peace with ourselves, where we learn the truth about who we are and what we want. If you’re not sure what you want, there’s no faster way to find out than to enter into complete silence for an extended period of time—not hours, but days.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote the seventeenth-century physicist, writer, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal.

Chapter 8

The Mimetic Future—What We Will Want Tomorrow

Historian Yuval Noah Harari ends his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind with these words: “But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires, too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?,’ but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.”

The question “What do we want to want?” is unsettling partly because, in a world of engineered desires, we have to wonder who is doing the engineering. But also because the question implies that it’s possible to want to want something, yet not be capable of wanting it.

What we’ll want in the future depends on the choices we make today. By the time you go to sleep, you will have made it either a little bit harder or a little bit easier to want something tomorrow—for you and for someone else.

Engineering Desire

It’s a sign of maturity to be able to hold on to two conflicting desires or two opposing ideas at the same time without immediately rejecting one or the other, before there has been time for a careful discernment. To live with desire is to live with tension.

Wise people have said that it’s best to compare yourself only to who you were yesterday, not to who other people are today. That’s a good start for escaping the trap of comparison and measurement.

Single Greatest Desire

“Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want”. - Naval

The English word “schema” comes from Greek. It forms the root of the Modern Greek verb suschématizó, which means “to conform to.” For instance, the Greek phrase “Me syschematizesthe!” means “Don’t conform!” More specifically, it means something like “Don’t fit yourself according to the pattern of any external model.”

The Greeks have an entirely different word for a total transformation from within, one that isn’t wholly patterned on any one particular model: metamorphosis.

“Pick your one overwhelming desire. It’s okay to suffer over that one,” Naval Ravikant said on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Other desires must be let go of.

Annie Dillard tells the story of a man who shot an eagle out of the sky. When the man examines the bird’s body, he notices the bones of a weasel jaw locked firmly around the eagle’s neck. It must have swooped down to snatch the weasel off the ground. But the weasel, with perfect timing, turned its head around at the last moment and sank its teeth into the eagle’s neck.

The weasel tightened its grip on the flesh of the eagle’s neck as the bird flew high into the sky until eventually—who knows how long that weasel was dangling from the eagle’s neck?—either the eagle or the wind picked the weasel’s dry bones apart and there was nothing left but the remnant of a jaw.

“The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse,” wrote Dillard. “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

We’re not guided entirely by instincts like the one that helped the weasel plug into that pulse. But we must make a decision about what it is that is worth sinking our teeth into. Otherwise, our bones will get picked dry by the winds of mimetic forces without our ever having staked a claim on anything that touches us at the depths of our being.

Stalk your greatest desire. When you find it, let all of your lesser desires be transformed so that they serve the greatest one. “Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even,” writes Dillard, “till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”

Love And Responsibility

The simplest definition of love is wanting what’s good for another. Italians have a way of saying “I love you” that is particularly instructive: Ti voglio bene, they say. It means “I want your good”—I want what’s best for you.

Live As If You Have a Responsibility For What Other People Want

Through our relationships, we help other people with their wants in one of three ways: we help them want more, we help them want less, or we help them want differently.

There is no person we encounter—not even in the most uninteresting interaction of our day—whom we do not help desire in one of these three ways. The changes are usually imperceptible. But like a giant flywheel, we are gently nudging other people’s desires in one or another direction.

The transformation of desire happens when we become less concerned about the fulfillment of our own desires and more concerned about the fulfillment of others. We find, paradoxically, that it is the very pathway to fulfilling our own.

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.

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Every Sunday I publish Mind Macros, a newsletter that makes you smarter by distilling the key lessons from the best books.

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