4 Ways Luke Burgis’ Ideas on Mimetic Desire Can Make You More Successful—and Happier, Too

Why do we want the things we want? 

It’s a question serial entrepreneur, professor and author Luke Burgis tackles in his book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. As Burgis hints in Achievers Exclusive interview with SUCCESS editor-in-chief Josh Ellis, for some, the answer can be unsettling. 

“I believe in free will, completely,” Burgis says. “But it’s kind of on a spectrum.” 

Burgis is the new face of a growing movement taken with the concept of mimetic desire—i.e., imitative desire—and its far-reaching implications for society, human psychology and even the way organizations and businesses are run. 

But what exactly does it mean to say our desires are mimetic? In essence, the theory paints a picture of imitation as a primary fuel in the complex engine room of human wants and desires. Or, as Burgis describes it, “we want what other people want because they want it.” 

And as he shows, it’s a problem made all the more urgent by the rise of social media and our algorithm-addicted attention spans. 

Originally put forward by the late French philosopher René Girard—a Stanford professor who counted tech baron Peter Thiel among his major acolytes—mimetic desire suggests that the things we want are inseparable from the influence of other people and society at large. Although the idea can feel like a shock to the more individualistic among us, for Burgis, it’s not all bad—there’s freedom in understanding the ways mimesis works on us. 

“We are free to choose whom we surround ourselves with, the kind of people that we allow to be of influence to us, and develop more intentionality about the way we are influenced,” Burgis says. 

The best way to start counteracting mimetic desire, according to the author? Taking time to reflect on the influences that act on us every day, which can help us understand that “we actually have to be intentional to not allow that to happen.” 

Here are four ways that understanding mimetic desire can help you—in your career, in your personal life and in your relationships. 

Better Understand the Career You’ve Chosen

Related to the already-troubling question: “Why do we want the things that we want?” “Why do we do the things we do for a living?” can prove to have an equally elusive answer. 

According to Burgis, however, understanding the role of mimetic desire in our career choices can help us start going about things with greater intentionality. 

“We pursue a certain career because we’re imitating the desire of other people that have modeled that that career is desirable,” Burgis says. Although we use things like salary and lifestyle considerations to justify these choices, Burgis believes, we ignore mimetic influences to our own peril.

By reflecting on the source of our professional ambitions, though, we can scale back some of its wilder edges—and hopefully position ourselves to focus on the healthy aspects, such as those that lead to professional fulfillment or create value.

“My definition of success has changed in the sense that I’m part of this kind of social web, and I view myself as successful to the extent that I’ve helped others be successful, too,” he says.

Better Manage Peoples’ Motivations in an Organizational Context

Burgiss explains that part of learning about mimesis is becoming hip to “the tendency for rivalries to spring up when there’s ambiguous job descriptions or roles, or when people are fighting for abstract things like status and power.”

According to the author, there’s something inherent about mimetic desire that can lead to conflict in certain situations. “Mimetic desire tends to lead to rivalry because we’re imitating other people,” he explains. 

The solution? Leaders can be more effective by putting together teams with the right mix of personalities to avoid these sorts of problems—and not let petty differences become larger squabbles.  

Learning about mimetic desire can help us put social and news media in a better context—and even understand the divisiveness found in much of our current cultural and political discourse. 

According to Burgis, one of the major social impacts of mimetic desire is scapegoating, or the tendency to assign blame to others. This tendency has left us with fewer trustworthy models accepted on both sides of the political spectrum—leading to polarization, tribalism, confusion and a media ecosystem that can seize on all three.  

“We have to be aware when we’re caught up in that kind of contagion; when we’re not thinking for ourselves, and we’re just kind of caught up in a riptide of desire for something,” Burgis says. 

Better Understand How to Treat Others More Kindly

For all the social ills that mimetic desire can cause, Burgis insists there are still positives. 

Positive desires are contagious too,” he says. “People doing the hard work of examining their desires; that’s contagious.”

According to the author, the best way to emulate positive mimetic desires is by being “anti-mimetic” in the face of pressure. 

For example, when someone else treats us poorly, we can be tempted by the mimetic desire to return the gesture in kind. Instead, Burgis offers, we can take the high road: “I’m not going to imitate what you’re doing to me.” 

Photo by @irina_evva/Twenty20

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