Have you ever stopped to think about how your desires and wants were formed—where they really came from? Most people never do.
As a former therapist and now in my career coaching work, I’ve had the opportunity to see deeply into the inner workings of people’s minds and hearts and understand more clearly how their goals and visions come to be. I recognized early on that what we want as individuals is always more complex than we recognize. Unlike animals, we want a vast array of things for which there is no purely instinctual basis to guide us, including careers, lifestyles, vacation destinations, friendships, partners, even our very identities.
According to the French thinker René Girard, we choose to pursue these more abstract things through what is called mimetic desire—that is, we unconsciously mimic the desires of others rather than engage in a process to identify and pursue what really matters most to us. Where instincts fail, we look to other people to show us what to want.
We often pursue goals that we’ve adopted from others (at the earliest times in our lives, that’s our mothers), then find rational justifications for them. But if we look deep enough, we’ll always find a hidden model of desire.
To learn more about how to become aware of the processes and impact of mimetic desire in our lives, and to help us achieve a greater degree of freedom from the forces of the market, from politics, from bad actors in our lives who want to manipulate us into wanting what they want with little regard for our flourishing, I caught up this month in my Finding Brave podcast with Luke Burgis, an entrepreneur, author, and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship.Burgis is also a professor of business at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He co-teaches a popular class for all incoming students there called “The Vocation of Business,” an anthropological investigation into the purpose and meaning of business itself. Burgis has been the founder and CEO of multiple social impact companies. He was named one of the “Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25” by BusinessWeek after the early success of one of his first companies, Healthy Vending, which revolutionized the vending industry in 2005. His other ventures have all tried to contribute to what Burgis calls a healthy “human ecology.” He is currently the Founder & Managing Partner of an organization called Fourth Wall Ventures that invests in, incubates, and advises companies that do the same.
Luke’s first book, Unrepeatable, explored how people can discover and live out their unique purpose in the world, and help others do the same. His latest book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life is a ground-breaking exploration of why people want what they want, and a toolkit for freeing ourselves from unfulfilling desires. By identifying and naming the models that have influenced us, we’ve taken the first step toward freedom.
Here’s what Burgis shares:
Kathy Caprino: Luke, how did you come to this realization about mimetic desire in your own entrepreneurial journey? How did you get here?
Luke Burgis: I came to understand the mimetic nature of my own desires through a blown-up business deal. It forced me to pause and reflect on what had been driving me.
After my initial mortification, I felt a strange sensation of relief. What I came to realize was that my relief stemmed from having the bonds of my mimetic desire—my never-satisfied striving for goals that I ultimately didn’t care about—blown up.
The spell was broken. I felt free for the first in my life as I sat on the rubble of a crashed company.
Over the next decade or so, I came to understand what was going on at an even deeper level. That led me to the work of Girard and his theory of mimetic desire, which explains much about what is going on in our culture today.
Caprino: I’m curious—does this phenomenon manifest itself differently in men and women?
Burgis: There are aspects of mimetic desire that are common to all people. But it makes sense that it might manifest differently based on your gender, culture, or other circumstances.
My new book, Wanting, has told the story of mimetic desire from what is more of my perspective—a male one. For example: I recount the hidden backstory of the war between Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini. I can relate to the overt competition and bravado involved.
But it’s critical to hear different perspectives. Here’s one theory my fiancé posed to me about why it was harder for me to write about female stories of mimetic desire: Men are allowed and encouraged to express their rivalry, to battle out their desires in the public sphere, à la Ferrari vs. Lamborghini, Aaron Burr vs. Hamilton, Rockefeller vs. Carnegie, and others.
The history books relay these rivalries as epic battles, struggles for honor, innovation, ingenuity. Throughout history, however, women—while equally susceptible to the inescapable forces of mimetic desire—have been derided for opening up to or admitting their desires.
Think of the terrible terms we have to describe two women fighting over the same thing: a “cat fight.” A woman who says what she wants and doesn’t care what others think might be called a “bitch.” Women seem to have been conditioned for generations that strong mimetic desire is not a welcome attribute.
Perhaps women’s mimetic rivalries are often quieter as a result. No need for the theatrics that Ferrari and Lamborghini put on for all of Italy to enjoy. As a woman, the same behavior might be called “hysterical,” over the top, childish, irrational. Fodder for the tabloids.
In reality, we’re all mimetic, we’re all irrational. But we all have the ability to create something—be it a beautiful relationship, a book, or even a pretty, fast car (in the case of Lamborghini) out of that mimetic hold.
My goal is to draw attention to human desire in all its nuance.
Caprino: How can leaders “lead by desire,” as you say in the book?
Burgis: Long before people know why they’re doing something, they want something. In almost any company, the mission statement isn’t formulated until months or even years after the company’s founding.
The same is true in relationships. Attraction, desire, and maybe even love often comes before we have words to explain what’s happening. (Did you know that in most languages in the world, people do something like “fall” in love? It captures the idea of a movement.) That’s the primacy of desire. The heart knows things that the mind can’t explain, to paraphrase Pascal.
Great leaders strive to understand and tap into the deepest desires of the people around them. All the rest—the strategy, the communications, the marketing—should stem from the experience of probing those desires.
The writer Antoine de Saint- Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, said it best: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Caprino: How do values come into this process—is identifying our core values similar to understanding our wanting?
Burgis: There is a feedback loop between values and desires. In one sense, we value whatever it is we desire. In another sense, our values orient and order our desires. This second sense is the more important one. There are things that I can rationally know are good and worthy of being valued that perhaps I don’t desire enough. Then my goal becomes cultivating my desire so that I want to do what I know I should do, or what I know is valuable.
For instance, I know that volunteering my time to serve others is something important and worthy of occupying a high place in my priorities, but I may not have nurtured the desire to give as much time as I should. I have to make intentional steps forward. Typically, the more that I do something and the more meaning that I find in it, the more I want to do it—and the easier it becomes.
That’s the definition of virtue: it’s something we possess internally, a desire and an ability to do what is good, habitually. So I think it’s important to construct a hierarchy of values that reflect the kind of person you want to be, and those values will eventually give shape and order to your desires.
Caprino: Can you talk about the difference between “thin” desires and “thick” desires. What does that mean? And what’s one way that people can more easily discover their thick desires and why should they?
Burgis: Thin desires are highly mimetic, fleeting, ephemeral—the kind of wants that leave us unfulfilled in the end because they were adopted from other people. Thick desires have become more of a part of our core identity—desires that endure beyond the ebb and flow of modern life. Thin desires are like a layer of sand over a slate of solid rock below. The rock represents thick desires.
Here’s one method I use to start identifying the thick ones. Start asking these questions of yourself and others:
Can you tell me a story about a time in your life when you put effort into doing something that gave you a deep sense of satisfaction? Something in which you found a deep sense of meaning? Something that brings you joy even to recall?
Try to dig up at least 4-5 of these stories from your life. Write them down. Then ask yourself: what specifically was it that was motivating me in each of these cases? What was it that I wanted to achieve? And why is that so important to me?
I promise that if you look long enough, a pattern will begin to emerge. That pattern is a key to understanding what your thick desires may be.
To learn more, visit LukeBurgis.com and the new book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.
Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their most rewarding careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs and courses, Finding Brave podcast, and her Coaching team.