Mimetic Desire vs. Hunter Thompson and the Drive to be Unique

Mimetic Desire vs. Hunter Thompson and the Drive to be Unique

Luke Burgis, in his book Wanting,  a  Financial Times best book of 2021, explains the newish perspective of Renee Girard on a very old concept, desire.  Renee Girard, came to the US after WWII and eventually landed at Stanford and formulated a practical theory of how mimetic desire is to psychology what gravity is to physics.  Buris’ summary of Girard’s theory is that human desire is fully dependent on  external models. We imitate what other people want; we compete and even engage in violence because we want the same things, and that violence is kept in check often by choosing a scapegoat when faced with extreme disorder.  Note that the so-called guilt of that scapegoat individual or group is irrelevant, the blame is what counts to discharge conflict for a time and imagine that all will be ok now that we have killed or expelled the scapegoat.  It explains such things as why cancelling one person or another or targeting immigrants as the source of a nation’s problems provides a short-term respite psychologically but does nothing to solve our underlying problems.

Burgis interviewed Peter Thiel, influenced as a student by Girard who used mimetic desire in business to avoid destructive mimetic competition in merging several companies to form PayPal. Thiel also used it investing in Facebook,  one of the first of many social business models that leveraged mimetic desire to capture our attention and turn us all into zombies.  I’ve been a student of Vipassana for about 15 years.  It’s based on the concept of impermanence, and that we should learn to not give in to either craving or aversion; based on the broad concept that desire is the root of suffering.  Burgis’ book suggests instead that we should differentiate between thin (superficial) desire and thick (fulfilling) desires.  The way to do that is to list what makes you truly fulfilled and engage in meditative thinking and perhaps meditation.  Left standing is the assertion that we imitate; our choice is in what we decide to imitate.  I was unclear as to whether Burgis regards that as form of self-determination;  finding autonomy, mastery and belonging. 

The book revealed how much we are impacted by the external life around us if Girard is right. Part of me would rather remain ignorant and dedicated to the idea of my own unique desires.  I don’t like the sense or risk of all of us being ground into grains of sand.  Certainly I can see the pull to imitate in all of us when we are young for example and ask others what we should do with our lives.  But there is equally truth in Jack Welch’s command to “control your destiny or someone else will.”  We are influenced by others and yes, given free reign on your mind, some algo or other person or business will turn you away from who you might become and toward desires that are not your own.  As with any endeavor, it may even be that a very small minority reach some thick desire, or whatever transformation of suffering and desire that underpins Burgis and Girard. 

With a nod to Girard and Burgis, I also look to and place hope on Hunter Thompson and his response to a friend who asked “what should I do with my life.”  His response  which is one that I implore to my kids and many others is that our challenge is to be ourselves,  to seek the “Ninth Path”  in both life and business. To point the path of desire for others is the ultimate in egomania and to succumb to others pointing the path for you is a path to misery and regret.  It’s not in the goal but the choosing of a way of life and business.  Anne Lamott says it beautifully. “But you don’t always get what you want, you get what you get.”  A little Vipassana will help you deal with it.

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