Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
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. Our power of imitation dwarfs that of any other animal. It allows us to build sophisticated culture and technology. At the same time, it has a dark side. Imitation leads people to pursue things that seem desirable at first but ultimately leave them unfulfilled. It locks them into cycles of desire and rivalry that are difficult, practically impossible, to escape.
Desire, as Girard used the word, does not mean the drive for food or sex or shelter or security. Those things are better called needs—they’re hardwired into our bodies. Biological needs don’t rely on imitation. If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that water is desirable. But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the human universe of desire. And knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need.
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”).
When there was risk of an all-out war with Elon Musk’s rival company, X.com, Thiel merged with him to form PayPal. He knew from Girard that when two people (or two companies) take each other as mimetic models, they enter into a rivalry for which there is no end but destruction—unless they are somehow able to see beyond the rivalry.
Thiel took mimesis into account when evaluating investment decisions, too. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, had introduced him to Mark Zuckerberg. Thiel saw clearly that Facebook was not merely another MySpace or SocialNet (Hoffman’s first start-up). Facebook was built around identity—that is to say, desires. It helps people see what other people have and want. It is a platform for finding, following, and differentiating oneself from models. Models of desire are what make Facebook such a potent drug. Before Facebook, a person’s models came from a small set of people: friends, family, work, magazines, and maybe TV. After Facebook, everyone in the world is a potential model. Facebook isn’t filled with just any kind of model—most people we follow aren’t movie stars, pro athletes, or celebrities. Facebook is full of models who are inside our world, socially speaking. They are close enough for us to compare ourselves to them. They are the most influential models of all, and there are billions of them. Thiel quickly grasped Facebook’s potential power and became its first outside investor. “I bet on mimesis,” he told me. His $500,000 investment eventually yielded him over $1 billion.
Mimetic desire, because it is social, spreads from person to person and through a culture. It results in two different movements—two cycles—of desire. The first cycle leads to tension, conflict, and volatility, breaking down relationships and causing instability and confusion as competing desires interact in volatile ways. This is the default cycle that has been most prevalent in human history. It is accelerating today. It’s possible to transcend that default cycle, though. It’s possible to initiate a different cycle that channels energy into creative and productive pursuits that serve the common good.
Mimesis can hijack our noblest ambitions. We live at a time of hyper-imitation. Fascination with what is trending and going viral is symptomatic of our predicament. So is political polarization. It stems in part from mimetic behavior that destroys nuance and poisons even our most honorable goals: to develop friendships, to fight for important causes, to build healthy communities. When mimesis takes over, we become obsessed with vanquishing some Other, and we measure ourselves according to them. 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.
Homogenizing forces are creating a crisis of desire. Equality is good. Sameness is generally not—unless we’re talking about cars on an assembly line or the consistency of your favorite brand of coffee. The more that people are forced to be the same—the more pressure they feel to think and feel and want the same things—the more intensely they fight to differentiate themselves. And this is dangerous. Many cultures have had a myth in which twins commit violence against each other. There are at least five separate stories of sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis alone: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Stories of sibling rivalry are universal because they’re true—the more people are alike, the more likely they are to feel threatened. While technology is bringing the world closer together (Facebook’s stated mission), it is bringing our desires closer together and amplifying conflict. We are free to resist, but the mimetic forces are accelerating so quickly that we are close to becoming shackled. Sustainability depends on desirability. Decades of consumer culture have forged unsustainable desires. Many people know intellectually that they could do a better job taking care of the planet, for instance. But until eating a more sustainable diet or driving more fuel-efficient cars is far more attractive to the average consumer than the alternatives, the more sustainable options will not be widely adopted. It’s not enough to know what is good and true. Goodness and truth need to be attractive—in other words, desirable. If people don’t find positive outlets for their desires, they will find destructive ones. In the days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta and his companions were carousing in south Florida bars and binge-playing video games. “Who asks about the souls of these men?” wondered Girard in his last book, Battling to the End. The Manichean division of the world into “evil” and “not evil” people never satisfied him. He saw the dynamics of mimetic rivalry at work in the rise of terrorism and class conflict. People don’t fight because they want different things; they fight because mimetic desire causes them to want the same things. The terrorists would not have been driven to destroy symbols of the West’s wealth and culture if, at some deep level, they had not secretly desired some of the same things. That’s why the Florida bars and video game–playing are an important piece of the puzzle. The mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) remains just that: mysterious. But mimetic theory reveals something important about it. The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other. We should choose our enemies wisely, because we become like them.
There are always models of desire. If you don’t know yours, they are probably wreaking havoc in your life.
You may be wondering, then: if desire is generated and shaped by models, then where do models get their desires? The answer: from other models. If you go back far enough in the evolution of your desire, through friends and parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, all the way back to the Romans, who modeled themselves after the Greeks, you will keep finding models.
what they wanted. Desire is our primordial concern. Long before people can articulate why they want something, they start wanting it. The motivational speaker Simon Sinek advises organizations and people to “start with why” (the title of one of his books), finding and communicating one’s purpose before anything else. But that is usually a post hoc rationalization of whatever it is we already wanted. Desire is the better place to start.
Animals imitate sounds, facial expressions, gestures, aggression, and other behaviors. Humans imitate all of those things and more: retirement planning, romantic ideals, sexual fantasies, food preparation, social norms, worship, gift-giving rituals, professional courtesies, and memes. We’re so sensitive to imitation that we notice the slightest deviance from what we could call acceptable imitation. If we receive a response to an email or text that doesn’t sufficiently tone-match, we can go into a mini-crisis (Does she not like me? Does he think he’s superior to me? Did I do something wrong?). Communication practically runs on mimesis.
I plan to order a beer from the bar. My friend orders a gin martini. Suddenly I “realize” that I want a martini, too. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t want a martini when I walked in the door. I had my heart set on a cold beer. What changed? My friend didn’t remind me of a subconscious, inner longing that I had for a martini; he gave me a new desire. I want one because my friend wanted one first. A martini is harmless. (Usually.) But let’s say that while we’re bellied up to the bar sipping our drinks, my friend tells me about a promotion he’s about to get. He’ll receive a $20,000 boost in salary and have a new title: managing director of something or other that sounds important. It comes with more vacation time, too. As I smile and tell him how exciting that is, I feel some anxiety. Shouldn’t I be making an extra $20,000, too? Will my friend and I still be able to plan vacations together if he gets twice as much paid time off as I do? And also, what the hell? We graduated from the same university, and I worked twice as hard as he did in school and after. Am I falling behind? Did I choose the right path in life? Even though I used to say that I could never be in his line of work, now I’m second-guessing myself. My friend has become a model of desire to me. We will never speak of it. But an inner force has been activated in me that, if left unchecked, will cause conflict. I’ll start to make decisions based on what he wants. If he moves to a certain neighborhood, I’ll start evaluating where I live accordingly. If he reaches Delta SkyMiles Platinum status, I won’t be satisfied with Gold. Sometimes I’ll imitate him in a mirrored way, doing the opposite of whatever he does. If he buys a Tesla, then I’ll never want to own a Tesla. I don’t want any reminders that I’m always one step behind. I’m different. I’ll buy a classic Ford Mustang and start narrowing my eyes at the Tesla drivers I see on the road (that sheeplike herd…)—completely unaware that my behavior is driven by my model. When he loses his job, I experience schadenfreude. When he gets it back, I experience envy. Even my emotions are reflections of the relationship I have with my model. And presently I’m at the bottom of my martini glass, and I notice he got an extra olive.
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. Mimetic desire operates in the dark. Those who can see in the dark take full advantage.
Bernays returned to the United States with a new awareness: “If you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.” In the following four decades, Bernays pulled off dozens of public relations coups. When he was hired by a company that sold pork, he made bacon and eggs the all-American breakfast by getting his friend, a doctor, to write a letter to five thousand other doctors, urging them all to sign on to the recommendation that eating a heavier breakfast (“bacon and eggs”) would be healthier for Americans. He convinced kids to like taking baths by organizing soap-carving contests in public schools. That’s because Procter & Gamble, his client, made a brand of soap (Ivory) that floated in water. In the late 1940s he persuaded the U.S. government to build Route 66 as part of his work for Mack Trucks. More highway, more trucks. Bernays seemed to understand that models influence desire. Doctors were the “expert” models who recommended bacon and eggs. Teachers modeled soap carving. And when Mack Trucks hired Bernays to defend the company against attacks from railroads, Bernays rallied legions of enthusiastic motorists, from the members of men’s and women’s driving clubs to milk delivery drivers and tire workers, to support the building of more highways. But none of these things quite matched the magnitude of the coup that Bernays had pulled off decades earlier when he created one of the most powerful models of the century.
Women’s emancipation was in full swing in the 1920s. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August 1920, had given women the right to vote; women were earning higher wages than ever before by taking jobs that had opened up during the war; and flappers were celebrating their newfound freedoms drinking French 75 cocktails and listening to Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. The time was ripe for anything that appealed to freedom. Bernays concocted his plan. In March 1929, he identified the Easter Day parade in New York City as the perfect opportunity to transform cigarettes into “torches of freedom.” The parade was a spectacle of high fashion, a media frenzy, an opportunity for well-to-do New Yorkers to strut down Fifth Avenue to see and be seen. An Easter procession down Fifth Avenue had emerged as early as the 1870s. Back then, Easter was as important to retail sales as Christmas is today. As the event became ritualized and turned into a parade, women wore their best hats and colorful Easter dresses. As they exited the churches up and down Fifth Avenue, they fell into step with other high-society women using the street as their runway. They visited the flower-filled churches on the parade route while being admired by the lower classes lined up along the sides of the street to watch. Bernays’s plan was to convince a carefully selected group of these women to light up Lucky Strike cigarettes defiantly during the parade, the world’s largest stage. It would be equivalent to a modern influencer campaign of epic proportions: imagine if Beyoncé stopped her Super Bowl halftime performance midsong, pulled out a Juul, and puffed away, with the cameras zooming in on the brand and flavor.
As Tye tells it, pictures of women smoking their “torches of freedom” appeared on the front pages of major U.S. newspapers the next day: from the New York Times to the daily paper of Albuquerque, New Mexico. United Press International mentioned a woman named Bertha Hunt, who “struck another blow on behalf of the liberty of women.” She had pushed through the crowd in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to lead the charge. “I hope that we have started something,” Hunt told journalists, “and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.” What she failed to mention while being interviewed was that she was Bernays’s secretary and was reciting a carefully crafted statement. Bernays orchestrated the entire Easter Day stunt to make it look like the women spontaneously started smoking, and that Hunt spontaneously desired to push through that crowd in front of the cathedral. He used the Romantic Lie against people. He gave the illusion of autonomy—because that’s how people think desire works. 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. Within days, women took to the streets in cities across the United States lighting up their own “torches of freedom.” Sales of Lucky Strikes tripled by the following Easter.
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.
People don’t only model the desire for third parties or objects; they can also model the desire for themselves. Playing hard to get is a tried-and-true method to drive people crazy, but few ever ask why. Mimetic desire provides a clue. We are fascinated with models because they show us something worth wanting that is just beyond our reach—including their affection.
A 1985 Pepsi commercial portrays a man pulling up to a beach in a van and broadcasting his lusty gulps of ice-cold Pepsi from speakers mounted on the roof until everybody on the beach follows one another to the van, where the guy proceeds to sell them all bottles of Pepsi. The commercial closes with the words: “Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation.” The use of the word “choice” is ironic because the commercial portrays all the people schvitzing on the beach as having little to no choice at all. The goal is getting people to think, “Oh, those lemming-like, silly people in the commercial.” The moment a person exempts themselves in their own mind from the very thing they see all around them is the moment when they are most vulnerable. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, “Joe Briefcase,” sitting on his couch watching the Pepsi commercial alone, thinks he has transcended the mass of plebeians that Pepsi must be advertising to—and then he goes out and buys more Pepsi, for reasons that he thinks are different.23 And if he doesn’t drink more Pepsi, then he will be more likely to drink something else that he feels separates himself from the masses—maybe kombucha. The consumption can also be of something besides a soft drink, something quite different in type: the latest Netflix Original documentary, say, or podcasts that make him feel smarter than his friends. The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game. If a news organization can convince its viewers that its programming is neutral, it disables their defense mechanisms. Big Tech companies do something similar. They present their technology as agnostic—as just a “platform.” And that’s true, so long as we evaluate it in a materialistic way, as bits and bytes. Yet, on a human level, social media companies have built engines of desire. 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.
A couple of pieces of data should have alerted investors in Tesla stock that more than information was driving the stock price. On February 4, the second day of the rally, more than $55 billion of Tesla stock changed hands—more than any stock in history at the time. On the same day, people who started searching Google with the words “Should I” received an auto-suggested completion of their question: “Should I buy Tesla stock?” Millions of people were searching Google to find out whether they should buy Tesla based on whether other people wanted to buy Tesla. This, in my view, is not merely information. It’s mimetic desire. Desire is not a function of data. It’s a function of other people’s desires. What stock market analysts referred to as “mass psychosis” was not so psychotic after all. It was the phenomenon of mimetic desire that Girard had discovered more than fifty years earlier. In both bubbles and crashes, models are multiplied. Desire spreads at a speed so great we can’t wrap out rational brains around it. We might consider taking a different, more human, perspective.
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.
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? He was brilliant, but that’s not what made him so alluring. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was brilliant, too, but his life was so mundane that townspeople could set their watches to his daily walks. Jobs was mesmerizing because he wanted differently. We often attribute a person’s magnetism to some objective quality about them—a manner of speaking, intelligence, tenacity, wit, or confidence. Those things help, but there is more. 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.
Kinds of models that affect us in different ways: those who are outside of our immediate world and those who are inside of it. Mimesis has different consequences in each case.
Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of the now-defunct biotech company Theranos, openly imitated Steve Jobs. She wore black turtlenecks and hired every Apple designer she could find. But imagine if a junior employee at Theranos started mimicking Holmes, walking around in black turtlenecks, sporting blue contact lenses, mimicking Holmes’s intense stare, even speaking in Holmes’s low pitch and dry style. What do you think would happen? They’d lose their job. It’s as if everyone is saying, “Imitate me—but not too much,” because while everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.
Celebristan is where models live who mediate—or bring about changes in our desires—from somewhere outside our social sphere, and with whom we have no immediate and direct possibility of competing on the same basis. 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. There is another world, though, where most of us live the majority of our lives. We’ll call it Freshmanistan. People are in close contact and unspoken rivalry is common. Tiny differences are amplified. Models who live in Freshmanistan occupy the same social space as their imitators. We’re easily affected by what other people in Freshmanistan say or do or desire. It’s like being in our freshman year of high school, having to jostle for position and differentiate ourselves from a bunch of other people who are in the same situation. Competition is not only possible, it is the norm. And the similarity between the people competing makes the competition peculiar.
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. Dream dates live in Celebristan so long as you’ve never even met the person you dream of dating, or if the dream date lives in an untouchable social sphere that puts them out of reach. Celebrities who agree to attend a high school prom are sweet—but everyone understands that the high school kid isn’t going to take them away from their A-list suitors. The phrase “out of your league” hints at this strange, unattainable world. In Celebristan, there is always a barrier that separates the models from their imitators. They might be separated from us by time (because dead), space (because they live in a different country or aren’t on social media), or social status (a billionaire, rock star, or member of a privileged class). Julia Child is a model to millions who aspire to elevate their home cooking, and Abraham Lincoln is a model to many politicians. Since both are dead, they occupy a permanent place in Celebristan. There is no chance that they will enter into our world and become our rivals. This brings us to an important feature of Celebristan models: because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly.
Saints become Celebristan models—declared worthy of imitation—only after they are dead. Nobody can officially be declared a saint while they are alive. A similar protocol is in place with a Hall of Famer in professional sports—no athlete can be inducted into the Hall of Fame while still playing the game. People only truly become legends after they retire or die because they enter into a different existential space. Some models use a trick to cement their Celebristan citizenship: they guard their identities to heighten our sense of intrigue. Banksy, J. D. Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, Elena Ferrante, Terrence Malick, and Daft Punk all have hidden themselves from view, which makes them appear to exist in a different plane. Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous programmer thought to be the inventor of Bitcoin, boosted his mimetic value into the upper stratosphere of Celebristan through secrecy. He made himself impossible to compete with. “You can’t be Satoshi-but-more-charismatic, because nobody knows for sure that they’ve met him,” write Tobias Huber and Byrne Hobart. “You can’t be Satoshi-but-more-paranoid, because he still hasn’t been firmly identified. You can’t be Satoshi-but-more-forward-thinking, unless you start now and develop something that’s a bigger deal than Bitcoin ten years from now, without getting caught.”
Hierarchies in companies can create barriers to competition, making it practically impossible for some people to compete with others for the same roles and accolades. From the perspective of a call center employee working for a hierarchical company, a C-suite executive might as well live on a different planet. The CEO is rarely seen. She’s untouchable. There’s no serious threat of a customer service rep competing with her for her job in the near term. The same is true of many founders and employees, teachers and students, professionals and amateurs in a sport. (The distinction between amateurs and professionals is marked by a rite of passage, which exists to demarcate who can compete with whom.) In Celebristan, people don’t compete with their imitators. They may not even know they exist. This makes it a relatively peaceful place. In Freshmanistan, however, fierce competition can arise between any two people at any time.
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. Between social media, globalization, and the toppling of old institutions, most of us are living nearly our entire lives in Freshmanistan. Friends live in Freshmanistan together. Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona shows how easily desires in this world become intertwined. Valentine and Proteus, friends since childhood, discover their desires converging on the same woman—not incidentally, but because of the other one’s desire. Proteus is in love with a girl named Julia. When he goes to visit his friend Valentine in Milan, Valentine talks up his own new love interest, Silvia. Upon hearing his friend’s excessive praise, Proteus instantly falls in love with Silvia, too. A day earlier Proteus had pledged his eternal love to Julia; now he wants Silvia. Shakespeare often portrayed mimetic desire in comedies because it’s more palatable for people that way—they can laugh at others behaving ridiculously from a safe distance, without being reminded of their own mimesis. Mimetic desire is both the bond and the bane of many friendships. A common example: one friend introduces the other to baking; the desire to become a better baker is then shared by both friends, which leads them to spend more time together baking. But if the friendship becomes tinged with mimetic rivalry, it can lock them into a never-ending game of rivalrous tug-of-war that extends beyond baking to relationships, career success, fitness, and more. The same force that drew them together, mimetic desire, now pushes them apart as they try to differentiate themselves.
Remember what it’s like to be a freshman in high school? People from many different backgrounds are thrust into the same building, same hallways, same classrooms. Skaters get assigned to projects with thespians; rockers play sports with jocks; jocks sit next to nerds. It might seem like these groups are very different. Don’t nerds look at jocks as if they exist in another world? Yes. But they are far more alike than different. They’re roughly the same age; they’re all dealing with adolescent hormones. They attend the same classes and eat in the same lunchroom. Any one of them can come into contact with any other on any given day. Everyone is taking mimetic cues from everyone else, but almost nobody knows it. An unspoken battle of differentiation occurs as each person tries to carve out an identity over and against the rest.
Peter Thiel instituted the Thiel Fellowship in 2011 to pay promising entrepreneurs to start businesses instead of going to college. The fellowship was able to make its value proposition attractive in part because it intentionally hacked mimetic desire: getting a fellowship was harder than getting into Harvard. (The first class of fellows had an acceptance rate of around 4 percent, and in subsequent years it went down to around 1 percent.) Among the dropouts funded by the fellowship were brilliant, ambitious kids like Vitalik Buterin, co-creator of the decentralized open-source blockchain Ethereum, and Eden Full, inventor of a technology that enables solar panels to follow the sun. These entrepreneurs modeled something even more important than a Harvard degree to many young people; they modeled a different track. Today value is largely mimetically driven rather than attached to fixed, stable points (like college degrees). This has created opportunities for anyone who can stand out from the crowd.
“Since modern man has no way of knowing what is going on beyond himself, since he cannot know everything, he would become lost in a world as vast and technically complex as ours, if he had really no one to guide him,” wrote Girard in his book Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky. “He no longer relies on priests and philosophers, of course, but he must rely on people nevertheless, more than ever, as a matter of fact.” And who are these people? “They are the experts,” continues Girard, “the people more competent than we are in innumerable fields of endeavor.” Experts are the ones who help mediate desires, who tell us what is worth wanting and what is not. Tim Ferriss shows millions of people which books to read, which movies to watch, and which new apps to use in his “5-Bullet Friday” emails (which I never miss). He’s an expert. He even teaches others how to hack expertise. “Expert status can be created in less than four weeks if you understand basic credibility indicators,” he writes. Katie Parla is the expert source for people who want to learn about restaurants in Rome. Marie Kondo is the expert purger of junk. Richard Blevins—better known as “Ninja”—expertly plays video games with over 650,000 people watching at one time.
There’s such demand for new models that we insert mediators of desire where they don’t belong—like Shark Tank–style business pitch competitions where experts, rather than the market, decide whether a business is valuable. We’re model addicts. Right now, the models we prefer are experts. That could be because we think of ourselves as more rational than ever—and we are, in many ways. Scientific progress has been swift in the past hundred years. However, we underestimate the strong role that mimesis plays in the way we choose our experts. What is our basis for taking a source as authoritative? Is it because we checked all of the person’s credentials? Is it because the source was fact-checked by Peter Canby’s team at the New Yorker? Or is it because the person has the most followers on social media and a “Verified” sticker next to their name? Authority is more mimetic than we like to believe. The fastest way to become an expert is to convince a few of the right people to call you an expert. The cult of saints has become the cult of experts. That doesn’t mean we no longer rely on models to figure out what to want. It means that in a post-Enlightenment world, the preferred models are often those who seem most enlightened: the experts.
Experts play an increasingly prominent role in our society. But what makes an expert? A degree? A podcast? Increasingly, experts are crowned mimetically, like fashion. Because there is less and less agreement about cultural values and even about the value of science itself (consider the debates about climate change), people find “experts” whose expertise is largely a product of mimetic validation. It’s critical to cut through mimesis and find sources of knowledge that are less subject to mimesis. 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.
People’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.
In situations where desirous participants have the possibility of interacting with each other, there is a two-way interaction between the participants’ desires.
From 2003 to 2016 investors gave the previously mentioned Elizabeth Holmes, who liked to imitate Steve Jobs, more than $700 million. Her company, Theranos, peaked at a valuation of over $10 billion. The investor funds allowed her to build a sleek Silicon Valley headquarters, hire coveted former Apple employees, and fuel a public relations campaign that landed her a lucrative contract with Walgreens. All this made new investors froth at the mouth to get in on the action. This kind of funding process is doubly mimetic: new investors want in because other smart investors are already in, and investor demand for the company’s shares allows the company to tell a better story, which fuels even more investor demand.
The reflexivity of desire is most apparent in rivalrous relationships. When a person is focused on what a rival model wants, the desires of both individuals are reflexive. Neither can want anything without affecting the other’s desire for it. In Freshmanistan, a mimetic rivalry is like two people trying to race each other inside of the same car: Nobody gets ahead, and eventually they crash.
When mimesis is strong enough, rivals forget about whatever objects they were fighting for in the first place. Objects become completely interchangeable—the rivals will fight for anything, so long as their opponent wants it. They become locked in a double bind—each reflexively bound to the desires of the other, unable to escape.
When one of the two parties to a rivalry renounces the rivalry, it defuses the other party’s desire. In a mimetic rivalry, objects take on value because the rival wants them. If the rival suddenly stops wanting something, so do we. We go in search of something new. Everyone has a toxic relationship to a model.. You probably follow at least a few people who function as unhealthy models of desire for you. It might be an acquaintance or former colleague, someone you follow on social media, or maybe even a former classmate whose career you’ve followed through the years. You need to know what they’re up to. You care what they think. You care what they want. It’s critical to distance yourself from the force they exert on you. Unfollow them. Don’t ask about them. If you check up on them every day, then start by going at least a week before you check again. If you check on them every week, then go at least a month. One of my friends was an early employee at a start-up in San Francisco when he found himself in a highly mimetic relationship with a talented colleague. The company grew so fast that there were a few months when they had to work nearly around the clock to keep up. If his rival Slacked the team to say that he was finally leaving the office at ten o’clock at night, my buddy would stay until ten-thirty the next night—and let everyone know about it. (It reminded me of my early days in investment banking, when none of the analysts dared to be the first one to leave for the day, lest anyone think they weren’t working hard.) It wasn’t long before both my friend and his rival were pulling all-nighters. Not because the work demanded it, but because their mimetic rivalry did. Each one wanted to win the war. Finally, my friend’s rival left and became the eponymous founder of a company. Three months later, so did my friend. (He saw an “opportunity in the market,” of course, around the exact time that his rival did.) For months he followed the other guy’s company and social media posts daily. He wouldn’t admit to anyone, including himself, that his every move depended on what the other guy did. When his rival bought Bitcoin, he had to buy Bitcoin, too, to make sure the other guy didn’t hit a home run and leave him behind. My friend was like an investment manager who only buys index funds to ensure that he never falls behind the market, because that would be embarrassing. People do the same thing with their models. When the Bitcoin bubble burst, my friend didn’t care. As long as the other guy was wrong, he could be wrong, too. Eight years have passed since they first struck out on their own. One day last year I ran across a news article profiling the rival and sent it to my friend. “Hey, look what Tony [not his real name] is up to,” I wrote. To my surprise, my friend responded courteously: “Thanks for sending me this. I deleted it immediately. About a year ago, I completely untethered myself from Tony to the point where I no longer even know what he’s up to, and I’d like to keep it that way. Someday, once my rivalry with him runs out of oxygen and dies, I might not mind. But for now, I’m starving it to death. Can you do me a favor and not send me stuff like this?” I was happy not to. And today my friend is happier, too.
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. We live in Freshmanistan. Each of us has to examine what this means in our life—how mimetic desire manifests itself in the circumstances we’re in, and how we should live. This new world represents a threat but also an opportunity. Which new pathways of desire will emerge? Which new opportunities can we seize? How can we infect and be infected by desires that will ultimately lead to fulfillment and not to destruction? These are the questions that we’ll finally have to ask and answer as individuals, and as a society.
Desire doesn’t spread like information; it spreads like energy. It passes from person to person like the energy between people at a concert or political rally. This energy can lead to a cycle of positive desire, in which healthy desires gain momentum and lead to other healthy desires, uniting people in positive ways; or it can become a cycle of negative desire, in which mimetic rivalries lead to conflict and discord. In Freshmanistan, the proximity and similarity of people make the stakes of mimetic desire higher.
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.” Know when to lean into mimesis.
In a mimetic rivalry, a person’s rival determines what a person wants next, which goals they pursue, what they think about when they go to bed at night. If a person doesn’t realize what’s happening, the game will bring them to the point of exhaustion, and maybe worse. Ferrari gave Lamborghini the desire to make supercars. Lamborghini charged ahead. He became a formidable rival. But he refused to fight all the way to the end. He knew that there was no end. After all, the rivalry was never about cars. It was about honor. Lamborghini didn’t buy into the distortions caused by metaphysical desire, which leads people to seek satisfaction under a never-ending assortment of obstacles with no end. 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.” Lamborghini chose not to. “I refused to build it,” Lamborghini said, referring to a race car. “Not just because I wanted to avoid fighting with Ferrari. It was a choice that concerned my role as a father. My son Tonino was sixteen when I started building cars, and I was sure he would be attracted to competition.” Lamborghini seemed to view competition as an occupational hazard for an entrepreneur—something good up to a certain point, but which devolves into rivalry if it’s not kept in check. “This fear subsequently led me to include in the company charter a clause prohibiting participation in the [racing] wars,” he added.
Dawkins’s theory of memes and Girard’s theory of mimetic desire both view imitation as foundational to human behavior. However, the two theories are different in almost every other respect. According to Dawkins, memes work in a similar way to biological genes: their survival depends on their being passed on and replicated as perfectly as possible. They might mutate every once in a while. But in general, memes are discrete, static, and fixed. According to meme theory, the spread of memes through imitation leads to the development and sustainability of culture. According to Girard’s mimetic theory, culture is formed primarily through the imitation of desires, not things. And desires are not discrete, static, and fixed; they are open-ended, dynamic, and volatile.
Mimetic desire tends to move in one of two cycles. Cycle 1 is the negative cycle, in which mimetic desire leads to rivalry and conflict. This cycle runs on the false belief that other people have something that we don’t have and that there isn’t room for fulfillment of both their desires and ours. It comes from a mindset of scarcity, of fear, of anger. Cycle 2 is the positive cycle in which mimetic desire unites people in a shared desire for some common good. It comes from a mindset of abundance and mutual giving. This type of cycle transforms the world. People want something that they couldn’t imagine wanting before—and they help others go further, too.
Negative flywheels are far more common than positive ones. This is especially the case in Freshmanistan, where people have more in common and they are in close proximity. Like the warm ocean water over which hurricanes form, mimetic contagion is able to gather steam faster in Freshmanistan because everyone is in a reflexive environment, picking up on mimetic cues.
START POSITIVE FLYWHEELS OF DESIRE 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. Write it out. I suggest that each step in the flywheel be one sentence, contain the word “want” (or “desire”), and link to the next step in the process with a connector like so that, or which leads to, or which makes. Here’s an example from an e-commerce company that put a positive flywheel in motion for its customer service team, which had become complacent and unmotivated:
- We want our customer service team to feel empowered to take ownership of decisions; so that
- Customers feel they are speaking to someone with authority and therefore want to interact with them rather than asking for a manager; so that
- Efficiencies are created that allow managers to spend less time talking to frustrated customers and more time managing projects they want to be working on; so that
- We can create a discretionary bonus pool, administered by managers who want to reward customer service team members who take ownership of decisions; so that
- The customer service team members want to take more ownership of decisions. Yours doesn’t need to have five steps. But make sure that each step leads inevitably to the next, and that the last step in the process leads back to the first.
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. Mimetic desire breeds rivalries, which breed collisions and conflict.
People always pursue happiness by looking for models of happiness—whether that is someone who has lived the American dream, a Silicon Valley CEO, or your next-door neighbor. But external hierarchies are merely the visible surface of a more personal system: the structure of desire that lives invisibly inside each one of us, and which is connected to other people through mimetic desire.
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.” Zappos dismantled any visible signs of an outer ring. They forgot about the inner one.
Values and desires are not the same thing. Values act to order desires the way they do a diet. If a person who loves meat realizes that their values are such that they no longer wish to eat meat, there comes a time—after they’ve lived out their values long enough—when they no longer even want meat. You could put the juiciest burger imaginable in front of them and they wouldn’t be tempted to eat it. For many people, ordering desires starts out unconsciously. It may be this simple: I take care of my immediate family first, then others; I answer emails from people I know first and respond to unsolicited sales inquiries later; or if I only have time to clean one room in the house today, I clean the kitchen. Whether we recognize it or not, our minds think in hierarchies all of the time—whether it’s related to our daily to-do list, the priority of issues in an election, or even a glance at a menu in a restaurant (appetizers, main course, dessert). Without a hierarchy of values, which helps form and direct desires, we can’t even begin to think about what to pay attention to and to what degree.
A hierarchy of values is especially critical when choices have to be made between good things. If values are all equally important, or if there isn’t a clear understanding of how they relate to one another, mimesis becomes the primary driver of decision-making. “My friends and my faith are both super important to me,” one of my college buddies says. Good. But what will he do if one of his best friends schedules his bachelor party in Miami’s South Beach on a high holy day? Saying that two different things are “super important” won’t help. Without a clear hierarchy, he’s more likely to choose according to the influences around him. His decision will be mimetically driven, not values driven. Companies face situations where competing claims are made on their values every day. Two of a company’s core values might be “inclusiveness and diversity” and “relationships built on trust.” If the company is in an industry where sales happen within an old-boys’ club, where trust has already been established between its members, how can they hire a young woman for a sales role and give her a chance to build up trust in a different way if there is not a clear priority on inclusiveness and diversity in the hiring process? In the absence of a hierarchy of values, the hiring managers won’t know what to do when 95 percent of the applications they receive are from highly experienced men. Mimetic forces will continue to dominate their sales force. In a company’s capital structure, there is always a hierarchy of claims on the company’s money. A start-up’s cap table (a hierarchical list of who owns what and who gets paid what and when) might contain the following groups of people with their claims listed in order of priority: secured creditor, unsecured creditor, preferred stockholders, common stock series A holders, common stock series B holders, and founder’s stock. If we demand such a clear hierarchy when it comes to who gets paid first, coming up with a similar hierarchy for our values—indicating what we should desire first—is the least we can do.
ESTABLISH AND COMMUNICATE A CLEAR HIERARCHY OF VALUES A hierarchy of values is an antidote to mimetic conformity. If all values are treated as equal, then the one that wins out—especially at a time of crisis—is the one that is most mimetic. (During the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was panic-buying of toilet paper. There was no issue with supply; there was an issue with mimesis. Cultural values are often subject to the same irrationality—people tend to panic-buy whatever is most important to them at the moment rather than what is best for the common good.) It’s not enough to name values. They need to be ranked. When all values are the same, nothing is being valued at all. It’s like highlighting every single word in a book. It’s better to construct a mental model of your hierarchy of values (or your shared values, if you are in a relationship). Map it out on paper. Encourage your company to do the same. That hierarchy can change as time goes on. But by stratifying your values, you will be able to weigh and measure options when you have to make decisions in complex situations. Remember that conflict is caused by sameness, not by difference. If everything is equally good or important, the propensity for conflict is higher. Don’t contribute to the tyranny of relativism. It has too many tyrants as it is. A lack of clear, prioritized values in many companies allows mimesis to hijack the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and turn it into a flaccid marketing gimmick. It’s not that the values espoused by CSR programs aren’t important. But one gets the feeling that even “social responsibility” has become a mimetic, virtue-signaling game—more “social” than responsible.29 Avoid that by establishing and communicating both your values and their relative importance. Some values are absolutes. Know them. Name them. Defend them. They make up the base of the pyramid, or the center of your concentric circles (depending on how you choose to depict the hierarchy).
The Egyptians used their cats for ritual offerings and sacrifice. That’s why they were considered sacred. In mimetic theory, there is a near-indissoluble link between chaos and order, violence and the sacred. Sacrificial rites—whether sacrificing cats in ancient Egypt or the ritual firing of coaches and CEOs today—are the mechanism by which mimetic contagion is contained and controlled.
René Girard saw that for thousands of years humans have had a specific way of protecting themselves in a mimetic crisis: they converge, mimetically, on one person or group, whom they expel or eliminate. This has the effect of uniting them while providing an outlet for their violence. They protect themselves from what they want—from their mimetic desires, which have brought them into conflict with one another—by directing their desire to vanquish their rivals to a single fixed point: someone that has become a proxy for all of their enemies. Someone who is unable to fight back. A scapegoat.
Throughout most of human history, there were clear winners and losers in war, recognized as such through formal processes. Conflicts came to an end when one side admitted defeat according to rituals such as the signing of a peace accord. Not so today, when terror cells can spring up from within a community and then grow like a hydra when any of their members are struck. How could there ever be a definitive conclusion to a war in which combatants masquerade as ordinary citizens? Girard thought we had entered a dangerous new phase of history, ripe for what von Clausewitz called “the escalation to extremes”—the desire of each side in a conflict to destroy the other, which reinforces and escalates the desire of the other for violence.
In his study of history, Girard found that humans time and time again turned to sacrifice in order to stop the spread of mimetic conflict. When societies were threatened with disorder, they used violence to drive out violence. They would expel or destroy a chosen person or group, and this action would have the effect of preventing more widespread violence. Girard called the process by which this happens the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat mechanism, he found, turns a war of all against all into a war of all against one. It brings temporary peace as people forget their mimetic conflicts for a while, having just discharged all of their anger onto a scapegoat. This process, Girard believed, was the foundation of all culture. The institutions and cultural norms that we find around us, especially sacred rituals like elections and capital punishment, as well as many taboos, are mechanisms that were developed to contain violence.
The Torah contains an account of a strange ritual in ancient Israel. Once a year, on the feast of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, two male goats were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Lots were drawn to determine which goat would be sacrificed to God and which one would be sent away to Azazel, an evil spirit or demon believed to reside in remote regions of the desert. The high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat that was bound for Azazel. As he did so, the priest would confess all the sins of the Israelites, symbolically transferring them onto the animal. After the priest had said the appropriate prayers, the people would drive the goat out into the desert, to Azazel, expelling their sins along with it. This goat came to be called, in English, the scapegoat. The idea of the scapegoat was not unique to the Jews, though. The ancient Greeks had their own version of a scapegoating ritual—but they sacrificed humans, not animals. During plagues and other calamities, the Greeks would select a pharmakós, a person at the margins of society—usually a castoff, criminal, slave, or someone thought to be excessively ugly or deformed. The word pharmakós is related to the English word “pharmacy.” In ancient Greece, the pharmakós was someone initially seen as a poison to the community. The people believed that they had to destroy or expel this person to protect themselves. The elimination of the pharmakós was the remedy to the problem. In this sense, the pharmakós was both the poison and the cure. The people often tortured and humiliated the pharmakós in a public place. By way of the ritual, they experienced what Aristotle called catharsis: the process of releasing strong emotions or impulses through participation in some external event. Aristotle thought catharsis was the purpose of tragic drama. Through it, audience members could release some of their sorrow and pain, thus giving those emotions a safe outlet. An executive at the investment bank where I once worked organized a paintball excursion in the hills outside our main offices in Hong Kong. “Ah, that was cathartic,” Steve said, smiling, when we arrived back at the office. The paintball was not about paintball. Steve knew that if we got to run around and shoot each other with pellets of paint for a couple of hours, we’d be less likely to shoot barbs and insults at each other around the office. Every company needs its own form of cathartic rituals—something more effective than drunken holiday parties. But few companies today are as open about their need for catharsis as the Greeks were.
For the ancient Greeks, the pharmakós acted as a substitute, or stand-in, for what they wanted to do to each other. Sometimes the spectacle of humiliating the pharmakós lasted for days. The people needed time to release their tensions. After the ritual was complete, they would unanimously participate in some form of expulsion or killing. In the Greek city of Massalia—today, Marseilles—crowds forced the pharmakós to the edge of a high cliff and gathered around him, blocking all routes of escape. They eventually forced him over the edge to certain death. Because eliminating the pharmakós was a collective and anonymous process, the benefits flowed to everyone. Who was responsible for the murder? Everyone, and no one. No single person would feel responsible, absolving each of them from guilt; at the same time, the entire group reaped the benefit of discharging violence onto someone without the threat of retaliation. Unanimous violence is always anonymous violence. In firing squads, one person’s gun is sometimes loaded with a blank so that no one will know whether they fired the killing shot—and so no one exclusively carries the guilt. There’s psychological safety in mobs, just as there are in firing squads. “Can’t be sure that I’m responsible” is always a good defense—at least to oneself.
Girard found versions of scapegoating rituals in nearly every ancient culture. The scapegoat is often chosen randomly. But the scapegoat is always perceived to be different, marked with some distinguishing feature of an outsider—something to get them noticed.
Scapegoats are often insiders who are perceived to violate the group’s orthodoxy or taboos. Their behavior makes them appear as a threat to the group’s unity. They come to be seen as cancers or monstrous outsiders who have violated or destroyed the social bonds that hold the group together. Eliminating the scapegoat is the act through which the group becomes unified again. Nobody is safe from being made into a scapegoat. During a mimetic crisis, perception is distorted. In Freshmanistan, where differences are minor, even the smallest differences are amplified. People project their worst fears onto a scapegoat rather than face the crisis head-on. Nobody wants to pay the price.
If you’re in the ocean when lightning strikes, you have little to fear. But if you’re in a pool and lightning strikes it, you have a lot to fear. Celebristan is like the ocean. Freshmanistan is like a pool. Let’s say a huge appliance plugged into an electrical outlet gets thrown off a yacht anchored near a crowded beach in Japan. The high-voltage outlet sends thousands of volts of electricity directly into the water. The electricity would be completely harmless to people swimming off California beaches, thousands of miles away. Most people swimming near the beach in Japan wouldn’t feel a thing, either. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, but electricity is diffused quickly in a large body of water such as the Pacific Ocean. In Celebristan, remember, the degree of social distance between people is high; the risk of mimetic contagion is low. Now let’s say that same appliance falls into a twenty-by-forty-foot pool with twenty people in the water. What might happen? It’s safe to say that the consequences won’t be the same as they were in the ocean.
In a mob, contagion happens imperceptibly. As during the community spread of an infectious disease, nobody in a crowd knows who is a superspreader. It’s impossible to identify the exact moment when the invisible enemy infiltrates a person’s defenses. In the case of mimesis, nobody suspects that their desires are being infected. We can’t predict when the wisdom of the crowd becomes the violence of the mob. We don’t see the violent interactions that took place on the other side of the park or the room. We’re only a small part of a large system, and nobody on the inside can grasp the dynamics of the whole. What happens in a mob happens in a fog.
Accusations are dangerously mimetic. The first accusation is the hardest. Why? Because there’s no model for it. Only in the light of overwhelming evidence would most of us accuse a person of something truly terrible. But in a situation of extreme fear or confusion, the standards change. A person can take on the appearance of an evil perpetrator more easily in a war zone than in a well-run classroom. The first accusation, even if it’s completely false, changes the perception of reality. It affects one’s memory and perception of new events. And with each new accusation, there are more models. The number of models is why the second accusation is easier than the first to make, the third accusation is easier than the second, the fourth easier than the third. Models can distort reality, as we saw with Steve Jobs. A mimetic wave of accusation, in which enough people model belief in another person’s guilt, can transfigure an accused person before our eyes. We don’t see them as they are because they are a mirror of our own violence. In our story, in a single moment, the guy standing on the outside of the pool takes on the appearance of a monster—a murderer—to those in the pool. All because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Models spur people to action. Sometimes they help lead to breakthrough performances. At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, more than thirty world records were broken at a time when many scientists thought the human body had reached the limits of its development. In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in under two hours, something many had predicted wouldn’t happen for at least twenty years; now, thanks in part to mimetic desire, we can expect to see that barrier broken again and again.
A mob is a hyper-mimetic organism in which individual members can easily lose personal agency. Mimetic contagion destroys the distinctions between people—especially the differences in their desires. You can show up to a rally wanting one thing and leave wanting something else entirely.
The scapegoating mechanism does not hinge on the guilt or innocence of the scapegoat. It hinges on the ability of a community to use a scapegoat to accomplish their desired outcome: unification, healing, purgation, expiation. The scapegoat serves a religious function.
Throughout history, scapegoats have shared some common features. They are people who, for one reason or another, stand out from the crowd and can easily be singled out. In our allegorical pool party, the guy who went to fetch beer unknowingly put himself at risk of being seen as a scapegoat because he was the only one standing outside the pool. In real life, scapegoats are usually singled out due to some combination of the following: they have extreme personalities or neurodiversity (such as autism) or physical abnormalities that make them noticeable; they’re on the margins of society in terms of status or markets (they are outside the system, like the Amish or people who have chosen to live off the grid); they’re considered deviants in some way (their behavior falls outside societal norms, whether related to lifestyle, sexuality, or style of communication); they’re unable to fight back (this applies even to rulers or kings—when it is all against one, even the most powerful person is impotent); or they appear as if by magic without society knowing where they came from or how they got there, which makes them easy to blame as the cause of social unrest (climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York to speak at the United Nations on a zero-carbon yacht marks her as a potential scapegoat). All scapegoats have the power to unite people and defuse mimetic conflict. A scapegoat doesn’t have traditional power; a scapegoat has unifying power. A prisoner on death row possesses power that not even the state governor has. For a family or community in crisis, it can seem like only the death of that prisoner will bring them the kind of healing they seek. The prisoner, then, possesses a quasi-supernatural quality that no one else can stand in for. Only he can heal.
Another distinguishing feature of scapegoats is that they are disproportionately kings or beggars—and often both at the same time. If a beggar was chosen to be a scapegoat, he took on a demigod-like quality prior to and after his death because he was seen as the instrument of peace. He had the power to bring about an outcome the people could not bring about themselves.
Crises always seem to sneak up on and shock people. With all our modern technology and intelligence, we can’t predict them or prevent them. We keep running into crises of our own making. That’s because few people realize when they are caught up in a mimetic process. Most people maintain the illusion of independent desire—the Romantic Lie. But as the world’s financial and technological systems become more complex, so do our systems of desire. Each of us occupies multiple, often overlapping and intersecting, systems of desire.
Scapegoats are chosen through a mimetic process of judgment, not a rational one. Consider the ancient practice of stoning: a group of people throws stones at someone until they die from blunt trauma. It was the official form of capital punishment in ancient Israel—the Torah and Talmud codify it as punishment for certain offenses—but its origins are even older. The practice of stoning, in its most primitive form, happened spontaneously. It occurred outside of what we now know as “due process.”
Jesus came upon a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and who was about to be stoned by an angry mob. He intervened, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The words threw everything off balance. The cycle of destructive violence was knocked off its course. One by one, the men standing around the woman began dropping their stones and walking away. First one, then another, then the pace accelerated. What happened? Why was throwing the first stone so hard? Because the first stone is the only stone without a mimetic model. The thrower of the first stone, often acting in a violent rage, gives the crowd a dangerous model to follow. As we saw earlier in the story of Apollonius and the Ephesians, once the first stone is thrown, the second stone becomes easier to throw. It is always easier to desire something—even, and maybe even especially, violence—when it has been desired by someone else first.
The first stone thrower shows the way. The second reinforces the desire. Now the third person in the crowd is hit with the mimetic force of two mimetic models. They cast the third stone and become the third model. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stones are cast with relative ease compared to the first three. The seventh is effortless. Mimetic contagion has taken hold. The stone throwers become unattached from any form of objective judgment because their desire for a scapegoat has overpowered their desire for truth.
The tactic Jesus used to prevent the stoning was depriving the crowd of a violent model and replacing it with a nonviolent model. Instead of a violent contagion taking hold, a nonviolent contagion happened instead. The first person dropped their stone. Then, one by one, the rest followed. Cycle 1, mimetic violence, was transformed into Cycle 2, a positive mimetic process. Both depended on a model.
ARRIVE AT JUDGMENTS IN ANTI-MIMETIC WAYS If you’re taking a poll or a vote in a public place, it’s essential that people cannot see how other people are voting—if you want anything resembling a true, pre-mimetic reflection of what people think, that is. The mimetic influences are too strong. It’s important to find ways to allow each member of a group to arrive at a verdict—whether it be an investment decision or that of a courtroom jury—through the most independent process possible.
According to Girard, the scapegoat mechanism happened spontaneously in ancient societies. Eventually, these societies began ritually reenacting the process that led to the scapegoat mechanism—creating disorder, allowing mimetic tension to reach a peak, then expelling or sacrificing something symbolic. (This is the formula of reality television today.) They found that catharsis flowed to everyone. These rituals worked due to sacrificial substitution. Humans realized they could substitute an animal for a human. The sacrifice of animals has gradually been replaced by the termination of executives, mass incarceration, and social media cancellations. There seems to be no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to satiating our hunger for sacrifice. Substitute sacrifices permeate our culture. They have seeped into sports, organizational life, universities, and literature.
Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” is about a community that convenes annually to draw lots for a ritual stoning. The scapegoat ritual is designed to make sure that the bounty of the harvest continues—in other words, to maintain peace. Ritual sacrifices do not literally bring divine blessing on a harvest; they can, however, resolve mimetic tension between humans competing for scarce resources. A similar dynamic is at work in the 2019 horror film Midsommar. William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies depicts a mimetic crisis among adolescents trapped on a remote island. One of the kids, Piggy, is consistently made to bear the punishment for the entire group’s sins and suffers in their place. The plot of the Hunger Games films revolves around a sporting spectacle in which boys and girls ages twelve through eighteen are chosen by leaders in the capital of a dystopian country, Panem, to compete to the death. The games concentrate all of the society’s internal conflicts onto a select few who are forced to bear out the violence on behalf of the rest.
Are scapegoats the problem? Or are scapegoats the solution? C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” is about a community in crisis. They gather in the main square, brought together by the news of an impending attack by neighboring barbarians. The barbarians never show up. “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?” reads the penultimate line of the poem. It closes: “Those people were a kind of solution.”
Religious thinking has the goal of practical action. Nearly all people are religious in the sense that they subconsciously believe that sacrifice brings peace. Consider how ingrained sacrificial thinking is in our psyche. If only we could destroy that other political party, that other company, those terrorists, that troublemaker, that fast-food joint next door that has caused me to gain ten pounds, everything would be better.32 The sacrifice always seems right and proper. Our violence is good violence; the violence of the other side is always bad.
For many years, according to Girard, sacrificial rituals were so effective that they hindered scientific progress. “We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches,” Girard says. “We used to blame droughts on witches; once we stopped blaming witches, we looked for scientific explanations for drought.”
Humanity still tends to revert to a primitive, sacrificial mindset that characterized our ancestors and kept them stuck in cycles of violence. From the perspective of the crowd, the scapegoat mechanism is entirely rational. So when the scapegoats become the sacred center around which a culture turns—when myth and superstition reemerge as dominant forces in a culture—actual rationality takes a back seat.
While the rest of the prohibitive ten commandments forbid acts, the tenth commandment forbids a certain kind of desire. Girard notes that the Hebrew word that is often translated as “covet” means something simpler: “desire.” Read through the lens of desire, these biblical stories take on a rich anthropological meaning. But if mimetic desire is universal, a constituent part of who we are as humans, how could one of the Ten Commandments forbid it? The Tenth Commandment forbids rivalrous desires. It prohibits them because they lead, as we’ve seen by now, to violence.
The crucifixion of Jesus failed to unite a community unanimously against a scapegoat. It did the opposite—it caused enormous division. For a short period of time, the crucifixion seemed to have the desired effect. The mob was quelled, and order was temporarily restored. But very shortly after Jesus’s death, a small number of people—those who knew Jesus intimately—came forward to proclaim his innocence and said that he was alive. A division opened up between those who wanted to preserve the old sacrificial order and those who saw the scapegoat mechanism for what it is: an unjust sacrificial mechanism.
The gospel texts are radically different from Greek, Roman, and other common myths. In the pagan accounts of unanimous violence, the reader or listener gets the impression that the violence was done to someone guilty, deserving of punishment. That’s because the only people left to tell the story are the scapegoaters. The stories are told from the standpoint of the persecutors, who honestly believed in the guilt of the scapegoat. In the crucifixion of Jesus, the reader is meant to identify with the crowd, but also to see the folly of the crowd and to move beyond it—to finally, for the first time, grasp the truth about human violence.
“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims,” wrote René Girard. Think about how peculiar it is. At the present time we have such a heightened sensitivity to innocent victims that we find new injustices to accuse ourselves of daily. We are made highly uncomfortable by the thought that someone being treated harshly might be innocent. Where did this passionate spirit of defending victims come from? Did it come merely from the Enlightenment—the conceit that we are now smarter, rational people who can judge the past rightly from our heightened, enlightened perch? Or did it come from something else entirely?
The development of human rights as we know it was born partly from the indirect acknowledgment that anyone can become a scapegoat under the right circumstances. After approximately 75 million people were killed in World War II, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protected fundamental human rights applicable to all people; it was translated into more than five hundred languages and dialects. The creation of the declaration stemmed, in large part, from the appalling number of innocent victims made during the course of the war. These developments have dramatically shifted the balance of power. Previously, most victims were totally powerless to defend themselves. Today, nobody has more cultural influence than someone who has been recognized as a victim. It’s as if the poles of the earth’s magnetic fields changed places, the way they do every few hundred thousand years. The scapegoat mechanism has been so thoroughly subverted that there is some semblance of a reverse scapegoating mechanism, whereby an innocent victim is recognized as having been treated brutally and then a wave of support swells up around that person. The original scapegoat mechanism brought order out of chaos—but the order depended on violence. The reverse process brings chaos out of order. The chaos is meant to shake up the “orderly” system, predicated on violence, until something serious is done to change it. The death of George Floyd in the United States in May 2020 is one salient example. Obviously, the defense of victims is a good thing. At the same time, it brings new dangers. In the same way that scapegoating rituals in archaic religions were entirely practical—that is, they were used to achieve practical ends—so too can the defense of victims be used for practical purposes.
Have you noticed that goals have an irreproachable and unimpeachable status? You want to run an ultramarathon? People will applaud your determination. Run for city office? You have their support. Sell your home and move into the back of a van? Cool, essentialism is in. Nobody will question your goals. 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. The more we bring that system to light, the less likely it is that we’ll pick and pursue the wrong goals.
The U.S. education system, the venture capital industry, the publish or perish racket for academics, and social media are examples of mimetic systems: mimetic desire sustains them. In U.S. secondary schools, most students organize their energy around college application builders such as their grade point average, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. Many high schools have the goal of 100 percent “college placement,” even though many university students feel they are no longer getting value for their money and wind up crushed by debt. Students have lost sight of the teleology, or final purpose, of the education system. When you’re in fifth grade, you know clearly that your goal is to get to sixth grade—and it goes like that up through twelfth grade, at which point you’ve spent the past four years of your life preparing for something called “college” along carefully defined lines (you probably even had a college advisor who advised you as to which schools you should apply for, based on your data). College is where the teleology grows even less clear. Is the goal to get a good job? To get into grad school? To be a well-rounded person who is able to think critically? To be a good citizen? When I started at the Stern School of Business as an undergrad, I had no idea. So what did I do? I looked around to see what everyone else was doing—what everyone else seemed to want. There was a clear object of desire: Wall Street. So I fought for it, and I got what I thought I wanted. And that’s when I began my miserable fifteen-month career in Advanced Excel and PowerPoint. Traditional venture capital (VC) funds operate in a mimetic system. They need extraordinary returns on their investments to justify the risks they take. Many only fund companies that have the potential to return ten times the value of their investment within five to seven years. Because of their investment timeline, VCs favor technology companies that can scale quickly—not food service companies that might grow steadily but only incrementally over twenty or thirty years. They’re looking for instant ramen, not risotto. The VC demand for quick-hitting investments increases the attractiveness of tech start-ups to entrepreneurs. A mimetic system takes shape. It is driven not only by economic incentives and financial returns—which no doubt factor in—but also the prestige and validation that come with being financed by the right VC. They award Michelin stars in the form of investment checks. And for VCs: the benefits of having invested in sexy companies and headline-grabbing CEOs. Social media platforms thrive on mimesis. Twitter encourages and measures imitation by showing how many times each post has been retweeted. People are more likely to use Facebook the more they are engaged with mimetic models, rivals whose posts they can track and comment on. The greater the mimetic forces on a social media platform, the more people want to use it. If social media companies were to build in more friction or braking mechanisms for mimetic behavior, they would decrease user engagement and ultimately revenue; they have strong financial incentives to accelerate mimetic behavior. If two people argue on a social media platform, drawing others into the feud, it’s not hard to see who wins: the platform. Systems of desire, both positive and negative, are everywhere. Prisons, monasteries, families, schools, and friend groups operate as systems of desire. And when a strong mimetic system is in place, it remains in place until it’s disrupted by a stronger one.
Each of us has our own version of a Michelin star system. We can easily find ourselves, like a French chef, wanting “stars”—marks of status and prestige, badges of honor. Naming the mimetic forces at work in the systems in which we operate is an important first step toward making more intentional choices.
Many elite chefs feel their creative ambitions constrained after they gain entry into the pantheon of three-star restaurateurs. Everything becomes subordinated to keeping the stars. They become more risk-averse. The Michelin inspectors have expectations. Why risk something that the inspectors might not like? Chefs know that certain items need to be on the menu: locally sourced foods, elaborate cheese carts, multiple dessert options, an extensive wine list. World-class sommeliers and an army of highly trained servers and staff (which come at a cost) are also expected. And the meal is only the beginning. If the restaurant isn’t in a major city, it is hard to be considered for the top Michelin star rating without having guest rooms on the property. Chefs have to also be hotel operators to compete. Maison Bras, part of the Relais & Châteaux network, features eleven guest rooms and two apartments in a complex attached to the restaurant. As we converse in his office, we finally reach the point where I ask Bras why he made the decision to give back his stars. He tells me that Michelin tried to set itself up as “both judge and jury.” “Six or seven years ago,” Bras says, “they sat in my office to explain their new marketing strategy to me. They wanted me to buy various commercial services and tools.” Every restaurant was ostensibly free to use or not use Michelin’s new tools, but Bras didn’t like it. “Michelin had the ability to judge and destroy anyone’s reputation—and at the same time sell them marketing tools. To me that was not acceptable.” He was playing a game with no end, and he was exhausted. “Eventually you have to stop. You end up working no longer for yourself or your clients, but according to the so-called expectations of the guide.” He began to ask: “Did I choose this career so that the reputation of my company would depend on another institution? Do we want to live another fifteen years of stress or pressure?”
Bras was able to extract himself because he changed his relationship to the game. “We live in a society where we are always being asked for more,” Bras says to me. “To be stronger, to go higher, to get bigger numbers, ever greater and ever higher. But I think there’s a deep desire in people to reconnect with true life values. Values that we tend to forget sometimes.” For Bras, those values centered around his family and his desire to create and share the food of the Aubrac region without fear of reprisal. If Sébastien could be a model of desire for gaining three stars, then maybe he could be a model for renouncing three stars, too. “I think my decision revealed the deep desires of those chefs who thought, ‘Wow, someone who has dared to say no to the system? Maybe I can, too. Now maybe I can live my life, too.’” For nearly a week after he announced his decision on Facebook, his phone was ringing off the hook from seven in the morning until ten in the evening. Bras noticed that people tended to respond in one of two ways to his decision. “I talked to a number of three-star chefs who perfectly understood why I did what I did,” he says. “But there are chefs with one or two stars whose sole objective is to obtain an additional star. They didn’t understand my decision.”
Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; my friend raises his voice in an argument, I raise mine back; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” This is how negative mimetic cycles start.
Empathy disrupts negative cycles of mimesis. A person who is able to empathize can enter into the experience of another person and share her thoughts and feelings without necessarily sharing her desires. An empathetic person has the ability to understand why someone might want something that they don’t want for themselves. In short, empathy allows us to connect deeply with other people without becoming like other people. Recall that in a mimetic crisis, everyone starts to become like everyone else. They lose self-possession and freedom. The prolific letter-writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton noticed this was happening to him during his college years at Columbia University. Later in life, he wrote: “The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.” Empathy allows us to interact with others without sacrificing those jewels of our inner selves, without getting swallowed up by the waters. It helps us find and cultivate thick desires—desires that are not hyper-mimetic, desires that can form the foundation for a good life.
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. The distinction between thick and thin desires can’t easily be made based on feelings alone. Desires feel very strong when we’re young—to make a lot of money, date a person with certain physical attributes, or become famous. The feelings are often more intense the thinner a desire is. As we get older, many of our adolescent feelings of intense desire fade away. It’s not because we realize that some of the things we wanted are no longer attainable. It’s because we have more pattern recognition ability and so can recognize the kinds of desires that leave us unfulfilled. As a result, most people do learn to cultivate thicker desires as they age. 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. Sometimes it takes a particular event to shake those thin desires out of us.
Envy is an engine of destructive mimetic desire, and there are few things to stop it because it operates underground. Prestige is measured relative to what we perceive someone else has that we lack, so it’s a breeding ground for envy. Entrepreneurship has many recognized occupational hazards, from mental health risks to burnout to substance abuse and financial instability. None is so conspicuously absent from public discourse as envy.
Let’s say I’ve convinced you that it’s time to put aside thin desires and focus on the more anti-mimetic, rooted, solid ones. The hard work will have just begun. Thin desires aren’t so easily dismissed, and thick desires are not something that you can self-generate out of thin air. They take time—months and years—to develop. The best place to start is with the thick desires you probably already have. They’re not always easy to identify. Thick desires are hidden beneath the fleeting and impulsive desires that dominate most of our days. 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.” The approach that I’ll outline here is anthropological, philosophical, practical, even spiritual. 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. As we’ve seen so far, desire is social. Desire is connectedness. So my hope is that even if you don’t think of yourself as spiritual, these approaches will be helpful because they are grounded in a fundamental truth about what it means to be human: we are not entirely our own, but exist in a web of relationships connected by desire. One approach I recommend for uncovering thick desires involves taking the time to listen to the most deeply fulfilling experiences of your colleagues’ (or partners’, or friends’, or classmates’) lives, and sharing your own with them. The more we understand one another’s stories of meaningful achievement, the more effectively we understand how to work with each other: what moves and motivates others, what gives them satisfaction in their work. It seems simple, but nobody does it. Ask yourself: How many people do you work with who could name even one of your most meaningful achievements and explain why it was so meaningful to you? A key goal of this exercise is identifying core motivational drives. A motivational drive is a specific and enduring behavioral energy that has oriented you throughout your life to achieve a distinct pattern of results. You may be fundamentally motivated, for instance, to bring control, to evoke recognition, or to overcome obstacles. Because most of us have never thought seriously about the nature of our motivation, we lack the language to be able to describe our core motivational drives with much precision. This exercise gives us that ability. Core motivational drives are enduring, irresistible, and insatiable. They are probably explanatory of much of your behavior since the time you were a child. Think of them as your motivational energy—the reason you consistently gravitate toward certain types of projects (team versus individual, goal-oriented versus ideation) and activities (sports, arts, theater, forms of fitness) and not others. There are patterns in your motivation. If you can put your finger on what specifically they are, then you will have taken a major step toward understanding your thick desires. The best way to uncover the patterns is by sharing stories.
stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. Today it’s one of the first questions that I ask in any job interview because it helps cut through the thin stuff and goes straight to the essence of the person. “Tell me about a time in your life when you did something well and it brought you a sense of fulfillment,” I ask. I have seen this simple question transform interactions between individuals and entire communities. When stories are shared between two people who know how to listen well, the experience transports both the storyteller and the listener to a time when desire led to extraordinarily fulfillment. That’s why sharing those stories is a joyful experience. A Fulfillment Story, as I call it, has three essential elements:
It’s an action. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, as opposed to passively taking in an experience. As life-changing as a Springsteen concert at the Stone Pony might have been for you, it’s not a Fulfillment Story. It might be for Bruce, but not for you. Dedicating yourself to learning everything about an artist and their work, on the other hand, could be. You believe you did well. You did it with excellence, you did it well—by your own estimation, and nobody else’s. You are looking for an achievement that matters to you. If you grilled what you think is a perfect rib-eye steak the other night, then you did something well and achieved something. Don’t worry about how big or small the achievement might seem to anyone else. It brought you a sense of fulfillment. Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfillment, maybe even joy. Not the fleeting, temporary kind, like an endorphin rush. Fulfillment: you woke up the next morning and felt a sense of satisfaction about it. You still do. Just thinking about it brings some of it back.
Such moments of profound meaning and satisfaction matter. They reveal something critical about who you are.
Knowing something about the interior life of a person is necessary to understand why they do what they do and what it means to them. Fulfillment Stories get at the heart of action by looking at it from the inside out. Fulfillment Stories ask, “But why did that action mean so much to you?” The question and answer kick off a positive mimetic cycle. You tell one of your Fulfillment Stories. I listen with empathy to what you are telling me and reflect back to you what I heard and saw and felt in your story. Then you do the same for me. Empathy imitates empathy, heart speaks to heart. It was about ten years ago that I was asked to share one of these stories for the first time, when a friend of mine who specializes in narrative psychology took me through the process. Every time I told a Fulfillment Story, another rose to the surface. As I dove deeper into my past, I uncovered stories I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Not only that—I hadn’t even recognized them as stories of fulfilling action at the time.
Most people are rarely, if ever, asked to tell the stories of their deeply fulfilling achievements. We have to mine them, intentionally, in ourselves and in others. The exercise of telling, listening to, and documenting these stories opens up new windows of empathy and the discovery of thick desires. Sharing Fulfillment Stories is like making a biographical sketch of how desires were born and took shape for yourself, for your colleagues, and for your entire organization. Knowing how others are motivated leads to a greater sense of connectedness and the possibility of organizing teams in a way that maximizes their motivational energy—because each member on the team is engaged in action that they are inherently motivated to do.
Great leaders start and sustain positive cycles of desire. They empathize with others’ weaknesses; they want to know and be known by others, at all levels of an organization; they focus on cultivating thick desires. They transcend the destructive mimetic cycle, which opens up a new world of possibilities: the world beyond our immediate wanting.
Leaders are intentional about helping people want more or want less or want differently than they did before. There is no other option. The same is true of every company. A business doesn’t simply “meet demand” for products and services that people want. Instead, it plays a critical role in generating and shaping desires. Of course, desires can be shaped in a selfish and self-serving way. No industry has had more of a detrimental effect on what people want in the past two decades than pornography. Online porn has generated billions of dollars in profits. If it isn’t shaping your desires, it is probably shaping your child’s. And, as we know, our desires are intertwined. What is the effect on our culture? On how people look at fellow humans? On what they want out of a relationship? Many businesses feed the current and basest desires of people and have a vested interest in them not changing. But where there is a threat, there’s an opportunity. Desire isn’t fully reflected in the way things are. Desire is, by its very nature, transcendent. We are always looking for more. The question is, will we help people move a little closer to fulfilling their greatest desires? Or unknowingly peddle them pathetic ones?
Transcendent leaders have models of desire outside the systems they are in. The greatest writers and artists in history were driven by them—and that’s why their works are timeless. They were not confined to the popular desires of their age. When President Kennedy told the American people, “We choose to go to the Moon,” he modeled a desire that surpassed what people had previously dared to entertain. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Our greatest desire gives shape and order to every other desire, as we’ll see later in this chapter. Martin Luther King Jr. sought concrete justice that went beyond anything imaginable to the majority of people at the time. Most white Americans had only known racial segregation and a comfortable complacency. He shook them out of their slumber by modeling a desire for real change that transcended left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious.
But as we’ve painfully seen in the years since King was shot, desire is fickle and inertia is strong. Without more transcendent leaders like King—not only in the area of racial justice but in other aspects of life, too—we’re sliding back into a closed system of desire that lacks imagination.
Transcendent leaders see the economy as an open system. It’s possible to find new and untapped ways to create value for ourselves and for others—and those need not be different things. When the economy is viewed as an immanent system, on the other hand, it’s a zero-sum game. People are competing for the same things, and one person can only be successful at another person’s expense.
Transcendent leadership does not limit itself to the immediate layer of reality but pushes beyond it to find something more meaningful. Seeing one’s life and work as an arena in which the battle between immanent and transcendent desire plays out is the first step. Choosing to move beyond the system of rewards and comforts on offer to you is the hard but necessary next one.
Transcendent leaders don’t insist on the primacy of their own desires. They don’t make them the center around which everyone and everything must revolve. Instead, they shift the center of gravity away from themselves and toward a transcendent goal, so that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with others.
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 behavior—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.” The Montessori teacher models the desire for an object and then withdraws as a mediator of desire so the child can interact directly. The duty of the teacher is “to give a ray of light and to go on our way,” she said.
A good leader never becomes an obstacle or rival. She empathizes with those she leads and points the way toward a good that transcends their relationship—shifting the center of gravity away from herself.
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. The quick and easy diffusion of truth combats destructive mimesis and rivalry. Mimesis bends, disguises, and distorts the truth. When the truth moves slowly in an organization—or when it is constantly bent to the will of certain people—mimesis dominates.
In times of crisis, the threat from inside a company is underestimated. People who don’t want to take responsibility find scapegoats. Blame is assigned. Meanwhile, the threat from the outside grows deadlier. If truth is not confronted courageously, communicated effectively, and acted upon quickly, a company will never be able to adhere to reality and respond appropriately to it. The health of any human project that relies on the ability to adapt depends on the speed at which truth travels. That holds for a classroom, a family, and a country.
Companies must adapt in order to survive. If truth is distorted, withheld, or slowed, companies can’t adapt fast enough to changing circumstances. If you think of a company in evolutionary terms, only those with the fastest speed of truth are going to mutate fast enough to survive.
How fast does truth travel from Point A (the origin) to Point B (the person who most needs to know it) and ultimately to everyone? For instance, if an outside salesperson learns critical information about a competitor, how quickly does that information make it to the CEO or key decision-maker who can do something about it? In healthy start-ups, the truth moves fast. When critical new information comes to light, everyone knows within seconds. The news is shared on a group text or the person next to you stands up and says it. Everyone sees and hears in real time. But how fast does the truth move at a university? In a family? At large tech companies like Facebook or Amazon? At huge legacy companies like General Electric? It depends on what the truth is, of course. But there are ways to test the speed at which a variety of different truths—embarrassing, edifying, boring, existential—move through the organization. Companies that measure the speed of truth and take steps to improve it have an advantage over those that don’t. Here’s a simple experiment. Identify a key executive or employee in your organization who is a need-to-know person, and explain what you’ll be doing; nobody else should know the experiment is taking place. Then have an outside person anonymously plant a few pieces of important information at various levels of the organization. Measure precisely how long it takes to reach the people whom it should reach from various starting points. (This is an experiment that my team and I have great fun conducting for you, if you’re not sure where to start.) Another tool: Observe two meetings, with and without a boss. Count the number of times someone says something challenging and true. Divide the number of hours by the number of truths: that’s the number of truths per hour, or tph. The speed of truth. Compare. During job interviews, I ask: “What’s the most difficult sacrifice you’ve ever had to make for the truth?” If the candidate can’t answer it, or if it takes them a minute of hemming and hawing first, I don’t hire them. They haven’t thought about their relationship to the truth enough. And they will decrease the speed at which it travels in my life.
The passionate pursuit of truth is anti-mimetic because it strives to reach objective values, not mimetic values. Leaders who embrace and model the pursuit of truth—and who increase its speed within the organization—inoculate themselves from some of the more volatile movements of mimesis that masquerade as truth. Want a test? Try reading newspapers at least a week out of date. The mimetic fluff is easier to spot.
What happens when the truth is not obvious? The pursuit of truth is an important anti-mimetic tactic, but it has limitations. We’re not always as rational as we think. Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Richard Thaler have demonstrated how easily we can be deceived. And then there are the limitations of reason itself—the world beyond reason, in which we choose spouses, careers, and personal goals. This is a world that transcends reason, and transcendent leaders know how to operate in it.
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. After all of the rational considerations have been laid out, what if there isn’t a clear-cut way forward? This happens all the time in life.
How to discern well: (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.
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.
Set aside at least three consecutive days every year for a personal silent retreat. No talking, no screens, no music. Only books. Deep silence is the kind of silence you enter into when the echoes and comforts of normal noise have completely receded and you are alone with yourself. A five-day retreat is ideal because often the noise of the world doesn’t fully recede from our minds until the end of the third day (and the major benefits of the silence flow once that has happened)—but three days is a good place to start. Find a special place for it. The further you are removed from the noise of everyday life (like ambulance sirens and horns, if you live in a city), the better. You may want to consider a directed silent retreat during which retreat directors give short reflections and curate the experience to an individual or group—these reflections or readings are the only time the silence is broken. This can be easily adapted for corporate silent retreats, where the meditations and reflection questions can be aligned with the organizational purpose. I challenge any organization to give people the option of taking at least three days of paid retreat time per year. There are countless retreat centers and locations to choose from, some of which I’ve listed on my website. For less than half of the cost of most holiday parties, offering this type of experience is attainable. You will get a return on the investment—a return on the silence—in the form of energized, grounded, and more productive people.
Transcendent leaders are not excessively obsessed with the news cycle, market research, or early feedback. It’s not that these things don’t matter, or that transcendent leaders are not responsive. But they are responsive first and foremost to thick desires—their own, and those of others.
Transcendent leaders are not afraid to undertake a thick start-up—a project that is not predicated on feedback (which often consists of thin desires) but instead is built on the basis of thick desires and remains guided by them.
When the sex robots signal “desire,” they are programmed to purse their lips and narrow their eyes—eyes that are slightly larger and rounder than any real human’s. The company makes them that way intentionally to avoid the uncanny valley, a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s. Mori discovered that people find robots more aesthetically appealing the more they physically resemble humans, but only up to a certain point. Once a robot appears too similar to a human, like figures in a wax museum, they become creepy, unsettling, repulsive. The uncanny valley fits with mimetic theory: it is not difference, but sameness, that terrifies us. No similarity is more dangerous than the similarity of desire. We are uncomfortable when robots have too many similarities to the human form—so imagine if their similarities encroached on our desires. When desires converge on the same object, conflict is inevitable. The real danger of AI is not robots that might one day be smarter than us but that might want the same things that we want: our job, our spouse, our dreams.
Authoritarian regimes can only stay in existence so long as they can control what people want. We normally think of these regimes as controlling what people can and cannot do through laws, regulations, policing, and penalties. But their real victory comes not when they have authority over people’s actions; rather, their victory comes when they have authority over their desires. They don’t want to keep prisoners in cells; they want those prisoners to learn to love their cells. When there is no desire for change, their authority is complete. The purpose of a “reeducation” camp is not about relearning how to write or read or interpret history, or even how to think; it’s fundamentally about the reeducation of desire.