Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
From career choices to new purchases, use René Girard’s mimetic theory to resist the herd and forge your own path in life
by Luke Burgis + BIO
Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
Claire, a smart, ambitious student at Tulane University in Louisiana, was on track to have her pick of law schools, but she decided she’d like to get some real-world experience – and have some fun – in New Orleans first. She landed a job as a paralegal, spending her days researching expert witnesses to defend Big Pharma cases, and that’s when the crisis came. Claire had always loved cooking and learning about humanity through cuisine. She was like a female Anthony Bourdain trapped inside an overworked paralegal, and it was slowly making her life miserable.
She began to entertain thoughts of leaving the law firm and working in a kitchen or a coffee shop until she could figure out how to make a career out of her lifelong interest in food. But doubts haunted her. What would other people think? Maybe she’s not that driven. Maybe she’s not that smart, after all. Maybe she’s lazy. What other people expected her to want to do – and her ability to meet those expectations – began to determine her self-worth.
Many people face dilemmas like Claire’s. Each of us is occasionally overwhelmed by a multitude of competing desires: pursue job offer A or B? Start a new relationship or stay single? Sign up to run a marathon, or enjoy not getting up early to train? But life is full of marathons, and they don’t necessarily involve running. It’s good to know which desires to pursue and which ones to leave behind – to know which marathons are worth running. In this Guide, I aim to show you how.
Desires are fundamentally different from needs
It’s true that when people strongly desire something, such as a new shirt, they might feel like they ‘need’ it – but they don’t need it in the same way that they need water or food. Their survival isn’t at stake.
Desire (as opposed to need) is an intellectual appetite for things that you perceive to be good, but that you have no physical, instinctual basis for wanting – and that’s true whether those things are actually good or not.
Your intellectual appetites might include knowing the answer to a mathematics problem; the satisfaction of receiving a text from someone you have a crush on; or getting a coveted job offer. These things won’t necessarily cause physical pleasure. They might spill over into physical enjoyment, but they are not dependent on it. Rather, the pleasure is primarily intellectual.
The 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that these intellectual appetites are part of what has traditionally been called the ‘will’. When a person wills something, they strive toward it. If they come to possess the object of their desire, their will finds rest in it – and they are able to experience joy, so long as they are able to rest in the object of their desire.
But, for most people, such joy is fleeting. There is always something else to strive for – and this keeps most of us in a constant, sometimes painful, state of never-satisfied striving. And that striving for something that we do not yet possess is called desire. Desire doesn’t bring us joy because it is, by definition, always for something we feel we lack. Understanding the mechanism by which desires take shape, though, can help us avoid living our lives in an endless merry-go-round of desire.
Desire is a social process – it is mimetic
When it comes to understanding the mystery of desire, one contemporary thinker stands above all others: the French social theorist René Girard, a historian-turned-polymath who came to the United States shortly after the Second World War and taught at numerous US universities, including Johns Hopkins and Stanford. By the time he died in 2015, he had been named to the Académie Française and was considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Girard realised one peculiar feature of desire: ‘We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths,’ he said, ‘but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.’ Girard noted that desire is not, as we often imagine it, something that we ourselves fully control. It is not something that we can generate or manufacture on our own. It is largely the product of a social process.
‘Man is the creature who does not know what to desire,’ wrote Girard, ‘and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.’ He called this mimetic, or imitative, desire. Mimesis comes from the Greek word for ‘imitation’, which is the root of the English word ‘mimic’. Mimetic desires are the desires that we mimic from the people and culture around us. If I perceive some career or lifestyle or vacation as good, it’s because someone else has modelled it in such a way that it appears good to me.
I first encountered Girard during a period of soul-searching. I had bounced around majors in school, then bounced around jobs, and eventually bounced around starting various companies. But I noticed something odd: whether my business ventures were successful or not, I always grew bored quickly.
At the urging of a friend, I went on a silent retreat. The retreat director recommended I read Girard to help me make sense of why various desires would come to my awareness and then fade away, like distant music heard in a dense forest that I could never quite track down and enjoy for myself.
When I Googled Girard, I found a video of him on a 1970s French talk show smoking a cigarette on live TV, explaining his ideas to a panel of interviewers. At first, I dismissed him as an eccentric French academic who had little to teach me. But the ideas in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978) began to haunt me as I saw mimetic desire playing out all around – and within – me.
I learned that Girard had spent the last 14 years of his career as the Andrew B Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, at Stanford, where he was the philosophical mentor of Peter Thiel, co-founder of the payments company PayPal and the intelligence company Palantir Technologies – a billionaire who was the first major investor in Facebook. Thiel has credited Girard with helping him see the power of Facebook before most others – and also for helping him escape an unfulfilling career in corporate law and finance. Once he was able to break free from the mimetic herd, he could start thinking more for himself and undertaking projects that were not merely the product of other people’s desires.
That’s when I began to realise that understanding mimetic desire was crucial if I wanted to break free from the cycle that I was stuck in. If, like me, you’d like to get a deeper understanding of your own wants and desires, and to take more control over them, read on.
Identify the people influencing what you want
The first step is to identify the models of desire who are influencing what you want. These are the people who serve as your models, or mediators, colouring what you consider to be desirable.
At one point, I wanted a Tesla Model S. I almost talked myself into the purchase with all the ‘objective’ reasons that I thought made it desirable: such as that it goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in under two seconds.
But I would have been better off asking the question who, not what, had generated and shaped my desire for the car. The same is true for your own desires, whether in relation to material purchases, educational paths, career choices, even romantic interests. When it came to the Model S, it wasn’t until I thought seriously about it that I realised that I follow someone on Twitter who obsessively shows videos of himself driving in cool places in that particular vehicle, and that I’d never had a desire to own one until I saw these. From there, I started piling on all the evidence that would support the desire that had already formed – mimetically – within me. Desire comes first from social influences, often long before we realise it, or understand why.
To become more aware of the models influencing your desire, ask yourself these questions:
Categorise your models as internal and external
Next, it’s useful to recognise what kind of models are influencing you. Girard identified two main types: those inside your world, and those outside it.
Models inside your world (‘internal’ models of desire) are the people you might really come into contact with: friends, family, co-workers, or really anyone you can actually interact with in some way – it could be the person who cuts your hair, for instance. These are people whose desires are in some sense intertwined with your own – they can affect your desires, and you can in turn affect theirs.
Models outside your world (‘external’ models of desire) are people you have no serious possibility of coming into contact with: celebrities, historical figures and much of our legacy media. (For instance, most of us can’t interact with Steven Spielberg after watching one of his movies, or debate with the writer of a New York Times article that we disagree with.) External models are one-way streams of desire – they can affect your desires, but you can’t affect theirs. For instance, the Count of Monte Cristo – the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel of the same name – was a powerful model of desire for me (for better or worse) after I first read the book as a kid. But the count is a fictional character, so he is necessarily an external model of desire for me. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be a highly influential one, though. Models don’t need to be, and often are not, real people.
Social media falls in a strange, grey area. Many people you encounter there are external models of desire in the sense that you’ll probably never meet them and they might not even ‘follow’ you back. At the same time, everyone at least feels accessible to everyone else. You never know when something you Tweet or post is going to get noticed by someone. This is part of what makes social media so seductive: it straddles the worlds of internal and external mediation of desire. (When you’re on social media, ask yourself: Are these people even real? Do they really want the things they model a desire for, or are we all engaged in a game of signalling?)
Online or offline, the closer someone seems to being like you, the more you can relate to them – and the more you are likely to pay attention to what they want. Who are most people more jealous of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or the colleague who has a similar education to you, and a similar job and works roughly the same hours, but who makes an extra $5,000 a year? For almost everyone, it’s the second person. The difference between the internal and the external mediation of desire explains why.
Advertisements also model desires to us, obviously, but notice how they usually work: the companies serving the ads typically show you not the thing itself, but other people wanting the thing. Advertisers play right into our mimetic nature.
Be aware that internal models lead to more volatility of desire in your life because the world of internal models is highly reflexive: you can affect one another’s desires, which isn’t possible in the world of external models.
Working out who your internal and external models of desire are (and which ones are in the grey area) will help you gain greater agency over your desires. I recommend drawing the two overlapping circles above on a blank piece of paper and trying to fill out the spheres with as many specific examples from your own life as you can.
Beware of becoming obsessively focused on what your neighbours have or want
Because desire is mimetic, people are naturally drawn to want what others want. ‘Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash,’ writes Girard. This means that mimetic desire often leads people into unnecessary competition and rivalry with one another in an infernal game of status anxiety. Mimetic desire is why a class of students can enter a university with very different ideas of what they want to do when they graduate (ideas formed from all the diverse influences and places they came from) yet converge on a much smaller set of opportunities – which they mimetically reinforce in one another – by the time they graduate.
Be aware that your desires can become hijacked through this process of mimetic attraction. It’s easy to become obsessively focused on what your neighbours have or want, rather than on your immediate responsibilities and relationship commitments. We humans are social creatures who know others so that we can also know ourselves, and that’s a good thing – but, if we’re not careful, we can become excessively concerned with others.
The solution involves learning a new way of entering into non-rivalrous relationships with other people – a new kind of relationship in which your sense of self-worth is not derived from them (more on this later).
Map out the systems of desire in your life
As well as identifying the specific models influencing your desires, it is also helpful to consider whether you have become embedded in a particular system of desire. For example, consider the chef Sébastien Bras, owner of Le Suquet restaurant in Laguiole, France, who had three Michelin stars – the highest culinary distinction for a French restaurant – for a full 18 years. Until 2018. That year, he took the unprecedented step of asking the Michelin Guide to stop rating his restaurant and never come back.
Bras had come to the realisation that striving to maintain his three Michelin stars year in and year out had kept him from experimenting with new creative dishes that the Michelin inspectors might not like. His Michelin rating had kept him stuck in a ‘system of desire’. The organising principle for all his choices was simple: keeping Michelin happy.
When he reflected back on why he became a chef in the first place, Bras told me that it was to share ingredients from the Aubrac region of France with the rest of the world – not to become a slave to a ratings system.
When Bras understood the way that the Michelin Guide created a system of desire in which he was trapped, he found the courage to extract himself from that system.
Remember Claire, the paralegal who wanted to go into food? She too was trapped inside a system of desire. In the status-dominated world in which she grew up, it wasn’t viewed as sufficiently ambitious or successful to want to take a lower-paying job in food after graduating from college, so for a time she followed the mimetically magnetic tug of the ‘more prestigious’ track. Claire, it turned out, simply had her own Michelin star system. We all do.
To gain more control over your desires, figure out what your particular version of the Michelin Guide looks like. It might not involve stars at all, but the approval of specific people or the expectations of your friends or family; or the awkwardness of sharing with others that you have always wanted to do something that not many people would understand.
By mapping out the system of desire that you’re enmeshed in (and probably have been your whole life), you can begin to take some critical distance from it. This will allow you to stop accepting your currently dominant desires at face value and save you from defaulting into important life choices instead of choosing them with intentionality.
Most of all: know where your desires came from. Your desires have a history. You can’t know what a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ desire is unless you understand where it came from – and that involves diving deep into your past, understanding how you have evolved as a person, and seeing which desires have been with you for a long time and which ones have come and gone like the wind.
Take ownership of your desires
Is there such a thing as non-mimetic desires? It’s debatable, even among Girard scholars, so it’s best to think of mimesis on a spectrum:
On the very far left side of this spectrum are desires that aren’t mimetic at all, for instance, a mother’s love for her newborn child. On the less mimetic side would also be desires that are not entirely un-mimetic, but desires that we might call ‘thick’ – they are deeply rooted in a person’s upbringing, or impressed deeply upon their imagination. For someone with a religious sense, these desires could be thought of as given by God as part of a ‘calling’. They are less mimetic in the sense that they have deeper roots, and they aren’t easily variable based on new encounters, seasons or experiences.
On the far right side, there are desires that are nearly entirely mimetic – for instance, the desire to own a stock merely because everyone else wants to own it. (It stimulates a fear of missing out, which is really just a form of mimetic desire.)
Less extreme mimetic desires might include the desire to go to a specific university because all your friends want to go there. Yet the desire could also have something to do with the school’s academic reputation. Desires can have many different influences, some mimetic and some non-mimetic. The key is to understand the forces at work, and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So are there ‘authentic’ desires? One of the roots of the word authentic is ‘author’. Are any of us authors of our own desires? Yes, we can be. You might not be the sole author of your desires, but you can certainly take ownership and put your mark of authorship on them through your creative freedom.
Consider someone who wants to write a book about a particular subject. Where did the desire to write a book come from in the first place? Hardly anyone wrote books 1,000 years ago. The desire to write a book today likely has a social dimension to it – perhaps a mentor, friend or rival wrote a book. Wanting to write a book, like starting a company or embarking on a career change, is often the product of social interactions.
But whether you have a desire to become an author or to do something else, the crucial point is that the ubiquitous influences that will have shaped that desire don’t preclude you from putting your own stamp of creation on it. Ten people can desire a similar career goal or lifestyle, yet arrive at it in 10 completely unique ways, having discovered nuance in their desires and the way they pursue and live them out.
It’s also possible for a desire to start as highly mimetic but to become less mimetic as you put your own fingerprint on it. Ferruccio Lamborghini got the idea to expand beyond manufacturing tractors due to a personal rivalry with Enzo Ferrari, whose cars he drove. When he kept having a problem with the clutch on one of his Ferraris, he visited Enzo and was mistreated; that day, the desire to make a better sportscar was born in him where previously it didn’t exist.
So does that mean that his desire was merely derivative? Of course not. Once he set out to make a Lamborghini, he made the desire his own, making beautiful vehicles to his own design and drawing on his company’s engineering prowess.
Lamborghini’s story is a great example of how desires do not stay in one place on the spectrum. They’re mobile. They can move to the right (become more mimetic), and they can move to the left (become less mimetic).
Think about which desires you really want to own and cultivate. It doesn’t matter whether they were originally mimetic or not – the intentionality that you bring to them can allow you to become the author of a new creation.
Live an anti-mimetic life
To be anti-mimetic is to be free from the unintentional following of desires without knowing where they came from; it’s freedom from the herd mentality; freedom from the ‘default’ mode that causes us to pursue things without examining why.
It’s possible to develop anti-mimetic machinery in your guts – things that have traditionally been called virtues, or habits of being, such as prudence, fortitude, courage and honesty – that keep you grounded in something deeper even while the mimetic waters swirl around you. In other words, there are certain perennial human values and desires that are worth pursuing no matter what because they have been proven to never disappoint.
Someone with strong underlying values – whether they be religious or philosophical or have another basis – is usually less susceptible to the winds of unhealthy or temporary mimetic desires that lack substance.
There is, as you may have guessed, a religious dimension to all of this. In his Confessions (397-400), Saint Augustine wrote a missive to God about his dawning realisation that his earlier life had been dominated by illusory desires: ‘Our heart is restless until it rests in you.’
In the Christian sense, all desire is a desire for being – which is a desire for God, who is the fullest expression of being. All other desires are merely reflections of, or signposts to, that single greatest desire.
But for a non-religious person, there is still wisdom to be gained from Augustine’s words. Ask yourself: In what person or thing are my desires able to rest without the incessant feeling of restlessness? Why might that be? What is something that seems to bring me longer-lasting joy, without the need for ‘more’?
Restlessness of desire is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s what pushes people to seek more – but a persistent feeling of restlessness could be a sign that the desires you are chasing lack the power to satisfy.
That frustrated paralegal Claire is now my wife. She quit her job at the law firm and embarked on her own anti-mimetic path. She enrolled in a Masters programme in Food Studies at New York University and eventually became an executive at a fast-growing food startup. We met at an Irish pub in Rome as she was travelling doing food research and I was getting my graduate degree. In hindsight, it was an anti-mimetic match: neither one of us would’ve sought out the other or even had the opportunity to meet the other if we had lived by prevailing social norms. The mimesis in our respective worlds would’ve prevented us from ever meeting or falling in love. Fortunately, we were able to bust out of those worlds that night.
Perhaps the most anti-mimetic attitude of all is an openness to wonder and a desire to let reality surprise you. It rarely disappoints.
Mimetic desire is part of the human condition, so it cuts across all domains of life. Here are some brief examples, and how to deal with them:
Many people don’t realise that they are in a mimetic rivalry with their own romantic partner or spouse. The Girardian psychologist Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in his book The Genesis of Desire (2007), has said that he sees this relationship dynamic all the time. He calls it the infernal seesaw model of relationships.
‘Couples that are bound by jealousy of each other are always prisoners of the same mechanism: their mirroring desires continually oscillate between the positions of dominating and being dominated – the pattern of relation that transactional analysis calls “one up” and “one down”,’ he writes. It might seem odd to think that a couple could be jealous of one another, or mimetic rivals to one another, but it happens frequently.
‘If I suggest to my husband to read a book, it’s the surest way to make sure that he never reads it,’ one woman told me. Mimetic rivals view the other as a threat to their own autonomy.
Put a serious check on this aspect of your own relationships – romantic or not – and ask yourself if you’re playing a zero-sum game. Make sure that you’re not on a seesaw.
If you suspect that you are, the first task should be to find a way to do something extraordinarily generous for the other person without any expectation of receiving anything in return. It’s difficult because it involves renunciation (renouncing the natural need to get something in return), but it breaks the cycle.
Social media is a mimetic machine. What we typically call ‘social media’ is really social mediation – the mediation of desires. All day, every day, desires are being modelled to us through people we barely know. Mimetic desire is the hidden engine of these platforms.
Getting off social media completely might be admirable, but it’s not realistic for most people. One thing you can do, though, is be extremely careful – and intentional – about whom you ‘follow’. Make an honest assessment of what kinds of desires the people you follow are cultivating in you. Ask yourself: Is this person I am following actually leading me to develop any positive desires, to aspire to greater things? Or are they causing me more anxiety? At the same time, realise that everything you say or do is a model of desire for someone else.
Long, stable careers are rare today. Many people make career pivots, but knowing which direction to take is not always easy. It can be helpful to identify and develop some core ‘thick’ desires that underly your motivation, rather than to think in terms of specific job titles, occupations or organisations.
So, what is your core motivation? What is really driving you, and might have been for most of your life? It’s important to put your finger on this because you can apply your core motivational drive across many different types of work. For instance, some people have a core desire to ‘comprehend and express’ – an enduring, motivational drive to do that one thing, no matter the context. This happens to be one of my core desires, and it’s why I enjoy writing books. But the comprehension for me is satisfying only if I also find an outlet for expression. And since I know that about myself, I make sure that any long-term project that I undertake involves the opportunity for me to comprehend and express things constantly. If you can identify those core desires, you will have a powerful tool for cutting through career confusion – because you are also cutting through mimesis.
‘It isn’t things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them,’ wrote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Mimetic desire gives significance to things because of the other people who want those things. When the model of desire is gone, so does our interest in the thing.
It’s people we care about most, not things. If you can identify how much significance you place on something merely because of someone else’s relationship to it, you can begin to free yourself from its hold.
My friends Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of the podcast The Minimalists, have devoted themselves to exploring how to live with a minimal amount of material things. ‘Love people, use things,’ they say. Wise advice – every possession, from TVs to NFTs (non-fungible tokens), is merely to be used. From the standpoint of mimetic desire, material things are also talismans for some deeper desire. As Girard wrote, all desire is a desire for being.
So, before you pursue a specific kind of material possession, ask yourself what kind of person you think it’s helping you to become – and, if you don’t like the answer, maybe reconsider the purchase.
The Instagram hashtag #VanLife looked glamorous to many people in 2020. It was a fad for escaping to the open road in tricked-out motor homes and sharing curated images of the experience on social media. But it’s now becoming clear that the images often covered up the serious hardships involved in travelling with another person for extended periods – everything from temporary traffic anxieties to a permanent lack of stability.
Some people embarked on this journey without weighing up the psychological costs. We know now that many of them regretted it, and some even lost their lives to mental illness – all the while presenting to the world an image of freedom.
Likewise with farm life. Many have fantasised about living on a farm and taking care of animals while ignoring the realities of having to clean up cow manure or feed the pigs every morning.
It’s typical for people to think to themselves: ‘If I only lived in that city [or house/neighbourhood/country] … everything would be better.’ But when it comes to lifestyle, there is no one particular form that is the answer to all our problems, or the key to happiness.
It’s likely that if you can’t be happy right where you’re at, right now, then you probably won’t be happy anywhere. Your happiness will always be something ‘out there’, beyond the horizon, and mimetic desire will continue to exert an unhealthy control over you.
On the other hand, there are some enduring values – such as health, creativity or the opportunity to share meals with other people – that never go out of style, and there are as many ways to pursue them as there are people on this planet. Lifestyle is something that emerges from one’s values and discipline, not something you find at a particular zip code or via the keys to a different house or van.
There is no perfect model out there for the life you want to lead because you’re a unique and unrepeatable person, and the stamp you leave on this world will be your own. Those who come after you might be inspired to model parts of their life or their desires on yours, but they too will need to embark on the same adventure of being a transcendent leader in a mimetic world. Seeing the patterns that exist in the lives and desires of others, and then making something new and beautiful out of them: that is your opportunity and your legacy.
The five-minute video ‘How to Know What You Really Want’ (2021) for Big Think, in which I explain the difference between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ desires and how to tell them apart.
The article ‘Secrets About People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard’ (2019) by Alex Danco, a Shopify employee and Girard aficionado.
The video ‘The Invention of Blame (Scapegoat Mechanism)’ (2017) from the YouTube channel Vsauce2 hosted by Kevin Lieber explains the darker side of mimetic theory: how unrestrained mimesis spreads through contagion until it results in conflict and violence within a community as a means to bring the mimetic crisis under control.
The video ‘Wanting’ (2021), episode 290 in The Minimalists podcast series hosted by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, with myself as guest, discusses why we want what we want and how we can free ourselves from mimetic desires.
My short introduction ‘Mimetic Desire 101’ (2021) on my Substack newsletter Anti-Mimetic, which is entirely dedicated to exploring questions related to mimetic desire and especially how one might go about living an anti-mimetic life – or one free from the harmful, negative effects of unrecognised mimesis.
The book Mimesis and Science (2011) edited by the clinical psychologist Scott Garrels in California features empirical research on imitation, and features everything from early childhood development studies to mimetic evolution in nature. I highly recommend this volume for anyone who would like to ground mimetic theory in science.
The book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999) by René Girard. If you’d like to explore primary source material, this is Girard’s most accessible book and one that unpacks the theological implications of the ideas in this Guide.
My book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life (2021) serves as a non-academic introduction to Girard’s thought. The first half of the book provides an in-depth overview of his key ideas, and the second half helps readers apply them to their own lives.