Mimetic Desire: The Secret Psychology of Why we Want What we Want, and How to Want What You Need

I suffer from a rare disease, commonly known as ‘shiny object syndrome’. 

That is, I very easily think I want something, then I pursue it for a while, only to realise that it’s not for me. 

This causes me to continuously get off track, and waste precious time that I could be spending doing more meaningful things. 

For example, in my early twenties, my dream was to become a ‘digital nomad’, travelling around Europe, running my business from my laptop. 

This led me to starting an Amazon ‘FBA’ company, where I would buy products in China, and sell them on Amazon. At the height of this, I was selling piano tuning kits, cleaning extension poles, travel belts, kayak dry bags and yoga wheels.

Before COVID struck, I spent 3 months developing an online course that I didn’t particularly care about or enjoy creating. 

And recently, I spent a whole summer writing a business plan for a social enterprise I never launched. 

I’ve often wondered (after the feverish cloud of shiny object syndrome has passed), why did I want these things?

Where do these desires come from? 

Recently, I was intrigued to discover “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday life”, by Luke Burgis.

In the book, the author reveals a disturbing insight about a secret mechanism underlying human desire. 

Not only does the book help to explain why we want what we want, it also offers practical solutions for transforming our relationship with desire, so that we can avoid ‘shiny object syndrome’, and want what that would be best for us to pursue in the long run. 

If, like me, you often get side-tracked by things you think you want, only to later discover that it was a passing phase, ‘Wanting’ is a must read. 

This post summarises some of the key takeaways from the book. 

Why is Understanding Mimetic Desire Important?

It’s vital to understand mimetic desire for three main reasons.

Firstly, because almost all of your life’s circumstances flow downstream from your desires. 

Firstly, because almost all of your life’s circumstances flow downstream from your desires. 

What you value, what goals you pursue, who you choose for a romantic partner, and even what career path you go down. 

Therefore, if you don’t understand the mechanism underlying your desires, you can very easily end up pursuing the wrong things. We’ve all heard stories about people who wake up in their fifties, and suddenly realise they’ve spent the best part of their lives doing something they hate every day. 

If you’re keen to avoid this fate, understanding mimetic theory can play an important role. 

Secondly, because it can help you to choose the right goals to pursue.

In the self help world, there are a countless number of books written about setting and achieving goals. 

(An amazon search will bring up over 70,000 results.) 

Yet very little is written about how to choose the right goals in the first place

As Steven Covey writes: 

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

‘Wanting’ is one of the best tools out there for identifying if the ladder you are currently ascending is leaning against the right wall. 

If you discover that it isn’t, then it can help you find the right wall to place your ladder against. 

Thirdly, once you do get your ladder leaning against the right wall, your new awareness of mimetic desire can help you avoid the perils of ‘shiny object syndrome’ – and stay on track towards achieving your highest priorities. 

What is Mimetic Desire?

Mimetic Desire - Toy

In simple terms, mimetic desire is the idea that what we want in life is largely shaped by what other people want. 

This theory suggests that desire is contagious, and passes from person to person, in the same way that a flu virus spreads. 

This contradicts what Burgis refers to as ‘The Romantic Lie’ – the story we tell ourselves about why we want certain things. Usually we believe that we want something because we’ve rationally weighed up the pros and cons, or we’ve ‘listened to our heart’, or that’s just the way we are. 

Instead, mimetic theory suggests that desire does not live autonomously inside each individual. 

Rather, it exists in the space between us. 

I recently interviewed Burgis on The Weekend University’s podcast and he explained that there is almost always a triangular shape to desire:

“There’s a person. 

Then there’s a model of desire (i.e. a rival or someone we look up to). 

And there’s the thing that the model wants. 

The person is affected by the model and ends up wanting the object too.”

In other words, what we want depends on what the models in our lives want.

Models make things valuable to us – simply because they want them too. 

We all experienced this when we were children. 

Ever remember having no interest in a particular toy, and then maybe a friend or sibling started playing with it, and now all of a sudden you wanted to play with it too?

That’s mimetic desire at work.

Models

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all engaged in a sophisticated (and secret) form of imitation that French scholar René Girard coined as ‘Mimesis’, which comes from the Greek word mimesthai – meaning “to imitate”.

Burgis argues that it’s more important now, than at any point in history, to understand how mimetic forces work, and the relationships we have with the models in our lives. 

This is because we live in an era of ‘liquid modernity’ – a time when we have no culturally agreed upon models (e.g., priests, philosophers, politicians) to follow. 

And because we are hardwired to seek out models, and imitate their desires, this makes us particularly vulnerable to the influence of people who want to influence us from positions of power – whether they be politicians, marketeers, or self proclaimed gurus. 

So, if you’re not aware of the models that are influencing you, they can wreak havoc in your life.

The Cautionary Tale of Brian Rose

Mimetic Desire

As I was reading Burgis’ book, an example of a model wreaking havoc in someone’s life came to mind. 

In my early twenties, one of my favourite podcasts was ‘London Real’, hosted by Brian Rose. 

In a previous career, Brian had achieved success as a banker, but ultimately found it a shallow and meaningless path. So, he quit, moved to London, and tried a different approach to his working life. 

Not long after arriving, he met Nic Gabriel, and they launched the ‘London Real’ podcast together. 

The show featured in-depth conversations with the rebels and outliers of society; scientists on the fringes, elite athletes, authors, adventurers, explorers and creators. 

Then, in 2014, Brian had a guest on that changed everything: Dan Pena – the self proclaimed “50 billion dollar man”. 

During the interview, you could tell that Pena was having an outsized influence on Rose. 

There was something in him that Brian really admired. 

A few months later, Rose took Pena’s “QLA Seminar”, and the dynamics of London Real suddenly started to change. They started offering high price online courses (read Scamguard reviews here), masterminds, and Brian’s outer appearance seemed to transform to match what he was experiencing internally. 

He was no longer clad in the usual jeans and t-shirt for the interviews, but instead cloaked in  tailored 5 piece suits.

It was like his value system had been hijacked overnight, and all of his behaviour seemed now geared towards the pursuit of money and status. 

This eventually led to a campaign to become the Mayor of London – which ultimately failed. 

Mimetic Desire - Brian Rose Mayor

It was bizarre to witness this transformation unfold in public.

It was almost like Rose was becoming Pena. 

(You can see Rose talk about the experience here.)

In recent years, Brain has raised over $1 million US dollars to create a Digital Freedom Platform, to ‘challenge the tyranny of YouTube’s censorship policies’. Yet many are now arguing that this was ultimately a scam, and that the money was used to fund Rose’s campaign to run for Mayor. 

In any case, Rose’s story offers a cautionary tale about how models can influence our desires. 

Since meeting Pena, Brian went from running a meaningful, values-driven podcast, which benefited a huge number of people, to what appears to be an out of control pursuit of money and status. 

Becoming Anti-Mimetic

In the second part of the book, Burgis provides several tactics for becoming ‘anti-mimetic’. 

These are practical things you can do to transform your relationship with desire, so that it becomes a life-giving, rather than a destructive force in your life. 

The rest of this post will cover seven of the best of these strategies.

#1 – Name Your Models

When we name something and put it into language – whether it be an emotion, worry or fear, it gives us control and clarity. 

The same holds true for our models.

So ask yourself: who are your models in the important domains of your life? 

– At work? 

– In your relationships? 

– For your worldview? 

– For your political opinions? 

Doing this exercise can help you to build up a picture of the individuals who have been influencing your desires in these domains. 

It’s likely that some will have been inspirational and life giving, and equally as likely that others have had a destructive influence too. 

#2 – Step Outside of Your Mimetic System

“The originality of an idea depends on the obscurity of sources.” – John Hegarty

Transcendent leadership occurs when an individual steps outside of a mimetic system in order to create a new vision for what’s possible in the world. 

Martin Luther King Jr did it with his “I have a dream speech”, JFK did it in 1962 when he boldly committed to the goal of getting a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and Nelson Mandela did it when he brought peace to South Africa. 

Transcendent leaders do not limit themselves to the current layer of reality. 

Instead, they push beyond it to find something more meaningful. 

Therefore, if you want to play your part in creating a better reality, you first have to become aware of the mimetic system you currently occupy, and then find ways to step outside of it.

In SmartCuts, Shane Snow demonstrates that the American presidents who have had the biggest impact, had the least experience in politics – usually coming from a background outside of that domain, e.g. business, the military or philanthropy. When Henry Ford visited Chicago’s meat-packing plants, he realised that their assembly line process could be applied to revolutionise the automotive industry. 

So, how can you apply this?

One way is to start getting experience in a domain outside of the one you currently occupy. 

If you have built up a skillset in one area, it’s likely that it will be innovative in another – particularly if it’s not a common combination. 

For instance, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) – Professor Paul Gilbert OBE, initially studied economics, then later re-trained as a clinical psychologist. Far from being a waste of time, Paul’s training in economics taught him how to build models – which was instrumental when he was creating CFT.

#3 – Create a Hierarchy of Values

“When values are clear, decisions are easy.” – Roy Disney

Burgis recommends not only getting clear on what your most important values are, but to rank them in a hierarchy of importance. 

Because if you don’t have a hierarchy of values, then it’s very difficult to make a decision when you have alternatives to choose between.

When I interviewed the author, he explained how this had helped him in his own life. 

He had recently received a lucrative job offer in another part of the country (i.e. involving a lot of travel) that he would have killed for at most other times in his life. However, because he’s clear on his hierarchy of values, and is conscious that family is his number one priority, he was able to turn down the offer, so he could give more of himself to what matters most. 

When you’re crystal clear on what your most important values are, and have ranked them in order, it makes the big decisions in life a lot easier.

#4 – Create a Positive Flywheel of Desire

In my early twenties, I went through a period where I struggled to get out of bed most mornings. 

The alarm would go off, and I’d press the snooze button, repeatedly – sometimes until 3pm or 4pm in the day.

The worst part was that this happened during the winter months in Glasgow – so by the time I got up, it would often be dark, wet and cold outside. 

Over time, I sensed my mental health was deteriorating, and that I’d be in trouble if I didn’t break the habit soon.

This gave me the idea of arranging early morning gym sessions with two friends I really respected. Therefore, hitting the snooze button meant that not only would I be letting myself down, I’d be letting them down too – which I really didn’t want to do. 

Admittedly, the first few weeks were challenging, but the perceived pain of letting friends down outweighed the discomfort of rolling out of bed in the morning. Although we eventually stopped the sessions, the habit has stuck with me since. 

Weirdly, it now requires no willpower to get up early and exercise, and it’s probably harder for me not to workout in the morning, than it is to do so.

This is an example of what Burgis refers to in the book as a ‘positive flywheel of desire’.

The flywheel concept as a metaphor was first introduced by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Simply put, it is the idea that the first turn of a flywheel is extremely difficult – almost impossible to do. 

After pushing for hours (with tremendous effort), you might get it to do one full turn. 

However, you keep pushing and each subsequent turn takes slightly less effort than the first. Over time, the momentum swings in your favour. You’re pushing no harder, but the flywheel moves faster and faster, with each turn compounding on the work done previously, eventually moving with unstoppable momentum.

Although Collins applied the metaphor to business, Burgis suggests the same principle applies to desire.

In other words, the actions you take today, can make it easier for you to want something in the future.

When I was struggling with my snoozing habit, the choice to call my friends about the early morning sessions kickstarted a positive flywheel that I am still benefiting from today – almost ten years later. 

So what core desire would you like to start working towards? 

And what actions could you take in the next seven days that might kickstart a positive flywheel of desire for you?

#5 – Share Fulfilment Stories

Fulfillment stories involve asking the people in your life about their most meaningful experiences, and sharing your own with them.

Not only will those you ask benefit by getting to relive their most cherished moments, and gaining clarity that they should try to recreate similar experiences in the future, this will give you inspiration, ideas and insights that can help you step outside your current mimetic system, and find new models of desire. 

Moreover, sharing your own fulfilment stories with them, will help you uncover patterns in your motivation. 

These are the underlying themes that are interwoven throughout all of the meaningful experiences of your life.

When an experience feels fulfilling, it is often because we are tapping into core motivational patterns. 

When I did the exercise, I realised that almost all of the experiences I’ve found meaningful have had the following core elements: 

– I’m focused on bringing out the best in others

– I’m working in a team towards a shared goal

– I’m bringing people together

– I’m having meaningful conversations with likeminded people

– I’m learning something new and applying it in a way that is useful to others

– I’m following my curiosity

Therefore, when deciding about whether to commit to a new project, you can see how aligned it is with your core motivational patterns. 

If there’s a high level of alignment, you can move forward. 

But if not, then you can pause, and consider something else.

Fulfilment stories, then, can be an ‘archaeological tool’ for excavating your past for information that can help you live a more aligned life in the present, and plot a more meaningful path for the future.

#6 –  Practice Meditative Thought

Meditative thought is the practice of deliberately slowing down your thought process.

In the book, Burgis recommends going to a quiet spot in nature, finding a tree, and staring at it for an hour. 

No phone, no activity, no distractions of any kind.

Just you, and the tree – for an hour. 

Practices like this one force you to slow down, sit with all of your thoughts, emotions and desires, and get in touch with a deeper, wiser, and calmer part of yourself. 

From there, you are in the best possible frame of mind to discern between fluctuating and passing wants of the moment (i.e. mimetic desires), and deep, enduring ‘thick’ desires that are really worth pursuing. 

To be clear, this is not the same thing as meditation. 

In meditation, the aim is to arrive at a place of ‘no thought’ – or at least become aware of your thinking. Meditative thought, on the other hand, is still a form of thinking. 

The difference is that it’s non reactionary, slow, and has no end goal to reach. 

It’s exploratory. 

Our desires are limited by our imagination.

If you can’t imagine something, you can’t want it. 

Therefore, by slowing down and practicing meditative thought, you can widen the scope of your imagination – and therefore what’s possible to pursue in your life.

#7 – Choose ONE Overarching Desire

Unless you’re going to live in a cave and meditate for the rest of your life, your desires will play a huge part both in what you do, and ultimately who you become. 

Therefore, the aim is not to remove desire entirely, but to transform your relationship with it – so that it becomes a life-giving and growth-promoting force, rather than a destructive one.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to choose one overarching desire. 

When you have clarity on what this is for you, it allows you to subordinate all of your lesser desires in order to serve it. 

It acts as a filter for making decisions. 

When the British Olympic rowing team were training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they set the goal of being able to row 2,000 metres in 5 minutes 18 seconds during the competition. 

From that point on, every time a decision came up, they simply ran it through the filter of: 

“Will this make the boat go faster?” 

This influenced what they ate, how they trained, how many hours they slept, etc.

Everything was orientated around this one goal.

Burgis recommends a similar approach to desire. If you have one clear priority you’re optimising for, it enables you to make decisions that support that priority. 

So, what are you optimising for at this point in your life?

What’s your core, overarching desire?

And what’s your version of: “Will this make the boat go faster?”

Conclusion

“In the final analysis, two questions are critical. What do you want? What have you helped others want? One question helps answer the other.” – Luke Burgis

There are two key takeaways from ‘Wanting’:

(1.) Our desires are shaped by others.

(2.) We help to shape the desires of those around us. 

When we become aware that our desires are ‘networked’ in this way, and that they exist in the space between us, then it places responsibility on each one of us to transform our relationship with desire, so that it becomes a life-giving, rather than destructive force – in our own life, our families, our communities, and the planet at large.

Therefore, by becoming conscious of your relationship with desire, and changing it for the better, you can play an active role in reshaping culture, and creating a better world. 

How will you respond? 

What will you desire? 

And most importantly, what will you help others desire?

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

Read more about me »

The Question & Quote Newsletter

Twice monthly I publish the Question & Quote Newsletter, a short email containing 1 question and 1 quote, designed to help you find clarity, shift your perspective, and live a more creative, intentional and meaningful life. Sign up below to receive it: 

(I hate spam. You’ll only receive one email every two weeks, and you can unsubscribe at any time.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 questions & 2 quotes every 2 weeks to help you find clarity. Add the Question & Quote Newsletter to Your Inbox. 

Before you go...

Interested in reading more books? If so, check out this free guide which shows you 3 simple techniques to 3x your reading speed.