Q&A with Author Luke Burgis
"It’s almost as if we’re obstacle addicts: we don’t desire something (or someone) unless there’s competition for it. We don’t think it’s valuable unless someone else wants it too. "
This is my Q&A with Luke Burgis, the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life and a veteran entrepreneur.
I enjoyed his book and newsletter and was curious about how he implemented the idea of mimetic desire in his own life. I hope you find this conversation as interesting as I did. Enjoy!
“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.” Luke Burgis, Wanting
Thank you so much for agreeing to this Q&A. I found your book to be a great introduction to Girard and the concept of mimetic desire and I look forward to exploring your ideas further.
Q: First off, can you talk about your own journey to Girard? You were an entrepreneur and, as you wrote, experienced a “crisis of meaning” that set you on a new path that included speaking to Peter Thiel and writing the book. Why was this idea so important to you that you wrote an entire book about it?
A: The time between that crisis of meaning and writing the book was almost 10 years. I had thought that Girard’s big idea—mimetic desire—was important at the beginning, but during the course of those 10 years I realized it was even more important than I had thought.
I stepped away from business (almost) entirely for 5 of those years. I lived in Italy for 3 of them. So I saw Silicon Valley, U.S. markets, and U.S. news from a distance. (To this day, I still prefer reading international newspapers for their anti-mimetic takes on U.S. news. They’re outside of the fish bowl that we’re swimming in. It’s entirely uninteresting and predictable what U.S. journalists have to say about Trump and Biden; it’s far more revealing to hear what’s being said in China and Russia.)
In some sense, I also saw my life and my relationships from a distance too. I gained perspective, and that allowed me to see the games I had been playing.
One of those games was the ad nauseum talk about startups and “founders.” In the startup ecosystem, there was layer upon layer of narrative-shaping and identity-seeking that had nothing to do with the underlying businesses. (Sometimes, I wonder if the same is happening in Blockchain Land right now.) Talking about entrepreneurship was equally if not more important than actually building great companies. There was a Cargo Cult aspect to all of it. Everyone, including me, seemed to be playing roles.
I was having a hard time understanding what it was I or anyone else was actually doing at the most fundamental level. Are we starting companies or fashion brands? If we’re starting companies, does the name of the company actually matter more than the operations in the early stages? (Many people, including Peter Thiel, seem to have an almost mystical notion of company names—the names seem to be harbingers of death or success. “Facebook”: two syllables, familiarity, associations, ambitious, generic.) Does a good social media manager—like the one for Steak-umms—matter more than a good CFO?
No wonder I was having a hard time finding meaning. I could tell you the price of everything and the value of nothing. I was becoming somewhat nihilistic.
There are just so many games that people play in the workplace—it sometimes seems like 90% of the job is talking about the job. The same thing was true for me in the startup world.
It’s part of the fundamental character of mimesis to lose sight of objects—to make people forget what the original purpose or desire was. I didn’t want this to be the case with my company; I certainly didn’t want it to be the case with my life.
I felt the need to write an entire book about it because “it” is not just some philosophical idea, it’s about the structure of our lives; it’s about purpose, vocation; it’s about how we’re in relationship with other people. Anyone who mistook Wanting for a business book probably missed a lot.
I don’t really consider myself a Straussian, but we live in a world where almost nothing is what it appears to be—except maybe John Cena—and a multiplicity of meaning is embedded in even the most ordinary objects. Books should serve as portals into new worlds where people can make new meaning. That’s what I tried to do with Wanting. The coolest part about it is when readers open new doors for me that I didn’t even know were there.
“I’m now convinced that understanding mimetic desire is the key to understanding, at a deeply human level, business, politics, economics, sports, art, even love.” Wanting
Q: What has been the biggest impact of understanding mimetic desire in your life? Have you found it more effective in understanding others or yourself?
The biggest impact has been in my spiritual life. I’m Roman Catholic. Obviously, there’s a lot of ritual. There’s a lot of imitation—in a positive sense, I believe—when it comes to tradition. At the same time, that can turn negative extremely fast. Especially if a person has a false idea about how they are “supposed” to be doing it. Man, there is no roadmap. You have to work out your personal vocation—your particular way of living this path out. Nobody else in the history of the world has ever done it in quite the same way. There’s a funny thing about imitation: it naturally leads to individuation, or unexpected creativity. (The aptly titled Although of course you end up becoming yourself: A road trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky, really sums up this idea. You can’t not.)
But I think this basic idea applies to all kinds of things. In the business world, there’s a way you’re “supposed” to do certain things—startup roadmaps, paths to success (join Y-Combinator, etc.) It’s all mostly bullshit. The more you think there’s a right way and a wrong way forward, the harder time you’ll have creating something beautiful and unexpected because you’ll be consumed with the mimetic games.
I’ve found mimetic theory helpful in identifying the singularity of my own life and the lives of others. By “singularity” I don’t mean the technological one. That “singularity” is about a loss of distinction, a merging. I’m referring to one that is the complete opposite. Karol Wojtyła once wrote that “The evil in our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order.” Finding the singular uniqueness of each person—and giving them the freedom to live that out—is of the utmost importance.
Understanding mimesis has helped me see the singular essence of other people and of myself. There is this strange paradox: the more you see mimesis, the more you see what transcends mimesis.
“I don’t claim that overcoming mimetic desire is possible, or even desirable. This book is primarily about growing more aware of its presence so that we can navigate it better.” Wanting
Q: How often do you examine your own desires? Do you have a process to regularly check in or do you designate certain times (at a silent retreat, for example)? Is it possible to spend too much time examining one’s desires?
I try to examine them daily with a simple examination of conscience. Sometimes it’s 5 minutes at the end of the day.
Of course, it’s possible to spend too much time examining and not enough time living, to get in one’s head. But the question “Is it possible to spend too much time examining one’s desires?” is kind of like the question “Is it possible to pray too much?” No, not really. Because to think of it like that is to think of the habitus of living an examined life as something separate from living. No, it’s a habit of being that shouldn’t be thought of as separate. It’s not like one more thing “to do”; it’s just something we’re doing all the time.
There are some special cases where I do want to completely unplug from the rhythm of daily life and take a silent retreat for 4-5 days in a remote place to drop down deep. But that’s a difference of degree, not kind. It’s a funny thing: when I come back from these kinds of experiences, I’m hyper-sensitive to sounds and tastes but also my own inner movements of desire. I have a heightened ability to understand what’s going on inside of me, but it only lasts for about a month.
It’s almost like during those retreats I develop some antibodies against being infected by noise, antibodies against the mind-numbing chatter that might otherwise lure me like sirens. I am able to spot bullshit easier. Twitter seems like an absolutely looney bin for a few weeks.
Then it starts looking normal again.
Q: I recently experienced firsthand how much our immediate environment can shape our desires: in 2020 and 2021, I moved back and forth between New York and my small hometown in Germany. This may sound obvious, but the perceived importance of money and status symbols (expensive vacations, for example) changed dramatically for me. I also dated and broke up (and unsuccessfully tried to rekindle things) with a woman here in New York. Even after the breakup, I was left with “legacy” desires that had entered my life with her (suddenly I wanted to go clubbing, tried to play the piano, wondered about working in tech).
This reminded me of your example of Peter Thiel who left a prestigious legal career: “I had this core life crisis when I realized that all these hyper-track competitive things I was after were for these bad social reasons.”
Do you have advice on choosing or designing our (social) environments with respect to desire? Can we consciously pick people as “positive” mimetic models? How would one go about this?
You’re making a really important connection between environment and desires. I used to have this really naive idea about the connection between environment and desire, probably born of my own pride—I think I thought that you could stick me in a whorehouse and it wouldn’t move the needle of my desire. That’s obviously not true. The environments, the culture that we’re part of, are so important because they reinforce a system of desire in us. It happens whether we know it’s happening or not.
That works in both positive and negative ways. When I moved to Italy, I was positively infected with the desire to chill out a bit, take longer lunches with my friends, cook more, invest in my friendships. I got out of the mode of hustle-culture that had dominated my life up until that point. In my case, I still have those legacy desires—and I’m better for it. (I’ve had less healthy “legacy” desires from a past relationship, too, so I know how that is. In some sense, the desires are like a way to maintain a connection with that person, I think.)
I try to bring some level of intentionality to designing social environments with respect to desire. Let me give you kind of a silly example, but one many people can probably relate to: I recently organized a getaway on the shores of Maryland with a few friends, and I had to really take into account what each person invited really wanted out of it.
If one person—and just one person—wants to absolutely rage and get crazy, and there is one enabler of that behavior there, then the two of them are going to color the entire trip.
Yet how many people plan nights, and getaways, or companies, without seriously taking into account what each person really wants to do? If it’s relevant for vacations, it’s even more relevant for organizations where people are going into the same workplace every day. In my experience, though, few leaders understand or can name the core motivations of the people they work with. At least they don’t have precise language for doing so.
If you know what people want, you can take some simple steps to ensure there isn’t an unavoidable clash of desires.
Q: You gave the example of Lamborghini refraining from participating in races to prevent his son from becoming obsessed with competition. However, most of us find ourselves in daily competition for customers, jobs, attention, capital, etc. What lessons does Girard’s work hold on how to deal with competition?
There is a particularly American idea that “competition is good”—almost like a cult of competition. It’s strange.
Peter Thiel does a pretty good job of showing why this cult-like attitude is problematic in Zero to One. It’s almost as if we’re obstacle addicts: we don’t desire something (or someone) unless there’s competition for it. We don’t think it’s valuable unless someone else wants it too.
But this is not how some of the most valuable and beautiful things in life work. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, “this little out-of-way place, that discovery is often the result of a happy mishap or an accident. You know, car breaks down, you get lost, you end up at some grotty little place that ends up being magical.” An anti-mimetic attitude! Imagine if everything was a product merely of mimesis: you’d never find that out-of-the-way place that there was no model for.
Competition can be good and competition can be bad. If some dude wins—and him winning means he destroys me and my family—I’m going to compete like hell to beat him. (This apocalyptic attitude, unfortunately, is what is driving contemporary American politics: you merely have to paint the other candidate as desiring to destroy you if they win in order to evoke fear and outrage and mobilize voters.)
On the other hand, a lot of competition is merely for status or worthless totems, like the competition to be named to some “top 10” list in a magazine (you know that for some of these, PR firms actually just charge people money to recommend their names to editors? It happens far more frequently than you think. These things are jokes.)
It all comes down to motives. Why are we competing? And what are we competing for?
Our economic system rewards competition and actually makes it productive—that’s part of why it’s genius. Watch the show “The Food That Build America” to see story after story of how competition probably produced great innovation that wouldn’t have happened without it.
On the other hand, competition for things like university admissions rates seems incredibly stupid. Theoretically, Harvard and Yale could educate a lot more students than they do—but they have to keep admissions rates extremely low to maintain the brand allure, to keep up the kayfabe. The incentives are all messed up.
Maybe there’s a simple hermeneutic for understanding the flavor and nature of competition: What’s the nature of our competition in different domains? It’s not easy to answer honestly.
Q: You recently wrote about “The scapegoating of Peter Thiel.” Did Girard have advice on what to do if one finds themselves in the unfortunate position of the scapegoat?
As far as I know, he did not. I sense that Girard’s attitude was simply to be a good martyr. In other words, try to testify to the truth in the process of being scapegoated.
When I look at cancel culture, I see exactly the opposite happening. It’s almost as if the people being scapegoated have no voice—anything they say other than the templated “I’m deeply sorry for…” is simply a means for further indictment.
There is never less truth than in the process of a modern day scapegoat: everything is a stage. When it comes to scapegoating, there is no negotiating with terrorists: there is absolutely nothing one can say to the people scapegoating that will not be misinterpreted, or reinterpreted, or used against you.
If you’re a scapegoat, you have to find some way to accept the situation. At the same time, it’s good and noble to fight back.
I’ve talked to some people who are developing a blockchain-based crowdfunding system that will help people who are scapegoated and/or falsely accused to raise a lot of money quickly to defend themselves in court. This is mostly meant to act as a deterrent.
Part of the problem today is that there are almost no consequences for people who pile on. There should be consequences for the first person who starts a mimetic wave of accusation and hatred, divorced from the truth or with utter disregard for what is true.
Q: In a conversation with Jim O’Shaughnessy, you touched on envy and called it a taboo. I wrote about envy and have to admit that it felt very uncomfortable, but also freeing, to admit. Can you elaborate on what this says about our culture and what it means for us as individuals? Can we somehow use this knowledge to our advantage?
Girard said that the reason we talk so much about sex is that nobody wants to talk about envy. Envy is the real Freudian repression, not sex. I think that’s right.
What it says about our culture is that mimetic desire has gone completely underground. The fact that we glorify sex (which has a strong biological drive) and repress envy (which is entirely mimetic) is an indication that we’re really not dealing with mimesis at all.
The media is steeped in mimetic rivalry, and they are totally blind to it. It’s rampant—maybe more than ever before. The more we think of ourselves as good Enlightenment Rationalists, like Steven Pinker, the more we’re being dominated by mimesis. We can’t think mimesis away. Pinker is oblivious to this, and scientism is a natural outgrowth of this mode of thought.
I think the way we use our knowledge of envy as a taboo is to simply break the taboo. If you envy someone, write them a letter. Disarm them. Find something admirable in them. Communicate openly. You might be surprised what happens. Oftentimes what we envy is simply a projection of our own insecurities and may not even have any basis in reality. That’s why this unmasking works so well—it’s an unmasking of lies.
Q: I really enjoyed your recent piece about Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley, “I don’t believe we can truly make sense of many of the most important questions today without a synthesis of these three spheres—Athens, Jerusalem, Silicon Valley.” What are those questions and what do you see as your own mission going forward?
Some of the questions are:
What leads to human flourishing and what doesn’t?
What is technology and what does it mean? How should we use it? Is A.I. a threat?
Why does democracy seem like it’s breaking down?
Why do fewer and fewer people identify as religious?
Is capitalism the best possible economic system?
What is the purpose of business?
What does it mean to be human? What is a person?
When does life start? When does it end?
What is the primary attraction of cryptocurrency and NFT’s?
What is truth?
These are a few of many. I feel like my personal mission is situated at the intersection of Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley—even if I don’t fully understand it. That’s part of the nature of a vocation: we never quite have perfect knowledge of it. There’s beauty in being able to create the story as we go.
I know mine has to do with uniting people. I feel we live in a desert of humanity. Everything for me comes back to humanity, to anthropology, to questions about what it means to be human.
I find people like Yuval Noah Harari and the transhumanists to be relatively shallow. They don’t seem to have fully taken the time to understand humanity and what a healthy human ecology might look like; they’re already trying to escape humanity to find the next thing—the ultimate mimetic trap. Metaphysical desire on steroids: the desire to be a being that we are not. I think that’s the desire behind the whole movement.
My approach is trying to grow more and more comfortable in my own skin and to spend my short time on earth falling in love as much and as deeply as possible. At the end, desire isn’t necessarily another word for love—but it’s what desire is ultimately intended to become.
Q: What books (or talks, videos, podcasts etc.) would you recommend for anyone interested in learning more about Girard and his ideas?
Please consider checking out my substack newsletter, Anti-Mimetic. This newsletter includes the top 10 books that I recommend for anyone interested in learning more about mimetic theory. Alex Danco also has an excellent introduction in his newsletter. And I wrote Wanting because I didn’t think there was a good intro in long-form. It’s the culmination of 10 years of reflection on these issues, but I hope I gave a good taste here today. Thank you very much for the opportunity, Frederik.
Thank you so much! I look forward to reading more of your work!
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This was fantastic. Thank you both for this.