2. This is a book about why people want what they want. Why you want what you want.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. An unbelieved truth is often more dangerous than a lie. The lie in this case is the idea that I want things entirely on my own, uninfluenced by others, that I’m the sovereign king of deciding what is wantable and what is not. The truth is that my desires are derivative, mediated by others, and that I’m part of an ecology of desire that is bigger than I can fully understand.
6. The two characters don’t even have to meet for this relationship to happen. Don Quixote, alone in his room, reads about the adventures of the famous knight Amadís de Gaula. He is inflamed with a desire to emulate him and become a knight-errant, wandering the countryside in search of opportunities to prove the virtues of chivalry.
7. In all of the books Girard taught, desire always involved an imitator and a model.
8. “Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.”
9. He found that mimetic desire was closely related to violence, especially the idea of sacrifice. The biblical story of Cain and Abel is about Cain killing his brother, Abel, after his ritual sacrifice pleased God less than Abel’s. They both wanted the same thing—to win favor with God—which brought them into direct conflict with each other. In Girard’s view, the root of most violence is mimetic desire.
10. Thiel left the corporate world and co-founded Confinity with Max Levchin in 1998. He began to use his knowledge of mimetic theory to help him manage both the business and his life. When competitive rivalries flared up within his company, he gave each employee clearly defined and independent tasks so they didn’t compete with one another for the same responsibilities.
11. A company in which people are evaluated based on clear performance objectives—not their performance relative to one another—minimizes mimetic rivalries.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. The first cycle leads to tension, conflict, and volatility, breaking down relationships and causing instability and confusion as competing desires interact in volatile ways.
18. 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. This book will explore these two cycles. They’re fundamental to human behavior.
19. Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology is the person or thing that caused us to want something in the first place. Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things.
20. You may be wondering, then: if desire is generated and shaped by models, then where do models
21. We are tantalized by models who suggest a desire for things that we don’t currently have, especially things that appear just out of reach. The greater the obstacle, the greater the attraction. Isn’t that curious? We don’t want things that are too easily possessed or that are readily within reach. Desire leads us beyond where we currently are.
22. We are attracted to things when they are modeled to us in an attractive way, by the right model. Our universe of desire is as big or as small as our models.
23. The danger is not recognizing models for what they are. When we don’t recognize them, we are easily drawn into unhealthy relationships with them. They begin to exert an outsize influence on us. We often become fixated on them without realizing it. Models are, in many cases, a person’s secret idol.
24. Mimetic theory exposes our models and reorders our relationship with them. The first step is bringing them to light.
25. In one of his best-known experiments, conducted in 1977, he went to a hospital in Seattle (along with his co-researcher, M. Keith Moore) and stuck out his tongue at newborns. While the mean age of babies in this study was thirty-two hours, an infant as young as forty-two minutes mimicked his facial expressions, mapping onto them with surprising accuracy.
26. 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.
27. 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.
28. NAME YOUR MODELS 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.
29. People don’t only model the desire for third parties or objects; they can also model the desire for themselves.
30. 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.
31. A friend and collaborator of Girard’s, the psychoanalyst Jean-Michel Oughourlian, recommended a shocking tactic to people who came to him in his clinical practice complaining that their spouse no longer seemed interested in them: he would suggest they find someone to compete with the spouse for their time and attention. Even the remote suspicion that someone else might be competing for a spouse’s time can be enough to arouse and intensify desire.
32. Shader was caught up in a mimetic value game. The investors who modeled their own desirability—who postured as selective and demanding—took on a higher value in his mind than the one investor who didn’t.
33. Paradox of Importance: sometimes the most important things in our lives come easily—they seem like gifts—while many of the least important things are the ones that, in the end, we worked the hardest for.
34. 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.
35. Nobody likes to think of themselves as imitative. We value originality and innovation. We are attracted to renegades.
36. First we’ll see how desire is affected differently by people who are at a great social distance from us (celebrities, fictional characters, historical figures, maybe even our boss) and those who are close (colleagues, friends, social media connections, neighbors, or people we meet at parties).
37. In the first situation, where there is a large difference in status, models live in a place we’ll call Celebristan. From where I stand, residents of Celebristan include Brad Pitt, LeBron James, Kim Kardashian, and the founders of unicorns (start-ups with billion-dollar valuations).
38. 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.
39. 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.
40. 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.
41. 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.
42. 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.
43. In Celebristan, there is always a barrier that separates the models from their imitators.5 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).
44. This brings us to an important feature of Celebristan models: because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly.
45. 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.
46. 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.
47. Freshmanistan is the world of models who mediate desire from inside our world, which is why Girard calls them internal mediators of desire.
48. 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.
49. People worry about what other people will think before they say something—which affects what they say. In other words, our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity.
50. USE IMITATION TO DRIVE INNOVATION 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.
51. Zappos had eliminated the management hierarchy, but they couldn’t eliminate the network of desire and the need that people have to be in relationship to models. There is always a hierarchy of desire from the perspective of an individual: some models are worth following more than others, and some things are worth wanting more than others. We are hierarchical creatures. This is why we like listicles and ratings so much. We have a need to know how things stack up, how things fit together. To remove all semblance of hierarchy is detrimental to this fundamental need.
52. “People were less secure in their jobs . . . less clear on how they could hold on to their roles and their jobs. However, you still had a few people who had infinite power because they had a strong relationship with Tony.” There was a hidden web of desire that nobody could decipher.
53. 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.
54. 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.5 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.
55. The scapegoat mechanism, he found, turns a war of all against all into a war of all against one.
56. 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.
57. 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.
58. 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.
59. Author Elias Canetti, who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, wrote about this phenomenon in his masterpiece, Crowds and Power, first published in 1960. “As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd,” Canetti writes, “he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count. . . . Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body.”
60. The scapegoat mechanism is most operative at times of instability. Prior to the rise of the Nazi Party, Germany had been thrown into economic and social chaos after its loss in World War I. Other genocides—including but not limited to the Armenian, Rwandan, and Syrian genocides—also came at times of great social instability. Less conspicuous examples include single, localized incidents of scapegoating in which one person, often someone universally viewed as evil, provides a cathartic relief through his or her death or expulsion.
61. 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.
62. Another distinguishing feature of scapegoats, which Girard named in his 1972 book, Violence and the Sacred, is that they are disproportionately kings or beggars—and often both at the same time.
63. “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.
64. They found that anger spreads faster than other emotions, such as joy, because anger spreads easily when there are weak ties between people—as there often are online.
65. 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.
66. Thick desires—desires that are not hyper-mimetic, desires that can form the foundation for a good life.
67. One approach I recommend for uncovering thick desires—the one I’ll focus on here—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.
68. 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.
69. “Actions follow being,” wrote Aristotle twenty-three centuries ago. He meant that a thing can only act according to what it is. We can know something about the essence of a thing based on its actions.
70. But in the case of humans, we also need insight into the interior dimension of action: What was the person’s motivation for taking it? What were the circumstances? How did the action affect them on an emotional level?
71. One organization that I’ve worked with for many years has codified common motivational patterns into an assessment (trademarked under the name the Motivation Code, or MCODE)
72. EXPLORE: People motivated to EXPLORE want to press beyond their existing limits of knowledge and experience to discover what is unknown or mysterious to them.
73. MASTER: A person motivated to MASTER wants to gain complete command of a skill, subject, procedure, technique, or process.
74. COMPREHEND AND EXPRESS: A person with this core drive wants to understand, define, and then communicate their insights in some way.
75. Cycle 2 is a positive cycle of desire. It begins when someone models a different way of being in relationship—a non-rivalrous approach, in which the imitation of desire is for a shared good that can be had in abundance.
76. If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
77. Leaders are intentional about helping people want more or want less or want differently than they did before.
78. Magnanimous, great-spirited leaders are driven by transcendent desire—desire that leads outward, beyond the existing paradigm, because the models are external mediators of desire. These leaders expand everyone’s universe of desire and help them explore it.
79. 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.
80. 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.
81. In my experience, the most effective context for discerning desires is a silent retreat—ideally, at least five days (but a minimum of three) of being unplugged from all noise and screens, in a remote location, completely off the grid.
82. You can be extremely active in silence. People come from all over the world to walk the Way of Saint James (known in Spanish as the Camino de Santiago), the approximately 490-mile pilgrimage from Saint-Jean-Piedde-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela near the western coast of Spain.
83. INVEST IN DEEP SILENCE 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.
84. Mimetic desire manifests itself as the constant yearning to be someone or something else (what we called metaphysical desire). People select models because they think the models hold the key to a door that just might lead to the thing they have been looking for.
85. Taking hold of your greatest desire necessarily means taking hold of models. We can’t access our desires without models.
86. So stalk your highest and noblest desire, but you will have to find it in the form of a model. On this particular day, as you read these words, it might be a character from a book, a leader, an athlete, a saint, a sinner, a Medal of Honor winner, a love, a marriage, a heroic action, the greatest ideal you can possibly conceive.
87. LIVE AS IF YOU HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT OTHER PEOPLE WANT
88. In the meantime, and probably at all times, we have something warm to sink our teeth into: wanting what we already have.