(Image Credit: Macmillan Publishers)
The Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen coined the term, “conspicuous consumption’. This term explains the practice of consumers purchasing goods of a higher quality/greater quantity than is necessarily practical. More specifically it refers to luxury goods or services to publicly display one’s wealth or status. Hence a ‘conspicuous’ attempt at ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’.
However the concept of human desire was lent a groundbreaking and pioneering flavour by the French historian, polymath and philosopher Rene Girard. Girard may as well go down in history as the most underrated philosopher responsible for unearthing the most consequential theory of human desire in the 21st century. Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, Luke Burgis, attempts to expand the scope of Girard’s paradigmatic philosophy beyond the perimeters of an exclusive club of acolytes – that include the likes of serial entrepreneur and multi-billionaire, Peter Thiel – and succeeds beyond the wildest of imaginations!
Girard propounded a theory which he named “mimetic theory”. Unlike the theory of conspicuous consumption which places emphasis on the individual, mimetic theory asserts that human desire is a collective or even a social phenomenon. At the root of all conflict and violence that has tarnished history and civilization, lies this collective aspect of human desire. Girard, while teaching the classics discovered that from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, most of the characters appearing in the great works were driven by mimesis. Their desires were predominantly an outcome or an output of someone else’s wants.
As Burgis illustrates, Girard’s mimetic theory progress through the following four sequential phases:
Mimetic Desire: Subsequent to the satiation of a human being’s basic needs such as food, sex, safety, shelter, people progress into the domain of desire. This domain does not have any guidelines or yardstick. The only barometer for desire is to ‘want’ what other people want. Desire is thus social.
Conflict: Desire which is social inevitably leads to conflict since multiple individuals compete for the same goods.
Scapegoating: The invariable and inevitable conflict permeates society leading to chaos. The only perceivable way to mitigate this induced chaos is to find a convenient scapegoat. Hence warring factions single-out a single individual or problem as the root of all evil and brutally expel or expunge the scapegoat from the community.
The Cover-Up: The final phase in the mimetic theory is that of the cover-up. In a pretentious act of gentility, the perpetrators of violence birth an opportune culture by enacting taboos, prohibitions, and other laws to prevent the scapegoating mechanism that the very legislators engaged in. This vicious cycle keeps on repeating in a cathartic manner until it becomes a common place occurrence in every nation, community, organisation and family.
Burgis himself was an unwitting victim of mimesis and its attendant virtue signaling. When the late CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh expressed interest in acquiring Burgis’ e-commerce venture for wellness products, FitFuel.com, Burgis began mimicking Tony Hsieh and his maverick lifestyle. “Within a few weeks of hanging out with him, I ditched by True Religions (I know) and started shopping at the Gap. I began to wonder if I should drive an older and dirtier car” (Hsieh drove a beat up Mazda 6 and dressed in plain jeans and a Zappos T-shirt). The deal unfortunately fell apart.
Burgis informs his readers about the perils of mimesis. Mimesis has the potential to sabotage our noblest ambitions and chasing after wrong desires might prove downright deadly. Steve Jobs sold his IBM Seleric typewriter to an eccentric student named Robert Friedland. When Jobs reached Friedland’s door with his typewriter and let himself in, he was shocked to see Friedland having sex with his girlfriend. Friedland nonchalantly invited Jobs to sit down until he was done! This absolute disregard for taboo had a lasting influence on Jobs. Jobs own quirks included walking barefoot, not taking showers and soaking his feet in the toilet.
Ferruccio Lamborghini found out that the Ferrari he was driving had an inherent problem with the clutch mechanism, and in earnest approached Enzo Ferrari only to be insulted and rebuked. Ferrari brazenly stated that the issue was with Lamborghini since not everyone knew how to ‘handle’ a Ferrari. Lamborghini calmly retreated, replaced the wobbly clutch in his Ferrari with that of a sturdy tractor (he was a tractor manufacturer) and outwitted every Ferrari for pace! But even after he started manufacturing his own brand of cars, he refused to be drawn in a dance of death with Ferrari by not competing in the world of racing. Not for Lamborghini the mimetic ‘contagion’.
Burgis sets out 15 ingenious and implementable “tactics” which act as rudders in steering our desires towards more intrinsic and value based aspirations (‘thick desires’) as opposed to purely extrinsic and temporary goals (‘thin desires’). A few of such tactics include:
Name Your Models: Burgis explains that naming problems, emotions and talents bestows a degree of control. Thinking about exemplary ‘role models’ in both our professional and personal lives influences our desires in a positive and encouraging way;
Find Sources of Wisdom that Withstand Mimesis: Stop being influenced by the “cult of experts”. Their expertise is but a product of mimetic validation. Instead bank on sources that have stood the test and scrutiny of time.
Use Imitation to Drive Innovation: Always remember the Lamborghini v Ferrari story
Establish & Communicate a Clear Hierarchy of Values: Map out your priorities. Write them down. Defend them like hell.
Arrive at Judgment in Anti-mimetic Waves: Be independent. Formulate your thoughts without being influenced by social thinking.
“Wanting” is easily one of the best ever books that I have read till date. Whether you agree or disagree with Girard’s thinking, your thought process would never be the same again.
Thank you, Mr. Burgis!