Mimetic Desire and Specific Visions

How to find your own desires and work toward them

Hi friends,

One thing I think about often is ‘mimetic desire’. The thesis: Our wants are not our own and we want what other people want, because other people want it. I find this concept important because it fits into the puzzle of self-knowledge and goal-setting.

If we can think for ourselves by setting goals that are truly our own by wanting what we truly want, we would've lived life on our own terms. This is a life of fulfilment, no regrets, and one of sustainable happiness, something worth aspiring for.

So, this week, to inch toward this basic goal, let's talk about two interconnected things: mimetic desire and specific visions.

Mimetic Desire

In the 1960s, René Girard brought forward the idea of mimetic desire. He said that desire is not linear, but is instead formed by a set of complicated, interconnected models to whom we ascribe value.

What are models? Well, intuitively, we all look to some predefined set of models (of people, lifestyles, choices, or assets) to peg our desires on. For example, if you were born in the Bay Area, you would probably use the whole tech-culture + startup-culture as a reasonable model to base your desires; you'd want to "have an impact", "move the human race forward", and "serve humanity". But if you were born in Syria, your reasonable model would've been a simple, happy, safe family, based on which you would aspire to (a) escape Syria, or (b) make yourself safe.

Point being, your environment shapes you from the day you're born, and so, your desires are specifically an outcome of externalities that surround you from day one.

You want what others want because others want it. Of course, it's tautological and circular, but that's the whole point. Girard termed the process of mimetic desire as 'mimesis', the conflict that competing models of desire produce in our minds... Till today, this theory garners attention.

To cut to the chase, then, mimetic desire is to psychology what’s gravity is to physics. It's the first principle with which you can evaluate your own psyche, others' psyche, and how your psyche interacts with those of others.

Futility and Utility of Mimetic Desire

So far, it seems that mimetic desire is a "bad" thing because it makes us "not original" and copycats. No, it's not a "bad" thing. In fact, it's a necessary thing that happens to be futile in specific situations.

Mimetic desire is not a bug; it’s a feature, a necessity for evolution to happen. We are inherently mimetic creatures, which is why (and how) we learned to communicate, cooperate, and trust each other. This is the utility of mimetic desire.

But this same mimetic process becomes futile when we do it for playing status games, and instead, end up copying superficial attributes.

In this podcast, one of the hyper-mimetic trends Luke Burgis talks about is how, one time, suddenly everyone in a company stopped capitalizing their letters, as if not capitalizing letters indicated that you're too busy. Over time, however, people used this trend to measure 'substance' of the company, which, obviously, was an absolutely incorrect metric. Whether you capitalize your letters or not, the success of your startup is not determined by such a superficial quality.

This is when mimetic desire becomes futile, which is, when people blindly copy each other to signal their "status", often at the cost of the pursuit of substance.

So, How To Fix Mimetic Desire

Again, mimetic desire is a feature, not a bug. You cannot "fix" mimetic desire because we're born into an embedded social context predetermined by how others function in the context.

Instead, you can be more aware of it, more careful about it, and more honest about it. I find that Tim Urban's article 'How to pick a career (that actually fits you)' is helpful to work through whether you want X, or whether others are masquerading as you wanting X.

In all likelihood, though, even though we may try fixing mimetic desire, it's so ingrained in our psyche that we will always find it difficult to walk away from.

Mimetic desire is the default.

Specific Visions

So how does this all relate to specific visions? Point is, in the past few weeks, I've learned that it's easy (and useless) to use nouns without qualifying or specifying them.

For example, I can say: "I have a lot of work to do" or "I want to have an impact to help make the world a better place" or "I want to solve climate change because it is destroying our planet." None of this is useful or gives any additional information, because it is all, in one phrase, 'in the abstract.'

But increasingly, I'm finding that we do it more often than we think. Classic example: "I'm busy." One exercise I've started doing to counter all of this is to embarrassingly add "in the abstract" to all such sentences. So, whenever I think that I'm busy, I say to myself: “I'm busy in the abstract,” (not “I’m busy”) or whenever I think I have work to do, I say to myself: “I have work in the abstract.”

All this, for what? Point is that generic, broad, and "noble" statements are useless because they fail on two key fronts: (a) They don't articulate conditions for failure, and (b) Life doesn't work out that way.

Being specific, adding constraints to things, and seeking to do X which gets you from A to B forces you to confront the possibility that if you don't do X and don't get from A to B, you have failed. But since we're nice storytellers, we don't want to fail; and since we don't want to fail, we don't want to think about failing; and so, we continue with broad generalities which make us believe that we're being true to ourselves, our calling, our "real" nature.

  • And this leads us to a subsequent problem, that, incredibly intelligent people are more vulnerable to the bottomless pits of broad visions because they can rationalize their situation with more arguments.

To the second sub-point, when I say "Life doesn't work out that way", I think it's a function of time. As the saying goes, 'life is what happens when you're busy making other plans'. This is pretty self-explanatory so I won't dig deeper here.

So, what is a specific vision, then? Think about two of the greats: Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. Musk is pretty nonchalant, serious, and matter-of-fact about his specific vision, and so was Jobs. They didn't have these "glorious-sounding" visions of “making the world a better place”; instead, they focused on what they wanted to do, what they thought was important, and what drove them. More precisely, they articulated exactly the domain of problems that they wanted to solve.

Originally, there were no social rewards with Musk's vision or Jobs's vision, but they kept at it, because (a) they articulated their specific vision, and (b) they were radically honest with themselves. Hence they succeeded. (Of course, even as I write this, there is hindsight-bias, but discount that for the purposes of this point.)

The idea is simple:

  • Articulate your vision to an excruciating amount of detail for yourself.

  • Ask yourself: Would you do it if there were zero social rewards with your articulation?

  • If yes, go ahead. If not, keep looking for the specific vision.

The grandiosity of your vision will follow if the vision is sound and detailed.

Until next time,

Abhinav