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In Wanting by Luke Burgis, he explains how to apply René Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire” to your own life. By doing this, you’ll learn how to push both yourself and others to chase meaningful desires instead of misleading ones, says Burgis.
Read on for an overview of the theories and advice in Wanting by Luke Burgis.
Wanting Book Overview
We spend a lot of time planning how to achieve the things we want, such as professional and relationship goals—but we rarely consider why we want those things. In Wanting by Luke Burgis, he aims to fill this gap by exploring the ideas of René Girard, an academic whose theory of “mimetic desire” seeks to explain where our desires come from. According to Girard’s theory, we don’t form our own desires—rather, we imitate what other people want or have. Burgis argues that increasing your awareness of mimetic desire will empower you to pursue life’s most meaningful desires.
Luke Burgis is a writer, entrepreneur, and educator whose work revolves around teaching others about mimetic desire. Wanting, published in 2021, is his first book. Burgis mentors budding entrepreneurs by combining ideas on mimetic desire with his experience as a former CEO of a large wellness company. He also teaches business to university students and serves as an adviser for several K-12 initiatives on educating children about desire.
The Meaning of Mimetic Desire
According to Burgis, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire states that most of our desires are mimetic, meaning we mimic what others want or have. “Mimetic” comes from the Greek word mimesthai, meaning “to imitate.” Girard defines desires as objects or experiences we want rather than biologically need. We need basics such as food, water, safety, and shelter. After meeting these needs, we want things such as a nice home and supportive colleagues.
(Shortform note: While Burgis describes how Girard distinguishes needs from desires, he doesn’t explore examples of cravings we have that fail to neatly fit into either category. For instance, is it possible to need food as well as desire food? If it’s your goal to only eat fresh, organic ingredients, is that a need or a desire? It’s unclear whether Girard’s theory of mimetic desire applies to ambiguous cases such as these.)
According to Luke Burgis’s Wanting, Girard’s theory rejects the widely held belief that we generate our own desires: Your desires don’t arise spontaneously—they come from someone else. Even if you think your reasons for desiring something are rational, you actually desire it because someone else desires it or already has it. Girard based these ideas on his observations about character motives in literature as well as what he learned about human behavior through studying anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
Humans Are Hard-Wired to Mimic Others
In Wanting, Luke Burgis claims that mimetic desire governs our behavior because we’re hard-wired to mimic others. Burgis explains that because humans are social creatures, mimicry is part of almost everything we do. He provides two pieces of evidence supporting this idea that we’re hard-wired to mimic others:
- Newborn babies engage in mimicry. Studies show that newborns mimic the facial expressions of adults.
- We have mirror neurons: nerve cells in our brains that play a role in mimicry. Studies reveal that when we witness someone else interacting with an object, the same part of our brain fires that would fire if we were the ones interacting with that object.
(Shortform note: According to some critics of Girard’s theory, his idea that we’re hard-wired to mimic others isn’t based on scientific evidence. The studies Burgis cites about newborns’ mimicry and our mirror neurons were published after Girard published his theories on mimetic desire. While these studies may retroactively provide some support for Girard’s claim that humans are hard-wired to mimic, critics argue that Girard’s lack of scientific basis for his ideas calls into question how true his theory is.)
How Mimetic Desire Impacts Your life
Is it bad to be under the influence of mimetic desire? Not necessarily, according to Luke Burgis’s Wanting. Mimetic desire is simply a process by which you come to desire what you do—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with following your mimetic desires. Pursuing mimetic desires can have both negative and positive outcomes.
Mimetic Desire’s Negative Effects
- According to Burgis, mimetic desire can drive people to enter competitive relationships—relationships that can escalate to unhealthy and even dangerous levels. Burgis specifies that you only compete with nearby models because you share resources with them (space, money, popularity, and so on). In order to complete, you have to compete for some resource. You don’t share resources with faraway models, so you don’t compete with them.
- In addition to creating competitive, harmful relationships, Luke Burgis explains in Wanting that mimetic desire can compel you to chase misleading desires. We call these desires misleading because they seem appealing at first, but they’re unsatisfying in the long run. For instance, imagine several of your friends have gotten surgery to reduce their wrinkles. Mimetic desire drives you to do the same. However, years later, you notice you’re no less critical about your appearance than you were before surgery. You regret your decision to get surgery and realize you were driven by a misleading mimetic desire. You didn’t need to get rid of your wrinkles—you needed to get rid of your unrealistic beauty standards.
- The negative effects of mimetic desire also extend beyond individuals and competitive pairs. According to Burgis, mimetic desire causes societal problems. When mimetic forces drive many people to prioritize misleading desires over meaningful ones, society suffers.
Mimetic Desire’s Positive Effects
- The first benefit of mimetic desire Luke Burgis mentions in Wanting is that models can inspire you to pursue meaningful desires. In contrast to misleading desires, meaningful desires involve long-term investment and provide long-term satisfaction. Examples of meaningful desires include forming supportive relationships, playing a crucial role in a civil rights organization, and deepening your connection with nature.
- Burgis elaborates that fulfilling meaningful desires improve society (in contrast to pursuing misleading desires, which harms society). For instance, consider the pursuit of knowledge—it’s a meaningful desire because it’s a long-term goal that provides long-term fulfillment. You might notice that your colleague’s advanced degree equips them with valuable knowledge, and mimetic desire might drive you to increase your knowledge by getting a degree, too. When many people pursue the desire to increase their knowledge, it leads to new discoveries that deepen our understanding of the world.
How to Identify Meaningful Desires
In Wanting, Luke Burgis identifies three traits of meaningful desires that distinguish them from misleading ones. We’ve organized these traits into three questions you can ask yourself about each of your desires. The more times you answer “yes,” to these questions, the more meaningful that desire is.
1) Will pursuing the desire improve others’ lives? According to Burgis, meaningful desires tend to improve not only your life but also the lives of others. For instance, you may find that your desire to make a six-figure salary in a demanding job is less meaningful than your desire to make a five-figure salary in a less-demanding job because the latter option leaves you with time outside of work to volunteer at a shelter.
2) Will pursuing the desire produce long-term satisfaction? For example, your desire to eat at restaurants often may provide you with short bursts of satisfaction. In contrast, your desire to enroll in a cooking class may be more meaningful: It can provide you with the long-term satisfaction of cooking great food for others for the rest of your life.
3) When you’re on your deathbed, will you be glad you pursued the desire? According to Burgis, people close to dying often regret prioritizing misleading desires.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Wanting summary:
- Why we want the things that we want
- How our desires are influenced by what other people want or have
- Strategies for living a more meaningful life by taking control of what we want