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Book Notes: Wanting

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I ran into Luke Burgis years ago and was excited when his book Wanting came out. Rene Girard’s thought changed my perspective and lens through which I view many things in business and life. I think of the philosophy of Rene Girard is a kind of axiomatic definition of human interaction; the physics of human action and desire.

When I found Luke was running a conference on Girard I had to attend. I’ve always enjoyed the first attempt at a niche conference. Only the true believers show up and you are guaranteed to have really interesting conversations. Additionally, it was a great way for me to dive deeper into Girard’s thought; I still feel like a total beginner.

To prep for the conference I went through my old notes and highlights on Luke’s book and added my musings. This is different from my normal random-technical-and-business thoughts. Hope you find it interesting!

Desire, like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them

Desire is only generated when two people exist. You only want sparkling water because you saw someone else have it; at least for me it wasn’t a desire generated ex nilio.

knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need

This is especially hard in startup-land where, although radical independence and unorthodox thinking is relished, there is a track. Build a company. Sell the company. Angle invest. Become an advisor. Start a fund. Build another company.

What if you did what you really desired, rather than copying those around you? What would that look like?

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.

This aligns with the Thiel-ism "competition is for losers".

Great products are only created when a completely new imagination of a product category happens. I just finished the Elon biography, so Tesla + PayPal are very much on my mind. These were not incremental improvements but step-function leaps only possible if you don’t lock yourself in mimetic conflict with an existing competitor or model.

When mimesis takes over, we become obsessed with vanquishing some Other, and we measure ourselves according to them.

the more people are alike, the more likely they are to feel threatened.

I’ve felt this in my life.

It’s easy to be relaxed and uncompetitive with those who aren’t in your "space". But, when someone is doing something similar to me—startups, software engineering, playing a chess game, etc—I can become fiercely competitive. It’s easy to feel that you are behind when you see someone similar to you doing what you perceive as "better".

By default, we aren’t happy with who we are by default. We have to work on this.

This, at least partially, explains why social media can be so toxic.

Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree—until the serpent modeled it. The serpent suggested a desire

Isn’t that curious? We don’t want things that are too easily possessed or that are readily within reach

In your 30s you see this in your peer group with houses. You didn’t want that bigger house or nicer car until someone else got it. And the only reason you want it is because it is out of reach.

Someone said that Envy is one of the worst evils and that’s always rang true for me.

Resisting the desire to copy the material things that others have acquired takes courage and truly independent thinking.

As newborns, they’re capable of imitation to a degree that surpasses even the most highly developed adult primates

Being an imitator is part of what it means to be human

As I’ve watched my kids grow up, this has only proven more true. This is a good reminder to attempt to be a good model for them to imitate.

you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own

So true with imparting beliefs and ideas on children. Forcing it won’t work. You have to show them by your life that you believe in your ideals and let them come to their own conclusion.

It’s the 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

Health is a great example here. It doesn’t feel important until it take works to maintain or acquire.

The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game

An amazing reminder to always be open to being wrong or operating our of your own unfiltered desires.

People are drawn to others who seem to play by different rules. (Reality TV exploits this.)

So true. This explains why Elon Musk is so fascinating to me.

That’s because rivalry is a function of proximity

because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly

Luke talks about the concept of "close" models and "far" (Celebristan) models. If we feel like we are sufficiently removed from a model—like a celebrity, someone at the top of their field professionally, etc—we aren’t threatened by them. They just serve as an inspiration, as a model to copy.

As soon as someone becomes "touchable"; they are in your world, and this is where the competition begins.

A friend told me that Apple is organized in a departmental fashion. Each department has no idea what the other is doing. You can’t see their source code, you can’t view their comms, etc. This is very divergent from the classic Silicon Valley approach of maximum transparency. I wonder if one of the benefits here is reduced competition between people within the company: they can focus on the work, on the product, on their team, and not warring with other factions within the organization.

This is partially why Peter Thiel would famously only allow a person to work on one thing and no one else could work on it. No mimetic conflict.

people’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are

Reminds me of the concept of revealed preferences. What people will say loudly on Twitter is not always what they believe.

According to Girard, “the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.”

True in my experience: sparkling water, hipsters, indie music, craft beer, Paul Graham, etc.

The danger is that we have a dream machine in our pockets. Smartphones project the desires of billions of people to us through social media, Google searches, and restaurant and hotel reviews.

I wonder if this contributes to the lack of compelling net-new visions of the future in our current cultural milieu.

In mimetic theory, there is a near-indissoluble link between chaos and order, violence and the sacred. Sacrificial rites—whether sacrificing cats in ancient Egypt or the ritual firing of coaches and CEOs today—are the mechanism by which mimetic contagion is contained and controlled

It’s interesting to see this play out recently with the Steam CEO. TODO

Dave changed my way of thinking and my reactionary impulses by modeling something different—a core desire that is common to every person, but which often goes unfulfilled: to know and be known by others

One of the biggest gifts in my life is to have a set of friends who model this well. Being vulnerable and transparent in a way that enables mutual knowledge of the other is hard and takes intentionality.

How many people do you work with who could name even one of your most meaningful achievements and explain why it was so meaningful to you?

This is a good reminder for me to ask people close to me this question.

During job interviews, I ask: “What’s the most difficult sacrifice you’ve ever had to make for the truth?”

Great interview question!

I mean the free, voluntary decision to confine oneself to solitude in order to discern properly—to find out what it is you want, and what others want of you.

This has been true in my life—can’t recommend finding a place where can disconnect completely and be in silence (I have a couple, email me!).

Part of the joy of being an entrepreneur is the ability to lead: to take desires someplace new

Love this. Especially in starting my next company, this is great to keep in mind—incremental improvement is easy, creating a new model for a business or category is exciting and true leadership.

There has arguably not been a big idea that has captured the world’s collective imagination in a transcendent way since the idea of landing a man on the moon

We can’t imagine transcendent things, so we look for new ways to slice an egg or watch David Chang eat noodles

Part of why the idea of going to mars or building a supersonic airplane is so interesting. As humans, we do need models of mission that bring us out of easier, less ambitious goals in life.

In other words, an ideology keeps a group “safe” from intruders who might bring with them an infectious strain of thought

So true. It’s hard to be "open minded" and have clear ideals and standards at the same time.

Without a clear philosophy of life, it’s hard to accomplish anything meaningful. At the same time, we can’t be scared of new ideas, even if they threaten our hard-won ideals and philosophy.

Memes are words, accents, ideas, tunes, and more that spread from brain to brain through some process of replication or imitation

Memes are a great example of the mimetic impulse at work.