How to create things people want: Beware of your own mimetic desires

"We borrow our desires from others." -- Rene Girard

How do we know what we want? The greatest philosophers of every age have pondered this question. Philosopher Rene Girard says we borrow our desires from others. There are natural desires (that of hunger, thirst, desire for shelter) -- and then there are others -- material and immaterial, that ultimately spring from other people. Desire is mimetic. We emulate and acquire as our own the things that other people desire. These desires come as product of our experiences up until this point in our lives. 

The most dominant force that dictates what people want is from our society, as filtered through media. How could it not? We spend hours upon hours, most of our waking lives wading in the ideas of others, beamed into our heads via coax cable from our wall. What is considered right, fair, admirable, and great -- these value judgments are passed by media ten thousand times a day. Yesterday, Michael Phelps made Olympic history by winning his 19th Olympic medal, the most of any Olympian in the history of the games. His success was celebrated, but not without Bob Costas giving Phelps a hard time about how he wasn't winning more in 2012 -- that he wasn't dominant anymore. Why didn't you work harder, Michael? The disappointment of a disapproving father, sublimated through a TV personality on national stage. We are programmed by the media we consume.

In the same telecast yesterday, Bob Costas asked the Fabulous Five (Team USA's Women's Gymnastics Team that just won gold in London) what their first Olympic memories were. Across the board, the teenagers described watching videos of the 2004 Olympics and desperately wanting to be the Olympians they watched on the screen. This is mimetic desire realized on a grand scale.

No matter how grand or banal our mimetic desires, however -- we are not irretrievably doomed to play them out.

Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.


In other words, our values don't necessarily have to be from the outside. It's no mistake that the person who said that also went on to create the most valuable, world-changing products in human history. We are programmed by our upbringing, our schools, and our media to desire certain things. If unexamined, we will pursue these desires -- borrowed, mimetic desires -- for our entire lives. We will live by other people's standards and define our happiness against it. 

If we don't take responsibility for our own desires, then we can never truly speak in our own voice. Ultimately, to create something new, a founder must be able to take ownership and be first to express an idea or viewpoint. To be first means to assert something that is not commonly known yet. No public opinion poll or survey will ever yield tomorrow's Google or Dropbox, which were, as Peter Thiel describes, secrets that were initially known only to few. To point it out is not enough -- one most believe so fully in a thing such as to build it

Be aware of the external nature of your desire. Take ownership of what is yours. And finally, build. In a society driven by mimetic desire, we can either be the imitators, or we can build the future.