Mimetic Desire: exploring our relationship with wanting, how it works and how it's changing
Learnings from our latest One Conversation Dinner
On an unusually warm Spring night in Melbourne, a group of friends-in-the-making descended on Bottega Restaurant to discuss mimetic desire. Though a couple of months ago, with the frenzy of Christmas consumption and New Year’s resolutions fresh in focus, it felt like a fitting time to reflect on the topic. Mimetic desire was first coined by the French philosopher Rene Girard and is about desire that comes from someone else. Put simply, “I want it because they have it”. This topic has never been more relevant or pervasive. In a world of ubiquitous marketing, coupled with the circles of comparison that social media encourages, it’s hard to identify what you want in isolation to the world you operate in.
Who came to dinner?
What we desire is a deeply personal topic that can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable. On that note, we’d like to say a very big thank you to our passionate diners for their honest, insightful and revelatory perspectives; and for creating a safe space to explore such an intimate subject.
What was on the menu?
As always, we paired delicious food with delicious conversation prompts.
What did we learn?
It’s hard to crunch 4 hours of conversation into some snippets, but here are the key things that bubbled up for the group.
🎭 Mimesis vs Inspiration: At its core, mimetic desire is not about inspiration, but about copying. The word itself comes from ancient Greek and means ‘to mime’. This suggests a level of subconscious involvement with mimetic desire. When it happens, you’re not fully aware that what you crave is being shaped and moulded by external forces. Inspiration, on the other hand, suggests an element of choice and personal orchestration - you’ve soaked up various sources of influence and are actively putting them together in your own way.
😬 It’s uncomfortable: when you unpack this topic, it’s hard not to squirm. Are we really just a collection of everyone else’s desires? Where’s my agency in all this? Aren’t I unique and capable or original thought? Am I really a lemming throwing my dollars at other people’s idea of what constitutes a good life? But we soon came to realise that there’s some clear benefits to mimetic desire. Which brings us to our next point.
🙌 It ain’t all bad: First up, our tastes and desires quickly become shorthand for our identity and connection. This is useful. The idea of every choice we make becoming a statement or point of controversy feels unnecessarily exhausting. On top of this, sometimes seeing what others prioritise and desire can pave the way for us to try new things, expand our tastes and evolve the limiting definitions we may hold of ourselves. There’s clear value to mimetic desire, the trick is to be aware of it.
🪤It’s inescapable: Early on in our conversation, there were many examples of people feeling like they needed to defend their choices; the car they bought, the holiday they took, the career they chose or the course they studied. This raises the interesting question, is it in our interest to free ourselves from mimetic desire? And if that is the goal, is it even possible? It’s hard to imagine any desire that hasn't been shaped by others somehow. And what value comes from defending our desires as non-mimetic?
⏪ It can work in reverse: Sometimes, we see people lusting after something and deliberately make a contrarian choice to do the opposite. This ties into identity in a big way; we see people that we don't identify with choose one thing, so we go and choose the opposite. Of course there is truth to choosing something that feels like us, but there’s also truth in choices that challenge and undermine the desires of others
🧠 Awareness is key: Much like cognitive bias, the best way to approach mimetic desire is to be aware of it happening. It helps to be fully present and conscious with your whole self, which means embracing the duality of being an individual, while also existing within relationships, families and communities. When we choose what we want with awareness and intent, we get the chance to balance our desires as an individual with how we fit within the world we operate in. We liked the approach of labelling the desire, recognising its source, then making a choice that feels good for you.
About out dinners
AfterWork Ventures’ One Conversation Dinner Parties assemble a group of 10 people, each of whom bring a distinctive and opinionated perspective on a topic, shaped by the unique experiences they’ve had in life and work.
We’re guided by a ‘conversational menu’ which guides us through topics against a theme. As a group, we agree to:
Adopt a ‘yes and’ mentality - approaching the conversation with curiosity and openness to having our perspective changed.
Hold silence. Some people need a few beats before they feel comfortable wading into a conversation. Unless we hold silence, conversations become dominated by those who feel most comfortable jumping in.
Collectively create the activation energy to dig deeper and think harder.
If you’re interested in joining one of our delicious discussions, follow us on LinkedIn for more details.