Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Book Review of “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life” 

"Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, España," Pablo Picasso, 1923. Creative Commons via Wikimedia. Public domain.


Wanting what others desire contributes to dissatisfaction and rivalry. Learning how to separate your wants from those of the crowd will bring you greater happiness and life satisfaction. 

Luke Burgis is the founder and leader of multiple companies and is currently “entrepreneur-in-residence” at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Catholic University of America, where he also teaches. In his debut book, “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life,” Burgis draws on his experience as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley to share how we can break free of the pull of “mimetic desire”—wanting what others want—to find more meaning in our work and lives.


The late Johns Hopkins University professor, Rene Girard, observed that we as humans don’t desire anything independently. Instead, we desire what we see others desiring—friends, clothes, careers, promotions. With the rise of social media, our exposure to the desires of others has grown exponentially, amplifying mimetic desire and causing us to be shaped even more by others’ desires, which ultimately results in competition and dissatisfaction.


Burgis weaves personal anecdotes from his entrepreneurial pursuits of wealth, honor, power, and pleasure to illustrate his central point—being more intentional about what we desire requires breaking free from mimetic desire. Only when we break free and are able to “want well,” will we achieve greater happiness and satisfaction.


As someone who found promotion to full professor an unexpectedly hollow victory, I think Burgis’ book will have special meaning for academic clinicians. It was only after promotion, when I asked myself “Now what?” that I was forced to break free of mimetic desire professionally, which has spilled over happily to my personal life.


Here are 8 things Burgis says we can do to fight mimetic desire (in his book, he also offers 6 more):


1. Name your models.

Who are your models at work and at home? Who is influencing your decisions, your career path?


2. Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis.

Find sources that have stood the test of time (e.g., long-standing philosophical and theological texts). Be wary of self-proclaimed and crowd-proclaimed experts.


3. Create boundaries with unhealthy models.

Distance yourself from people who function as unhealthy models of desire—about whom you care too much about what they think and what they want.


4. Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values.

When all values are the same, nothing is being valued (Burgis compares it to highlighting every word in a book.) Know, name, rank, and defend your values.


5. Map out the systems of desire in your world.

Every institution—family, school, workplace—has a system of desire that makes some things more or less desirable than others. Understanding the systems of desire that shape the choices of those around you makes it possible for you to transcend them.


6. Share stories of deeply fulfilling action. 

Telling and listening to stories of virtue (e.g., times of engaging in service to others) will enhance empathy and help you discover what Burgis calls “thick desires” (i.e., desires that are protected from changing circumstances).


7Invest in deep silence and/or practice meditative thought.

If possible, consider taking a three to five-day retreat from conversation, screens, and other distractions to generate reflection. If you can’t do that, Burgis suggests just looking and noticing—stare at a tree or a work of art for an entire hour and pay attention to what you notice.


8. Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want.

We can help others want more, want less, or want differently. We are always influencing other people’s desires and so need to model positive desires in small ways daily.








This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.