Luke Burgis – Happiness, Quality of Life

Luke Burgis

My guest, Luke Burgis, is an entrepreneur, college professor at The Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He worked on Wallstreet and now has a book out titled: Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. An insight into some of our hardwired competitive nature and how we can be mindful of it in our work and with our neighbors.

Somewhere during Luke’s journey of one of his four startups, he wasn’t feeling satisfied or experiencing a ‘transcendents”. Who goes into a competitive business looking for humanity or human ecology?

Luke shares his motivation for putting a modern-day breakdown on the teaching of famed French historian and philosopher Rene Girard in his latest book. I learned a lot and appreciate that there are people like Luke out in the world, working and teaching our young adults.

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Luke Burgis – Happiness, Quality of Life

My guest is Luke Burgis. He is an entrepreneur, a college professor at the Busch School of Business, and was a Wall Street guy. It’s fascinating when you meet someone like this who’s had many startups. He thought, “I’ll make some money. I’ll get a level of success,” and he wasn’t getting that feeling, that transcendence. This made him do a deeper look into some of the things that are hardwired in our competitive nature and how we can be more mindful of this. Not only in our workplace but even with our neighbors, which has led him to his book called Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.

A lot of us experienced this. We think, “If I have this, if I go there, if I win that, if I earn this, that will give me that feeling of transcendence.” Luke gets into the weeds on humanity and our human ecology, and how do we manage this to work in our favor even if we are pursuing it. He does a beautiful job of putting a modern-day break down on the teachings of famed French historian and philosopher, René Girard.

The thing I appreciate is that people like Luke understand technology and are out there teaching young entrepreneurs and reminding them all along. In pursuit, we can accomplish and be successful, but if we’re not looking at some of these other things, we’re going to be missing the real importance of what life is about. I hope you enjoy.

Gabby, how are you?

Good.

Good to meet you.

Great to meet you, too. Where are you?

I am in Washington, DC, unfortunately, landlocked to Washington. How about you? Are you in California?

I’m in Kauai.

Nice. You’re in Hawaii now.

Thanks for pushing it. I appreciate it.

No worries at all. I’m grateful and I’m glad something in the book resonated. I can’t wait to talk about it.

It’s interesting getting ready to talk to different people when people have a lot of different points of entry. Like for you, you could talk about business and creativity, and these other dimensions about work. Now, this talk is about wanting, which is for everybody across the board. I’m sitting here and I have a commitment to saying how I want to start, but then allowing what’s supposed to happen, happen, and not getting too structured.

I have to admit, for me, it’s fascinating because after I did all my homework, I kept coming back to me, and also in your presentation that it feels like it’s always connecting back to being a human being. This idea of this transcendence or connecting not only with yourself and the allowance of things coming through you but this higher connection.

I want to start there. What is it in you through your teaching and your own professional path because you have both, that keeps you coming back and trying to speak in different languages to get people back into this humanity part? That seems to be something that you’re drilling down on from many different angles.

The word transcendence, you hit on it, is important. Not only at the heart of every entrepreneur but at the heart of every human being, it’s that desire for transcendence. I was trying to find it in the startup world. I was trying to find it in so many different places. That’s why any entrepreneur starts a company. They want to manifest something that they think should exist in the world that doesn’t exist and they create it. That’s one of the most awesome powers that a human being has. That’s certainly what was driving me in my younger years. I got disillusioned because ultimately, I thought that the companies that I was starting were going to take me all the way there, all the way to where I wanted to be. I never quite got there and I couldn’t figure out why I was getting so frustrated.

When you say where you want to be, is it in feeling? Is it a combination of feeling and some kind of external life that’s a representation of there? When you said it didn’t take you there, was it some internal experience? I feel like entrepreneur has shifted. I feel like what entrepreneur was also became popularized. Some people may be gone in it to be like, “That’s a way.” Before things are canned as sexy or something, it was a drive that people had. I don’t know. Maybe first we could answer, when you say take me there, in what way for you personally?

I didn’t know at the time. Looking back on it, I realized that where I wanted to go was to be in relationships that I wasn’t in. I have this core belief that a human being is a fundamentally relational creature. I lacked that understanding in my early startup days because you can start a company and not have any meaningful relationships at all. In fact, you can start a billion-dollar company and have relatively superficial relationships with your investors, your business partner, and your customers.

There was something on a relational level that I was craving. Every relationship is a form of transcendence. It’s a way of getting out of yourself in order to enter into the experience of the other person. I happen to know a lot of entrepreneurs because I’m still in that world. I was a relatively lonely entrepreneur and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I always thought that the next successful company that I created would give me some sense of fulfillment, but I was neglecting those relationships in my life. That’s what I mean about getting me there. My faith was a part of that, but also friendships and romantic relationships. I couldn’t stay in one because I was working 90 hours a week at the time.

On the other side of being an entrepreneur is you have seven days a week and you do what you have to do all the time to make whatever quest you’re on. You keep going. People love this idea of what being an entrepreneur is, but there are people who don’t understand, it doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday, if you’re working on something, especially in the early days. I find it interesting though because you would end up having probably better relationships with the people you’re working with when you’re an entrepreneur than in your personal life because those are the people you’re having all the time with.

As long as they’re not just transactional relationships. As long as it’s not just always about the work. I was in a couple of relatively toxic relationships early on in my startup days. I left Wall Street. I left the 90-hour a week thinking that my life as an entrepreneur was going to be so much better, I’d have this lifestyle bounce, and I’d be able to work out when I wanted to work out.

I had these dreams about the way that I would fashion this perfect life. Then once I got into it, it wasn’t like that because there’s a real danger to being your own boss. There’s no end to the work. There’s always something else to do. You’d wake up at 2:00 AM and be like, “Let me get a jumpstart on tomorrow.” There’s that.

I had business partners that were rivals to me in work. If my partner worked until 9:00 PM, then I didn’t want to stop working at 8:30. You get in this never-ending game. It ends in absolute misery and you’re paying a misery tax because at the end of the day, you’re so miserable and you want to go have five glasses of wine to make yourself feel better, and then it’s a vicious cycle from there.

It’s interesting how we set it up that we’re on the same team, but yet we’re weirdly competing with one another. You could say that in friendships and in romantic relationships. I’ve been in a relationship for over 25 years and there have been times where my husband is kicking ass and thriving. I am a professional person, but we had small children and I’m making a conscious effort to celebrate his upcycle. By the way, it’s up and down for all of us throughout all times. It’s just the way the cycle is. It is funny how we can be in all kinds of teams and yet within it, there’s that tension from that inner competition that’s so unproductive.

People don’t often think of being in a loving romantic relationship or marriage as having the possibility of becoming rivals to your own partner. It happens all of the time. I happen to be married to a wonderful, successful entrepreneur herself. She’s crushing it in a little food startup and she’s having all kinds of success and good news.

We don't realize how much we affect the desires of the people around us too. Click To Tweet

It’s funny how easily competition between us can creep in, in terms of how much we’re working and sharing good news. It’s like, “When she shares good news with me, do I have to one-up her? Do I feel the need to share good news with her? Or can I just let it be her day and her nights?” It’s always this push and pull. It’s a bad place when you get in what I call a teeter-totter relationship where one person can’t be up unless the other person’s down or vice versa. I’ve seen so many friends get into problems with that because they don’t realize that if they went deep enough, they would realize that they’re a rival to their own love.

At least with this, it’s measurable. It’s external on some level, like, “She’s getting X calls,” or, “She’s opening X businesses.” I have seen situations where someone’s happiness, their ability to find things that make them happy and pursue that is, in some weird way, an affront to their partner who isn’t able at that time to do the same thing. It’s like, “You like doing these activities and you enjoy your job. I’m over here and I haven’t navigated that for myself.”

Your happiness, which is this thing that we would want for one another, becomes the thing that hammers the other partner and they resent it. You’ve seen this a lot as an entrepreneur and even maybe teaching some of your students. People better be ready that not everybody has the capacity to say, “That’s great. I am so genuinely happy.” You have a book talking about wanting, mimetic desire. In a way, it’s even down to this thing of, “Is it comparisons?” “I want this,” or, “I should have what they have,” or, “My neighbor’s pool or yard or door is prettier than mine,” or, “Their new car…”

It’s funny because when I started thinking about how you’ve arrived here, on a granular level in so many facets of our life, if we could drill down and look at this, it might be a bigger opportunity not just in business, but for us as completely individual people. I heard you say, “Creativity runs through us. It doesn’t come from us, but keep allowing that door to be as open as it can be.”

Openness to new influences and new models in our life. My book is fundamentally all about how human desire is shaped in and through relationships and through models of desire that we have in our lives. We’re not like animals. We are highly relational, social creatures. What other people want affects what we want. My journey and how I got here was, when I look back on it, when I trace my history, it was a matter of different models coming into my life at different times that wanted different things and influenced my journey.

It’s important to be able to identify those. Most people think that the idea of a role model is something for children or something like that, and then when they get older, they’ve become their authentic selves or something like that. They’ve done a way with the idea of being influenced by other people. My book is saying, “If you think you’re that free and independent, and that your desires are completely autonomous. You’re not affected by what one of your peers deeply desires or wants or where they go on vacation, or the kind of people you think are cool, then you’re deceiving yourself.”

My husband and I had a friend who passed away a couple of years ago in his 80s. His name was Don Wildman. Mr. Wildman was such an interesting person because he was an entrepreneur and he created Bally Total Fitness. This was a guy who at one point in his early 50s went, “This is like a rat race.” Sometimes our job title and what we do and all that has so much value. This is a tough guy. He’s like, “I’m a man’s man. I lift weights. I do triathlons. I kick ass.”

Somebody said, “What are you going to do?” He’s like, “I’m going to learn to jibe,” which in sailing is going there and back. It sounds ridiculous but it’s what it represented, which was like, “I’m going to do new things, maybe things I’m not good at.” I remember feeling fortunate that I could witness and have a model of somebody who valued time relationships.

We had twenty-something years of dinners and he would say something like, “This is one of the best steaks I’ve ever had,” at that moment. It’s not like, “Thirty years ago, I went to this steak house,” and it was like, “That was a good steak.” It was like, “This moment, this sunset, right here, right now, this is one of the best.”

It’s an important point. What you’re saying is we need to be, more so as we get older, selective about our models. Think about as you get older, if all your friends are like, “My shoulder hurts and my back hurts. My kids never call me,” what are you going to do? You’re going to be kvetching for the whole rest of your life versus, “What can we do? Should we walk? Should we travel?” Whatever it is. It creeps in and that bounds us up in our lives in such a secret way that we don’t even recognize. I would be curious to know for you early, what some of your models were that started to set you on course. Was it the parents? Was it a teacher? Was it a coach? That you thought, “I want some of that.”

I’m an only child. My dad was a truck driver and my mom was an art teacher. I grew up on the west side of Michigan and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. I thought it was boring and I wanted to go to one of the big cities. It was either going to be LA or New York. There was no in-between. I was like, “I’m going to UCLA or NYU or something like that.” I ended up going to New York.

My parents were tremendous role models for me. My dad is one of the hardest working men I’ve ever known and I admired that. Right from the beginning, hard work became extremely important to me. My mom has all kinds of other qualities that I wanted to emulate, too, so both models for me. The way that hard work manifested itself for me was in the hustle culture of NYU Stern, Wall Street, and investment banking.

I escaped that only to get entrapped to a similar dynamic in Silicon Valley. I wasn’t enjoying anything in the present. Food for me was fuel. It was a means to an end in order to help me do another eight hours of work. I was not living in the present at all. I wasn’t grateful for anything. It was always tomorrow or the next day. I started four companies in my 20s. No sooner than I had got to the finish line with one thing, I was already looking to the next thing.

When you finish with one, are you like, “That didn’t bring me the thing I thought so now I’m going again.” You pay your dues a little bit. Most of us, when we get out of college, I call it carrying the medical kit. When I travel with my team, if you were a freshman, you carry the medical kit. It sucked. It was heavy. You’re paying your dues, you’re in your 20s, you’re at the bottom of the ladder, you’re getting experience, you’re creating value, and you’re contributing. Do you think there’s a way to simultaneously bridge that with some of these other ideas that you’re talking about?

Absolutely. The end of that story was, a few models came into my life that I had been waiting for the whole time. I had been craving a few things that I wasn’t finding amongst my peers, the other startup entrepreneurs and CEOs. I was craving a model of humanity and the lifestyle that I didn’t see exemplified in anybody in the little fishbowl that I was in, so I had to start looking outside of it. I desired some more of these feminine qualities of empathy and being able to listen, which I wasn’t able to find that I was craving.

Were these conscious thoughts or was this an instinct inside? Did you know then, in a real conscious way and language, like, “I’m looking for some humanity within all of this achievement.” Or was this like, “I want something.”

Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis – The work is never just about the work. It’s about how it affects other people, other people’s lives, my clients, and how it serves people.

In a pre-conscious way, that would have been extremely hard for a 27-year-old loop to be able to articulate to you. It’s one of those things in life where when you see it, it, you know it. You see somebody and you’re like, “That’s the person I’ve been waiting for my whole life.” You don’t know until you see them, until you meet them. You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what you’ve been missing.

I had a couple of models come into my life that embodies those qualities. It was only in meeting them and forming a relationship with them that I had the a-ha moment. One of them was not an entrepreneur. He happened to be a successful corporate attorney in Vegas. I ended up moving from Hermosa Beach to Las Vegas. Long story. I moved one of my companies there.

I met this attorney who was a partner at a law firm, successful, high power, and worked with the casinos, yet he lived this balanced life. He had five children. He had a lot of virtues that I admired. He was extremely humble for a lawyer, patient, and always cheerful. Though he was probably behind the scenes, one of the busiest, and had more work to do than I did, he never made you feel that way.

I was like, “Whatever he has, I want some of it. I want to start spending more time with this guy.” There were a couple of other people like that. I didn’t know that I was craving some more of that balance and humanity in my life. Honestly, I’ve been lucky they came into my life. I didn’t go searching for them. There’s no app out there to go find friends like this that I know of at least. That made me realize that I was looking for something that transcended the experience that I had. Little by little, that caused me to step back, take stock of where I was at that point in my life, become a little more introspective, and then think long-term about what I’m looking for out of life.

I had a conversation with one of my friends. We always talk about how the work should be way better than you. Going back to creativity coming through you, not from you. Sometimes we talk about the work or that transcendence. If we’re doing it right and we don’t think we’re doing it which is better, the work should be so much better than us in a certain way. As you started as an entrepreneur, age and experience will also create different values as you move through your 2nd, 3rd, 4th. All of that requires energy, by the way. Did you flop?

I flopped and flailed. In some senses, I still do. I don’t believe in riding into the sunset, happily ever after. Life is a struggle. As soon as we get complacent, that’s when it becomes dangerous. I don’t pretend that I’ve got to this idyllic state of entrepreneurship. It comes with age. It comes with having good people in my life.

I always think of work as having three dimensions to it. The first dimension of work is the objective dimension. It’s what you’re doing. I wish I had a good example for sports or for surfing with this, but the one that I usually give and tell my students is a blacksmith because it’s super easy to understand. The blacksmith is hammering away a piece of metal and the objective dimension of his work is the shape that the metal is taking. That’s what the work is.

There’s a subjective dimension to the work and that’s what the work is doing to him. It’s building muscle. It’s hard work so it might be building some virtues, some patience. It’s the way that the work shapes us. Different kinds of work shape our humanity in different ways. Physical labor tends to shape it in different ways than intellectual information economy work does. We don’t think about that enough as people, by the way.

The third dimension of work is what I would call the transcendent dimension. It’s the idea that aside from the objective dimension, what’s getting done, and aside from the way that it’s shaping me as a person, there’s some transcendent dimension that goes way beyond me and goes way beyond the work. The work is never just about the work. It’s about how it affects other people, other people’s lives, my clients, and how it serves people.

We all crave that transcendent dimension. If we don’t have it, if we’re not quite sure what it is, even the coolest kind of work will end up leaving us wanting a lot more. One of the things I talk about with my colleagues and with my students a lot is, what’s that impact? What’s that dimension? Because that’s going to be the thing that fuels you for 10, 15, 20 years if you’re so lucky to do the same work for that long, which few people do these days.

It’s interesting because I’ve had businesses that did badly and chugged along and have done well. When you talk to your students, does everything have to start with a genuine internal desire that it’s something you wholeheartedly believe in, you want, it’s not out there, you use yourself, you’ve enjoyed it, you want to share it?

Sometimes, the third dimension almost becomes like a discovery. I love your opinion because you’re way more experienced than I am at this. It shows up and you go, “I knew I had a good idea about this,” or, “I felt like it could be useful, but I’m enjoying all these other ways it’s showing up that people are saying they like it, how it makes them feel.” That becomes more defined by them than how you could define them.

There’s an analogy to a relationship here, too. Things emerge and meaning emerges later. We don’t always know it right away. We follow our instinct or we follow some passion, and that’s a good thing. I never dissuade anybody from doing that. It takes a lot. I have a couple of times where I’m like, “There’s no way that’s going to work. You might want to seriously think about that.” There are emergent possibilities and we see connections, sometimes 2 or 3 years after the fact. A relationship is a good model here. I met my wife, Claire, at an Irish bar in Rome.

Where was she living?

She was traveling around Europe at the time and I happen to be living in Rome. I lived in Italy for a few years. I met her on Thanksgiving Day watching the Detroit Lions football game at an Irish pub in Rome. Turns out her dad is from Michigan. I was like, “We’re such different people, but I’m going to follow this instinct that I have. Something feels right.” Sometimes, pursuing an opportunity to start a company can be a little bit like, “I don’t know where this is going to lead. This could be a real roller coaster ride. It’s a little scary, but I’m going to enter into this thing. I’m going to enter into this relationship.” With trust, it just takes stepping out. It’s uncomfortable.

That was several years ago now. Beautiful things have emerged, like facets of her, connections, and these possibilities that I never ever would have imagined. You’re absolutely right that you don’t have to have all this stuff figured out at the beginning. Part of life is these things. If you’re open, if you have this sense of wonder, these things emerge later. The older I get, the more I have eyes to see them.

Do you have to be careful because you are experienced and on top of it, you’re a teacher, to provide commentary only when asked? How does that work in your home? We have a joke in our house that an expert is somebody who lives a mile away. I was curious how you’ve navigated that.

One thing that technology and social media have done is this brought us all under the head of a pin, socially speaking, existentially speaking. It's brought us all close together. Click To Tweet

You’d have to ask Claire because the answer I give you might not be the answer that she gives you. I’m good at it. I’m 7.5 years older than she is. She started a food company and I’ve started a food company, so we have this weird connection. Who would have known years ago that this would ever happen? I find myself waiting until asked usually. Frankly, I’m learning a ton.

I started my food company back in 2005 and things are totally different now. It’s a long time later. I’m learning a lot. During the pandemic, there’s the fact that we both are ten feet away from each other. It makes it even more dangerous. With Claire and with my students, it’s important. I don’t have kids yet. The parents that I’ve talked to and most of my friends have confirmed that this is true. You have to let them figure things out along the way.

For my students, that’s so true. Sometimes I see that they’re going to struggle, but I know that they just need to work through that thing. They know that I’m always there to talk about it whenever they’re ready. I try to push them like a good coach does in sports. You don’t want to push somebody so hard that they throw in the towel and get discouraged. It’s one of the most important skills to understand as a coach or as a mentor. That’s a big part of my role now as a teacher and as somebody that mentors a lot of younger entrepreneurs.

What’s the right amount? What are the right things to say? That’s a hard skill and I haven’t always been good at it. I still don’t know if I’m good at it, but I’m certainly better than I was a few years ago because I’ve made some mistakes. Sometimes I’m like, “I could have done a better job.” “I could have been gentler saying this one particular thing.” I realized that all the time and that’s something that I’m learning to get better at as I get older.

You’ve made a comment that I want to revisit where you talked about physical work, which also can be creative. Being a blacksmith has a creative element, even though it’s highly physical. Your dad was a truck driver, but there is still an art within the physicality, the long hours, navigating weather, or whatever it is. It’s a skill, it’s a craft, it’s an art, and yes, it’s physical. You’ve spent some time in Silicon Valley, which is creative in technology, like, “We have to make it intuitive, nimble, and all these things.” Those things are shaping back to us the subjective part. I would love to understand from your point of view, what is the difference in the way it’s developing people?

I have my theories and one of them is that, as we begin to build more things in bits and bytes and the world becomes more dominated by technology, it’s shaping the way that we think in a certain sense, the way that we view the world. It’s contributing to a calculating mindset where everything is calculable. To give you an example, I told a story in the book about an old monk that I met in Italy who’s been an abbot of a monastery for three decades. He said it’s only been in the last ten years that he’s seen the novice monks come in and they won’t go into the chapel to pray or to meditate without a stack of books under their arm.

He said, “That’s because there’s this notion that without any input, there’s no output.” Almost like a computer. In other words, if they’re not putting data in, then nothing’s going to come out or nothing’s going to happen to them. I thought that was a fascinating little anecdote. I’ve heard story after story of this way of thinking about the world. We’re incredibly complex and bodied creatures. There’s tacit knowledge. We know things and we sense things in our bodies. We’re sensual.

There are so many things that we do that we can’t even put into words how we do that. We might be losing a little bit of that tacit dimension of life, that sensory experience that is getting engineered away. Maybe twenty years or so from now, we’ll have more insight. I do sense that. Part of my journey was sensing that I was becoming a little desensitized to certain things in my life. I wanted to step away and immerse myself in nature and do things with my hands a little bit more. That was a way of reconnecting with my own humanity.

I know that this is not the case for everybody. I’m not implying that if you’re a coder or something like that, watch out, you’re losing some aspect of humanity. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Anything taken to the extreme and when we’re doing so much of that kind of work, we have to make sure that we’re balancing it out with other things so it doesn’t become dominant.

It’s important because I’ve even seen the difference between my second child and my youngest. We live in a natural environment so we’re on the easy side of it. I think about it like you’re taking the subway or you’re new in the city where you have to work even harder for some of those experiences. On the flipside though, conversely, you have more interaction with more humans so you could go to the deli. You see Joe and he’s like, “How are you doing?” There’s something about that that’s powerful, too.

If we don’t find a way culturally to keep saying, “This is cool, important, and a value,” people are not only not going to do it there, but you don’t care that you miss it. It’s that eternal yearn. I want to get into the mimetic desires and all of that. We’re already hardwired to be like, “I want more. I’m missing something. What else is there?” On top of it, if we’re taking away some of these things that are maybe more biologically connected to us that we don’t know we can always put into words, no matter what we have, that yearning is going to be so powerful if we can slow it down enough to notice, if you will.

No more I joke that my kids are the experiments. I was an experiment of a different set of studies. We were the ‘80s, excess, or whatever. We’ll see how that works out. This is an experiment of another kind that will be interesting to see what happens. I don’t want to rag on technology. It’s the obvious thing to do. It’s not going anywhere. The calculation of it is radical, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

If I were going to start a company tomorrow, I would probably start a tech company, to be honest, because there’s the opportunity to scale and it’s hard to attract serious VC money starting a West-African grain company like Claire’s. There’s so much opportunity there that what we have to be careful about is, and this is one of the topics of the book, we’re mimetically attracted to certain industries or doing certain things because everybody else is or because we think that what I just said is the case. It may not be. The things that we assume are common knowledge. You have to start a tech company if you want to scale. We have to question some of those assumptions because we arrive at those assumptions or those desires to do these things without being critical of why people are doing them.

“Go on a limb. Don’t work.” You have enough of your own personal operation, you deal with students, and you’ve been in the business. It’s okay.

There’s a mimetic aspect to all of this. By that, I mean imitative desire, where we see models of cool entrepreneurs starting billion-dollar companies and they’re all tech companies, by the way. I’m sure there are a few that aren’t, but most of them are. Sweet Greens is not. They’re a billion-dollar company. I love them.

When we’re looking into your kid who’s 18, 19, 20 years old like most of my students and you aspire to be one of these quirky entrepreneurs that are making the news, you are going to imitate them in a lot of different ways. You’re going to go that path thinking that if you dress a certain way, you act a certain way, you live in these three cities, you start this kind of a company, you talk like this on Twitter, and you’re into crypto, you put all of these things together and you’ve constructed a persona.

Before you know it, you’re right down the track. Who knows what opportunities we’re missing because of the models that are being held up for us, at least in this space? It’s super cool to be an entrepreneur right now. It wasn’t quite as cool when I graduated in 2004. Wall Street was still the job that most of my classmates wanted to have when I graduated from college. Now, everybody wants to do a startup, it seems like.

Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis – I don’t believe in riding into the sunset, happily ever after. Life is a struggle. As soon as we get complacent, that’s when it becomes dangerous.

Or have a fund, be a VC fund manager. What you’re saying is interesting because it also roots down into the true definition of success. For example, maybe what you define as success is quite different for me, which is fantastic because then it’s the opportunity to get the thing that you thought you wanted that reflected you and what you needed and wanted. Not like, “I imitated all this stuff.” That wasn’t even my best skillsets, by the way. I had these other skillsets that were some of my real superpowers. The tech combat, I love that, “What’s your superpower?”

At a certain point, this rhetoric, how do you know what your superpower is when you’re 19 or 20? Why don’t you just take a moment and go into some rooms with different people and be like, “That felt good,” or, “This was easier for me,” or whatever it is? Now, everybody knows everything. “That’s my favorite, too.” “I know that. I saw that. I’ve been there.” “Have you seen this?”

Everybody else has a take on everything, too.

I’m not even informed enough to have a take on three-quarters of the things that are going on in the world. I’m just there to observe it and try to learn. I don’t have to have a full opinion about it because I don’t know.

What I’ve noticed, Gabby, is that my students seem to respect me the most when they ask me a question and I’m like, “I have no idea. Let me get back to you about that next week.” They’re like, “Professor Burgis, what do you think about this?” I’m like, “I don’t know enough about that to comment.” I have a limited capacity. I’m busy. I read maybe 1% of the news and I don’t have opinions on a lot of the things going on. There’s a lot of things about entrepreneurship that I’m still figuring out. That’s an important thing to be able to say, “I don’t know.”

Let’s go into the wanting. Ego and desire are so important because, in nature, it’s a motivating factor. It’s important. We need it. However, it’s the way that we’ve lived. We’re not just trying to keep our food going. Now that our basic needs are met, safety, food, having love and sex, procreation, at least for now, we could go through another cycle. Who knows? It’s on top. It’s overall good.

There’s a common enemy out there. They call it COVID. That’s a threat. The economy has become a threat to people. These are little twists in all of this, but it’s set up now where we have a lot of time to explore what other people are doing. Let’s take it one step further and let’s throw it on social media, let’s curate it, let’s filter it, let’s edit it. Now we’re all in the game about this mimetic desire to edit an incredible clip, if you will.

Mimetic desire means finding models of desire out there to imitate. Frankly, we have more than ever. COVID has probably accelerated this mimesis, this imitation because most people that I know are spending more time on social media than usual. Most of us are in our houses most of the day. We’re curious and we’re scrolling, browsing, hate-watching, and doing all that stuff. It’s exposed to so much more right now.

There are narratives and I know both stories. One narrative is, people have used this time during COVID to find out what they want and prioritize because of tragedy and loved ones getting ill and having more time to think and reflect. I know that that’s true for many people. I’ve talked to many people and they’ve confided in me. What I also know is true for many people is that some people are more confused than ever about what they want to do post-COVID, who they are, and what’s important to them.

It’s been like Pandora’s box. This exposure to all different kinds of models. Now you’ve got van life and you’ve got people doing this, moving to different cities, starting new jobs, and now on remote. Everybody’s giving their curated life in what they want their life post-COVID to be. Because we’re social creatures, we look to other people to help figure out, “What do I want to do post-COVID when the world starts returning to normal?” We’re always taking our cues from the things around us. There seem to be more than ever and it’s like, “How do you cut through the noise to find out what’s important to you?”

Did you have a moment where you thought, “I’ve talked to my students so much about this and some of my friends that I’m going to try to get into this deeper and write this book.”

I wrote the book because I thought that this concept of mimetic desire was important. It’s something that everybody knows, but maybe not everybody had a name for or a term for. Once you know about it and read about it, you’re like, “That’s super hyper mimetic.” It’s like once you have a blue car, you start seeing all the blue cars all around you. I thought it was incredibly important.

When did this idea even get crystallized for you in your life?

This was around the time in my late 20s, early 30s when I had taken a mini-sabbatical from all of my startup work. I had some time. I had the freedom to not have to do anything and work right away. I was able to travel. I got that out of my system. I didn’t do the whole backpacking around Europe thing when I was a college student. I did it later in life. I had the freedom and luxury to do that. I immersed myself in philosophy, theology, and reading books that I blew off when I was in high school. I had this cool time to myself of re-education.

One of my mentors at that time suggested that I look into Girard’s ideas. René Girard is a French thinker who is the inspiration behind a lot of the ideas in my book. These are not my ideas, but I had experienced mimetic desire at this existential level in my own life and I just didn’t have a word for it. I didn’t understand what it was that was driving me.

This mentor recommended I look into these books. They’re not easy books to read. They are academic. I don’t wish that on many people, especially his magnum opus called Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. It’s a super scary title. Only this French academic could name a book that. As I went through the next 6, 7 years, I wanted people to understand this idea. When I would tell them about it, they would get it. I would explain to them how it works but they go, “How can I go deeper?” I was struggling to find a book to recommend to them.

I got so frustrated with this. I finally realized, “If nobody else seemed to be interested in doing it, I wanted to connect it to things that people would understand.” I thought, “Luke, maybe this has to be you. Maybe you need to write this book.” It started to feel like starting a company. I had this almost like a child that I needed to give birth to. I decided to do it. I learned a lot along the way because you learn the most when you have to teach it, when you have to try to communicate it. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.

This idea of mimetic desire and mimetic theory has been influential in my own journey of self-discovery. I wanted other people to know about it earlier than I did and to be able to filter their own experiences through this lens. I teach this to 19-year-old students and they get it. I know that it’s something that’s easy to grasp, but it took me a decade of going deeper into it before I realized how fundamentally this explains so many different aspects of human behavior. From why we are attracted to certain people in certain careers, to why we get caught up in rivalries and we don’t understand why to some of the conflicts in the culture.

A human being is a fundamentally relational creature. Click To Tweet

I encourage people to get the book, but I would love for you to chunk some of the bigger ideas. There’s not a lot of discussions. There’s not a lot of nuances. You add parenting and relationships. If you live and you’re not trying to pretend it’s all dialed in, there’s so much gray and nuance. What also works well for me might be a different spin for somebody that I’m even close to or would appear similar to. It’s encouraging people their own voice.

I’m curious now that you said it about having rivalries. When you get to a certain place and if you’ve all been competitive, then you also hear people saying, “If it wasn’t for that person I would have never reached as high of a level.” Sometimes there are people out there that we’re competitive with that are ultimately pushing us to a higher potential and as them. There’s that kind, but you might be talking about a different kind of rivalry.

That kind of a rival can turn into what I would call a positive rival. Positive competition can turn into the more self-destructive kind if it becomes something else. I talked about this in my book. We have models. As human beings, we look to other people as models of desires, models of lifestyles, and we’re hyper-aware more than we understand. We see it on social media. No model is more powerful than our neighbors, the people that are closest to us, and the people that are more like us.

If you ask most people, “Who are you more jealous of, Jeff Bezos or the person that you work with in a similar role that makes an extra $10,000 than you do and has a slightly nicer car?” Everybody’s going to say the second person because you have more in common with them and they’re closer to you. Most people can’t relate to what it’s like to be a billionaire. That’s interesting if you think about it. Jealousy, envy, and rivalry seem to be a function of similarity and proximity.

I think about this a lot, where sometimes I catch myself having it in my small brain. I’m like, “What if you were not in this narrative in this story? What if you live somewhere else and everybody around you is fishermen?” Sometimes you’re seeing how that can pin you and hold you, and all of a sudden, you’re in these rules of engagement that you didn’t realize you signed up for.

Being aware of the systems of desire that we are in is important. Being aware of, “People that are surrounding me, what do they value? What do they desire?” Getting a grasp of that is a good first step. I look back on my experience, here’s an example of a positive rival that became a negative rival for me. There are two kinds of models and I talked about this in the book. There are models that are outside of our world where no serious competition is possible, and then there are models that most of us don’t think of as models that are inside of our world, where competition and rivalry are possible.

I played high school football. When I was a freshman, I thought that the junior varsity quarterback was the coolest guy. In a way, that went way beyond football. He was a positive model for me. I was a quarterback. I aspired to be the varsity quarterback. I looked up to him. I wanted to be more like him in a lot of different ways. I cared about where he went to college. I noticed that immediately and that mattered more to me than whatever my high school guidance counselor said.

Any of the objective criteria, all I cared about was where he wanted to go and people like him wanted to go. “I don’t want to come from Michigan.” “I’ll open up a can of worms if I say one of the schools.” Because he was this positive model for me, he wanted to go to this place, and wanted a certain life, I began to desire that. We had a problem once I was a sophomore and we started competing directly. I was competing to make varsity.

It was one thing that we were closed off and I was no threat to him when I was a freshman, but all of a sudden, now we’re playing in the same space and there’s a possibility that I could essentially take over his role. Then all kinds of weird things started to happen that didn’t happen when we were at a safe distance. I talked a lot in the book about this idea that the way that we’re in relationships with models or rivals and influencers matters tremendously.

We can move in and out of different kinds of relationships with them. They can change. It’s not static. Sometimes you can move next door to somebody’s neighborhood or go into their industry and the whole thing changes. That’s one thing that is important to be aware of. One thing that technology and social media have done is this brought us all under the head of a pin, socially speaking, existentially speaking. It’s brought us all close together. Facebook says, “Our mission is to bring the world closer together.” From a Girardian perspective, which my book is about René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, that can be a dangerous thing if we don’t understand that this is the way that we operate.

I try my best to manage ugly feelings. I try to pay attention to an ugly feeling, one that isn’t of elevation to another person. At the end of the day, you have to decide that you are in charge of yourself. What you’re doing is important because this is tribal and that’s biological. As we move further from things with our hands and understand what direction the sun rises and sets and even know how to get somewhere without Google Maps telling us. It’s using our experience or understanding of our environment to get there. 

Having this conversation around these types of things is also arming people with like, “By the way, this is natural.” You don’t have to stay in it. The fact that it’s starting to move in this direction, the fact that when you get elevated to sophomore and he’s a senior and he’s now not so cool, giving you that space to look and go, “I get it. I’m starting to understand because I’m infringing on his space, which is connected to his opportunity, which is connected to something in his biology.” 

For me, the more we can look at things naturally because they make sense in some way, and as we’ve gotten further away from, “I hunt for my food. I compete for mates.” We’re in these other weird, fuzzy things where we’re like, “Why is that person acting like that?” It’s still connected to their primal, tribal biological self. 

I try hard not to be competitive. Do you also talk about in the book that if you’re all of a sudden him and he recognizes this freshman who is looking up to him, do you also discuss the opportunity or the way we’ve got to handle it if, for whatever reason in that role, we are the positive model? It’ll happen. You’ll start a business. Someone will come into your business and use parts of this better than you and you have to figure out the way to be okay with that and not turn into a territorial, possessive, forwarding person.

Here’s one of the ways out and it’s a beautiful power that we have as human beings. You’re right, this is hardwired into our nature. This is a natural, instinctual response when somebody encroaches on our space or is aggressive to us, or sends a passive-aggressive email. We almost have this instinctual response, like, “An eye for an eye. Justice will be served. You have this coming and you deserve this.” It’s hardwired into our DNA to be imitative. It’s part of why we’ve been able to learn the language and why we have culture. This is powerful. Our powers of imitation are freakish.

We also imitate conflict and violence and that’s the important point. I’m going to throw out an unsexy word here that is key. If you are in a position, if you are a mentor and somebody is coming into your space, we have the power to override as human beings that instinctual response. One word would be submissiveness. A word I like even better is renunciation. We can renounce that initial impulse we have to lash out, to be aggressive, to send a signal about our dominance, or something like that.

I was in a situation where I was the subject of aggressive communication. My first instinct, which came naturally to me, was like, “He’s got it coming. I’m going to respond point by point to this thing and destroy these arguments.” That leads to escalation. Sure enough, if I would have done that, he wouldn’t have been like, “Luke is rational and smart. Everything that he says makes so much sense and I was wrong.” That’s not the way most people operate.

What I did is I slept on it and I had to renounce this. Who knows? Maybe it came from pride or something. I had to defend myself and establish my place in this hierarchy. I’m not trying to boast. I renounced that urge and I sent an email not defending things that I could have defended. It diffused the situation immediately. Me and that person now are as good as we’ve ever been. That was an opportunity that I had. I was like, “I see a fork in the road right now and I’m going to try.” If this had been years ago, he would have gotten the email. In my older years, I’ve learned that’s probably not the most productive thing that I could do.

Let me ask you a question based on that because I’ve had that same situation. I’m tall. I’m a taller woman. Sometimes I’ll feel my primalness. It’s almost a masculine response. It could be in a teaching moment or in a thing where I’m like, “Let’s jump in the pool right now and let’s see who goes the longest.” It would be the most idiotic thing but I have fun with it because I feel it all inside and I go through it. I then laugh at myself and be like, “Now what are you going to do?” 

When someone sends me those communications, what I try to do weirdly is I also go, “This is also a gift to me because they are revealing something about themselves and their own natural limitations.” I’m going to pay attention to that. I’m not going to react to it. You slept on it and you diffused it. Also, people have to realize that those are gifts to us, people showing where they are at. They might transcend those limitations at some point. If you’re talking about business, this is part of a reveal.

If we’re talking about business, you’d rather know that sooner than later.

I’m only bringing that up because sometimes what pisses us off is like, “No, don’t do it.” Be like, “Awesome. We got into a little foxhole and you flipped out, cool. I’m glad I know.” There is something so liberating when you don’t have to dominate. There’s something where all of a sudden, you’ve pulled out of all of that. Let’s say, “Who am I? What am I bringing to the table? What can I contribute?”

Laird said to me one time that someone was aggressing him and it was a younger guy than him. Also, it was somebody he had been pretty nice with. If you wanted to probably get down to it, Laird might have been the heavier character. He said to me two things, he said, “First of all, even I have to follow the rules. Second of all, if I don’t put wood on that fire, if I don’t send that email back, that fire doesn’t burn.” Sometimes in the thing of, “I’m the boss,” or masculinity, or, “This is my company,” whatever these things are, it’s realizing that it’s not about being in charge.

Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis – Human desire is shaped in and through relationships and through models of desire that we have in our lives.

There’s something tremendously freeing about not having to go through the rest of your life establishing dominance in every situation. That’s exhausting if that’s the way that you’re going through your days. Especially when you do have power, whether it’s executive power or physical power, the most powerful thing is to not use it. It’s the most human thing to not use it. A 1,000-pound gorilla can’t help himself. We have the ability to override that and to reach out in love and humility.

This goes back to the biblical saying, to turn the other cheek. If somebody asked you to go one mile, you go. If somebody asks you for the coat off your back, you give them your shirt too. It’s radical because it involves that extra step. This is not about being a pacifist or anything like that but it does involve what I would call a higher human faculty to go above and beyond that and that’s true power. The true power is to see how somebody treats somebody that has nothing to offer them or nothing to give them. That’s the real mark.

It’s not about denying your feelings. Internally, I have fun with whatever real feeling I have and then I ask myself. Conversely, it’s reminding people that we aren’t our feelings. It’s like, “I feel sad. I feel depressed.” You’re not your feelings. “I’m angry. I want to be vindictive. My ego is freaking out.” You’re still not your feelings. You have an opportunity to make a choice, especially in these scenarios. If someone’s sad, that’s a different story. 

If you practice it, that muscle does get bigger and it gets easier. I’m sure a coach could say this 100 times. They’ve got freshmen college athletes. Let’s say a football coach. These guys come in and they’re 18, 19, they’re raging full of testosterone, they know it all. They’re going to be the fastest, the biggest, the best. The coach is like, “Here we go again.” It’s that allowance to have that flow. It works well in your business.

Laird was gunning for me. I must have done something to irritate him. He was gunning for me and I could see it. I was like, “Why are you being combative?” He looked at me, like, “That’s not what I’m looking for.” I used to say that, too. Sometimes he’d be doing something and I’m like, “Can you take that bullseye off my back?” There’s something so freeing but I want to encourage people that if you practice it, it’s amazing. It’s amazing how quickly we can become un-aggravated.

You make an important point about emotions. I don’t consider myself that much of a stoic because I tend to think that can involve a sense of like, “That doesn’t bother me at all.” I get emotional and it’s important for me to recognize how pissed off or how sad or whatever. The person on the other end of my email may not see all the emotions but I have ways to deal with the emotions so that I’m not taking out all of my anger on the person and saying things that I don’t mean.

This way of being, when you renounce that initial reaction or whatever it is and you send the nice email or you respond in a way even though you’re upset or hurt or angry, it doesn’t mean that you’re sweeping those emotions under the rug. It means that you’re processing and dealing with them. It’s not coming out as directed aggression towards the person. It’s finding healthier ways to deal with them.

It’s also essential to remind people to do that it’s not internally. If you do have that safe place, it’s like a capsule that goes away and you don’t have to create a big drama for yourself. The other thing and I wonder if you talked about this at all is not repeating things again and again. For example, if somebody does something that I have perceived as obnoxious to me in some way, I might share it with the safe person to offload it but I may never keep bringing it up. 

You’ll meet people and you’re like, “It’s a Wednesday. How are you?” “Last Saturday, you’ll never believe what happened.” You could see them the following Saturday and they’re like, “Bob, how are you doing?” “Good but last Saturday…” Let it go. Don’t keep repeating it. Let it be. I’m curious, in all of your work and working on this book, do you think it is possible for the most part for us to be liberated? Is it the ability to manage this mimetic desire? Do you think it’s feasible that we can try to keep tapping in while we’re striving? Striving is connected to being competitive, to wanting, to obtaining. What I’m saying is where is the balance? Where does it play in there? You’re still in pursuit. 

I’m very much a striver.

How do you balance that?

The whole book is essentially about one’s cycle that is a repetitive cycle of destructive desire. It’s a cycle similar to somebody that’s suffering from an addiction and they like repeating the same cycle over and over again. Our mimetic desire when it’s destructive and when it’s a zero-sum game, that’s the way that I would describe this first cycle, is called cycle one. It’s the zero-sum game cycle where if I win, somebody else has to lose. It’s possible to transcend that cycle one, that destructive cycle. I don’t think it’s possible to transcend mimetic desire because it’s part of human nature, it’s part of how we are. We’re social creatures.

Luke Burgis

Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

There are positive things that are mimetic too. Love is driven through mimesis too. When somebody loves us, we respond differently to that person than we would if somebody came at us with skepticism or something like that. It’s that old saying, “The first people need to know that you love them before they’ll listen to you.” I see that with my students. That’s an example of positive mimetic desire and that’s contagious.

You see groups where openness, empathy, and listening can become contagious and lead to positive cycles where it’s not a zero-sum game. You can grow together, the pie gets bigger, the relationships get stronger. Love and virtues are not scarce resources, these are things that we can share. It’s not a bad thing to be rivals for affection and kindness.

Claire and I have little thingstt that we compete for. We like to cook for each other. We like to compete over who can make the other person happier by surprising them with some unexpected meal. It’s finding ways to get out of the destructive cycles. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually see that we’re in a rinse and repeat with some things in our lives and escape that trap and move into a place where mimetic desire can become a force for good instead.

I appreciate you writing this book. Have you talked to Ryan Holiday yet?

We have.

It would be like a barn on fire, the two of you.

We had a great shot.

Did you do an audio and you read it?

I did audio. I read the preface and the first chapter. I had a professional do the rest of the book. Even the preface and chapter one, that was hard work. I was like, “I’m glad I don’t have to read this whole book.”

You have a good voice. You should have done it. 

Thank you.

I want to close on two things. You talked in one conversation about making eye contact with people. I said many years ago to Tim Ferriss about going first and that I always would go first. Say hello first. My favorite is you address someone, you go to checkout, and you go, “How are you?” They go, “What?” IT happens a lot because nobody asks them, “How are you doing?” I appreciated that you said, “Do an experiment.” I know it’s weird with masks on and everything. When you’re walking around, go ahead, be brave, and look people in the eyes. 

See what happens, you might be surprised. People do need a model for that and they’re looking for other people. Make the first move. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. People are looking for humanity more now than ever. I live in an awesome neighborhood in Washington, DC. It’s opening back up and it’s beautiful weather. It’s spring here in Washington. To be able to see those little flashes of humanity where we can say something or somebody that doesn’t feel appreciated.

I live right across the street from a grocery store. I’ve seen the same people bagging groceries at the height of the pandemic. It’s those little things. The book talks about the cycles in our culture and cycles of violence and how to escape this. It all starts at the micro-level in our day-to-day lives. My real hope is that people that read this conversation, before the end of the day, there’s some little thing that you can do to spark some little positive ripple in the world or your own family.

It’s important. I asked the people at the grocery store. I’m like, “How are you holding up?” That’s what I say. I go. “How’s it going? How are you holding up?” It’s acknowledging that these people are for real. When you started this process and you’ve taught your classes and you’ve created this book, what was the thought in your mind if people could get this one thing from this book or the thing you got?

Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want, not all the responsibility but some of the responsibility. A parent understands at some level that they have an important role in shaping the desires of their children in some ways and influencing how free they feel to experiment and try different sports and do different things. A parent is the first role model of any child. They get other ones when they get a little bit older.

We don’t realize how much we affect the desires of the people around us too, our colleagues, my students, my friends. Even in the process of writing this book or when I go out for dinner, it’s this idea that when I interact with somebody or when you interact with somebody, you leave them wanting a little bit differently than before they met you. It’s desiring something.

In the case of the grocery store example, because you had this interaction and you’re Gabby Reece, it probably means a lot to people that you acknowledged their hard work. That affects them and it probably has a ripple effect that you don’t see after you leave the store. It’s thinking of ourselves as having this responsibility to each other. Desire is social.

My spouse, my friends, affect my desires and I affect theirs in ways that we probably won’t even understand years from now when we look back on it and we tell stories about why we did certain things that we did. Life is mysterious. I have seen in my personal experience how interwoven we all are. In the hyper-individualistic world that we live in, we often don’t think of this awesome, beautiful, and somewhat sacred responsibility that we have to affect what other people want.

I appreciate your time. You should’ve read your book. I do want to end based on what you said that we live at a time where we get blasted with all this narrative. What you’re saying is you have the opportunity to travel through your life and the narrative that you’re going to create. It’s important to remind people of that. Play by those rules, not by the ones that you’re getting banged on the head with all day long. There’s so much beauty out there but you have to participate and do that. I want to say thank you. I encourage people to find your book. Luke Burgis, thank you.

Thanks so much, Gabby. It’s been awesome.

Thanks.

Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.

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About Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis has co-created and led four companies in wellness, consumer products, and technology. He’s currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship where he also teaches business at The Catholic University of America. Luke has helped form and serves on the board of several new K-12 education initiatives and writes and speaks regularly about the education of desire. He studied business at NYU Stern and philosophy and theology at a pontifical university in Rome. He’s Managing Partner of Fourth Wall Ventures, an incubator that he started to build, train, and invest in people and companies that contribute to a healthy human ecology. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Claire, and her crazy New Orleans cat Clotille.

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