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Luke Burgis is a veteran entrepreneur and author. He’s the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC, and the founder of Fourth Wall Ventures, an incubator[…]
  • Humans are more rivalrist than we like to believe. So much so, that it’s our human nature to tend towards rivalries and competition. We’ve seen it since the beginning of time, as almost every religious culture has ancient stories of sibling rivalries. This is because, as humans, we take delight in seeing someone else fail. This is something we should be hyper-aware of because according to Luke Burgis, envy always leads towards misery. 
  • Look at it from this perspective – if no one else wanted the things in life you wanted, would you question if that thing is truly desirable? This can range from dating and business, to even the food we order at a restaurant. The strange mystery of desire is that we look to other humans to figure out what it is that we want, and we adopt another’s desires as our own. This creates problems when we are all competing towards having the same thing. 
  • These shared desires and outcomes then lead us towards a scarcity mindset, and we look to those who desire what we do and view them as a rival or competition. More often than not, this leads us down a path towards envy and misery. But not all rivalries are bad. We see healthy competition in sports and business all the time, such as Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

LUKE BURGIS: We're more rivalrous than we like to believe. Human beings tend towards rivalry. There's a reason why there's five stories of sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis alone, and almost every other culture in the world also has stories of sibling rivalry. It seems that there is some principle of rivalry that has been with us since the beginning of time. We take delight in seeing somebody else fail. And that's something I think we should all be hyper aware of, because envy always leads to misery.

I'm Luke Burgis, founder of Fourth Wall Ventures and author of the book "Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life."

So in my mid twenties, I noticed this strange paradox, if nobody else wanted the thing that I wanted, I began to question whether that thing was "wantable" or not, whether it was desirable. I noticed it in dating, in business, even in the choices of food that I would order in restaurants. There was this strange mystery of desire that I hadn't put my finger on. So I spent some time reading and reflecting and stumbled on the ideas of the great French thinker, René Girard. Girard said that man is the creature that doesn't know what to desire. So we look to models, people that help show us what is worth wanting.

In other words, desire is mimetic. Mimetic desire means that we're adopting another person's desire as our own. Usually without even realizing that we're doing it. That creates real problems because we're now inherently competing for the same thing. So we have a scarcity mindset, and mimetic desire leads quite naturally to viewing the person that's modeling the desire for that object as a rival or as an obstacle to us getting what we want. But when I speak of rivalry, I don't always mean in the negative sense, and neither did Girard. Rivalries can be a very positive thing.

MAGIC JOHNSON: We had been rivals, we hated each other. And so, Larry Bird made me a better player, and I think I made him a better player and together we made the NBA better.

BURGIS: They can get the best out of us when we have professional rivalries. This might be a time for me to tell the story of Lamborghini and Ferrari. I'm not sure if we have time for that or not. Ferruccio Lamborghini was a very successful tractor manufacturer in Italy. He owned a Ferrari and the clutch kept breaking and he went to Enzo Ferrari to complain about the clutch and eventually got into the car business because of a rivalry with Enzo Ferrari, and ended up making a beautiful, powerful sports car. And their sales are better than they've ever been.

So rivalry can push us to do things that we may have not done to innovate, to create things, but rivalry can also turn negative when we cross a certain boundary. The problem with mimetic rivalry is that we begin to see others as enemies. If this other person is in my way, if they're a constant thorn in my side, the other solution is to eliminate them in some way. That could mean they're fired. It could mean canceling them. That could mean physical violence. When people are locked in a mimetic rivalry, it's an infinite game. There's no way to resolve the one-upping. And that's because there's very little awareness in society of the mimetic mechanism. So the first step to breaking out of a rivalry is simply to be aware that you're in one. If we're not aware that we're rivalrous, that this is a zero sum game that isn't going to end well, there's really no hope of breaking out of it, except for some kind of outside intervention.

Lamborghini realized that that rivalry with Ferrari could take him to places he didn't want to go. Everybody at the company wanted him to enter the racing business. He could spend the rest of his days consumed with constantly one upping this Titan of auto manufacturing. He took a step back and he saw that he didn't want the rivalry to last. He wanted to be his own person and not constantly be tethering his ideas of success to Enzo Ferrari. So when we realize that our desires don't originate with us, it frees us up.

As humans, we have agency, we have freedom to rise above that base mimetic nature, and to choose the way that we're going to respond. At some level, people have to do the hard work of renunciation. That's not a word that we use very often these days, but it's renouncing and overriding our mimetic impulse to constantly hit back, to constantly seek that next thing. Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to renounce the temptation to enter the racing business, and to extract himself for what could have been a game of obsession and never-ending rivalry with Ferrari until the end of his life. It's not that he didn't care about making beautiful cars or didn't care about his company anymore. It's that he knew that a time had come for a pivot. And the pivot for Lamborghini, allowed him to live a very fulfilling life. And his company continued, without his personal animosity towards Enzo Ferrari coloring his entire company for the next 50 years.

Forgiveness is also a very anti-mimetic action to take. Kind of goes against every fiber in our being, because we're highly mimetic when it comes to conflict, when it comes to violence. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. We have to break the cycle of logic through this supernatural act. Forgiveness goes beyond the rational. It's getting at this great power that we have as human beings, to choose not the instinctual reaction.

Getting out of that transactional mindset, incorporating things like empathy and forgiveness is really important. When we listen to another person with empathy, we can quickly break through a negative mimetic cycle, because people want to imitate the empathy that they received. One tactic I recommend to my students is to actually write a letter of gratitude to somebody that might be a rival to them. That's a great way to kill it right away, in most cases. Not always, not everybody responds positively to that kind of a thing. But to be able to step back and to make a gesture of empathy can change a negative mimetic cycle into a positive one, almost instantaneously. The question is, will we actually be the one to take the first step?

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