The Weekly Circle #34

Welcome to the thirty-fourth episode of The Weekly Circle! A free Circles in Time newsletter released every Sunday.

Hey everybody,

How do we know ‘what to want’?

One of the trickiest parts of my programmes, and the Circles in Time initiative more broadly, is in how one goes about selecting their personal goals.

Typically, I see one of three approaches to goal selection:

  1. The individual enters the programme with a very clear goal in mind. Typically these goals still need to be structured clearly and narrowly, but the intention is vivid and certain.

  2. The individual has a wide range of goals and they struggle to choose amongst their many children and focus on one just one goal for the month.

  3. The individual enters with no clear goals and move through the difficult, reflective process of trying to understand their aspirations and the goals that may align with those aspirations.

Although anecdotal at this point, it is interesting to note that individuals in that third category are likely to sustain the practices relating to their goals over time.

My working hypothesis here is that the first two categories of goal selection arise out of an intuitive and recent desire to attain a particular object, state or way of being.

Desire is still at play when individuals approach the goal selection process more systematically (the third category), it just plays less of a role.

The problem with the intuitive, desire-driven approach to goal selection is that it often isn’t sincere or serious. If it were then the individual would already be engaging in the practice.

Sincere desire, the sort of maniacal, obsessive and urgent desire that you see in great artists, entrepreneurs and athletes, cannot easily be constrained once fully formed. If present, there would be no intention-action gap, no trouble with motivation or performing the related practices on a regular basis.

What all this means is the pre-selected goals that individuals arrive with, are often of the kind that arise as temporary fixes to the sense of lack all of us face on a daily basis.

That sense of lack, and the constant chasing, pursuing and seeking to resolve such feelings is very human. Some evolutionary psychologists would even go so far as to suggest that discomfort, and an insatiable desire to resolve it, is one of the key traits that made homo sapiens such a formidable and successful species. In otherwords, we evolved to suffer.

Whether that theory is true or not is beyond the scope of this discusion. What I think is more important is understanding how we choose the desires that we do.

Wanting What We Think Others Want:

Whenever I am slightly confused or uncertain about a particular psychological phenomenon it is often because I have focused too much on the individual and underrated the role that the social aspect of human nature is playing.

Having studied and written about social norms, networks, memes and mimetics for years, I am still so amazed by how much of a role others play, and how our minds are so good at deceiving us about their influence.

Desire is no different.

In fact, the origin of our desires is a candidate for our mind’s most accomplished of examples of self-deception.

It really feels like my desires originate from within me, independent of others. Unique, personal and my own. This is almost always false.

The author Luke Burgis write nicely about this self-deception when he says:

"The assumption that my desires are all my own—this story that I tell myself—is what René Girard calls “The Romantic Lie.” The Lie is that I want things independently, or that I choose all of the objects of my desire out of some secret desire chamber in my heart."

As opposed to independent and personal, most of our desires are based on the desires we expect particular models (peers, celebrities, authorities) within our lives to hold.

Our desires, and therefore our goals, are mimetic rather than personal.

Importantly, as society progresses from a state of scarcity to one of abundance, mimetic desire becomes more rampant and pervasive, rather than less so.

Implications for My Programmes

I’ve known about mimetic desire, and mimetic theory more broadly, for a long time, but over the 12 months I have built a new appreciation for the phenomenon, especially given that goal selection (and so sources of desire) has been so central to what I am exploring with Circles in Time.

So far I have tried to mitigate the negative effects by making participants aware of mimetic desire and providing them with a more systematic approach to goal setting that starts with their broader aspirations and then narrows in from there.

These interventions definitely help but feel like temporary workarounds rather than solutions that really speak to the enormous influence of this deeply human psychological mechanism.

On the one hand, I know that it would be wise to work with the grain of the mimetic mechanism (paving the cowpaths, if you will). On the other hand, I know that the mind of a truly great artist, researcher, explorer or athlete, has, to a certain extent, created the capacity to go beyond mimicry and mimesis. They’re in a realm of their own.

Here is how I am thinking about integrating these two seemingly diverging approaches:

  1. Leveraging mimetic desire as a tool to help participants and members reach stable-states (points of enough) in the different areas of their lives that are necessary for living healthily in the modern world. The focus will be on foundations, rather than comparative success. Stability and maintenance, rather than perpetual growth and never-ending improvement. This is where the Essentials programme, the community of practice, the Pledger tool and the Emulate database will all play an important role.

  2. If 1) is successful, what I would hope to see is an expansion of the cognitive, social, relational and situational capacity to examine and explore one’s self thoroughly, without fear, constraint or expectation. To satiate the chase for short term pleasure and loosen the grip of mimesis just enough to see if there are any truly authentic and sincere desires, hidden below all the social conditioning, attachment and dogma. Desires thats are stable, permanent, and unique to the infinite complexity of the individual in question.



“Passive, submissive imitation does exist, but hatred of conformity and extreme individualism are no less imitative. Today they constitute a negative conformism that is more formidable than the positive version. More and more, it seems to me, modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.” ~ Rene Girard

“The things themselves don’t matter much when it comes to desire. We care about people (models), not things. They represent some quality of being that we think we lack.” ~ Luke Burgis

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

“What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you’re not aware of. When you’re aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you’re not affected by it. You’re not controlled by it; you’re not enslaved by it. That’s the difference.” ~ Anthony de Mello


Morning by Jamie Heiden.

Until next week,

Take care,

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