I’m sharing how I engage with a book like Luke Burgis’s Wanting. Wanting is a standard business success book. It packs the standard ingredients:
- A grand unified theory to explain all
- A zany genius that came up with the theory
- A popular billionaire attributed his success to the theory
- A hero’s journey about thinking you’re living the right way but feeling empty and then experiencing an awakening via the theory
- A way it benefits you personally (your relationships will never be better!)
- A sense that the theory elevates you above the rest
- A heap of quotes from popular thinkers, gurus, and thought-leaders
- And techniques to run a hip business and think like that badass billionaire (your co-workers will brag about your meetings, and your hiring process will be a hip thing to drop into a conversation for clout)
The book will appeal to what we’ll call Success. The label encompasses the audience, experts, gurus, literature, that preach personal and professional growth. It includes the sales methods, the mindset tactics, and all the other secrets promising a personal and professional utopia.
The Success world takes books like Wanting at face value. I argue that scrutinizing a book like Wanting provides the only way to extract its lessons. Otherwise, it becomes a sugar high, or an easy namedrop from someone wishing to signal a “hustle mindset.”
I’m not a superior reader in any sense. Nor am I implying my way works best. But I do believe we’d benefit from books if we engaged and scrutinized what we read versus “reading for success.”
The experts in Success make it popular to cherry-pick platitudes from books and brag about how many books we read. We’re also told via Success that critical questioning makes you a “hater.” And Success implies haters as poor, broke losers that will never make it.
The gurus unknowingly teach a bias: The Success Narrative Bias: You look solely for books, lessons, quotes, pandering to Success narratives. The person seeks themes preaching growth, overcoming obstacles, mindset, not being a 9-5 normie, schedules and routines, positive thinking, manifestation, making money, and more. And that often comes with how to do it better or faster. It’s a personal religion of sorts. You pick what panders to success narratives and eschew anything critical.
In short, you’re taught to be a follower.
I hope to inspire a better way to engage with a Success book. A way that bolsters critical thinking and bolsters the lessons you learn.
Wanting by Luke Burgis
The book appeared on my radar via Tyler Cowen, a National Review podcast, on Twitter, and through some of my subscribers and Twitter followers.
I held high expectations. It didn’t meet expectations. But I think the book offers interesting ideas and benefits.
First, a quick summary.
Wanting largely focuses on Rene Girard’s theory of Mimetic Desire.
Rene Girard was a French polymath. He taught at Stanford. And famed entrepreneur Peter Thiel took one class from Girard. Yet Girard is most known for Mimetic Desire.
As Girard defines it: Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
In other words, none of our desires stem from ourselves but stem from imitation. And Girard asserts that all violence, disagreements, scapegoating, in short, everything stems from people imitating each other and wanting the same thing. Girard didn’t find imitation beneficial. He found that it creates rivalries.
Burgis spins Girard’s theory into a business success and self-help book. The book packs unique concepts. Concepts worth discovering; concepts worth scrutinizing.
A Marketing Lesson from Wanting
Let’s sit this section inside the framework of Wanting and Mimetic Desire. I’d arrive at the conclusion differently, yet it’s the same conclusion.
I’m going to unpack the sales concept of “speaking the customer language” or “creating rapport.” I’ll use the book’s title Wanting as the label to include Burgis’s ideas and Girard’s theory.
Many copywriting and sales ideologies rehash the idea of “speak the customer’s language.” In sales, it’s “build rapport.” Both tie to the psychological concept that people connect and bond to those who are similar. And the sales theory claims this rapport builds trust, hence increasing sales.
Let’s run that concept through Mimetic Desire.
Wanting says two groupings of people mediate desire: Celebristan and Freshmanistan.
Celebristan is like it sounds, celebrities. Girard labels the desires they influence as external mediators of desire or influencing desire from outside a person’s immediate world. And according to this theory, a figurative barrier separates these people from the normal population. And that barrier makes for “no threat of conflict.”
Three areas comprise Celebristan:
- Time or they’re dead: like Epictetus or Calvin Coolidge.
- Space: They live in a different country or are not on social media.
- Social status: Billionaires like Jeff Bezos, rock stars like Nicki Minaj, or a privileged class like politicians Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell.
People imitate individuals in Celebristan openly and freely. They do so without a sense of rivalry or a “threat of conflict.”
For instance, if Nicki Minaj starts wearing Daisy Duke shorts, then other women (non-celebrities) will openly imitate her. And they don’t feel they are competing with Nicki Minaj.
As far as marketing, celebrity testimonials try to tap into Celebristan. And it’s an ok tool. Yet due to the tool’s overuse, it can come across as cheesy. But certain celebrities, like Kendall Jenner’s Instagram, show the power of Celebristan.
Freshmanistan comprises you. It’s your circle of friends, co-workers, social media interactions, your neighbors, and most, if not all, people you see during your day. And this creates what Girard calls internal mediators of desire. Translated, your desires spring from your social circles and surrounding environment. And many of your desires — your work goals, why you have work goals, the clothes you wear — arise from you imitating people in your circles. And according to Wanting, it’s a rivalry.
Let’s look at a fictional group of female friends to see how Freshmanistan works.
Sarah is known as the “healthy and active one.” She stays fit with Yoga, a fitness class, hiking, Peloton spinning, and eats the fad foods seen as healthy. Beth exists in Sarah’s circle of friends. Sarah introduces Beth to a class workout. Beth likes the weights better than the Peloton and Yoga. Beth takes it further and joins a bodybuilding gym. She hires a trainer, lifts heavy weights, and soon Beth’s body surpasses “looks active” and transforms into that of a fitness model. She competes in fitness shows and does photoshoots. Beth surpasses Sarah as the “fit” one in the group. The friendship turns into a rivalry (the rivalry isn’t new, but it’s now growing deeper).
Sarah tries to supplant herself as the “truly” healthy one. She throws catty comments about Beth being “unhealthy” and “rigid” and “attention-seeking.”
Beth sees Sarah as fit but that Sarah wastes her time with fitness classes and jumping from one health fad to the next.
Regardless of the rivalry, Beth and Sarah remain friends and stay in the same social group, for now. The growing rivalry threatens to end the friendship.
That world of Freshmanistan, where rivalry boils under the surface, that is the world copy and sales experts want you to enter. They want you to enter it with “speak the customer language” or “create rapport.”
Now, Beth and Sarah are similar. They share similar interests. They enjoy the same things. But if Beth started telling Sarah how to be healthy, it creates resentment to outright anger.
We trust our friends for advice and support. But when that friend sells us ways to lose weight, it can get precarious.
Consider when someone new shows up in your social circle and tries to instill themselves. We ask questions:
- “Who is this person?”
- “What do they want?”
- “Why should I care?”
- “Who do they think they are?”
If that person tries to sound like us, keeps offering us something, we get guarded. It’s natural. We have instincts for our tribes. When someone new shows up, we’re not sure what to think of them. When a sales message tries to sound like us, we get skeptical.
As Wanting shows, the just-like-you tactic isn’t what it’s cut out to be. It may tap into similarities but it also taps into a rivalry.
Copywriters further complicate things when they combine credibility to “speak like the customer.”
Here’s what I mean.
Many copy courses and experts teach you to build credibility… but… you want to make the personality or the product sound as if it works for anyone. The goal: eliminate all excuses/objections that the customer may entertain as to why the product will fail.
One tactic used to attain that aim: The Worst-Case Scenario.
It works like this.
Make the personality selling the product into an absolute worst-case scenario. I mean over-the-top bad. In no way shape or form should this person ever succeed. And the copywriter bakes in messages that this person tried everything. That everything includes three to five popular methods to attain a goal. The aim of this tactic is to remove any objection of “the product won’t work for me.”
We end up with a rollercoaster ride. The message begins with…
Then slides to exactly like the customer only worse…
But if I can do it then anyone can…
Back to expert…
But now I’ve made it even easier because I’m just like you but worse…
And then back.
It’s a dizzying ride. Toss in tactics like the hero’s journey, emotional pain points, open loops, and the sales message gets crushed under its own weight.
You may argue that the Worst-Case Scenario combined with Mimetic Desire can trigger someone to chase the result (buy the product). But taking that to its logical conclusion: it fails. If that were the case, the world would be full of fit people. It isn’t. And as far as I can see weight loss sales letters aren’t losing out to get obese sales letters.
Let’s turn to a potent selling tool offered in Wanting.
The Cult of Experts
“The modern world is one of experts, they alone know what is to be done. Everything boils down to choosing the right expert.” Rene Girard. 1
Experts influence and shape our desires. Today, experts command far more influence. As Burgis shows, fixed points, like a college degree, aren’t as clear or as respected. To get answers to questions, we turn to experts. We seek someone that we believe has the answers.
As I see it, people consciously and unconsciously look for factors that say “expert.” And many charlatans fabricate those factors. An entire industry exists selling guru stripes. You can pay to be in Forbes magazine, you can pay to get a Shark from Shark Tank to praise you. In sum, you pay to buy credibility.
Real or fake, expertise sells.
Consider big brands. You can knock big brands all you want, but big brands own the trust factor. Buyers know they can get something average to great, know that it works, and know that it’s backed with a history of buyers. That whole “the big brands are manipulating you through messages.” or in the dorky copywriting corners, “they use Edward Bernays copy to covertly persuade you….” is lazy thinking.
While those companies might use slick advertising, over time it’s trust that persuades. People know what to expect from a brand. We pick Advil because we know it works, not because Edward Bernays is on the BBPO copy team hatching a dastardly plot.
Brand trust reveals a track record of expertise.
Consider Claude Hopkin’s or David Ogilvy. Both bake expertise into their advertising. The word choices, the phrasing, and how they framed their ads, displays expertise.
This expertise also works with small companies or personalities starting out.
For instance, take our example of Beth and Sarah. Both could start giving health tips and advice. They could both monetize their knowledge. They may not be Hany Rambod (famed bodybuilding trainer), but their journey, message, personality, can make people come to see them as experts. And, what’s more, they will be authentically relatable, versus that forced relatable of “speak the customer language.” And will be far more relatable than buying credibility.
That real relatability builds off of transparency. People relate that the person is learning as they go, just a few steps ahead, and they see the journey played out. This gives the customer a sense that they too can achieve the result.
In your marketing, forget rapport or worst-case scenario, bake in expertise.
I found the book had a Tim Ferris, Ryan Holiday, and Silicon Valley Billionaires are my life-hacking bro-down dawgs vibe to it. And it was laced with Mimetic Desire is a grand unified theory that explains all.
Tyler Cowen influenced this pick. Cowen respects Girard. But Cowen sums up Girard’s gaping holes:
His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.
The universal mechanisms and making stuff up are two common criticism made on Girard. Yes, he’s respected as one of the greatest modern thinkers, but he comes with baggage. Burgis ignores the baggage; Burgis deifies Girard.
Which is strange.
Burgis details why we must question our experts. He gives examples of how to question the experts in our lives. Yet his own advice evades him.
Burgis asserts Tim Ferriss is a legit expert.
It takes a quick Google search to find out that Ferriss blows hot air. You can start with his kickboxing claims, his supplement company, or his “regular Joe background that came across some hacks.”
Or if you want to do a deeper dive on Ferriss, find out his bandwagoning-then-bailing record. Ferriss is a lot like a gold digger. How so? If you’d like, dig into his relationship and his gushings of WeWork. Look at it when WeWork was hot, then look at it when WeWork fell from grace.
Ferriss is an expert, an expert at facade.
And Burgis is right. Ferriss does “mediate desire” for many. And I argue that Tim is one of the greatest bullshitters alive. But Burgis ignores his own advice when it comes to Ferriss. For instance, my Tim Ferriss and WeWork example took me all of two seconds to find out (I won’t go into the pay-to-play aspects of Ferriss).
More important, Burgis doesn’t follow his scrutiny advice with Girard either. I understand why. Burgis wants to promote Mimetic Desire into the realm of Success literature. But Burgis features sections that teach questions, scrutiny, and reflection.
Does it not apply to Girard?
At least that’s the question I asked.
Let’s look into Girard’s Mimetic Desire.
It is a unique theory. It makes sense and has its merits. Girard claimed to have discovered it. Maybe he’s the first to make it a grand unified theory that explains all. But if you go back through philosophy, the concept of desire springing from imitation, it’s old. By old, I mean thousands of years. So no, Girard did not discover it.
Girard claimed all violence or disagreements root to people or groups wanting the same thing. That claim has merits, but it’s not always the case.
Mull over this violent interaction:
A woman jogs through a park. A man accosts her and tries to rape her. She defends herself.
According to Girard, their conflict stems from them wanting the same thing. Burgis iterates the same concept.
A woman going for her jog and a man wanting to rape her, their conflict, disagreement, and violence do not result from them desiring the same thing. The idea that the conflict ties to them wanting the same thing falls apart on psychological, biological, and philosophical grounds. Consider the freeze, flight, and fight response. It’s instinct. A woman instinctually fighting off a rapist doesn’t root from her wanting the same thing as the rapist.
Girard posits all human action stems from imitation. Nor does he find this imitation always beneficial. That’s catty.
Granted, most people are insecure. Most people ignore facing their insecurities.
Look at Beth and Sarah again. In the Wanting framework, Beth sees Sarah as fit. Beth tries a class. She takes to it and then becomes fitter than Sarah. Sarah then works harder or does different things chasing Beth. And Sarah does so in a jealous manner.
But I’m unconvinced that the Beth and Sarah’s scenario, or any imitation, ties to a catty rivalry.
Stepping outside of the Wanting framework and Girard’s theories, Beth may be inspired and influenced by Sarah without the insecurity. Let’s say Beth is a self-secure, confident woman. She sees Sarah as fit. Beth liked one component of Sarah’s fitness routine, weights. Beth tried weights and took a liking to them, and on she went. And let’s say Sarah is secure. Sarah may see Beth’s rapid transformation, appreciate it, yet stay her course. They may influence each other. And that influence benefits both and does so without cattiness.
We all have our insecurities. We always will. But I argue insecurities don’t fuel all choices, actions, and behaviors.
Another gripe, Burgis bases a lot of Wanting’s premise to Jim Collins and Collins’s Flywheel. Collins is another expert who falls apart under scrutiny. Collins is known for making the survivorship bias, narrative fallacy, and post hoc reasoning. Plus his lessons and books drip with unfalsifiable truisms, tautologies, and platitudes.
Yet Burgis insists on using Collins’s Flywheel as a tool to strengthen Wanting’s argument.
The Flywheel looks cool, sounds cool, but it’s often jargon that can be said about anything. And Collins applies Flywheels after a company has succeeded.
Burgis implores the reader to scrutinize experts. Collins’s Flywheel falls apart under as opposed to what scrutiny.
Take the flywheel in my example:
Increase customer visits ok… as opposed to what?… decrease customer visits?
Grow revenue per fixed costs ok… as opposed to what?… Shrink revenue per fixed costs?
Again, Burgis fails to question Collins, Ferriss, and Girard. Maybe it’s not Burgis’s place. Most Success literature reads sugary to cater to a specific audience. And Burgis maybe wishes to cater to that audience. But Burgis posits on page 58:
Because there is less and less agreement about cultural values and even about the value of science itself (consider the debate about climate change), people find “experts” whose expertise is largely a product of mimetic validation. It’s critical to cut through mimesis and find sources of knowledge that are less subject to mimesis.
Find sources that have stood the test of time. Be wary of self-proclaimed and crowd-proclaimed experts.
Great advice. But Ferriss and Collins are in the business of being self-proclaimed and crowd-proclaimed experts.
Burgis name drops and quote mines. Quote mining is when you cherry-pick quotes from others, often ignoring the quote’s original context to use it for your argument.
Quote mining plagues Success. It’s generally done in a manner to motivate. For instance, rehashing a platitude, or words uttered by successful people to, well, again, motivate. Burgis quote mines like a standard guru. He quotes popular personalities in a way that comes across as, “See, I’m down with the scene.”
He quotes mines and name drops, Tim Ferriss, Yuval Noah Harari, Nassim Taleb, Jim Collins, James Clear, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Dawkins, Peter Thiel, Ross Douthat, Steve Jobs, and more.
If you look at the thinkers above, you don’t see a consistent line of thought. Some distinctly oppose each other, like Taleb and Dawkins. Nor does Burgis use these thinkers to show particular arguments from certain sides. Granted, maybe Burgis is trying to show that all these thinkers “want the same thing” and that’s why “a rivalry exists.”
In Success circles, it’s hip to say “find the middle ground.” As if all problems can be solved and utopia is found in the middle ground. But it’s a mistake to think the truth always resides in the middle. It doesn’t.
Burgis doesn’t explicitly say find the middle ground. But my spidey senses tell me and his buzzword-heavy prose tells me he wishes to imply it.
And the personalities he quote mines are so all over the map and taken so out of context, it’s hard to tell what Burgis argues.
Wanting contains ideas worth exploring; it contains glaring issues. You might take my qualms as scathing. And you’re right to point that out. I’m wary of universal mechanisms, and books dripping with buzzwords that convey a grand unified theory. But this article reveals my conversation with Wanting. And I hope to impart that the book does pose interesting and beneficial ideas.
As for marketing, the Expert section of the book should be studied. People want to buy from experts. Burgis gives a good argument as to why.
Furthermore, Rene Girard’s Mimetic Desire is worth checking out. No, it’s not the universal mechanism he claimed. But if you look around, you see that he posited excellent philosophy on human behaviors and action.
I hope I didn’t scare you too much off the book. Again, my goal is to inspire critical reading and engaging with the author. And any Success book needs a heavy dose of scrutiny.
- Luke Burgis, Wanting, 56, St. Martin’s Press, 2021 ↩