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.René Girard
This describes mimetic theory, pioneered by René Girard as a means to describe human behaviour. I recently read Brian Timar’s article on the subject which crystallised my ideas on mimetic theory as it relates to a modern lives: school, higher education, career.
In these hotbox environments, the default mindset is molded by by subconsciously internalising its ideals. The desires, outcomes, and goals that represent success. The longer we stay in these bubbles, the more stubbornly we pursue them. Eventually, everything from our long-term decisions to day-to-day actions will be made in consideration of achieving these ideals.
There are natural variances in ideals across and within schools, higher education institutions, and companies. Some might be more liberal and champion ideals relating to living a fuller life. But more commonly, these entities promote a more traditional mindset of:
- School: getting into (a good) university
- University: finding a (good) job
- Career: finding a better job
This was the story of my school and university life. In my limited working experience, these ideals (unfortunately) held true as well.
In school, the unwritten objective was to get into the best possible University. The complementary ideals there were championed and, therefore, held in high status included ranking highly in academic or cultural or sports performance. The ultimate recognition of high performance was nominations for a Prefect role in your final year. The school had traditions of giving out badges for people who demonstrated excellent performance. Naturally, people wore their badges. This reinforced a competitive mindset on a daily basis. In hindsight, it was difficult to not play the game and ultimately strive towards the objective of getting into the best possible university.
In University, I was firmly ensnared within confines of my business degree. The unwritten target was getting a good job. We were being force-fed this path, explicitly, through the endless barrage of emails and events about internships and graduate roles. Implicitly, talking to others in that environment would inevitably lead to the dreaded “so have you got anything lined up for summer / after graduating” conversation. It made pursuing any other path unattractive, what resulted was a mimetic trap of the highest order.
In my limited professional work experience across four companies, the same trend appears. The unwritten goal was to get a ‘better’ job. Ostensibly, it could mean one that offered more flexibility or a better alignment with a person’s individual interests or desire. But more often than not, it meant a higher pay and, therefore, higher status. In the working world, the mechanisms for reinforcement of ideals are more explicit in terms of quarterly or annual reviews. Feedback is given regularly and predictably, especially as someone newer into their career. Therefore, it is all too easy to pursue a better role like a zealot.
At the time, I felt confident and empowered to make the decisions I did in each of those environments. I have no regrets. But now that I can reflect through the lens of mimetic theory, it casts a shadow over those experiences. To what extent did my environment influence my decisions? What power did I have to make decisions that go against the grain of my environment? Evidently very little. Intention was what was missing, intention that was borne outside the gravity of these environments. Perhaps this is the solution: I explore this idea further article.