The Power of Desire in Everyday Life: Wanting and Social Change

Luke Burgis, the author of the just-released book “Wanting,” talks about his book, how we come to desire what we desire, and how we can transform desire so as to make the world a better place.

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Rob Johnson:

(music) Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. (music) I’m here today with Luke Burgis. He’s the author of a new book called, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, which I found absolutely fascinating for reasons we’ll uncover over the next hour. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s an author, and he’s a teacher. Been involved in many, many inquiries, many dimensions of life, and he and I became friends, I guess, virtually through some seminars that INET held, like a conference in Hong Kong. But we’ve been talking over the last few months as he’s prepared this fantastic book, it’s called, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, as I mentioned before.

I can’t… How would I say, you give yourself what, is it five stars to play with? I’m pushing for five plus right here. I’m excited that you would join me today. Thank you for being here, and let’s get down to, how do I say, the inspiration and the message. First off, what is it that inspired you to bring this out to people? What went on inside you, and then we’ll talk about you want them to grasp or have a ladder to climb.

Luke Burgis:

Hey, Rob, it’s good to be with you, thanks for having me on. This book was really the fruit of a process of personal transformation for me, and a new way of seeing economics, a new way of seeing business, a new way of seeing the world, and some of its conflicts and tensions, and most importantly, myself. I graduated from an undergraduate business school, I went to NYU. I learned pretty typical, neoclassical economic theory. Went to Wall Street and didn’t spend a whole lot of time on Wall Street, it was less than a year, total, and then I moved out to California and was immersed in the startup world for most of my 20s and was involved in co-founding several companies.

But something was always off for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, while I was immersed in it. We often don’t see the structures that were embedded in, while we’re inside of them, unless we have some ways to extract ourselves, or if we’re fortunate enough to have good mentors or people in our life that can be honest with us and see things that we’re often too close to see.

In my late 20s, I had a realization that what was missing for me in my startup world in my investments was really humanity and the human person. It took some nasty things going on, it took a 2008, the financial crisis and the meltdown, me having one of my companies blow up and having some fractured relationships, forced me to take some time off.

To make a really long story relatively short, I ended up immersing myself in philosophy, and theology, I spent three years living in Rome, I studied anthropology, I studied history, I studied classics, the foundations, I wanted to get behind all of these assumptions and presuppositions that I’d never even questioned, I just took so many of these things for granted. What’s the purpose of business? What is… All these things, I just took it for granted.

I had a real thirst for classical knowledge, classical wisdom, I teach part time at a business school today, and if I could design my own business degree or MBA program, I think I’d force everybody to take one class on anthropology, one class on classical philosophy, another on history, and these things are just embedded because economics, we can’t think of it detached from these more fundamental questions about what it means to be human. That’s what had been missing from me in my earlier years.

When I moved back to the States, I was able to put all of this together, and I had a new outlook on what it means for me to be an entrepreneur, what kinds of organizations, entities and ways of serving am I interested in to make the world a better place? Desire, which is the topic of my book, desire is the substrate that’s underneath all of these things. It’s at the heart of politics, it’s at the heart of economics, it’s at the heart of how we can achieve sustainability.

But desire is such a fundamental, hidden quality of our humanity, that we overlook it. We never really talk about it. We just assume. We take our desires for granted, we assume that we want what we want, because, we’ve just generated this desire x, Nilo x and Hilo out of nothing, and that we create this reality in this autonomous way. My book gets at why that’s actually not the case. It took a certain amount of me developing some humility that I didn’t have, in my early years, some insights into the forces that work in the world that they don’t necessarily teach you in business school.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I found a quote from my board member and FT Editorial Board Chair in the United States, Gillian Tett. She’s got a new book out called Anthro-Vision, which we talked about last week. She had an epigraph at the beginning, said, “The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.” I thought that might, how to say, be a window into where we are going, because when I’m looking at you, as we try at INET to evolve economics, I see someone who’s seen this building block called preferences, that becomes a utility function, that becomes demand, which becomes integral to the market, and in normative analysis. The satisfaction of that is yours, and it is serving you.

But when desire, which formulates preferences, formulates demand, is something that can be influenced or something that came to get onto a destructive trajectory, there’s a whole lot of room for a different kind of economic analysis, a different sensibility about education, a different sensibility about what you learn in the media, what you’re asked to read and how you’re educated. You’re opening lots of cans of worms for us here at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, by going right to what you might call the heart of the matter.

Luke Burgis:

Well, formalism and economics was, I think, and these are your words, Rob, the last time that we talked, it’s a show horse that has covered up a lot of cracks, which the pandemic has exposed. One of the things that these last 15 months have taught us, I believe, is our interdependency, the interrelationship of all of us as humans, and our relationship with the planet, our relationship with institutions, which are becoming fractured. The premise of my book is that the nature of desire itself, is social, and interdependent.

This is what Rene Girard, who was really the inspiration behind my book, a lot of the big ideas came from Girard, although I tried to build on them in little ways, and not from my own perspective. Rene Girard was the inspiration. His fundamental insight is that the nature of human desire is not autonomous and independent, a product of this Imperial self. This comes from our hyper individualism. It’s given us a notion of human desire, that is false. Girard calls it the romantic lie, that I am the generator and shaper of all of my own desires.

His insight was that the nature of desire is in fact mimetic, that we imitate the desires of other people, because we’re social creatures, we take our cues about what is desirable from other people who imbue objects and unfortunately, even people with desirability. We think about the poor, for instance, they don’t have enough models of desire.

Every once in a while, a Mother Teresa comes along, who is able to model that desire and that love, but for the most part, we don’t have them. This is an important concept to understand, I think for economics. Behavioral economics has not explored the role of mimesis enough, because if Girard is right, it means that the value of things, the way that we value things, is the product of a very complex social process. That it’s not just… I suppose you could argue that all of this is baked into some concept of utility, though, I don’t believe that it is, that we arrive at our valuation of things through a complex social process, and we’d better be aware of it, or else our desires will be shaped by forces that we’re not even aware of, including bad actors, including people who are not looking out for our best interest or the common good.

The first purpose of my book, is just to bring awareness to the social nature of desire so that we can begin to have conversations about, what does it mean to be human? How can the market serve our desires more effectively? By the way, it’s not a one way street, it’s not as if we have desires and businesses serve them. We are involved in this reflexive process of generating and shaping desires.

One of the things I realized about my role as an entrepreneur is that I don’t just do a bunch of market research and find out people “want.” and then deliver it to them, I have some what they want could be destructive, what they want could not be serving the human person. I’ll let other people handle that stuff. There’s probably a lot of money to be made, serving those needs, unfortunately. I’m interested in helping to make goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. When I say that, I mean the integral good of the human person.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’m laughing because as you were talking, you were going right through a whole bunch of things I excerpted from your text. I want to tell people, I had to learn the hard way. There’s a glossary at the end of this book with many of the key concepts, go there first, read those and then go back into the text from the beginning and feel the story, feel the story where, what you might call a lot of the definitions, which you can refer back to, but it was a great tour to go through that glossary.

First excerpt, misrecognition in mimetic theory, misrecognition or misknowing refers to the tendency of people or groups to get caught up in throws in mimetic desire, have their perceptions distorted and to misidentify people or things as the cause of their problems. Let me take you back to 2016 in Detroit, I held a conference on race and inequality. The young man named Arjun Jayadev and I had done a paper where we were looking at the geography of what you might call ups and downs in the economy related to austere local budgets, globalization, automation, whatever.

From that, you can get survey data on economic insecurity. People in the geographic area are testifying on how they feel. That correlated in lockstep, variations in economic insecurity with variations in racial animosity, blaming the other, as though that was the cause of your anxiety. Felt an awful lot like a misidentified thing in the context of real problems.

Peter Temin went on to write a book, he was part of that conference about the vanishing middle class. He created this sensibility about a loop, which is when you experience that distress, you attribute it to race. Things like the school system start to get fractured. Then, in what Peter said, is the service economy where we might say 30% is in high margin services, 70% of the populations is in low margin services.

The ladder to prosperity, remember W. Arthur Lewis talked about going from the farm to the manufacturing in the cities. Well, this was analogous, going through the education system, and transforming yourself into a knowledge intensive worker, is devastated by a breakdown in the education system, which was happening particularly in these regions, where racial animosity was rampant.

It was something I say that was very vivid to us at the time when we did that conference, but I never thought of the concept of that misrecognition, misknowing as succinctly as what you built. What I’m trying to say to our audience, is that there’s so many things in here that are the building blocks of understanding the world that we analyze, the world we’re a little scared of right now, and the world we aspire to heal. You talked about reflexivity, I think there’s a guy named Soros who likes that term pretty well, in the formation of INET, and played a big role.

I think there are lots of ways you define what you might call amplifying feedback loops, either positive or negative, that change the dynamic of possibility, or disaster. There’s just so many beautiful things in this presentation, and in the building blocks. The interesting thing to me is, almost everything you do through the book has a punch line, maybe an unconscious punch line, but your statement that you quote from Antoine Saint-Exupéry says to this sailor, if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood. Divide the work and give orders, instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Everything you did in this book, points to a possible future. There’s some mental work to do, there’s some educational work, there’s appealing to healthy desire, as opposed to unhealthy desire as catalytic to social reaction. But it’s really quite powerful as what you might call an explanatory dynamic of what we might be able to achieve in these frightening times.

Luke Burgis:

Yeah, it’s really an appeal to desires. I don’t think we’ll build the future that we want by blasting our opponents and telling people, including people that disagree with us about solutions, how terrible they are, and how wrong they are. I think we can appeal to shared desires that we have, as human beings. There are some desires that are common to all people; the desire to be understood, the desire for security and safety for their families, for basic financial securities, to be in stable systems.

I think we live in a time, especially, I think the pandemic exacerbated this a little bit. There’s just a lot of finger pointing, a lot of that misrecognition that you mentioned. While I do think we need to be fierce in our diagnoses of the problems, and I think that we have a lot of serious problems right now, but I believe that we’re going to emerge from this through wanting something better. Business has a role to play in that, politics has a role to play in that, but each of us does.

I believe really strongly, at the local level, a lot of the best stuff is going to happen. I’m glad, the quote by Saint-Exupéry as a sailor, I’m glad that one resonated with you. If it didn’t, I don’t know what would. But that’s been an image, for me, a powerful image for me, as an entrepreneur, as we think about building things that will be sustainable, that will last. People are motivated in highly complex ways. Those motivations can come and go, if there’s not a real desire there for lasting change.

One of the things I say in the book is like, in order to achieve sustainability, we have to have desirability, there has to be… People actually have to want these things, rather than just being told that they’re good. My vision of the human person is, we’re not just rational creatures, we’re emotional creatures, we have this affective dimension and sphere, and it’s all got to come together for the whole person, for the whole integrated person.

Part of this book… I’m not against rationalism at all, but that alone is not going to get us where we need to be, because there’s a lot of really smart people out there that are not as effective as they could be in laying out a vision for the future. Because I think we’ve sometimes forgot about the whole person, the fears and insecurities that drive decision making, and the highly complex systems that we’re embedded in. Until we’re willing to have honest conversations and not reduce them to the scapegoats, or to blaming other people, we’re not going to be able to move beyond the situation that we’re in.

Rob Johnson:

We’ll take an example of climate change. Robert Pollin recently made a podcast with me about the resistances to climate change. He said, in essence, systemically, we’ve got to move. But a whole lot of people look at things like the decline of Detroit where I grew up, and there was no adjustment assistance. Imagine sitting in West Virginia right now, and everybody’s preaching climate change. But are you going to take care of me in that transition is what they’re asking? Those are real concerns for them, their family, which you might call the atrophy of skills they’ve developed through their craft practicing over the years.

I guess, one of the hard parts here, from the framework you’ve been describing, is you can’t inspire with negative imagination, entirely. The world’s going to end, global warming law, we’re all going to perish. That is a form of dread. You’ve got to have a way of seeing how you could solve it, in order to engender some hope, and you’ve got to take care of those resistances that Bob Pollin and others talk about, in order to get there.

How you teach, if you will, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that isn’t some abstract thing, but actually gets into the heart of the resistance, I think is part of what your framework embraces.

Luke Burgis:

Then there’s this wonderful biblical phrase, for lack of vision, the people perish.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Luke Burgis:

We need the vision. We need the vision.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I mentioned to you before we started this, that I have a daughter I was working with on her Mandarin Chinese lesson. But I thought some of the passages… You have a chapter on transcendent leadership, which I think is beautiful. I’ll come back to various pieces of it through this conversation, but you talked about Maria Montessori taking on a daunting task with many, many children in, I think it was Rome, in a place where there was many children and not enough support infrastructure, older children were going to school, and how she inspired, how she… I’ll use your word, she unshackled the children’s imagination, allowed them to learn according to their natural curiosity and wonder.

She allowed thick desires to form in them, not least of all, a thick desire for learning by not quenching the flame of desire, before they could spread and grow in intensity. Tell me, first of all, what’s the thick desire mean? How is that phrase?

Luke Burgis:

Well, in order to understand thick desire, we’ve got to understand thin desire. What does that mean? In the book, I describe thin desires, as these highly mimetic desires, ephemeral, where we’ve adopted desires uncritically without discerning where they lead, without discerning whether they lead to destruction, to depression or misery, or whether they lead to human connection and fulfillment and sustainable solutions to problems.

Thin desires are just the ones that we adopt. We just go along with the crowd, we do what’s easy. In my life, certainly, I’ve had plenty of those thin desires, I started a few companies and was disillusioned with them within a couple of years because I hadn’t really unearthed what really mattered, what was really important to me.

I learned my lesson the hard way a couple of times. Thin desires come often from seeing other people as rivals. How many people have chased something to prove that they could beat somebody else? One of the themes in this book is rivalry, and it’s the idea that mimetic desire leads to false scarcity. There’s objective scarcity, but there’s also subjective and false scarcity and it’s a scarcity that we create through mimetic desire, when we begin pursuing the same things as somebody else, and play the zero sum game where we only win if they lose.

These are all driven by thin desires. That’s not the way to build a better future. The thick desires are the ones that Maria Montessori recognized in her children. These are the ones they go really deep in human nature, and they’re the desires for some of those things that we named earlier, in our conversation, the desire to be understood, the desire to be loved, the desire to grow into the fullness of yourself.

She takes over this school, and it was a housing project in Rome, in the early 20th century, and she was told that these students, these kids were just absolutely a lost cause, completely helpless. Other teachers had tried, the parents had tried and they just scolded them and told them how bad students they were, and just how undisciplined they were. They were running all over the place.

Montessori, I tell this anecdote in the book, because it sounds silly, but I think it illustrates an insight that she had. She decided to give them a lesson one day on how to blow their noses. This little lesson, changed the disposition of these students, it absolutely changed them. She gave this little lesson knowing that… She had been observing them and some of the shame and guilt that they’d experienced around having runny noses. Most adults, their whole life had just told them that they’re gross and thrown a handkerchief at them and told them to take care of themselves.

Montessori realized that these people want to be taken seriously, these children want to be taken seriously, and they have a deep desire to become respected adults, they want to grow, and they want to be treated that way. I’m going to teach these children how to blow their nose. She had this fun little lesson, she made them laugh, and she showed them a way to do it.

The students, she was expecting no big deal, and the students watched her give this lesson with wrapped attention and awe and wonder. When she was done, they just thanked her profusely for having shown them the dignity of this little act, and chased her out of the school at the end of the day, and then, ran all around the city showing everybody this new adult thing that they knew how to do.

She recognized some desire these… I would call it a transcendent desire, that transcended the reading, writing and arithmetic of the day, just the skills, even, the discipline, that transcended getting them to sit in their seats. Now, those are all nice things to be able to do as a teacher, but she was reaching down and realizing that, what these little humans really yearning for is a sense of dignity that nobody has been able to give them yet. I think this silly little lesson is actually powerful, and we can translate that into so many different parts of our society, our life, and our education system.

Rob Johnson:

It doesn’t stop in kindergarten or third grade.

Luke Burgis:


Rob Johnson:

One of the books that I’ve cited frequently recently, is the author Jane Jacobs, her last book was called Dark Age Ahead. She had a chapter, third chapter, Education Versus Credentialising. Her premise implicitly was what are people doing in these so called learning institutions? They’re paying huge tuition to get a credential, so they can survive or be picked in an economy that’s highly unequal. Are they actually learning? Are they becoming citizens?

What I guess she didn’t include is this notion of mimetic desire. One of the excerpts from your book you cite two or three different times Toni Morrison, but she’s describing in one passage about her writing students, and how they’re… How would I say, so much subject to whether it’s their peers or evaluators or what have you, that she was, I would just say taken aback by not having their inner voice or their inner purpose.

I found it very interesting. She was saying they were really risk averse to imparting, what you quoted her as calling, they talk about pioneering criticism but unwilling to pass judgment on paper about a book that isn’t widely reviewed, where they can tap into the consensus and mirror that. There’s a deep insecurity, there’s a deep interactivity about how we say, becoming an expert, or becoming called an expert, that I found that passage very, very haunting, because it’s more reaching to conformity out of dread than it is exploring creativity and imagination.

I want to frame this because you talked about this in relation to the artist, and how artists are people who get you to see differently. I think you described an artist making a painting at a seaside or along the river and getting you to see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. That artist, I guess the ingredient I would call it has courage to illuminate for you something you wouldn’t have seen, as opposed to Toni Morrison’s students who are trying to get a pat on the head for agreeing with conventional wisdom.

Luke Burgis:

Conformity is the word that comes to mind and the power of conformity in our culture. These students that Toni Morrison is describing, were just terrified to be the first one to speak. I think this is highly relevant in the world we live in today. You ask me what I think about some geopolitical issue, and I’m terrified to just give you my honest opinion, until I know what the other people in the room think, because I don’t want to be singled out.

The ability to have honest conversations, to be able to express our mind, this is really important, and she was seeing, and this is decades ago, she was seeing, even in literary criticism, her students who considered themselves independent, and who believed in the pioneering importance of their work, were just not able to do it without a model, they were reliant on models, not only of thought, but of desire.

This is a premise of the book that, we are always looking for models, ideological models, but most of all, the ones that are hardest to identify are our models of desire. I have to say, I’ve been reading… Because we’re talking about education a little bit here, I was reading Albert Murray and his book Omni-Americans just over the last week, and he tells a story of African American children in inner city schools, and people are looking at the data and the numbers.

While they’re not performing quite as well in these areas, he says, what if this had nothing to do with their performance, and everything to do with the level of effort that they were willing to put in? Because maybe they’re rejecting the models that they’ve been given, and that they’re told that they should aspire to, and they’re rejecting that?

I thought it was an illuminating example of how these things go really, really deep, and there’s these complex forces that are motivating us as humans. We often just fall back to very reductionistic explanations for these things.

Rob Johnson:

Well, at the time of the great financial crisis, there was a great deal of criticism of financial theory. This idea that you were doing a dynamic optimization to a known future. Today’s price was just backward induction, a mathematical exercise from that all knowing, what you might call a transparent crystal ball. I noticed that you cited Israel Kirzner in the book and I wanted to bring that in to bring a little economics into this education about… He said, according to Kirzner, an economics which seeks to grapple with the real world circumstances of open endedness must transcend an analytical framework, which cannot accommodate genuine surprise.

What Frank Knight calls radical uncertainty, or Keynes’ theory of Treatise on Probability, called ontological uncertainty. These ingredients feel to me, or that vision as standing next to something we might call demagoguery.

You’re talking about people being emotional creatures. If their emotional creatures, when they’re fearful, having someone come up to them and say, “Don’t worry, I know the way,” can be reassuring, even if it’s false until it’s unmasked as having been a demagogue. I think a lot of people in the humanities and parts of the social science are very critical of economics, despite its capacity to illuminate for being a little too dogmatic about things that we can’t know.

Luke Burgis:

I agree, and you and I both talked about, I can’t get you out of my head, Adam Curtis’s documentary. There’s so much happening that we don’t understand right now. I don’t think we understand that the digital ecosystem that we’re embedded in, the way that this is changing, capitalism. We have a bit of an oligarchy right now. We’ve never quite, in my opinion, I know the word unprecedented is a little overused right now. But it does seem like something is different this time. It really does.

I think there are many people that I think, in times of uncertainty, mimesis increases, and people are looking for something to latch on to. In a way, it’s a perilous position to be in. I think, people’s desires are somewhat susceptible to being manipulated in certain ways, through the media and through business, and through this digital technology.

But with this kind of threat, comes opportunity. Certainly, I think it comes through in the book that I think that this is a chance for us to reevaluate the way that we operate as people, because we seem to know, we’re going to have to develop, whether it’s virtues, whether it’s some common language, an understanding, in order to move forward. We can’t necessarily rely on Google and Facebook to be the benevolent companies that they sometimes want us to believe that they are. What do we do about that?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I remember you said, one of the excerpts that made me chuckle, Big Data is the place where the entrepreneurial spirit goes to die. What were you talking about there?

Luke Burgis:

That has to do with Israel Kirzner. Probably most of your viewers and listeners know who Kirzner is, but in case somebody doesn’t, he’s an economist at NYU for many years, who, in my opinion, is the leading economic thinker about entrepreneurship, and the role of the entrepreneur in the economy and society. He talks a lot about what he calls entrepreneurial alertness, being able to see things that are outside of the existing paradigm, that’s where this element of surprise and reflexivity comes into play here. There are a lot of things that we don’t know.

That the future is… The problem with big data is that it can’t create anything genuinely new, in my opinion. This is a human… It’s one of the most beautiful things about a human being is that we’re able to create and to co-create and to build things that expand our existing reality and bring new value into the world. In an increasingly analytic mindset, I think it could lead to a relatively small spirited way of looking at humanity’s needs, in terms of fulfilling their basic needs, to placate people and to make them, “happy” in a way that’s not going to allow them to be fully alive.

Because computers do not… Especially the way that we program computers are not going to give free rein to the human spirit. That’s something that… It’s not a problem that technology can solve. My fear is that, we’re trying to solve problems that technology created with just more technology. Now, I think technology is a good thing, and it’s pulled a lot of people out of poverty, it’s done a lot of good for the world. But we can’t solve fundamental human problems with better algorithms. That’s an imminent system, that will just get trapped inside of it, if that becomes our default, go to mechanism, and the human spirit is bigger than that.

Rob Johnson:

Well, the writer, Eugene McCarraher who I’ve had on the podcast, wrote a book called The Enchantments of Mammon, which was essentially how secular markets replaced the church and God and religious belief for a time and started to become the equivalent to worshiped. There are other people like Richard Stivers, written a book called Technology as Magic. Or David Noble, who was one of my teachers at MIT as a young man, The Religion of Technology.

It’s essentially, as man has the illusion they become their own God. This clinging to belief in technology, which, in all likelihood embodies both good and evil, but they would cling to the notion that that’s where salvation would lie.

Luke Burgis:

Right. If I understand noble correctly, I haven’t read the book, but there’s a great book out there that’s called, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. I forget the name of the guy that wrote it.

Rob Johnson:

I got to get that one.

Luke Burgis:

It’s a great book. If I understand it, right, though, isn’t he saying that, there’s not just this divide? It’s not like religion and technology. In fact, technology came out of it’s creation of man whose a religious being and that there’s not this clean line that we should understand it as being intertwined, right?

Rob Johnson:

I think that’s right. But he did have what you might call a bit of a warning that we had taken something that was a tool and transformed it into a deity. Therefore, we might see potentially less discriminating in how we employed it, how we would, in essence, let it have effect on society before we judged it, as opposed to the Food and Drug Administration, testing it out and see how it affects society before we let it blossom. He had all kinds of different facets to his awareness, but it really was about, again, making it a tool, not a deity, so that it did serve mankind, which obviously there’s great potential for.

I want to move to your… Well, first of all, I remember you had a wonderful quote from Ursula K. Le Guin. Hard times are coming, when we’ll all be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries, realists of a larger reality. That seems like what people are beckoning, what they’re yearning for, and that is a walkway for me, into your chapter on transcendent leadership.

I have been very inspired, in recent months, by a book that Bill Moyers had turned me on to called The Recovery of Confidence by John W. Gardner. This was a gentleman who was a Republican, but was the head of Health, Education and Welfare during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, where many urban riots; Watts, Detroit, Newark and beyond, as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, turbulent conventions, which you might call the prelude to a counter reaction, which some have called the southern strategy when Richard Nixon was elected.

I would say, Gardner had this very sensitive, intuitive, lateral pattern of recognition, bringing implicitly, the emotions into the mixture. Didn’t have the framework that you have in this book, and that’s where I want to bridge to, but he was talking about the healing of a society. Everybody was anxious about the degree, breadth and danger of dysfunction.

You’ve got a model, a vision of a process, of transcendent leadership. Which of the young people in my Young Scholar’s Initiative aspire to build, so that they can fill those shoes of John W. Gardner and go beyond.

Luke Burgis:

Somebody asked me why, as an entrepreneur, and as somebody who teaches business, and economics, why I feature so many artists and writers in the book? Like Le Guin’s quote, she’s even talking about artists and writers. I think part of the reason was because I was having a hard time finding a model of the kind of transcendent leader that I think we need from the world of business, for instance. I think the humanities have an important role to play in this process of transformation; making business more human, just caring about everybody.

Nobody’s safe until we’re all safe. That’s the vision, I think the humanities are critical. When my students ask me for books to read in the business school, I usually recommend that they read a lot of classic literature before they read any modern business books.

Rob Johnson:

I might throw in one, A Testament of Hope: The Collective Writings of Martin Luther King, because there he had… You used King as a model in that chapter, I recall. Because, in essence, he went larger than himself, in his vision, and all kinds of things that he envisioned in the last three years of his life. Vincent Hardy wrote a wonderful book called The Inconvenient Hero, as he challenged the war, as he challenged what he called militarism, racism, and materialism as a system, in which racial tensions were embedded and amplified. But you had Martin Luther King in the Testament of Hope.

I think, your business students, if they’re in that, we might now call the ESG world; economy, society and governance, he’s an ESG spirit.

Luke Burgis:

He is, I agree, and civics is important too. You can graduate from high school today, and you might take economics 101, but you may have never had a course in civics, you might not understand the relationship to institutions and the role that they play. This is important. By the time students get to college, a lot of their ideas are formed. This is important, I think younger and younger, to fall to [inaudible 00:48:43] sense of civic responsibility.

This chapter on transcendent leadership, I do cite King. I think there does seem to be a loss of transcendence in the world. I think part of that is, more and more people don’t profess a religion, although I think that everybody’s a religious being at heart. But I think that with the loss of some transcendent models. When I say transcendent models, I think of ones that humanity’s traditionally had, the saints have served as transcendent models. There are many throughout history.

But it seems like we’ve had a loss in models that everybody agrees on. It used to be that everybody agreed on certain models of what it means to be human, certain virtues, certain ways of living. Now, one of the problems with our society is that very few people can come to any kind of agreement about who provides a model. People can’t agree on the Pope, right? I think that we have a thirst for that, because in the world where we lack any transcendent models, we have no choice but to turn to the ones that are either to our rivals, and play a constant game of identity. If you’re this kind of person, that I have to be this kind of person, that I think leads to nowhere, I think leads to a stalemate or zero sum system.

Transcendent leaders, transcendent leadership, it means this cultivation of transcendent desires that are not satisfied with the state that we’re currently in. That you read history, you look for, when has this been done right? Who are the people that were able to inspire humanity? What tools and tactics did they use? Martin Luther King is a great example.

I think we need to return to some of those things. I find that we seem to be neglecting history. There’s not as much of a focus on it. I think we have a lot to learn from it. History is also transcendent in the sense that it transcends the milieu that were caught in. We can tend to be very, very myopic, very myopic in assuming that the solutions are only going to come from the usual suspects. I think we’ve got to expand our universe of models, expand our universe of ideas, look deeper, look wider.

I mentioned four or five different traits, characteristics of this kind of transcendent leadership that seemed to be common to these kinds of people. One of distinctions that’s made in this particular chapter of the book is, the difference between the kind of leaders that encourage calculating thought and constant analytical solutions versus those who are able to develop a way of meditative thought. This is a distinction that, frankly, comes from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, he talked about meditative thought, the importance of being able to, rather than immediately looking for solutions, and rather to get from point A to point B, we have to go through an intermediate stage.

It means dropping down deeper into our reality, meditating on it, understanding the different layers of complexity that are involved in it, and sitting with it for a while. Doesn’t mean you don’t take action, it doesn’t mean that you don’t take risks. Be open to surprise and wonder, it means that you have the disposition of sinking down deeper and understanding the different layers. It seems to me like we’re not doing that, the world is very reactionary. You have very few people, at least are publicly visible, most of our leaders, do not seem to be willing to do that hard and difficult work.

Those people are around, I think we need more of them in the public sphere. But it doesn’t seem to be the kind of virtue that is prized in your typical CEO today, to give you one example. They act quick, they’re fast, they look at the data. I’m more comfortable around the kind of leader who has the contemplative life, who makes room to just not always have to be chasing the next solution to please investors or the market or whatever it is, but is willing to… Sometimes you have to suffer, sometimes you have to go through some really difficult things, to lead to the kind of real transformation that’s going to last, rather than just putting band aids on problems.

Rob Johnson:

Tell me, what comes to your mind when you hear the word empathy?

Luke Burgis:

The first thing that comes to mind is a story that I recount in the book about a gentleman who I had a highly unlikely night of empathy with and opened my eyes to some different values of mine that I hadn’t been aware of, as I was leading a successful company. We were engaged in a pretty nasty financial dispute. I didn’t know how to resolve it, in a… Well, certainly was never taught in business school, how to resolve this particular situation. It’s not the kind of thing they teach you, because the solution ended up being a human one, and it ended up being… I don’t want to give away the story because I spend a good deal of time in the book telling it.

But I can say that me and Dave, who’s the gentleman’s name, got past a block that we had, that had become a dangerous scenario by listening to one another, at a deeply human level, without having to agree with one another. The essence of empathy is being able to enter into another’s experience, without necessarily adopting it and agreeing with it, and claiming it as our own, it’s just entering into it, so as to be able to understand it.

That’s the first thing that I think about, because that particular experience made me realize the importance of empathy as my role as a leader, in any leaders role, that the willingness to be able to listen and to have those difficult conversations.

Rob Johnson:

I remember some time during the pandemic, I watched a video of the life and success coach Tony Robbins. He described an experience that he heard about, I guess, from Mikhail Gorbachev, where he said that Gorbachev and Reagan knew that it was time for a major reduction in the nuclear arsenals for the good of mankind, to reduce the danger of what Daniel Ellsberg calls a nuclear winter.

They got on the airplane, and they started to bicker. Gorbachev picking apart the fault lines and problems of capitalism, Reagan, taking apart the Soviet Union and that model of communism. It was getting more and more irritating, and more and more difficult. Then as Robbins tells the story, I think through the eyes of Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan got up, and he went to the restroom, on a moving airplane, came back and sat down and said, “Hi, my name is Ron, I think there’s some good work we can do together.” They shifted gears, he re-established that sense of empathetic connection and purpose and they broke out of that negative spiral.

I thought it was… How do I say, they went on and did a very powerful set of arms control agreements, I wish we could do more of, but that way of what you might call snapping out of things, you use a word often in the book called discernment. As you’re trying to, what you might call, put together your own sense of desire, maybe build yourself into a transcendent leader. But also, for someone like myself, not quite as immersed in the mimetic processes, as an author like you, how can I discern, let’s just say that mimetic process is present, you’ve convinced me, how can I discern between a negative mimetic spiral and a positive one?

Luke Burgis:

Discernment is different than decision making, because discernment comes prior to the decision making, which literally means to cut away, but in order to know where to cut, you have to know where to see, where to see the line. When it comes to desires, desires, you can’t arrive at decision, certainly through calculation. I had a really good friend of mine who had a bit more of the calculating mindset, he was an engineer in Silicon Valley. His approach to the decision of whether to get married to a particular person was to take the very scientific approach.

You can’t scientifically derive that, because that is a desire, and that’s the kind of thing that needs to be discerned. There are many ways to do this. There’s a rich tradition… Well, in my tradition, I’m Catholic, in the spiritual tradition, especially in the issue of spirituality, of discernment, there have been many, many books that have been written on this. I put a couple of those little exercises and ways to discern in the book.

Simple ones are, you can see the fruits of where your desires are leading you. If you sit with them, if you take the time to sit with them and probe them and examine them for a little while, are they stirring up peace or are they… What are they appealing to us, at the deepest level? Are they appealing to our sense of pride? Are they appealing to our ambition, are they appealing to our desire to make a gift of ourselves and to contribute to the common good?

I think it’s like learning a new language. The more that we sit with our desires, and the more that we probe them, and ask questions about them, the more we learn that the language of those desires and the tone and tenor of their voice, I think of desires as having a voice, and what is that voice do to me? When I hear the voice of a desire, does it cause me anxiety, does it cause me peace?

It’s funny, I’m talking about this as one who’s about to get married in less than two months. One of the classic ways to do this is, as you begin to go down the road of pursuing a certain desire; this could be a career change, it could be a relationship with a person, it could be activism, it could be something that you want to change, that you want to make in the world, whatever it is. One of the ways… Death, it brings a lot of clarity to the way that we spend our time in this world.

I think Steve Jobs said this in his famous commencement speech. We can do some very simple things like imagine ourselves in our deathbed, and we look back at this particular time in our lives, we’re discerning whether to pursue this desire, or not to pursue it. You’ll tend to have a pretty good idea of whether that’s the kind of desire that you want to pursue or not, in terms of whether or not it’s the kind that you would be proud of, the kind that will give you fulfillment, closer to the end of your life.

Rob Johnson:

In your chapter on transcendent leadership, you talk about the need for quiet space. You’ve mentioned that meditative side. But there’s also a thing, which often psychologists talk about, not being a pleaser, finding your true self. You have a section about filtering feedback. I guess what I’m getting at is there’s a part of this, that’s discovery, that’s discernment. But then there’s a part of testing things out in the world. But there’s also a part of essentially what’s your spine? What’s your courage? What’s your inner conviction?

All these things have to be put together in this mimetic framework that you describe. How do you filter feedback is what I’m saying, and maintain your independence, but maintain your receptivity to learning at the same time?

Luke Burgis:

I think this is a case of both and. We talk about the reflexivity of desires, the reflexivity of reality. It’s both and. There’s a process of discernment, and then you take action, and then you learn from that, and you discern again, you take that feedback, that you’re constantly evolving, constantly evolving. But when it comes to, there are certain things in life where if you’ve identified a thick desire. One word for this is calling. You’ve identified as something that you feel like you have to do in the world. If you don’t do it, damn it, nobody else is going to do it, it’s lost to the world forever.

It’s just something that you just can’t not do it, and you just feel the fire in your gut. You’ve realized that this is driven by something thick, something you can sink your teeth into, something that you’d be happy doing for the next 20 years. You get to a certain point, I think Martin Luther King is a good example of this. Imagine if he had not been able to take the criticism and filter the kind of feedback that he would get from people that didn’t understand what he was trying to do, that didn’t understand his mission, his vocation.

Writing any book, I tell you, writing this book was an exercise in having to filter feedback. From the very beginning of it, I would get things like well, people on the right aren’t going to like this, people on the left aren’t going to like this. If you start listening to everybody like that, it is the worst possible thing that you can do as a writer, because it’s paralyzing.

You can’t speak the truths that you feel that are just burning up inside of you. You try to make everybody happy and you either just write a really boring book, or you just lose yourself in it. Or maybe you write a book that… It’s just that it’s a perilous… Or you lose your soul and you write a best seller. I’m just using the example of the book because I just finished writing one. I think this applies to starting a business. I think this applies to a career in politics. I think this applies to the work that you do at INET, what is the mission?

At a certain point, we have decisions to make about the kind of feedback that is important for us to hear, and we have to have the awareness of knowing when we’re misunderstood or when the feedback is not coming from a place of love, of empathy, of genuine understanding, or people that may actually be trying to subvert us or take our eye off the ball.

Rob Johnson:

Well, one of the passages that I most enjoyed in this book was right at the end, where you talked about the process of writing. I’m involved in a California Sausalito-based writing group. You talked about Girard said, he believed that the best novelists read their first drafts and see right through them, they see the first draft as a put up job, an unconscious attempt to deceive their readers and themselves about the complexity of their desires.

You refer to Stephen King. Then you go on, the experience of reading the first draft devastates and delusions the author, striking a blow at their pride and vanity. This existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible. I just think that’s fantastic. Because when we talked about discernment and filtering and mimetic desire, which is interaction between people, and then you go into the well, you very often take into the well with you all the echoes of your recent interaction.

After that first draft, which is what I might call an excavation, to take the time to scrutinize yourself, give yourself feedback, and then evolve. If you don’t go to that place, you’re not going to write a great book. I want to say to you, with all my heart, this time, you wrote a great book. Thank you for sharing that piece of process at the end, because I just know intuitively it’s a reflection of what you went through, and you shared that with future authors, which allows them to rise to a higher place as well.

Luke Burgis:

Thank you, thank you, that means a lot. It’s funny that the word disillusion has such a negative connotation, isn’t it? You would think that, to become disillusioned, to become free of illusions would be a good thing. But there is that process, and the important thing is learning from it, and achieving a deeper level of honesty, a deeper level of honesty, commitment to the truth, come what may. We need more of that, I think we need more people with the courage to speak the truth, and to continue fighting.

I really appreciate you taking the time to read it. We’re having this conversation a couple of weeks before it comes out. So, I’m in that nerve wracking period right now. But this has been a real pleasure, I truly feel a sense of kindredness to what you’re doing and to INET. So, thank you.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. I’m grateful for this chapter today, and it’s the beginning of hopefully many forms of collaboration and your education, your transcendent leadership, INET is very happy to be associated with.

Luke Burgis:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

We’ll talk again soon.

Luke Burgis:

All right-

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. Bye-bye.

Luke Burgis:


Rob Johnson:

Check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org. (music)

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