25 Anti-Mimetic Ideas
A guide for navigating the world of mimetic desire in a more intentional way
Sometimes going with the flow is nice. Nobody wants to be the disagreeable anti-mimetic guy in a group that makes it impossible to gain consensus among a group of friends about where to grab a beer or a bite to eat. And I consider it a positive thing to be infected by the calm, even lazy, disposition of a non-workaholic friend if that helps you chill on Sunday and make good on the day of rest.
(If my wife Claire were not infinitely better than me about blocking off evenings and weekends for recreation and relaxation, I’d burn right through my weekends like the cigarette that Ferruccio Lamborghini used to set on the engine of one of his Miuras in his famous “Cigarette Tests”—he used this trick to show how powerful and perfectly balanced his engines were to visitors at his farm.)
But there are other times when it’s necessary to exercise self-possession, freedom, and intentionality to choose a course of action that isn’t quite so mimetic—that is not primarily the product of social imitation but rather the product of our innermost sanctum, our conscience, our understanding of our vocation, our deliberate and fully ‘owned’ choice of what we believe to be true, good, and beautiful. It is through these kind of intentional acts that we become who we are.
Being “anti-mimetic” does not mean being a ‘contrarian’ or refusing to imitate one’s peers. That’s what every hipster thinks he’s doing, too. “Everyone leaves the beaten path only to fall into the same ditch,” wrote the social theorist René Girard, the father of mimetic theory. This kind of naive rejection of the culture is not what we’re talking about here.
Being anti-mimetic means have the personal freedom to counteract negative forms of mimetic desire—like the kind that leads to polarized politics, unhealthy obsessions, envy, hustle-porn, and never-satisfied striving for things that won’t ultimately matter to impress people who don’t love us.
Being anti-mimetic is the power to live in freedom. An anti-mimetic action or person is a sign of contradiction to a culture that likes to float downstream.
You know the kind of fish that floats downstream? A dead one.
I want to be the kind of person that can swim upstream when needed. That’s not an ability that any of us should take for granted.
Before we get to the 25 ideas, one interesting note: the word “anti-mimesis” has been used to refer to an artistic philosophy, with Oscar Wilde as its most famous advocate.
In his 1891 book The Decay of Lying (‘decay’ is translated ‘decadencia’ in the Spanish edition…), he articulates an anti-mimetic vision of the artist. “Art doesn’t imitate life,” as the saying goes—life imitates art, according to Wilde. The artist is a creator par excellence. The artist brings new realities into being and changes how we see and experience the world.
Wilde believes that lying, “the telling of beautiful untrue things,” is the proper aim of art. It’s "an art, a science, and a social pleasure"—and its decay is responsible for the decay of literature. Today everyone is obsessed with representing reality as accurately as possible—with facts and accuracy. But "if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts,” he writes, “Art will become sterile and beauty will pass away from the land."
The artist endows things with beauty and is the reason why attention is paid to some things in the first place. Wilde writes about the fog in London as an example. It has always existed. But its wonder and the attention paid to it happened because "poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects...They did not exist till Art had invented them."
The older I get, the more I realize that most of life is a matter of what we pay attention to—of what we attend to, with focus.
There are many different ways to attend to reality; most of us spend our lives stuck attending to it in only one or two modes. Part of the purpose of Wilde’s work, and I hope my own, is to propose some new ones.
Let’s start with 25 Anti-Mimetic ideas that can help us craft a life that is a little more free from the mimetic herd; a bit more open to the spontaneity and wonder of new things (including new desires); and a free life that saves us—in the words of G.K. Chesterton—from ‘the degrading slavery of becoming a child of our age.’
The Top 25 Practical Ideas for Becoming More Anti-Mimetic in Everyday Life
Alright: here they are, in no real particular order (well, except for the last few—which I think are the most important).
These are all things I’ve tried to cultivate in my own life…to greater and lesser degrees of success. I’ve kept the descriptions intentionally brief because each one of these could become an essay unto itself in the coming year. I hope this begins a conversation.
25. Anti-Mimetic Scheduling
Why go to the gym at 5:30pm on a weekend? Okay, maybe you just got off of work and it’s the only time you can. Or why make a dinner reservation at 7pm on a Friday night? There might be an excellent reason: it’s fun to be in a buzzing place sometimes—and it’s a great way to end the workweek. There are perfectly good reasons to schedule things around the same time that other people do; after all, there’s a reason why these are ‘peak’ times in the first place. At the same time, there are many idiotic reasons. I am amazed at how many entrepreneurs are stuck in the 9-5 / Mon-Fri mentality inherited from the standard work week. It’s ingrained. Each of us has the power, though, to make our experiences a bit less stressful and more enjoyable if we take advantage of the off-peak times when we have the freedom to do things on our own time. Some of my favorites include: going to the bar of a restaurant between 2-5pm when I’m the only person in the place and knocking out some work over an appetizer; going to museums (I live in DC, so there are a ton of great ones) during weekday mornings; and golfing at twilight where the rates are cheaper and there are 80% less people on the course (I also happen to think it’s the most beautiful time of the day to golf, anyway. I’ve had many quiet and inspiring moment losing my ball in the setting sun.) What are your some yours? Please use the comments section to share, if you’d like.
24. Building a Deep Bookshelf
I read many books not because I think I’ll ‘like’ them but because I think that I won’t. And that is exactly the point. I call these anti-mimetic book choices part of my ‘deep’ bookshelf because they go beyond the facade of easy choices presented to us on ‘lists’ or by the algorithm. My challenge: allocate 10% of your annual reading to books where you know you’re not going to ‘agree’ with the fundamental premise. This goes for periodicals, too.
23. Don’t Participate in the Shark-Tankification of Worth
I have always had disdain for the show Shark Tank and all of its many derivatives. The value assigned to founders and companies is more of a product of theater and mimesis than serious investigation and investment—and the spirit that drives people to want to compete in these dog-and-pony shows in the first place has to do with mimetic validation. This is not the way great companies are built. Needing this kind of recognition will eventually break you. In my experience, ‘business plan competitions’ and ‘incubators’ function like beauty contests, and they attract entrepreneurs who self-select based on emotional needs. The sooner you kill this beast within yourself, the sooner you can get to the real work of creating something that the market itself will validate—or not.
22. Learn to Navigate without GPS
What’s wrong with the fastest route from A to B? It kills the brain and it kills the wandering—the spirit. Not all who wander are lost. And sometimes, I like to drive with absolutely no destination at all. Why We Drive by Matthew B. Crawford helps explain some of the reasons why. This is anti-mimetic in the sense that it makes a mockery of our world’s obsession with efficiency. Here’s Anthony Bourdain on the topic: the joy is in finding “this little out-of-way place, that discovery is often the result of a happy mishap or an accident. You know, car breaks down, you get lost, you end up at some grotty little place that ends up being magical.” It would never happen if we stayed locked into the mimetic grooves of maps and travel books.
21. Watch stellar old films that never benefited from mimetically-inflated popularity
My friend Thomas J. Bevan is on a mission to dig up older, forgotten films that nobody else has thought to review recently—too distracted by the shiny red ball of the next Netflix show as they are. I have enjoyed his reviews immensely because he is intentionally going in search of the anti-mimetic gems and making them accessible and appreciated (and so desirable) for his readers. Here is one of my favorites. See, doesn’t that make you want to revisit 1947? Tom is doing for films what many people understand about ‘old books’—there are hundreds of years of stellar, world-changing books, but most people will go their entire lives having read a very small spattering of them while consuming vast amounts of fortune-cookie pseudo-wisdom that sells in the marketplace today. Older films are waiting for us to mine them for pleasure, enjoyment, and new ways of looking at the world. I think it’s NNT who says to never read a book unless it’s over 25 years old. Try applying that to movies for a few months.
20. Read Foreign Newspapers
Foreign newspapers—while they may be mimetic as hell inside their own countries—are outside of the fishbowl that you’re swimming in. In that way, you could even call them ‘transcendent’ publications. They’re not in our crab bucket. This means that their ‘takes’ on the stuff going on in our own country are far more interesting than listening to the latest pundit that is peddled to us on the evening news or in our social media feed. I lived in Italy for a few years and came to love reading about what the Italians had to say about what was going on in the U.S.; it got to a point that I found the U.S. news increasingly one-sided and ridiculous. Today I try to read a smattering of foreign language newspapers (at least the ones that I can understand—and if I don’t, I use google translate). It’s easy to forget that amount of stuff that we are exposed to in the English language is only a fraction of the total available knowledge available in the world.
19. Stop Writing to Please
Writing to please is a recipe for lowest common denominator ideas and quality. If you’re not pissing anyone off from time to time, or getting some quick unsubscribers from your newsletters, then you’re not actively trying to find your audience. As rough around the edges as Taleb can be, I admire his commitment to pissing people off. It could be argued that he ‘can’ do that because he’s already established and wealthy; he doesn’t rely on subscribers/readers for money at this point. Yes, that may be true. He might be more anti-fragile than you and I. But nobody should wait until they’re anti-fragile to act with integrity and speak the truth. That is a fool’s game. It starts today. The cluster-effect is real. The longer you wait to break it, the harder it will be. I don’t sit down and write the next edition of this newsletter after studying which past editions have gotten the most opens and engagement; if I tailored everything after “what has worked in the past” then I’m living in the past, not moving forward into the future. I recently had this discussion with a publisher who was encouraging me to write another book on Girard. There is low-hanging fruit there, sure; but sometimes the higher-hanging fruit is what we need to be nourished.
18. Filter Feedback
This one comes straight out of Wanting, so to those of you who have read the book I won’t belabor the point. But it’s simple: some feedback is good, some feedback is bad. And too much feedback is detrimental—especially to a Creative. At a certain point, you have to choose. If you try to take into account every person’s opinion, you’ll end up with something ‘nice’—not great. The same is true of ‘market research’ and ‘data’—people don’t know what they want. Henry Ford said, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would’ve told me it was a faster horse.’ Here’s Steve Jobs making a similar point:
People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.
Filter feedback the way you filter calories: take only what you need. Take the rest with a grain of salt.
17. Invest in Deep Silence
Silence is the great mimetic quieter. It’s just that simple. I have a fundamental belief that if everyone in the corporate world had 5-6 days of silence per year, we woudn’t be destroying billions of dollar in value chasing bad ideas—the thin desires would fade away and the thick ones would emerge. People would have a great sense of purpose. The Great Resignation would turn into the Great Embracing of Purpose. It is currently not. I realize that this idea of silence retreats might seem like a pipedream for many individuals (especially those with children) and for corporations—it would require a significant investment. We can start, though, with our families and businesses. "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. He was right. And the only way we’ll begin to develop that ability is to start trying. This is positive mimesis at its best. I’ll be announcing a major initiative to bring structured silent retreats to more people soon—stay tuned. If you’re an individual or an organization who would be interested in participating in the first one, just drop the team a line here.
16. Set-up an Anti-Mimetic Environment
If you’ve been paying close attention to social media, you could easily believe that Austin or Miami are the only places in the U.S. where you can be a great innovator in these Soaring 20’s. (Or maybe it’s the Metaverse.) I am pumping the brakes hard on embracing these Mimetically Popular Locations. It’s extremely hard to escape the negative forces of mimesis while you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of other people who are caught up in it. There has never been a time when there is more wide-open anti-mimetic landscape to explore in the world—and with the ability to work-from-home, that is only accelerating. I have nothing against clustering with people who share your values and lifestyle. It’s true that throughout history people in certain ‘centers’ have benefited tremendously from network effects. But it’s also true that many have had to intentionally separate themselves from the dominant herd and live an existence sufficiently unplugged from the prevalent systems of desire in order to change the world, at least change themselves. I think immediately of the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries around Egypt. What is today’s ‘desert’? When I moved my company from California to Nevada in 2008, I realized that I was literally going into the desert to learn something about myself. And that’s exactly what happened. I went into the desert spiritually, emotionally, and physically; I was transformed by it. The challenge now is re-creating that desert experience in modern life. But we have a duty to try—and each of us can do it our own way.
15. Look for the Coincidence of Opposites
The fifteenth century polymath Nicholas of Cusa coined the term “The Coincidence of Opposites” (the coincidentia oppositorum in Latin). This means that opposites genuinely coincide while remaining distinct. It’s striking that in any case of extreme holiness, the coincidence of opposites is always present. In the person of Christ, for example, there are examples of extreme humility and meakness combined with boldness and zeal in the same person—and it all perfectly coheres. For most of us, we’re one way or the other. But in higher levels of spiritual development, there is no hypocrisy or contradiction between things that we don’t ordinarily think are compatible. These ‘seeming’ opposites coincide in perfect harmony—and it is evidence of a deeper truth. Dwelling in the coincidence of opposites without always defaulting to “convergent” thought is the key. Convergent thought always needs to converge on one solution, one answer, one mode of looking. My friend August Turak, an early executive at MTV, once told me the story of his friend quizzing him by giving him a series of numbers and asking what was the next number in the sequence. 14, 18, 23, 28, 34. He was racking his brain—he prided himself on being able to solve this kind of puzzle. 18-14, 23-18…no. He couldn’t figure it out. Finally, his friend smiled and said “42.” August looked up to see the number 42 emblazoned on the 42nd street subway station from the NYC subway car they were riding in. His mind had ‘converged’ on this being a math problem. But all he needed to do is attend to reality and he would’ve seen the answer.