Creating Real "Social Distance"

5 Ways to Create Boundaries With Unhealthy Mimetic Models

Most of us have at least a couple of people in our life who function as unhealthy mimetic models. We need to know what they’re up to. We care what they think. We care what they want.

A friend of mine worked for Goldman Sachs after college. He quickly became embroiled in a competitive rivalry with a fellow analyst. When he learned that this fellow had received a slightly higher year-end bonus than him, he was infuriated.

Over the next year, my friend started watching his rival closely to see when he left the office each night. He made a point of staying at least an hour later than the other guy—and he found subtle ways to make sure the right people (their superiors) knew about it.

The next year, my friend earned the highest bonus possible for a second-year analyst. He was in the top “bucket,” as they say. This gave him some short-lived peace of mind knowing there was no way his rival could’ve out-earned him.

These guys were both extremely smart and talented. They were frequently mentioned as candidates to pass directly from Analyst to Associate and move up the investment banking ranks, bypassing the more traditional route (leaving to get an MBA, then coming back with a better title.)

Yet the very next day after the bonuses were announced, my friend learned that this peer that he was fixated on was leaving investment banking entirely and starting his own non-profit in Washington, DC.

The non-profit was a noble cause that had attracted major donors. The founder had also met a woman and got engaged. He wanted to settle down, start a family, and do more meaningful work.

This had an even more devastating effect on my friend than being out-earned in the bonus pool. Now it was a full-blown existential crisis. Could he be on the wrong career track entirely?

Over the next few months, he “inexplicably” lost his desire to become a Managing Director on Wall Street. He started exploring other career options and thinking about how deeply he desired to be in a romantic relationship.

Of course, he didn’t realize this transformation of desire was coming from the relationship that he had with his mimetic model. In his mind, it was the product of his independent evolution.

Over the coming months, he followed the other guy on social media and kept close tabs on what he was up to. Nothing ever positive ever came from this. He was like the guy who can’t stop checking his ex-girlfriend’s social media after a breakup. (Aside from being creepy, it’s a recipe for misery.)

His rallying cry became a line from Frank Sinatra: “The best revenge is massive success.” He needed the unstoppable burn of having a formidable enemy. He was like Michael Jordan, who revealed in the 2020 documentary The Last Dance that he intentionally made up stories in his own mind about people disrespecting him in order to drum up the motivation to perform at his best.

(Can mimetic rivalry be harnessed in a positive way to boost performance? Yes. But that’s another article.)


I asked my friend numerous times what he meant by “revenge.” As far as I knew, the other guy had never done a damn thing to him.

The revenge, he told me, was not against the other guy (this is the story he told himself)—it was against the corporate elites who hadn’t recognized how much work he had put in that first year.

So he was going to fuel his professional career with spite.

He would go on to spend the next 10 years caught in a cycle of short highs followed by long lows—passion followed by disillusionment—unaware that he was playing an infinite game that he could never win.

When he was 32 years old, he read Fyoder Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband. That was when he finally saw, reflected back to him in the fictional story, the story of his own life.

(In the novel, a man can’t be satisfied with a new lover unless the man with whom his former wife cheated on him is romantically interested in her, too. He measures the desirability of everything according to the desire of the man he believes is his romantic superior, whom he can never surpass—because it is metaphysically impossible.)

Reading this great book finally allowed him to take the steps necessary to opt-out of the game he was playing so that he could focus on being the best version of himself—the only vocation in the world for which every person has both a comparative and absolute advantage.

That process cannot really begin, though, unless intentional steps are taken to create boundaries with unhealthy mimetic models. Here are 5 things we can do today.

5 Ways to Create Mimetic Boundaries

  1. Unfollow them. Not merely on social media. I mean unfollow them completely, like unfollowing the news. Purge yourself of the unhealthy curiosity you have about what the model thinks, or what they’re doing, or what’s new in their life. There is a lot of talk about people getting “blocked” by others on social media—but the most important blocks we need to put in place are on ourselves. The block doesn’t need to be permanent, but it needs to be long enough for you to untether yourself: to stop caring so much.

  2. Write them a note of gratitude, praising them for the qualities you admire in them. You don’t have to send it. In most cases, you probably shouldn’t. But the exercise of naming what it is you admire about this person is an exercise of the demons. The letter is for you, not them.

  3. Find new models in Celebristan to emulate. Freshmanistan is the world of internal mediation, where you have the chance of competing with your model of desire. Celebristan is the world of external mediation, where no competition is possible. If all of your models of desire are coming from within Freshmanistan—within your own world—then you have to find some powerful models of desire outside of it, in Celebristan. (I cover the difference between these two worlds of models here.) Because find models you will, and it’s best if they don’t become scandals to you.

  4. Set highly specific and personal goals. The only way out of the comparison game is gaining an understanding of your unique and unrepeatable purpose, and then measuring your success against whether or not you are getting closer to fulfilling that purpose. Make goals highly personal—not general and mimetic goals that everyone else is also setting (losing weight, gaining followers, making more money). Goal-setting has to be anti-mimetic or it quickly turns into a mimetic game with moving goalposts. Pun intended.

  5. Humility. Having the humility to renounce pride and a toxic desire for status is a critical part of the process. Certain desires need to be renounced, and the process of doing so is painful. It’s not all that different from experiencing withdrawal symptoms from a powerful drug. I’m sharing below one of the most anti-mimetic prayers ever written (commonly attributed to the Catholic cardinal Rafael Merry del Val). I realize that many of my readers are not Christian, and many may not consider themselves spiritual at all, but I think the radical nature of these words can be a powerful reflection for anyone. While the traditional response after each of these lines is “Deliver me, Jesus” (which I have omitted below), it’s easy to make it your own. I share it because it is the deep cry of a human heart that wanted to be free of an illusory self, formed through shallow mimesis.

    That’s something we can all relate to.

    From the desire of being esteemed…
    From the desire of being loved…
    From the desire of being extolled…
    From the desire of being honored…
    From the desire of being praised…
    From the desire of being preferred to others…
    From the desire of being consulted…
    From the desire of being approved…
    From the fear of being humiliated…
    From the fear of being despised…
    From the fear of suffering rebukes…
    From the fear of being calumniated…
    From the fear of being forgotten…
    From the fear of being ridiculed…
    From the fear of being wronged…
    From the fear of being suspected…