Inner Space
Hi, I’m Diana Demco and this is the Inner Space newsletter about my reflections on living an examined life. If you're new, you can find old editions here. You're getting this email because you signed up on my website. If you'd like to unsubscribe, click here.
If you needed to make a few correct judgements about a random person you just met on the street, it wouldn't be such a hard task. Depending on where in the world this happens, you could assume they speak English, carry a phone in their pocket or have a credit card in their wallet. (This is most likely in a WEIRD culture, where WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). But aside from those, you could probably make another safe bet: that person has some personal goals they try to accomplish.

The practice of goal setting is so ubiquitous in the Western world that you'd be viewed as a freak if you didn't have any. "You're telling me you don't sit with a leather-bound notebook each quarter and assess your progress and plan next steps?" Goal-setting has become a new religious experience for some, with people trying to optimize their dreams with the perfect formula (ie. SMART).

But as much as we focus on how to achieve our goals, we don't pay nearly as much attention on what goals we should set in the first place. At this point you may be thinking either: a) that it's already obvious what a person should want (at least in broad terms) or b) that each individual is free to choose for themselves what they'll focus on in life.

In the first instance, you may be operating within a framework that has become so deep-rooted that you can't conceive to question it. If it's the second point, you may be oblivious to the phenomenon of mimetic desire. This concept was developed by French historian and literary critic René Girard, who came to notice it in the great works of fiction he was teaching. Mimetic desire refers to the emulative character of our wants. They are rarely "original," rather they reflect those of our "models" - people we admire and we look up to (close friends and dead personalities alike).

Drawing upon René Girard's work, Luke Burgis lays out a compelling account for why we want what we want. And goals certainly aren't exempt from the gravitational pull of mimesis.

In his book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday life, Burgis writes:
Most people aren’t fully responsible for choosing their own goals. People pursue the goals that are on offer to them in their system of desire. Goals are often chosen for us, by models. And that means the goalposts are always moving.

Each of us exists in a system of desire that determines the hierarchy of achievements people strive for. For writers, that's a Pulitzer prize or working with a certain publishing house; for chefs, it's the Michelin Guide and their infamous stars; for athletes, it's an Olympic medal. You probably have one such accolade in your line of work.

If you think about your life so far, you'll find that the choices you made and the ambitions you pursued reflect certain models (even if they are not instantly obvious to you). From the clothes we wear, the universities we go to, the vacation destinations we choose, they all can be traced back to the person(s) we look up to (or even the ones we dislike, because that's going to determine our behavior as well - only in the opposite direction).

Is it possible to escape the grip of mimetic desire? Unfortunately, no. But we can learn to be more attuned to it and examine it critically. Instead of it operating in the dark, guiding our life, we'll learn to look it in the eyes.

One strategy to help us get clarity on which goals are truly authentic to us is to set apart thin and thick desires, as Burgis calls them. The latter are ones that deeply resonate with our core being, while the former are influenced by trends, hype, popularity or, of course, models.

It won't be a straightforward process to tease out the thin from the thick ones. It will probably take months of reflections and internal inquiry, deep dives into your psyche to resurface your core beliefs and values.

The process is not easy, but it's imperative we do it. Only then we'll be able to say our goals are truly ours.

Timeless Content

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice
Kevin Kelly | 14 minute watch
Kevin Kelly, founding executive director of Wired magazine, shares 68 pieces of advice on his 68 birthday. Here you'll find the difference between pros and amateurs, which virtue will unlock all other virtues, the purpose of a habit, and the most counterintuitive truth in the universe (and many more bits of wisdom).

Tool for Thought

Mind Meister
Mind mapping website
Solving a problem or getting clear on a the best course of action sometimes requires tracing precise steps or establishing the interconnected relations between our variables. A great way to put our intricate thoughts into an organized fashion is to create a mind map. It can help us examine all the parts of our project at a glance, reveal any weaknesses or prompt us to see things in a new light.

If you're planning a project that has multiple parts, a mind maps is a useful tool that can support your efforts.

Picture of the Week

Copyright: Joey Guidone, Salzman

Quote I'm Reflecting On

The Guest House, poem by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Question For You To Ponder

Imagine the person you most look up to told you your goals were foolish. Would that deter you from pursuing them? (Don't be so quick to answer "of course not!" We're modelling other people's desires more than we realize.)
Thank you for reading.

Until next time,
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