Luke Burgis on Mimetic Desire, The Three City Problem & Academia | The Pathless Path Podcast

Luke has a background in Wall Street and has founded three technology companies. He describes his adult life as a constant state of uncertainty. At some point, he took a classics course, which he completed in a 24-hour Starbucks in a couple of months while living in Las Vegas. This led him to contemplate deeper questions, leaving “entrepreneur Luke” behind and spending three years in Rome.

Luke is now a Professor at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship and has written a book — “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” The book is one of the best ones I’ve read in the past couple of years, and we talk about some of the ideas in the book and how they intersect with Luke and my life.

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What We Talked About

  1. Memetic Desire: How memetic desire often leads individuals to conform to societal expectations and norms. He shares his personal experiences of recognizing and breaking free from these influences.
  2. Thick Desires and Thin Desires: The concept of “thick desires” and “thin desires”. Thick desires are deeply personal, often unique to the individual, and can sustain them long-term. Thin desires, on the other hand, are highly memetic, contagious, and often shallow.
  3. Leaning into Thick Desires: The importance of leaning into thick desires and how they can lead to a deeper engagement in life. He shares his experiences of following his curiosity and passion, which has led him to a more fulfilling and balanced lifestyle.
  4. Transcending Current Experiences: The importance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and seeking new experiences and perspectives. He emphasizes the value of physical experiences and real-world relationships in this process.
  5. Role Models and Mentors: The impact of various role models and mentors in his life, emphasizing the importance of finding “hidden models” – simple, everyday people who can offer profound insights and inspiration.
  6. Upcoming Arrival of His Child: His anticipation of becoming a father and how this change influences his perspective on work, life, and personal desires.

On Thick vs. Thin Desires

I love Luke’s idea of thick and thin desires from his book:

Thick desires are like diamonds that have been formed deep beneath the surface, nearer to the core of the earth. Thick desires are protected from the volatility of changing circumstances in our life. Thin desires, on the other hand, are highly memetic, contagious, and often shallow

He reflected on his own journey connecting with his thick desires:

“I think it was around that time when I began reading and studying philosophy in that coffee shop that I started unearthing my thick desires. It was an excavation process that didn’t happen all at once, but rather took years. During this time, I was still running my company, but I eventually stepped away completely, turning over control and allowing myself to fully disengage. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel and continue my journey of re-education.

This process was very gradual and led me down a spiritual path, which eventually brought me to Italy. At one point, I even considered a radical life choice to form a religious life. To make the move to Italy, I had to go through a complete self-emptying. I had to make significant changes in my life, including breaking up with a long-term girlfriend. In hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made. I don’t recommend everyone make such drastic changes, but at that moment, I felt a great peace in making those decisions.

However, life isn’t a linear process. It’s not as if my desires just kept getting thicker and the thin ones kept falling away. We always have two wolves inside of us, and there have been times, even recently, where I felt thin desires taking over. But there are always things that bring us back and remind us of what’s important.

Memory plays a crucial role in human life. One of my concerns is that we’re losing our memories, and I believe technology plays a significant role in this. It’s essential to remember the times in our life when our thick desires were activated, when we felt peace. It’s surprising how many people forget the good things in their life. We remember the trauma and the bad things, but sometimes we forget the times when we felt at peace. The act of remembering has been really important to me. There have been things in my life that made me forget, but there are always moments that bring us back.”

The “Three City Problem” – How Athens, Jerusalem & Silicon Valley Can Co-Exist

The “Three City Problem” is a concept that Luke Burgis proposes to make sense of the challenge of living in today’s world. He argues that we all need to balance the pulls of three metaphorical cities: Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley, each representing a different aspect of society.

  • Athens represents reason and the intellectual pursuit of knowledge.
  • Jerusalem symbolizes faith, spirituality, and the aspects of life that can’t be explained by reason alone.
  • Silicon Valley stands for technology and utility, focusing on what’s practical, profitable, and progressive.

Burgis expresses concern that these three cities often exist in silos, with little interaction or understanding between them. He believes that this lack of integration is a significant issue in our time, especially in debates about AI and technology, which often occur without the involvement of “Jerusalem” (spirituality and faith).

He emphasizes the need for bridges between these cities, for people to transcend their usual environments and engage with different perspectives. He sees value in bringing together representatives from all three cities to foster innovation and meaningful conversations.

Burgis is actively working on this integration, hosting events that bring together people from these three cities to engage in dialogue. He believes that the most interesting and transformative things happen when all three cities intersect.

Quotes From The Episode

  1. Work-Life Balance 54:00: “The real danger of working for yourself is that there is no off switch. You can just convince yourself that if you’re not working then you’re being lazy.”
  2. Transcending Bubbles 56:00: “Part of it is physical. If we’re very online and we try to solve this problem in a digital sense only, it’s extremely difficult. Maybe even impossible to solve because everything is too abstract.”
  3. Tech Narratives 59:00: “Technology sometimes tries to be all of those things at once right where we abdicate ourselves to technology. Crypto is our God, blockchain is our God, AI is our God.”
  4. Three City Problem 61:01: “I feel most whole when I’m sort of finding a way to live at the intersection with (Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley). This is fundamentally one of the big problems of our time.”
  5. University Experience 64:01: “There is something privileged about being in a place where you can have intellectual discourse. There is a lot of amazing information sharing that happens, there is organizational wisdom.”