Listening to your Inner Voice

Pál Szinyei Merse - Meadow with Poppies

Pál Szinyei Merse - Meadow with Poppies

Recently I learned about mimetic desire, originated by Rene Girard, but perhaps popularized in tech by Peter Thiel who saw him as his philosophical mentor.

The TL;DR of mimetic desire is that almost all of our behavior is based on imitation of others, and that it's inescapable. You want that nice car because other people see that nice car as valuable and that the larger culture has built up expectations around this object, not necessarily out of some pure desire on your part to have it. Same with prestigious jobs, schools, excess money, fancy clothes, etc.

If you're in business, as Thiel points out, you could base the customers you go after, and the product decisions you make, on your competitors instead of solving for the deeper problems you might focus on if you made more customer-aware, focused decisions that were divorced from considering your competitors.

I have struggled my whole life with mimetic desire. Instead of understanding the things that I myself want to do, I base a lot of decision making on those around me. What is the smart decision, based on what others would think? What should I be doing with my time? What would impress people?

The key problem with this, and something I've found myself thinking about for many years, is that you end up without any of your own opinions.

It's easy to see why we ended up this way. Human's are tribal creatures with sophisticated social hierarchies that have a dramatic impact on health and survival. In the past, if you were ostracized from the group, it could mean certain death. So it makes sense that our brains evolved to care a great deal about what others think of us.

But, we live in a modern age! For those of us in America, we have more freedom, wealth, and independence than any civilization in history. One of the more difficult things about our age is the sheer quantity of choices we can make about our future, and the impossibility of choosing the 'right' one.

A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week. — General George Patton

A difficult truth to accept is that it's often better to make a bad decision than no decision. We want to be able to look back at our thinking and have it be thoughtful, defensible, clear, articulate, and well supported. But, most decisions are reversible! It's often better to 'find out' than to spend endless amounts of time hand-wringing, researching, etc.

I work in product management, but I've also been on the pure creation side as well. I often think of product management as a debug for bad intuition, helping make sure that what you are building is actually something people want vs something you assume people want. You talk to customers, do the research, and build up a sense of what will actually work that is well supported.

However, after a while, you build up tacit knowledge. Knowledge that largely feels like instinct, as it's been built into muscle memory. You can't entirely explain why you know a decision is right, but you know. It's been born through experience.

A few years ago I left a job at a bootstrapped, scrappy startup called Badger Maps to join the professionalized product management world. This threw a lot of my opinions and assumptions into doubt. Did my work at Badger translate? Was the tacit knowledge that I built up over time useful in another context?

I had to revalidate a lot of my thinking and reassess the way I did things. This made trusting my tacit knowledge difficult, and not trusting your gut can lead to bad decisions, plenty of which I made.

As Thiel highlights from Gerards work, imitation is inescapable, but it's possible to be aware of it and double-check yourself.

After considering everyone else's opinions, what do you still want to do? What still feels right? Check in with yourself! Don't do the thing you don't want to do! Ask yourself: "What do I actually want to do?".