Do You Know What You Really Want?

Ever pursued a degree or a job you thought you’d love, only to discover that it brings you little joy? Maybe you saw people in the media or in your network achieving what looked like success and chose a path similar to theirs in response.

Think of it this way: Do you find it difficult to ignore what other people are up to? Their successes fill our feeds and update at the swipe of our thumbs. Think of the last TikTok, Instagram, or LinkedIn post that caught your eye. Was it an exclusive product, an inspiring story, or a cool opportunity you wish you had? As reactions and comments piled in, you likely found it even more relevant and attractive.


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Summary. With the amount of time we spend on social media, it can be difficult to ignore what other people are up to. Their successes fill our feeds and update at the swipe of our thumbs. It’s inevitable that those influence us in some way. You might have seen an inspiring story and as the comments piled in, you likely found it even more relevant and attractive.

  • The evolution of this particular behavior may be explained by the mimetic theory of desire, coined by French anthropologist René Girard in the 20th century. This desire is fundamentally and biologically social. In the past, it led us to safer food sources or healthier mates. Today, if other people want something, we’re going to want it, too.
  • If pursuing a path or goal is suddenly more interesting to you because someone else is doing it, now may be a good time to pause and reflect. Racking up credentials that fail to align with your personal values can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction.
  • But it’s important to know when and how you want to be impacted by others. When scrolling through feeds, ask: Am I being influenced in ways that are useful to me? Curate your feeds more deliberately, following and liking people or topics that inspire you versus those that lead down a rabbit hole of comparison.

How did we get here?

The evolution of this particular behavior may be explained by the mimetic theory of desire, coined by French anthropologist René Girard in the 20th century. Girard posited that desire is fundamentally and biologically social. In the past, it led us to safer food sources or healthier mates. Today, if other people want something, we’re going to want it, too.

More recent research shows that merely observing the actions of others can increase our perceived value of something: a material item, a hobby, or even a career choice. Two neurological aspects are at work here — the mirror neuron system and what researchers call “the valuation system.” Working in tandem, these trigger goal contagion, or the otherwise inexplicable “I want what you want” response.

As Kathy Caprino, a career coach and former therapist, writes: “Unlike animals, [people] want a vast array of things for which there is no purely instinctual basis to guide us, including careers, lifestyles, vacation destinations, friendships, partners, even our very identities.” She adds that whenever we lack an instinct to take a certain action, we look to others to “show us what we want.” This is much easier to do than objectively processing our own desires.

How can we make better choices — for ourselves?

If pursuing a path or goal is suddenly more interesting to you because someone else is doing it, now may be a good time to pause and reflect. Racking up credentials that fail to align with your personal values can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction. At the same time, identifying what you care about is only part of the solution. How you unpack your mimetic desires can help you approach your career and professional identity from a grounded and rational state of mind.

To figure out the best path forward, I reached out to Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School and expert on social influence. He is an internationally bestselling author of several books, including Invisible Influence.

Here’s what I learned from our conversation.

We’re being influenced all the time.

Berger told me that 99.9% of our decisions — big or small — are shaped by others. “This often happens without our awareness. For example, we may be interested in a career because, growing up, someone who had that career was nice to us or because it was portrayed favorably on television. Influence is often invisible. The same is true with our goals.”

Berger emphasized that influence isn’t inherently bad. To illustrate this, he offered a scenario: Imagine you’re in a new city and you must choose a restaurant, but you can’t rely on others to help you make that decision. It’d be pretty difficult, right? It’d take a long time and you probably wouldn’t end up at the best place. What do most people do? They head for online reviews.

“Others’ opinions help us a lot,” he said. “They save us time, energy, and effort, and help us make better decisions. The key is to be more aware of how influence works and actively choose how it impacts us.”

We can identify and limit negative influences.

Here’s a question worth considering: When and how do you want to be impacted by others? When it comes to your professional goals and identity, it’s worth engaging in what is known as metacognition: pausing to become aware of your thought processes and gain more understanding of the patterns behind them. This is especially important to pay attention to when scrolling through social media.

“It’s really easy to get online and engage in social comparison,” Berger said. “Someone else is doing great. They’ve just been given a new title or recognized with an award. You might see that and feel lesser somehow.”

Because of this, Berger believes we need to think carefully about what we hope to get out of consuming information online. “When reading a social media post, do you feel happy for the other person or happy that you’ve learned something new? For instance, social media often helps me learn about research I’m not as familiar with. I’m often glad I learned about this work and makes me better off.”

Conversely, if your feeds make you feel jealous or somehow worse about yourself, Berger advises taking a more intentional approach. Stop scrolling and consider if this technology is helping you the way you want it to. Ask: Am I being influenced in ways that are useful to me?

If you find that your social media channels are eliciting negative emotions on a regular basis, consider limiting your exposure or uninstalling some apps. Another option is to curate your feeds more deliberately, following and liking people or topics that inspire you versus those that lead down a rabbit hole of comparison.

The same advice goes for face-to-face interactions. Should you find yourself feeling swayed in one direction after a coffee meeting or visit with relatives, dig a little deeper. Try to define the aspects of the conversation that triggered a response in you: Was it the other person’s pride in their accomplishments or those of someone they care about? Was it the respect or deference they showed when mentioning someone in a position of authority? Or do their values and goals genuinely align with your own?

We can intentionally choose positive influences.

“I certainly think mimetic desire can help us to achieve more,” Berger said. “When we look to others and we see what they’re doing, it can make us want to strive for the next level or improve ourselves. That’s a positive thing.”

Just as a runner might train with a faster pace setter to improve their speed, you can use mimetic desire to grow your career.

Berger suggests seeking out someone who is slightly better than you in your goal area — what he refers to as proximal peers — to help you make incremental improvements. Proximal peers shouldn’t be so far ahead of you that their accomplishments are out of reach. But they should have made enough progress to inspire motivation and momentum.

Want to be where they are in a certain number of years? You might look at programs they’ve enrolled in, for example, or specific actions they’ve taken that led them down a path. Examining and following what has worked for others can then help you improve and achieve your goals, even if it provides more of a rough blueprint than a precise playbook.

How do you find these people? Berger suggests joining a virtual or in-person community where you can learn from people who have been in your shoes. As you make progress, don’t forget to pay it forward and share your experiences with those who are a few steps behind. This can be a powerful reminder of the headway you’ve made.

. . .

When you’re satisfied and confident in your choices, your life will be better for it. A key part of this process involves identifying your starting point and finding realistic milestones. If the gap between you and your goal is perceived as close, you will be more likely to work harder. If it’s too far ahead, you may give up before you even begin. Along the way, remember that while influence is undoubtedly driving your desires, it’s a tool, and your outcomes are all about how you use it.

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Kristi DePaul is a content creator whose writing on career navigation and personal branding has appeared in international outlets and has been cited by prominent think tanks and universities. She is founder and principal at Nuanced, a thought leadership firm for executives, and serves as CEO of Founders, a fully remote content agency focused on the future of learning and the future of work. She earned a master’s degree from the H. John Heinz III College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

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