Buffett, Jobs and The Pope. The legacy of Girard: to unlearn and forgive.

What do Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and The Pope have in common?

Would you guess the philosophy of René Girard?

Girard is one of the most influential philosophers of the last century. He sadly passed away recently but not before leaving his dent in the universe.

Girard influenced many of us and his legacy will continue to do so for years to come. His main tenet is that imitation is core to how human society operates.

His former student, Peter Thiel recently described it thusly at his memorial:

“The truth that Girard discovered is that human beings are profoundly dominated by imitation; we all borrow our deepest desires from the people around us.
In other words, the problem of education is not just that your parents or high school haven’t yet exposed you to all of the riches you’ll find on a university campus; The problem of education is not just that you haven’t yet had time to get yourself up to the cutting edge of your chosen field; The problem of education is that your decisions — and your professors’ decisions, too — might be guided by nothing more solid than the social conventions that we all imitate without even thinking about it. The problem of education goes all the way down, and I think Girard points to the way in which you might be able to say that real education begins only when you learn to be critical of education itself.

This idea is hard: that we should question our fundamental assumptions by truly stepping outside the boxes of conventional thinking and education.

Girard delved deeply to the roots of society, pointing out the fact that imitating others — “competitive mimesis” as he puts it — is part of how our culture has been constructed since our Foundations.

And this imitation is pernicious.

It leads to things like the lack of diversity we see across industries as people copy others in how they visualize success.

It leads to underperformance in business, especially in industries where disagreeing is crucial. For instance, given the level of imitation in active in investment management it is no surprise that the industry underperforms.

And in our personal lives the result is perhaps worse. We take jobs we don’t like in firms with soul crushing cultures because we don’t see a more original path.

We face “friends” who copy or steal from us. And our “enemies” are of course even worse.

The negative effects of competition seem obvious upon reflection.

So it is unsurprising that some of the most influential leaders in our society have been motivated by similar notions.

One of Warren Buffett’s most interesting insights centers around the notion of the rarity of originality in business. He poignantly pointed out that there are only 3 kinds of businesses: innovators, imitators and idiots. The valuable creativity of innovators is copied by imitators and then destroyed by idiots.

Steve Jobs is also known for his emphasis on being different.

As he put it:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

When we hear these legends mention the importance of being an original it resonates. And yet, as we build our careers, create new businesses and products and seek out how to live our lives, many of us fail to accomplish this goal.

As Jobs pointed out, we all have the potential to look within, to find our own voice, as David Whyte urged in Start Close In:

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Having the courage to be original is more important than simply reaching your potential.

Girard anticipated much of the violence we see in the headlines today. Sadly, this reality of suicide bombings and other facts of the modern world are the result of a violence that emerges from our competitive roots.

In business, this destroys profits; in our culture, it destroys relationships; and in the World it destroys lives.

That’s why the call for an end to imitation so important. But the path there for our society requires more than simply looking within.

Girard knew that to change the course of society requires something deeper: it means we have to learn to forgive those imitators who come after us. As he put it in Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World:

“If all men loved their enemies, there would be no enemies.”

This idea of forgiveness should sound familiar.

In fact, recently the Pope tweeted:

When we live in a society of copy cats, there will be imitators who reach for your Apple. They will steal your ideas. Your customers. Your friends. And your instinct will be to compete right back. To cut prices. To lash out. At the personal level, we fight. At industry levels, we compete. And at the level of society, this can lead to violent warfare.

Girard knew that on a human level we need to not only learn to hear our own original voice, but we also need to learn forgiveness. He also rightly noted this is the only path forward for a peaceful society.

The alternative to forgiveness is what we see in the violence that is sadly still present in our world and the excessively unoriginal copycat and destructive way of doing business in many industries.

It is only through the reconciliation that comes from truly loving your neighbor, that we can build the kind of society we aspire towards.

And in a way, this forgiveness can be the same path to creative individuality.

As others come chasing, copying and imitating and you smile at their human ways, this can create the space to return back inside yourself. To find that inner voice. To reset your compass.

Because true innovation cannot be copied.

There can never be another Berkshire Hathaway or Apple.

Or another you.

Synthesizing these themes, Girard shows us the truth of our own imitative culture and points the way towards another possible future.

One where we cherish original thinkers. People striving to express their inner voice. Forgiving one another as we grapple with the reality of a society full of well-intentioned mentors, teachers, investors and friends who encourage us to follow the safe and therefore imitative path of competition.

Perhaps if we listen to the Wisdom of Girard, not only will our industries be more innovative, but maybe we’ll also live in a more loving, creative and peaceful world.

Thanks to Peter Thiel for sharing the excerpt above and to he and Ryan Cahill for reviewing a draft of this post.