Nurture your imagination to cultivate anti-mimesis

Posted 01 March 2024
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By Henry Oliver
Contributing Author
Branded EF image of a tree split in two: half illustration and half photo

Page and Tesla

Larry Page grew up in a house full of books and magazines. He spent his childhood immersed: reading, reading, reading. When he was twelve, Page read Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, which described how Tesla remained anonymous because of his lack of commercial ability. Despite the fact that he was a genius, whose ideas were lighting up the world, “He was just one of the strange individuals of whom it takes a great many of varying types to make up a complete population of a great metropolis.” That is the final sentence of Prodigal Genius. It made twelve-year-old Larry Page cry, and stayed with Page for the rest of his life. 

Throughout his career, Page has been described in stereotypical terms like “robotic”. Stories of his brusque impersonal management style are renowned. Journalists wrote patronisingly of his supposed emotional immaturity. But the most important insight of his career—that to be a successful innovator, one must be commercial, as well as create something new—was a revelation delivered emotionally. That is what made him an Edison of our time, rather than a Tesla. He learned how to conform when he needed to, and when to stick to his own ideas.

This is a conflict at the heart of Larry Page that points to a larger conflict inside us all. Like Tesla, he is idiosyncratic, highly motivated, and a little reclusive, naturally uncomfortable with corporate and commercial life. He has a strong inner drive and follows it. But, Page has also learned to conform where necessary. He developed as a manager against his natural inclination.

Larry Page was so successful because he harnessed the productive tension between conformity and independence. He was neither part of the crowd nor inimically opposed to it. He found a balance between mimesis and anti-mimesis.


Mimesis is the idea that we want what other people have, and that wanting drives our behaviour. Mimesis garnered credibility when Peter Thiel (who invested in Facebook because of mimesis) revealed he was inspired by the French historian and philosopher Rene Girard. To many people working in technology, the idea of mimesis is inextricably Girardian.

Girard’s fundamental insight is that we want what others have, in order to become more like them. All desire is a desire for being someone else. But, the more confident we become in our model, the less confident we become in ourselves. This frustration turns our model into a rival. Rivalry leads to violence, violence unifies groups against each other, until a common enemy is converged upon, who is sacrificed to end the dispute. 

Mimesis is a strong driver of corporate behaviour. Peter Thiel described in Zero to One, that companies with rivalry, like Microsoft and Google, don’t compete because they are different, but because they are the same. They become each other’s common enemy. This creates a trap where each imitates the other’s products, leaving space in the market for innovators to surpass them. 

Giving in to our desire to have what other people have can be limiting: mimesis often restricts ambition to the known, the visible. 

The inner self

So, the question arises—how can we become anti-mimetic, to avoid the trap of imitating and fighting our rivals and thus limiting ourselves? 

This is not a simple question of taking the path less trodden. Girard warned that many people leave the familiar path only to fall into the gutter. All too often, the non-conformist is the most conventional of all. As Peter Thiel said, “The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.” 

True anti-mimesis comes from the inner self, the originating force inside us. You might call this a mind, or a soul. To the Ancient Greeks, it was a daemon, an inner spirit. We often think of it as consciousness: the something inside you that is uniquely you and feels like you.

This inner self means something inside us pre-exists mimesis. We are not blank slates. When we see something we want to imitate, it must chime with something already inside us. We do not blindly imitate what we are exposed to. There is interplay. “The fact narrated,” the transcendentalist philosopher Emerson said, “must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible.”

Girard and the inner self

Girard was concerned to find the Truth, the hidden theories that explain reality, what Plato called “the really real.” He was reacting against the Romantics, who saw imagination as the only limit of reality. As the philosopher Richard Rorty said, imagination sets the bounds of thought, imagination breaks the path that reason follows. Before you can know something in the world—reason about it, analyse it, imitate it—you must be able to imagine it. 

Imagination expands the world. Just as economic growth and technological invention create new things in the world—things unknown since the beginning of time—so does language. We live, as the poet Robert Graves said, in a web of language. The bigger our web, the bigger our world. 

That expansion of imagination is crucial to understanding Page. How many other readers of that Tesla biography took its lesson so deeply to heart? There was something in Page already that made the account of Tesla’s life resonate so deeply with him. The story then expanded his capacity to imagine the world. And that gave him the capacity to develop and evolve.

Page’s management development

During his first period in charge of Google, Page underwent a significant period of adjustment, learning how to manage people in a large organisation, something that didn’t come naturally. Despite his strong disinclination to have managers running Google, he later cooperated with Eric Schmidt and others, realising that they were commercialising the business and allowing him to work on projects like Google Books. With his hard-won abilities as a manager, Page acquired, developed, and launched (with Andy Rubin) the Android operating system that became a major challenge to the iPhone. Many of the most ambitious projects in Google and Alphabet can be traced back to Page. 

There were many social norms Page did not observe. He gradually adopted some of these norms, but he did not become a conformist. He retained his visionary ideas about the scale on which Google ought to operate. That is why he later took back the CEO job from Eric Schmidt. He continued to apply the lesson that he had learned so deeply at the age of twelve from reading Tesla’s biography, without losing the core of himself. 

He was able to keep the balance between mimesis and anti-mimesis.

How to control mimesis

Girard distinguishes between the stability of unfulfilled desire and the instability of fulfilled desire. When mimetic desire succeeds, it withers away; when it is thwarted, it intensifies. Hence the war-like competition between corporations. Both rivals are driven by acquisitive mimesis: they want the same thing. Eventually, order must be restored, so conflictual mimesis occurs: both sides pick a common enemy.

Girard’s solution is religion: the repression and diversion of mimetic forces. Rules, rituals, and prohibitions limit rivalry. 

But Girard thought the modern world had become too complicated to rely on priests or philosophers. Instead, we turn to self-help gurus and experts. To Girard, this verged on “archaic man’s faith in terrifying idols.” What could be more conformist than listening to a self-help guru? Even in the startup world—where software reduces scarcity and is supposed to reduce mimetic conflicts—a culture apparently dedicated to anti-mimesis is often driven by emulation of successful founders, searching for “types” to invest in, and clustering around ideas of good habits and rational thinking, promoted by a selection of priest-replacement gurus. 

Girard’s theory is based around the way we see ourselves in other people. In this way, mimesis narrows our view: we become so obsessed with our mentor-rival, we lose a broader vision of the world and of ourselves.

The antidote is imagination, which is the essence of the inner self. The more imaginative power we have, the more we are able to rethink the world, see beyond the mimetic rivalries that can become so constraining. 

The mirror and the lamp

Literary criticism was the original source of Girard’s ideas, which have ancient roots. Mimesis has been theorised since the Greeks. As has the role of the imagination. Aristotle believed literature was mimetic, that it copied the world. Conversely, Longinus wrote that “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul” and that it could be produced by “greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery”.  Describing the conflict between these two ideas in literature, the critic M.H. Abrams called them the mirror and the lamp. Mimetic art holds up a mirror to nature and reflects the world. Romantic art lets out the light of the inner lamp, letting the individual imagination shine. 

In his reading of literature, Girard theorised the mirror and not the lamp. But people are capable of being both a mirror and a lamp. As Longinus had it, we work through imitation and greatness of soul. Humanity is not a hall of mirrors. Shining inside every mirror is a lamp. These two forces must work together in imitative counterpoint. They should reflect each other, but play off each other too, and develop in complex and unexpected ways. 

Think of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation—the difference between doing something purely because you want to and doing something because of incentives and punishments. Paul Buchheit, the originator of Gmail, distinguished between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation like this.

The extrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person you are told to be, and put all of your energy and drive into fitting that mold.

The intrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person that you are, and put all of your energy and drive into being the best possible version of yourself.

You can do everything at school the way your teachers and parents expect, says Buchheit, or you can do what is necessary to pass and focus on your own interests. In that way, he spent much of his time programming and later became one of the most productive people at Google, before founding a business that was later sold to Facebook

Buchheit’s binary is a parallel of mimesis and anti-mimesis, of conformity and imagination. We need both. We must not be so conformist we neglect to develop our inner self, to nurture our imaginations. But we must not be so anti-mimetic that we are unable to produce something the world really wants.

Importance of provocation

What we need is imitation that is provocative, not passive. As Emerson said,

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

When people with language far beyond our context speak, we might want to imitate them. That is provocation—it draws out something of us that we wish to develop, like Page and Tesla.

Girard’s insights teach us how difficult it can be to do this in a non-conformist manner. Emerson anticipated that: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” The more limits we allow on the people, places, ideas, and circumstances we are exposed to, the more limits we impose on our language, on our context—the less aspirational we can be. But the more people we are exposed to, the more chances there are for extrinsic motivation to dampen our intrinsic motivation.

We do not need to follow Girard to control our own mimetic desires. Prohibition and ritual are not the only techniques. We can follow Emerson and expand our imagination, expand our language, expand our world. We can nurture our inner light. To Girard, we want what others prevent us from possessing. But to Emerson, history was the application of the manifold spirit of man to the manifold world. Nurture your spirit.

Imagination, Graham, Page

This tension between conformity and individuality is at the heart all startups, if not of all corporate life. How much of ourselves we give up for other people — how much we imitate others rather than act as ourselves — is the philosophical question at the heart of entrepreneurship.

The aim of a startup is to make something everyone wants that no-one has thought of before, to have an idea that only seems obvious in retrospect. In this way, a good founder is an essentially creative person. That’s why Paul Graham describes imagination as the most important form of intelligence:

Intelligence does matter a lot of course. It seems like the type that matters most is imagination. It’s not so important to be able to solve predefined problems quickly as to be able to come up with surprising new ideas. In the startup world, most good ideas seem bad initially. If they were obviously good, someone would already be doing them. So you need the kind of intelligence that produces ideas with just the right level of craziness.

That’s what Larry Page had. But he also had the sort of intelligence that allowed him to adjust to others. When his imagination was struck so forcefully with the story of Tesla, it made him capable of conforming when he needed to later on. He combines the two impulses.


This points to a solution, a way of being neither too mimetic nor too anti-mimetic, that weaves together Emerson and Girard, the mirror and the lamp. 

This was expressed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who believed in utilitarianism and enlightened self-interest, which many see as the root of mimetic conformity—but who also believed in the importance of individual flourishing. 

Mill’s definition of a genius was not someone who had original ideas—all ideas, even the oldest, are always new to someone. Instead, a genius was someone who “gets at his convictions by his own faculties, and not by reliance on any other person whatever.” That use of your own faculties was the precursor for original genius. Imagine, says Mill, that we have acquired all possible knowledge. We would still distinguish between people who discovered the truth for themselves and those who merely took it on trust. Trust your inner self, he says, rather than conform with some outer norm—do not take the world for granted. Discover yourself in order to discover the world. Develop them in tandem.

What the high-handed assessments of Larry Page’s social inelegance missed was that Page is just such a person. He never takes the world for granted. He discovers it. And he does so, partly, because his imagination has been expanded by his reading, especially that biography of Nikolas Tesla. Page is a mirror and a lamp. Paul Buchheit put it like this: “True self improvement requires becoming a better version of our selves, not a lesser version of someone else.”

Mill believed this too. Often characterised as hyper-rational, Mill was deeply curious and artistic, able to compose piano music, recite poetry, and talk in detail about botany on country walks. He thought poetry can expand the limits of our understanding in ways that little else can. He spent his life expanding his language, expanding his imagination. 

There is much good writing available about how to be anti-mimetic, but nothing can substitute for the expansion of your imagination. Art provokes like nothing else can. All great art—music, movies, paintings, literature, architecture, photography, theatre—can be a means of expanding our consciousness, including biographies of Tesla. Travel accomplishes this as well, as do all forms of engaging with new cultures. To insist on yourself, as Emerson had it, you must expand, create, and discover yourself through the acquisition of new language and new ideas. We must discover the best of the world and be provoked by it.

As Girard himself said, when asked about overcoming mimesis, “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

Henry is a writer. His book, Second Act, about late blooming talent, is out May 2024. His Substack, The Common Reader, focuses on biography, literature, philosophy, and talent. In 2022, he was awarded an Emergent Ventures grant.