Fear of Missing Out
It was as if there had never been the word “air” and then one day, all anyone could talk about was this new thing called “air” that surrounds us all day every day, that’s fundamental to life itself, that we experience with literally every breath we take. In 2013, they even added it to the dictionary with other recently bloomed words like “twerk” and “selfie.”
But the word wasn’t “air”
It was “FOMO,” an acronym for Fear Of Missing Out.
The Oxford Dictionary defines FOMO as:
Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.
Including the social media aspect in the definition might make it a newfangled concept, but the fear of missing out is as pervasive and fundamental to the way we experience the world as… air.
Sometimes the exciting or interesting event that may currently be happening elsewhere is as close as the neighborhood grocery store at the next checkout line over. The line that always seems to be moving faster than the one you’re in.
Sometimes the excitement is as far away as Wall Street where all the money seems to be rushing into small cap stocks, just as you switch to large caps. And in the homegrown S&P 500 stocks just as you reallocate your portfolio to emerging markets.
FOMO is just a high tech way of describing something we’ve felt all our lives:
The Grass is Always Greener
On The Other Side of The Fence
Except it’s not.
And intellectually we know it’s not.
But that doesn’t make us feel any better when all those people over there are scanning in their groceries, chatting and snickering with the cashier, making snide comments about all us dumb bastards over here in the “slow” line.
And it sure doesn’t make us feel any better when we’ve got an IRA full of emerging markets stock funds that haven’t gone anywhere in the last 6 years while the S & P has tripled.
Fear of missing out isn’t really the fear of missing out. It’s the fear of choosing poorly. Maybe more accurately it’s the fear of feeling like we’ve chosen poorly.
I can’t imagine that I would ever go skydiving. It certainly seems like it would be an adrenaline rush. And I understand all the mumbo jumbo about life beginning at the edge of your comfort zone and overcoming your fears by facing your fears.
But here’s the thing: I’m not afraid of crashing into the ground. I’m not afraid of dying.
I am, however, petrified by the idea that I could jump out of plane, pull the ripcord to no avail and spend the next 60 seconds plummeting to the earth contemplating the consequences of my bad decisions.
“Terry, you are the biggest fucking dumbass in the history of giant fucking dumbasses. You are about to hit the ground at 120 mph for no better reason than you wanted an adrenaline rush. Meanwhile, all the cool kids are still up there in that perfectly good airplane…snickering.”
That sinking feeling is the price we pay for having the freedom to choose. It’s the tyranny of choice.
We think we want more choices. We think options are a pathway to happiness. Happiness is always obtainable as long as we make the right choices.
But that’s how they get ya.
Because no matter what you choose, there’s always the nagging little voice in the back of your head, in the pit of your stomach, that says “what if.”
There’s always the road not taken.
We like to say that America is built on the freedom to choose. We get to choose our elected officials. We get to choose which brand of dishwashing detergent to buy. We get to choose where our kids go to college.
But the American economy isn’t built on the freedom to choose. The economy is built on the fear of missing out. The green, green grass on the other side of the fence.
The economy is driven by “what if.”
That feeling that maybe we made a bad choice keeps us in a constant state of stress and dissatisfaction looking for a slightly better choice to make that feeling go away.
So we hope the next guy we elect isn’t going to be as bad as the last one, but he (or she) always is.
We hope the new and improved dishwashing detergent will leave our glasses both streakless and spotless without any extra effort on our part. And we pay ever increasing tuition for an ever declining ROI educating our children for jobs that no longer exist, but would now require a master’s degree if they did.
FOMO keeps the rats running without ever realizing that the race is just a wheel.
FOMO makes us buy shit we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.
FOMO makes us do shit we don’t want to do on the off chance that someone else might be enjoying themselves doing it.
A few years ago, before I got off the booze, I would spend 2 or 3 nights a week closing down the smokiest, diviest, dingiest bar in Nashville with my hockey buddies. We’d sit in there, night after night , week after week, telling the same stories to the same guys who have heard all those stories a million times before. And maybe one night out a hundred something interesting would happen. Someone new would have a new story. Or someone would get stupid drunk and do something really stupid. No one wants to miss that. So we showed up week after week. Just in case.
FOMO makes us watch TV shows we don’t want to watch so we can have something to talk about while we’re sitting around waiting for something interesting to happen.
And maybe that’s the scariest thing of all. FOMA is a self fulfilling prophecy. We’re so preoccupied with searching for the next new thing to take away that nagging “what if” feeling that we never get around to enjoying the thing we have now.
Our fear of missing out causes us to miss out.
Even when we’re doing something we enjoy we become so concerned with capturing and sharing the moment to prove how awesome it was that we don’t relish in its awesomeness.
There’s a social media saying “pics or it didn’t happen” so we now watch the greatest moments of our lives through the lens on our smartphones so we can prove it happened.
And we miss honest human connections because we’re too busy pawing away at our phones looking for the cutest baby pig video EVAH!
FOMO is scary but not for the reasons we think.
The guy behind the clown mask is just a guy.
All the stuff the cool kids have is just stuff.
And all that green grass on the other side of the fence, it’s still just grass.
Terry Lancaster is VP of Making Sh!t Happen. Speaker. Entrepreneur. And Author of BETTER! Self Help For The Rest Of Us. He’s a husband, a father and a beer league hockey all star, as if there could ever be such a thing.