Popular culture today is centered around, and even driven by the catch phrase “fomo” (fear of missing out). It is engrained in the way we think, the way we act, and the way we process and apply our values. Whole companies are built around creating more fomo and then capitalizing on that fomo to drive our behaviors. Our capitalist society is indeed founded on the basic engine of fomo -> consumer behaviors.
Take advertising. The goal of advertisers is to convince you as their target customer to believe that you’re missing out on whatever glamorous and glorious thing the more-beautiful-than-average model on your screen is doing. Always put together, fashionable, and incredibly happy, the models tell you that whatever they’re selling has just changed their lives. And not just that, it’ll change yours too! So call/click now and get your life upgrade!
Or consider social media. Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever the latest craze is of your day, the basic premise is the same. Give people the tools to glam up their public persona (ie Insta filters etc), give them a targeted platform to share that persona (ie your social network paired with an AI-based recommendation engine), and then create a virtuous cycle of likes, re-tweets, and dopamine hits. All of that to keep you coming back for more, and to make you feel like you’re missing out and need a change.
And so we click.
We click through ads that promise us that same happiness that we see our friends enjoying. We buy things that help us glam up our own personas by adding filters, buying light rings, and learning the right selfie angle to make our pictures really pop. We engage with content that tells us our kids need to be in more camps, need to learn more skills, need to have a long list of extra-curriculars.
Annnnnd cue the fear!
Bombarded by these messages daily, even hourly, we are left defenseless to the onslaught of subtle messaging telling us that we’re missing out, that our children are missing out. Over time, we begin to live that life - you know, the one that is so busy with scheduled stuff that there is no room for rest and relaxation. We begin to internalize the rat race as the correct way to live life. We begin to let fomo ruin (ahem, run) our lives.
The down side of fomo
There are many, many down sides of fomo, and this post is not not a fomo post after all, so I won’t even attempt to cover them all. I will however share a few that I believe are particularly problematic.
- Fomo causes us to lose control of our lives. We move to a space where the driving force is social media, or what our friends share with us, or what we see on TV. Regardless of the source, fomo causes us to relinquish control over where we spend our time and how we spend our thought energies.
- Fomo doesn’t allow us to enjoy life. Le joie de vivre is not experienced by running around following our fears; rather, it is experienced by ignoring everything else and focusing on the current moment.
- Fomo does not elevate life. It is focused on the surface, on the veneer. It causes us to spend our time replicating the actions of others instead of introspecting and expanding on the grand and elevated life.
So what’s the alternative?
The joy of missing out
To figure out an alternative mindset, let’s first dive into why fomo exists in the first place.
Popular culture tells us that missing out on something is bad, and as such is something that we should be fearful of. It tells us that when we miss out on something, our life is less than it would have been if we hadn’t missed out, and as a result we ought to aim to never miss out on things.
That fundamental line of thinking has driven so much of our industry, our products, and our cultural norms. It is deemed socially acceptable for one to be out with friends but also having a full asynchronous texting conversation that requires concentrating on one’s phone for 30 seconds every several minutes. It is normal for one to receive a notification and pull out one’s phone, handle the event, and return to the conversation without any apology because there’s nothing culturally wrong with the behavior!
Not only is this rude, but it also misses out on a basic premise of human life: one cannot fully appreciate that which one is not fully immersed or present in.
This means that by having fomo, by multi-tasking, being never fully present, and by attempting to keep abreast of all the social media posts and topics that are constantly bombarding our phones, we miss the life that is being lived in front of our eyes. In other words, fomo is causing us to have a worse life.
Instead, we should realize that missing out is a good thing. In economics, we’re taught that the opportunity cost of investing in option A is the ability to invest in every other option out there. But if we invest in a way such that we want to not pay any opportunity costs, then we don’t make any investments at all and therefore remain stagnant. If we choose to hedge our bets and invest a little in everything, we completely fail to capture exceptional growth events in a particular option.
This is exactly true in our personal lives as well. To have a rich and full life, we must choose things to invest in, and by definition pay the opportunity cost of not being able to invest in everything else. In other words, missing out on one thing means that we’ve invested fully in something else. It means we’ve explicitly chosen something else to spend our time on, and in so choosing have committed ourselves to something rather than sitting around waiting for the possibility of something.
This is why we should live with the joy of missing out.
In order to fully embrace the richness of each experience, we need to ruthlessly prioritize what we spend our time on. A few notes on ruthless prioritization, as it’s slightly different than your standard prioritization.
- Ruthless prioritization requires a stack rank, with no ties. For you logic/math people out there, this means that for two goals A and B, it must be true that A > B or B > A. This also means there is no “P1 bucket”. Each discrete goal has its own priority, and it is explicitly not equal to any other.
- You cannot accomplish all your goals. There exists some maximum number of goals that are accomplishable in a given timespan, and that is almost always a smaller number than the things that you might want to have on your priorities list. This means explicitly that there are things on your list that you will not be able to accomplish. This is hard for many people to accept, and as a result many try (and fail) to do a little bit of everything. This is foolish, and will always end in either failure or in burning yourself out.
- Goal N+1 will always be the worst! This is because it was just under the line, which means that it’s something you value. As a result, it will be tempting to spend just a little bit of time on it. Don’t. You need to actively decide not to do it, as it didn’t make the list.
By actively prioritizing the things that you do, you intentionally set aside things that you would have liked to do but aren’t going to, which in turn allows you to focus on the things that are the most important! Welcome to the joy of missing out!
And so my boys, my hope for you is that you’re able to experience the deep joy that comes from a life well lived, filled with rich experiences and strong connections with loved ones. My prayer is that you never fear missing out on things but instead take joy in the knowledge that you’ve intentionally decided on the experiences you want in your life, as well as those that you don’t.