Career & Success

Missing Something? How to Kick FOMO with Conscious Decision-Making

In this episode, Patrick McGinnis explains how to conquer one of our greatest fears: the fear of missing out.

October 31, 2023

What if you had that job? What if you were with that person? What if there’s a better option out there? If you find yourself asking these questions, Patrick McGinnis invented the term for what you’re experiencing: FOMO.

First coined by McGinnis in a piece published by the Harvard Business School newspaper, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) describes the anxiety we feel when thinking that other people are having more fun and living more fulfilling lives than we are. As McGinnis says, “We are constantly comparing ourselves to other people. We are seeing the options that are out there. And then we’re saying, what I’m doing right now isn’t good enough. I am missing out on something.”

Both in his book, Fear of Missing Out: Practical Decision-Making in a World of Overwhelming Choice, and in this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, McGinnis explains how conscious decision-making can help us feel more sure of our choices and experience less anxiety about the options we pass up.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: One of the biggest fears that I struggle with is the fear of missing out. Is there a better opportunity? Are there other people I should be talking to? Is this the right place to eat or visit? The fear of missing out looms large in my life. Today we’ll explore FOMO and how to deal with it. I’m Matt Abrahams. I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am really excited to speak with Patrick McGinnis. Patrick is the bestselling author of Fear of Missing Out Practical Decision-Making in a World of Overwhelming Choice and the 10% Entrepreneur. He’s also the creator and host of the FOMO Sapiens podcast. Patrick, thanks so much for being here.

Patrick McGinnis: Thanks so much for having me.

Matt Abrahams: I certainly don’t want to miss out of any of our conversations, so let’s go ahead and get started. It’s hard for me to believe, but I’m actually talking to the originator of the term FOMO, fear of missing Out. In preparing for this chat, you told me that FOMO, in your words, hijacks us and takes us away from our intentions and gets us to do and say things we don’t want and probably shouldn’t want. I’d love for you to share more about what FOMO is and how does it work against us.

Patrick McGinnis: Yeah, FOMO is, it’s a word that we use in jest a lot. It’s sort of like a meme, and it is a word that I created when I wrote about it in a humor article in the newspaper of Harvard Business School about 20 years ago when I was a student there, so sorry, Stanford people. FOMO was invented at Harvard, and it would’ve probably stayed there except that all my classmates, I’ll go to McKinsey all over the world and started using it. And then there was a guy who was my neighbor, his name’s Mark Zuckerberg, who happened to start this company called Facebook that gave us all FOMO. When I invented it, I saw it very much as a high-class problem of MBA students who had so many options that they could go anywhere they wanted on the weekend, they could fly off to Europe, they could go on vacation, they could apply to a million jobs, all this sort of stuff.

Now, what that has materialized into today is a phenomenon in which many of us, because of the pernicious effects of social media, because of the accelerant that is being able to figure out what other people are doing all the time we are living lives in which we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people, we are seeing the options that are out there, and then we’re saying, what I’m doing right now isn’t good enough. I am missing out on something. And so it’s not just about the party or the vacation. It goes much, much deeper. When I go on LinkedIn, I start to question every decision I’ve ever made professionally when I see my classmates or the CEO of this or the partner at that. And the reality is, of course, that all of this is an internal struggle. It is something we are putting on ourselves. We are creating a narrative inside of our head about something that we don’t even really know that much about. We don’t know if we’d like to be a partner at a law firm or a partner at Goldman Sachs. We don’t know if we would like to go to this place or do that thing, but we create a best case scenario just like we put filters on social media and then we compare our present condition to those things and we feel inadequate. So that’s the hijacking that happens.

Matt Abrahams: I certainly personally myself, have suffered from a lot of FOMO. It’s been something that I’ve struggled with for a long time, and when I learned of the term, it actually gave me some solace because it helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one. I mean, if there’s a term out there and people are talking about it, then it actually helped to put into perspective for me. However, I still struggle with it. So I’m wondering if you can suggest ways to reduce or stop FOMO, and I’m especially curious if you can give ideas or suggest ways in which communication plays a role in how we can reduce our FOMO.

Patrick McGinnis: I love this problem, and part of the reason I love this problem is because the communication that we’re focusing on is internal. It is the internal talk track of your life. And as somebody who has always been highly competitive and loved to win, my talk track has constantly been, I’m not good enough. I’m not doing the best thing. And that is so many of us in the world of MBAs and business people and all the things that we all do, and it’s a motivator. So FOMO is not all bad. FOMO is a beautiful motivator, and if we can tap into it and control it and not let it get out of hand, it can be wonderful. But the problem is if it gets out of hand, it causes us to do bad things. It causes us to feel bad. It has a lot of emotional tolls.

There’s a real psychological sort of implication here. Now, how then do we manage that internal conversation? Well, FOMO is created by two powerful forces. The first is what I call the aspirational FOMO. It’s the idea that something’s bigger and better shinier and that we want to have that thing right. It’s great in a sense because it means that we want more and we have aspirations. But of course what happens is that it gets out of hand. So the aspirational FOMO is part one. The second is herd FOMO. Everybody’s doing that thing. I’m not. Should I be doing that thing? And that comes from our earliest humans, I mean our ancestors, they stuck together in packs because if they got separated, they didn’t have the information, they didn’t have the physical safety they needed. Of course, today it’s not physical safety, it’s psychological safety that we’re seeking when we have FOMO.

So, to deal with those, we must attack each one for the aspirational FOMO. We must ask ourselves. It’s a pretty basic set of questions. Things like, is that thing as good as it looks? Can I afford to do that? Do I have time to do that? What are the trade-offs I must make to do that? And then we must dig into that thing and replace the fear with facts so that we can make a decision based on data, not emotion. So that’s how you attack the aspirational FOMO on the herd. FOMO, that’s a question of motivation. And so the question you must ask yourself is, why do I want this thing? Is this something I truly want? Do I have agency or am I simply following the crowd? And we all know from we were little kids that you don’t just follow the crowd. Nobody. If so-and-so jumps off a bridge, will you jump off? Of course not yet. Emotionally and psychologically when we have FOMO, we’re jumping off many bridges. So you got to attack those two roots and then you are good to go.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for delineating the inner workings of FOMO. The aspirational versus the herd makes a lot of sense to me. I had never thought of that, but in reflecting on the FOMO I have, I certainly have both, but it helps to have names to those and the ability to introspect, to reflect as a way to help ourselves out of it and to change that talk track makes a lot of sense to me. I love your fear to fact combat the fear by looking at the facts and then really questioning our motivations makes a lot of sense. So thank you for that. You’ve also coined another term, FOBO, fear of a better option. Can you help us understand what is FOBO and how is it different from FOMO?

Patrick McGinnis: It is a very, very high class problem. FOBO stands for fear of a better option. It’s the idea that we are waiting for something slightly better to come along. You’re trying to pick the hotel for the vacation. You’ve got three job offers. You’re on the dating app and you keep swiping and swiping and swiping, and you never actually choose. And unlike FOMO, I like to think of sort of this as drinking wine and smoking. FOMO is like drinking wine. You can drink some wine and if you have a lot of wine, of course it’s bad, but you have a little wine, it’s okay, you have a little more fun, you loosen up, you dance, all that sort of stuff. FOBO is like smoking. Nothing good about it. And also terrible secondhand effects. So it is the kind of thing that I see amongst my friends and classmates from Harvard Business School. The more options you have, the more money, the more power you become trapped within this world of Fogo because you can, because it’s really an affliction of affluence.

Matt Abrahams: I love how you used a really powerful analogy of helping clarify through the analogy of drinking versus smoking. I always look for how people explicate concepts, and you did a great job there. I too, I guess am fortunate enough to have Fogo. I guess it’s a gift, right? That you can actually experience it. So let me ask you the same question I asked regarding FOMO. What can we do to help reduce or stop FOBO from in some ways paralyzing us and making us miserable when we should actually be doing quite well?

Patrick McGinnis: Yeah, and it’s close to FOMO. There are very similar characteristics here, but again, it’s that internal talk track and saying to yourself, oh, if I just keep looking, if I keep searching, I will find something better. And that is fallacious. Because what happens is that we fool ourselves into thinking that the more we look, the better we will come out. But the reality is the longer you wait, the more likely it is that in fact some of those options slip away. And that is the danger over time offices, they don’t last forever. They do go away. And so number one is to remember that. And number two is to have a conversation with yourself about what really matters. What am I actually looking for? What are my criteria? A lot of times people get stuck because they’ve never set the criteria that they’re trying to measure towards.

And so if you do create that criteria, you’re positioned to be able to then make better decisions. Now what I do, and this is where things get extra fun, and I did a fun video for Ted around this that was called How to Make Faster Decisions, is that a lot of the things that give me Fogo actually are things that don’t really matter. It’s like which restaurant to go to or which hotel or which TV to buy, stuff like that. Because why? Because when you go on Amazon and you want to buy a pair of white socks, there are a thousand different choices. It’s overwhelming. We live in a world where there’s just too much. I outsource everything. I never pick the restaurant, you pick the restaurant, I don’t decide the tv. I get the wire cutter on New York Times to do it for me. I just go with what they say. And so the more that you do that, you outsource simple decision making in your life, you actually build up a muscle around decision-making that is very powerful.

Matt Abrahams: So two things I heard there. First, you need to think about what does success look like? What is it that I’m really trying to achieve here? Have some goals around that to then help become criteria for decision-making. And then when possible, don’t put yourself in a position where you have to be concerned about what a potential outcome could be. Outsource it if you can. I love that idea. I can’t tell you in my immediate family, there’s a lot of rumination over decisions that I think could be easily outsourced to people who are better served to make those decisions like Wirecutter, like consumer reports, things of that nature. In a conversation you and I had in advance of this, Patrick, you shared with me that you love language and love words, and I just want to comment on that. It comes through in your communication. I love that you use words like fallacious and pernicious and use analogies to help explain things that you’re an author, a podcast host, you’re using language all the time. Talk to me about your thoughts on language and the importance of it and why is it important? What do you think about when you think about using language effectively?

Patrick McGinnis: That’s the best question anybody’s ever asked me in all of my interviews ever. And I mean that I love that and just put a smile on my face because I do love language and I also speak for languages. So I speak Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and I love foreign language as well, and I love the English language. To me, when you’re using words, it’s just like a puzzle that you’re spontaneously, and why not try to make it as interesting as possible? And so to me, it’s just like a constant opportunity to amuse myself and to challenge myself to be clever. And that’s why I so enjoy meeting people who love words as well and who are clever conversationalists because it’s sort of like a game. You’re playing a game that is very fast-paced and fun. And the reality is if you use language creatively, you’ll never be bored, and I’m easily bored. So that’s really what it’s for me.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate that. I too see communication as a puzzle, and I love trying to play with communication. I’m a huge fan of alliteration, and I always try to throw alliteration in wherever I can. What I find that you do really interesting, and I’d love for people to listen to how you speak, you’ll use engaging words and vocabulary that might not be as common, but you then very quickly in either the example you give or the very next phrase, you in essence define the word for us. So you help bring along those who might not know the word. And that’s a skill that I think any of us who serve as teachers or educators could bring to help people understand what we’re saying.

I want to ask you, what are you thinking about next? What’s the next think that you’re thinking of? I put some thought into this myself, and maybe this is just where I am in my age and in my stage of life, but I’ve been thinking a lot of FOGO, fear of growing old and also relatedly, FOPO, fear of peeing often. I’m curious what’s going on for you in terms of your thoughts about what’s next to look at?

Patrick McGinnis: I love this question because I hadn’t thought about this, but now you just got me. I’m going to, can I break some news here? And it’s such the right place to do this because of the Stanford connection. So I’ve been thinking about the venture capital market. So I do venture capital investing in addition to the other things I do. And right now there’s a big retrade happening down rounds and renegotiations of terms and things like that. And it’s a very interesting phenomenon that needs a name and people are starting to say, oh, it’s pay to play and all this sort of stuff. And I don’t like that term. I think it sounds very negative because if you’re a venture capitalist and you’re supporting a company and you’re able to renegotiate all the crazy terms that you had last year and get something a bit more appropriate and support a company, that’s a good thing. And we should call that out and we should appropriately value it. So I’m calling that a support premium.

Matt Abrahams: I like it.

Patrick McGinnis: Yes. And I want to do something with it Support premium. That’s one of the words that I really like. And so I hope all you VCs listening, I want to be the person from Cowboy Ventures who coined Unicorn. I want support premium to be big.

Matt Abrahams: Alright, well we’ll try to help you with that. But I think support premium spans beyond just capital. I think like FOMO and FOBO. I think there are lots of areas of our life where that idea resonates. Well. Before I end, I like to ask some questions of my guests that are a little rapid fire. Give us a little personal insight. Are you up for answering some of these?

Patrick McGinnis: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: My first question is targeted based on who you are and what you look at and study. So I want to ask you, Patrick, what gives you FOMO? What gives you FOMO the most? For me, it’s social. It’s all socially related. I always wonder, am I missing out on some great conversation or great connection? What gives you FOMO?

Patrick McGinnis: What doesn’t? Everything. I left the corporate world to do something very unconventional and I’ve loved every minute of it, but I constantly ask myself, is this the right path for me? And I think that that’s very natural in the human experience, and I try to shut it down and I know how to manage it, but I always wonder, should I have done this other thing? Would I be better at this other thing?

Matt Abrahams: I can relate to that too. I’ve made several career choices and I often wonder, did I make the right choice? I’m very, very thrilled with what I do, but it’s always, it’s a curiosity of what could the other be. Let me ask you question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Patrick McGinnis: So I just met this woman at a conference in Sweden called Brilliant Minds. Her name is Rupi Kuar. Rupi is a poet. She got up and read a poem about the female experience. It was amazing, and you all should check her out. She’s got a huge Instagram following. And just the fact that she, in this day and age that a poet has, the kind of audiences she has and the things she talks about aren’t easy. And when she performs her poetry, it is spell binding and then you hang out with her and she’s just like the nicest person. And when I met her, I felt like I’d known her for years. She is able to connect with people in a way that I find amazing, whether she’s on a stage or in a small conversation. And I just came away being like, I really, really admire her and I’m glad that she’s my friend.

Matt Abrahams: I’m not surprised that you pick somebody who uses language, in this case, poetry to be effective and that it’s somebody who’s passionate and really connecting, and that seems to be who you are too. Question number three, our final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Patrick McGinnis: All right, I love this question. The first is truth. We got to be truthful, like misinformation, disinformation, it’s the worst. Truth is number one. Number two, humility. When you’re communicating who’s the star of the show, it’s not you. It’s the person who receives the communication, whether you’re a writer or a podcaster or just a person having a chat. And number three, panache got to have a little personal style, a little charisma, and so we have this rich language. It’s amazing. Use it.

Matt Abrahams: I absolutely agree. And I think based on what we’ve talked about today, Patrick, I think it’s not just objective truth outside of us, but also part of what you talked about in terms of managing FOMO and FOMO as we have to think about our inner truth and what’s important to us, making the other person the star. It’s all about them. Absolutely. 100%. We hear that a lot on this podcast and wholeheartedly believe it. I want to hear just a little bit more about Panache. I love this idea. Besides the language we use, what else can convey this notion of panache?

Patrick McGinnis: It’s a good question, and by the way, everybody should have the experience of having Matt summarize what you just said because it’s great. You summarize it. I’m like, did I? It’s better than what I said. I’m very impressed. You’re a good listener.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. My wife would disagree, by the way, but yes, thank you.

Patrick McGinnis: For me, panache, it’s sort of like we spend so much time trying to look good, buying nice clothes, getting dressed up and all that sort of stuff. And then we open our mouths and we should do the same. We should try to have a little bit of style, a little bit of charisma, a little bit of elegance, language. It’s an incredible way to connect with people. And if you invest in language, your ability to meet people and make an impression on them, it’s incredible. And I’ve found as I’ve become a stronger communicator, I look at every time I talk as an opportunity to just experiment, freestyle, improvise, and just engage with people. And the more that you add a little flavor, the better you’ll do.

Matt Abrahams: It’s like cooking a good recipe, a little extra flavor makes a big difference.

Patrick McGinnis: Just put turmeric in everything. It’s going to be delicious.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. I like it. The point you made there that I really took to heart is we dress up ourselves for important communication. Let’s dress up our language as well. Patrick, this has been fantastic. Thank you for being here. We have all learned a lot about the way we can approach our lives and perhaps reduce some of the stress and pressure we put on ourselves. I certainly have. I wish you well with your books, fear of Missing Out as well as the 10% Entrepreneur. And congratulations on the success of FOMO Sapiens, your podcast. Thank you.

Patrick McGinnis: I want to thank you for offering me a support premium, and I wish you the best of luck.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information in episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you. And please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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