The Fear of Missing Out

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this blog post by Caterina Fake in which she discusses the phenomenon of FOMO at conferences (in this case, the SXSW conference in Austin, TX). Bear with me a bit as I go down a little bit of a side journey here. Trust me, it’ll come back around to something useful.

FOMO, of course, refers to the fear of missing out – a sense that you’re at the wrong conference session, attending the wrong after-party, or talking with the wrong people. “This session/party/meeting isn’t great – maybe there’s something better I should be at,” goes the thought, and it’s often followed by anxiety and second-guessing.

I used to attend conferences regularly with my previous work and I certainly felt that way at times. I would often second-guess the conference session I was attending. I would second-guess who I was eating dinner with. I would second-guess the choice to go to bed early one night so I could make some key events the next day. I always felt that maybe there was something more valuable I should be doing with my time.

I once expressed it to one of the wise old men in the field that I was involved in, a person I’ll call Mike. Mike told me, in no uncertain terms, that there was absolutely nothing better going on at any conference than whatever you happened to be doing at that moment. If there was something better, you’d be doing it.

Instead, he argued, a conference becomes much better if you just focus on whatever you’re doing now and basically act as if there’s nothing else going on at the conference. “Even if something really great was happening around that corner, it’s not going to matter as much as getting everything you can out of the good thing that’s happening right now. There’s always someone to talk to and learn from. Even if you’re holed up in your hotel room, that’s still good, because you’re there because you’re tired and thus the best use you can get from your time is to rest and sleep.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit, based on a five or six year old memory from a mind that can be notoriously leaky when it comes to specific memories.)

After that, I watched how Mike handled himself at conferences. Most of the time, he was involved in one-on-one conversations with people and he usually seemed really focused on the other person. Sometimes, he’d wander into sessions, even in the middle of them. At other times, he’d wander out of sessions. I also saw him wandering through the open displays quite often, taking notes.

I soon realized that Mike spent the entire conference maximizing the value out of every moment he was there. He was either learning something, establishing a relationship with someone, or enjoying the current moment as much as he could.

In other words, he enjoyed and focused on what he had at the moment rather than pining after what he might have if he went elsewhere.

Here’s the thing: our life is like a conference. The more time we spend pining for the great thing that might be around that next corner, the less time we spend getting as much value as we can from what’s going on in front of us.

It’s true for spending. I have this gadget that does a lot of things that I want, but there’s this better gadget at the store. I have a great closet full of clothes, but there’s this stunning new outfit at the store that I want.

It’s true for time spent. I could spend time with my kids, but there might be a great show on television. I could spend time reading this book, but there might be something interesting going on over at the club.

It’s true over and over again in life. We are constantly sacrificing the good for the potential of slightly better. Frankly, that’s a mistake.

I’m a big fan of living in the moment, but living in the moment doesn’t mean tossing aside the good thing you have in front of you for the great thing that might be around the corner. In fact, it means just the opposite. It means finding value from eating a home-cooked dinner with your family. It means seeing the greatness in remixing the wardrobe you already have. It means spending a half an hour chasing your kids around the yard instead of shopping for yet another new gadget.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the good often becomes great if you spend your energy focusing on it.

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13 thoughts on “The Fear of Missing Out

  1. Kate says:

    Love this post and know how true it is. I don’t know if it is age (or perhaps wisdom?), but living in the moment seems easier for me now than it was when I was younger.

  2. Sandy E. says:

    This reminds me of that old saying that goes: if you have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future, then you’re peeing all over the present!

    Living in the moment comes easy with me now because I am older, and realized that I’ve become everything that I wanted to be. At some point you have to stop striving so much and start being, and enjoying the ride!

  3. Jacque says:

    I don’t think you really hit the key point of this post. You used it to show that all of your values are more important than something else that you may be doing. But, the point is to be happy doing what you are doing and don’t let your mind trick you into a “grass is always greener” mentality. If you have that mentality, your time is never spent well enough, you never make enough money, you never love your kids enough, you never have enough happiness. Stop thinking about other people/places/things all the time and live in the moment. Then when something truly more important comes along and diverts your attention, you know it’s the real thing.

  4. Nicolette says:

    Sandy E. you just made me giggle. I really like that saying.

  5. Well said and what a great freakin’ post. I have been on this kick as well lately since I have been deployed to Afghanistan. Out here, the luxuries of life just aren’t there. You start to take an enjoyment in the simple things, such as reading and conversation with friends. It has changed my perspective on life and what I will be doing when I return home in a few short weeks. Keep up the awesome posts!

  6. Anne Marie Ferguson says:

    Great post. I also agree with the other posts…with maturity, that “grass is greener” mindset seems to recede…thankfully!

  7. Kerry D. says:

    Awesome post! Love the linking of how time is spent, focus on the present moment, what we have, and how that links to our personal values. Thanks!

  8. Natasha says:

    I think the really tough part of dealing with FOMO is when you’re doing something necessary, but not particularly fun- the choice isn’t between playing with your kids or watching TV (both fun in different ways) but instead working a job to pay the bills or playing with the kids- or between reading a book or going to the club, but instead between scrubbing the toilet or reading an engaging challenging novel.

  9. AnnJo says:

    Trent, do you realize that your friend Mike’s habits of mind, which you so admire, are a direct antidote to the ‘disease’ of abundant choice that Barry Scwartz was complaining of in the video you posted only two posts back, which you also claimed to admire? Mike’s and Barry’s philosophies are diametrically at odds with each other, yet you seem to approve of both – sort of a philosophical Attention Deficit Disorder.

  10. Kacie says:

    I feel this when I’m on vacation! It’s hard to slow down and enjoy where I am in the moment, instead of worrying about what else is on my “agenda” that we still need to get to. I’m especially bad with this at theme parks.

  11. almost there says:

    This reminds me of the Bill Hicks spot on enjoy the ride. It can be seen on youtube at: Bill Hicks: What is the point to Life

  12. Georgia says:

    I have always been too lazy to regret the choices I make in life. It takes energy I don’t have and I would be the one suffering. As one man said, “If you had taken the other choice, what guarantee do you have that it would have been the best one?” Life gives us no guarantees.

    But, it is much better to have a positive attitude and enjoy what you are doing NOW. But it is also good to make those choices planned ones when you know what you enjoy doing best.

    Whenever I have something to do that I am not certain I like or even dislike, I try to find reasons to like it. The same with work, people around me, where I must live, etc. It has worked marvelously for me.

  13. valleycat1 says:

    I just read this: “True wisdom lies in finding out all the advantages of a situation in which we are placed, instead of imagining the enjoyments of one in which we are not placed.” from The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia M. F. Child (written in 1832)

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