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.