On September 11, 2001, after my Manhattan offices at the Jewish Federations of North America were evacuated, I walked across the street to pick up my friend Wendy from her office, and the two of us headed uptown to get my husband Michael from his. We planned to camp out at Wendy’s Upper West Side apartment until the Long Island Rail Road began running again. We made one stop along the way at the supermarket, to pick up the necessities we thought we would require if we couldn’t leave for a few days.
When we reconvened at the checkout counter, we surveyed one another’s haul. Wendy had gathered canned goods and a case of toilet paper. Michael had amassed several gallons of water and a variety pack of batteries. They had both made practical choices for an unknown future. And then their eyes turned to my single selection: a package of the newly released chocolate-filled Oreos. When they looked up at me with expressions of confusion about my impractical choice (I mean, Twinkies last forever, but Oreos?), I answered their unasked question: “If I’m going to die today, I don’t want to miss out on these!” Both Michael and Wendy knew me well enough to realize that I wasn’t going to be dissuaded, and that I wasn’t kidding. They also knew me well enough to know that I probably (ok, certainly) wasn’t going to share.
My fear of missing out showed up in the form of a cookie. But other people’s fear of missing out pops up in myriad forms. This past weekend at synagogue I was chatting with my friend Lisa, who is a mother of five children ranging in age from 13-31. She observed that when one grown child comes home for Shabbat dinner, the rest seem to follow. When Lisa asked her daughter Abby about this phenomenon, Abby bottom-lined it: “It’s called “FOMO,” Mom: Fear of Missing Out.”
Whether Abby and her siblings feared missed out on their mom’s spectacular brisket, or an opportunity to have everyone together under one roof, or (as I suggested) feared being discussed if they didn’t show up, Lisa finds herself literally and figuratively catering to FOMO on a regular basis. And I must say, as a mother, I find her story both heartwarming and exhausting. Many of us, in our own ways, cater to our own FOMO without knowing it. When FOMO becomes our driving force in work and life, we are overwhelmed with options and commitments that can paralyze us. However, FOMO, when used to better the world around us, can enrich our lives, helping us to seize opportunities to make a difference, and to make interpersonal connections that really matter.
Many of my coaching clients have struggled with their own FOMOs in their personal and professional lives. Dan had been laid off from his job at an engineering firm. Every time he got a job offer, he measured its offerings against his criteria. If it wasn’t a good fit, he dismissed it easily. However, when the position was a good match for him, Dan’s FOMO kicked in. “What I accept this job offer,” he worried, “and a better job comes along?” Dan feared that by saying yes to one of the opportunities that presented themselves, he would be saying no to the possibility of more money, better benefits, a more senior position. By letting FOMO rule his decision-making, Dan started sinking into credit card debt, and growing increasingly frustrated with his job search.
FOMO showed up for my client Beth, too, as she navigated the dating world. Despite her claim that she wanted to meet someone special, get married and have children, she rarely dated anyone for longer than three months. After 90 days, her FOMO alert kicked in, as in: “I like this guy, but what if there’s someone else out there who is really my bashert?” In fear of settling, Beth wouldn’t settle down.
FOMO rears its ugly head in my house too, in iPhone form. Michael and I tend to make more intimate eye contact with our handheld devices than we do with one another. We take each other for granted, while we live in fear of missing out on an email from a client, or a funny Facebook post from a friend. Every time we click “refresh” I recognize FOMO at work.
Of course, FOMO itself isn’t the enemy – it’s what we do with our FOMO that makes it work for us or against us. In his addictive pop song, “Live Like We’re Dying,” Season 8 American Idol winner Kris Allen sings:
We only got 86,400 seconds in a day
To turn it all around or throw it all away
We gotta tell ‘em that we love ‘em while we got the chance to say,
Gotta live like we’re dying.
You never know a good thing until it’s gone,
You never see a crash until its head on
All these people right when we’re dead wrong,
You never know a good thing till it’s gone.
While I might quibble with his grammar, I cannot argue his point of view: when it comes to seeing the bright side in life, recognizing the good in other people, and telling our friends and family that we love them, we should let FOMO rule the day. I don’t want to miss out on seeing what’s perfect about my life right now, because, despite its stresses and strains, much of my life is, indeed, perfect (poo poo poo). I don’t want to miss out on giving people positive feedback about their work – because I want them to feel appreciated as soon as possible, especially before I forget what it was that I valued so much. And I certainly don’t want to miss an opportunity to tell my friends and family how truly, madly and deeply I love them. I don’t want to see the good after it’s gone. I want to see it while it is here, now.
And that’s where FOMO is my friend – in making sure that I don’t miss an opportunity to contribute, to repair the world, and to thank others for their roles in making my life and the world a better place.
FOMO, at its very best, is at the heart of these words written in Anne Frank’s diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”