Patrick J. McGinnis (MBA ’04), who created the term FOMO while a student at HBS, helps Michael Deliakis (MBA ’20) understand and overcome FOMO.
It was titled “Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs” and printed in the Humor section of the Harbus in May 2004.
Fast forward 15 years: today, the terms FOMO and its lesser-known sibling FOBO are as ubiquitous in the English language—and in various other languages—as words like “millennial,” “avocado,” and “Tesla.”
But how did FOMO become such a worldwide phenomenon? Where does it come from? Most importantly, do I have it, and if so, how do I overcome it? I sat down with Patrick J. McGinnis (MBA ’04), the author of the May 2004 piece, the creator of the term FOMO, and the host of the hit podcast FOMO Sapiens (distributed by the Harvard Business Review), to try to find answers to these questions.
Michael: So Patrick, where did the term FOMO come from?
Patrick: As a student at HBS, I constantly felt like I had to do everything. These feelings were so pervasive that I decided I needed a word to describe my fear of missing out and started calling it FOMO. Then my friends and I started using the term, and it became part of our lives on campus. In fact, FOMO was such a huge part of my life as an HBS MBA candidate that just before graduation in May of 2004, I decided that I had to find some way to immortalize the huge role that FOMO had in my life—and the lives of my classmates—by writing an article for the Harbus (I was the Section G Harbus Rep). I also wrote about another term, FOBO, or Fear of a Better Option, that also shaped the culture at HBS.
Michael: How did FOMO become such a universal term?
Patrick: I credit this to my classmates, who spread the word to their friends and colleagues across the world, and to the internet and social media, where FOMO became a standard term in the vocabulary of digital life. Thanks to these two forces, FOMO became part of pop culture from New York to Nigeria to New Zealand. Eventually, it even made it into the dictionary! (See the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines FOMO as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”)
My definition of FOMO is slightly more comprehensive. FOMO is: 1) unwanted anxiety provoked by the perception, often aggravated via social media, that others are having experiences that are more satisfying than yours, and/or 2) social pressure resulting from the realization that you will miss out on or be excluded from a positive or memorable collective experience.
Michael: How do I know if I have FOMO?
Patrick: Back at HBS, I saw FOMO as a very niche problem. It was all about social engagements and parties. But now I realize that FOMO has been part of the human condition since the dawn of time. It’s contained within our biology: the first humans instinctively understood that if they missed out on food, shelter, or finding the right mate, the entire species would be in peril. Essentially, we are pre-conditioned to feel FOMO, but the ability to easily compare ourselves to each other thanks to social media and the internet is what has made it so pervasive. Think about it: when I was at HBS we had no social media, but now we do and it’s no longer a boutique affliction. If you want to find out if you’re a FOMO Sapiens, you can check out my FOMO Sapiens handbook, which includes a test to determine how much your life is dominated by FOMO. You can download it here: http://patrickmcginnis.com/fomosapiens/.
Michael: Let’s say I wanted to reduce the impact of FOMO on my life. What do you suggest I do?
Patrick: There are several things you can do. Here’s what I tell most people. When you’re feeling FOMO, ask yourself the following three questions: 1) Is this opportunity even available to me? Do I have the time, money, and ability to make it happen? 2) Is my desire to take part in this driven by a realistic expectation of what’s going to happen, or is it based on my imagination? 3) Am I doing this because I actually want to do this, or am I doing it because everyone else is doing it?
Michael: This all seems very complicated. Can’t I just JOMO?
Patrick: Based on a quick perusal of the social media feeds of all those aspiring JOMO Sapiens who write about how they are seeking JOMO instead of FOMO, the answer would seem to be yes. But not so fast! JOMO is a destination, it’s not a journey. If you’re a FOMO Sapiens, your problems won’t be solved by simply deciding that from now on, you’re done with FOMO and you’re only going to feel JOMO. While that would be nice, it’s not realistic. Plus, JOMO has limited utility. You can feel JOMO about missing that party if you just want to stay home, but are you going to feel JOMO about finding your calling or building a startup that changes the world?
Michael: I see. Well, I scored pretty high on your FOMO Sapiens test. What other helpful advice or resources can I use to control my FOMO in my last year at HBS and beyond?
Patrick: I’m glad you asked. I have a few resources in mind that I have developed on the subject (and which I’m going to market to you, my fellow HBSers, just like my RC Marketing professor taught me to do). First, I’d recommend listening to my podcast on HBR called HBR Presents: FOMO Sapiens with Patrick J. McGinnis, in which I interview business and industry leaders from around the world about how they overcome their FOMO. I’ve been lucky enough to interview a diverse group of people, from U.S. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang to Luke Holden, CEO and Founder of Luke’s Lobster. You can check it out here: https://hbr.org/2019/04/podcast-fomo-sapiens. If that isn’t enough, I also have a book coming out in May 2020 called Fear of Missing Out: Practical Decision-Making in a World of Overwhelming Choice, which you can pre-order or purchase when it comes out on Amazon.com.
[Author’s note: Patrick’s answers were sourced from a variety of his previous works and redacted by Michael Deliakis and Patrick J. McGinnis for this article.]
Michael Deliakis (MBA ’20) is an EC from Section F. In addition to being a mediocre Social Chair, Deli is also a Captain of the Hockey team at HBS (Go Blades!) and a Co-Prime Minister of the HBS Canadian Club. Prior to HBS, he worked in investment banking at Morgan Stanley and emerging markets private equity at the World Bank.