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Should We Stop Worrying About FOMO, and Start Worrying About FOBO?

No less an authority than the man who coined the term ‘FOMO’ worries that the indecision that comes from FOBO, or the fear of a better option, is actually far worse for our mental health

Patrick McGinnis has always been a fan of making up words. For years, whenever he did something particularly funny, obnoxious or otherwise memorable, he got his friends to refer to it as a “McGincident.” Not all of his made-up words landed, though — like “kablitzerated,” which he used as a euphemism for getting extraordinarily drunk. “I tried to make kablitzerated happen, but it didn’t,” he tells me. 

But by far the most memorable word McGinnis would ever create started as a joke. In May 2004, when McGinnis was working on his MBA at Harvard University, he published a satirical article in the business school’s publication The Harbus titled, “McGinnis’ Two Fos.” The piece was inspired by the epidemic of indecision driven by both privilege and two intrinsic fears, which he coined using acronyms: FOBO (the fear of a better option), and FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Initially, McGinnis didn’t think he was creating a word to define what would turn out to be the experience of his generation — he was just trying to comment on something he saw as a high-class problem. “The fact that people were so spoiled with choice felt kind of ridiculous, and that’s why I was making fun of it,” he says. 

But it wasn’t until a decade later — roughly around when journalist Ben Schreckinger wrote about the history of FOMO for Boston Magazine  that the word really began to take on a life of its own. Although Schreckinger and others have credited a marketing strategist named Dan Herman with coining “FOMO,” on page 335 in the journal article cited as proof, Herman only uses the phrase “fear of missing out.” The acronym FOMO is nowhere to be found.

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But McGinnis is less concerned about getting credit for FOMO than he is taken aback by how serious of an issue it’s become — most likely as a consequence of smartphones and social media consuming our every waking moment. “This is so much more than a high-class problem,” he says. “This is something that’s actually a mental and emotional challenge.” Since his little piece of satire in 2004, FOMO has become such a widely popular social phenomenon that the term has been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, unpacked by experts at the American Psychological Association and referenced in more than 23,000 academic journals on Google Scholar. 

It’s fair to say, then, that FOMO has been quite the “McGincident.”

Today, McGinnis sees FOMO as a largely unavoidable “overarching part of the human experience,” and has dedicated his career to helping people harness it, rather than living in fear of it. (FOFOMO is a word that never needs to enter into our vocabulary.) As long as you’re not too impulsive about it, McGinnis believes FOMO can be a powerful motivator, which he also wrote about in his book, Fear of Missing Out. He’s also learned through limiting social media, practicing meditation and doing other mindfulness exercises that he can stay present enough to manage his FOMO. 

McGinnis continues to explore ways to make the most of this social pressure on his podcast FOMO Sapiens, where he interviews other experts about how they manage their fears of missing out. “I see the beauty of FOMO when deployed in a productive way,” McGinnis says. “You learn from your FOMO. You can live a more intentional, interesting life.”

But for as much attention as FOMO has received in recent years, McGinnis is even more concerned about FOBO, or the fear of a better option. He describes FOBO as the guy who dates a woman for 10 years and then leaves her because he can’t commit. It’s the person who has everything they need and is wasting time trying to figure out which vacation villa they want to rent. It’s the person who gets the job they wanted, but feels like they still need to get three more job offers in order to be satisfied. “I see FOBO as a much more damaging affliction. It needs much more spotlight than it’s gotten,” McGinnis says. 

To help combat FOBO, McGinnis developed a research-backed system to assist people in making decisions quicker. The process starts by dividing your decisions into one of three categories: 1) no stakes; 2) low stakes; and 3) high stakes. No-stakes decisions are the kind that won’t make a difference in a few days, like choosing between fish or chicken for lunch. If you like them both, he suggests outsourcing this decision by flipping a coin, or assigning each option an odd and even number, and letting whatever time the clock says decide. Low-stakes decisions are choices that won’t matter within a few months, like buying a new computer or item of clothing you need. In such instances, McGinnis recommends enlisting a trusted friend with some level of expertise to prevent falling into a rabbit hole of online reviews. 

Finally, there are high-stakes decisions — like choosing what job to accept or what house to buy. For these critical moments, McGinnis says you should make a list of what matters most to you (in a home or a job), and pinning two acceptable options against each other for every item on the list. The key is, once you pick one option, you have to eliminate the other forever, because “where people often get stuck is that they constantly go back to things they should’ve discarded.” 

On the off-chance this process yields a tie, McGinnis advises outsourcing again, this time to a trusted inner circle that includes an odd number of people in order to avoid further ties. 

Ironically, in many ways, a healthy dose of FOMO can be the antidote to FOBO; because when people never pull the trigger on big decisions about their careers, romantic partners or any personal investments and risks that could yield rewards, they inevitably miss out on meaningful parts of the human experience.

McGinnis explains that he may have missed out on these insights if his life didn’t fall apart during the financial crisis in 2008. McGinnis had completed his MBA and was working in private equity for AIG, when the company “blew up” and his stock plummeted 97 percent. Along with his investments, McGinnis’ health declined and he wound up on a heart monitor with a mystery illness for the better part of a year. After getting out of his small town, graduating from Harvard and accomplishing most of the personal and professional goals he’d set for himself, McGinnis was looking down the barrel of FOBO. 

“It was just this real deep feeling of, ‘I did all the things you’re supposed to do, and everything still fell apart,’” he recalls. It was when he hit this personal low that he learned to listen to his fear of missing out. And mostly what he was missing was a life with agency — one that allowed him to be flexible in the face of crisis. 

Now as a writer/podcaster/entrepreneur/venture capitalist/marathon runner, McGinnis has done his best to make sure he’ll never be in that situation again. “As somebody who felt a lot of FOMO,” he concludes, “the idea of being able to powerfully choose the life that you want is kind of the perfect antidote to all of that.”