Do You Think FOMO’s Toxic? FOBO is Even Worse

May 9, 2022

I'm Patrick McGinnis and I am responsible for coining the term FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.  If you haven’t heard of it, FOMO is a type of stress that is mostly associated with our desire to keep up with everyone around us, in terms of experiences, opportunities, and adventures. Every time you check your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, you are subjected to idealized versions of other people’s lives, all of which can make you feel like your own life doesn’t quite stack up.  Before you roll your eyes, it’s important to note that it’s no joke: FOMO has been known to cause real physical afflictions, including depression. 

If you think that FOMO sounds like the ultimate high class problem, you’re right. it was once very much an affliction of the very privileged.  In fact, I came up with the term while a student at Harvard Business School, during the earliest days of social media, when I wrote a satirical article about the FOMO-rrific adventures of my classmates for the school newspaper.  Then, as sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat went worldwide, so did FOMO. 

But What About FOBO?

If you’ve ever struggled with FOMO, I have some bad news. It’s nothing compared to the real social ill of our time: FOBO. Fear of a Better Option is the compulsion to keep your options open for as long as possible so that you can exhaust every possibility before choosing the “best” alternative.  While my original article talked about FOBO, for some reason it never really caught on they way FOMO did.  

That’s surprising because we all know someone (or many someones) with FOBO. It’s that person who will never commit, who stops responding when it’s time to finalize plans, and who bails with reckless abandon. It’s only later that you find out - sometimes to social media -  that you were the backup plan for a sporting event, a concert, or the new season of House of Cards.  It’s ironic.  Even as someone is seeking to create FOMO in others, they expose their FOBO to their victim.   

Even though we’ve all experienced FOBO - and suffered its consequences from others - it’s hard to fix a problem if you don’t even know what it is.  Since FOBO has largely stayed in the shadows, it’s time it’s time to name and shame FOBO. Here’s why: if you have FOBO, you prize option value, and as a result, your own prerogatives, above all else.  In that sense, you’re far worse off than someone with FOMO. FOMO doesn’t make you a rotten person - FOBO does.

Why is FOBO so toxic? Unlike FOMO, which is self-afflicted and self-contained, FOBO metastasizes over time, slowly taking over your life and alienating the people around you. It’s a clear symptom of narcissism and it only gets worse as you get older and have more options. If FOMO is an affliction of youth, FOBO manifests itself in people who are older, more established, and wealthier, perhaps as a result of jobs that reward people for mastering FOBO. They have options, thanks to connections, money, success, and all of the other assets that feed the ego.

Over the last decade I’ve watched as friends have become experts at stringing other people along, all to ensure maximum option value and, in their minds, maximum happiness.  There was the friend who scheduled two competing overseas vacations, only to choose one group of friends over the other at the last minute.  Then there was the colleague who racked up a series of job offers, but struggled to commit until she eventually lost her top choice. Unsurprisingly, there are countless examples of romantic entanglements that were sustained and then eventually undone by FOBO.

Of course, there is a cost.  All of these choices catch up with you. FOBO comes down to making daily choices that are inherently selfish in nature and by putting option value first, you implicitly devalue everyone else’s time and feelings. Over the long run, people notice.  They stop believing you, stop inviting you, and move on to better, more generous friends.   

I can only hope that FOBO also becomes a “thing” and in the words of Nancy Reagan, people “Just Say No” to FOBO. Remember that getting you way for a moment won’t make you happy, respected, or fulfilled. Set priorities, shut down options, and respect the time and feelings of the people around you. Take if from me, the guy who invented FOMO, you’ll be better off for it.

 

- Patrick J. McGinnis, author of Fear of Missing Out

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