Sure, FOMO gets all the press. But it's FOBO you should be losing sleep over.


Illustration by Edwina White for ‘The History of FOMO’

I’m the guy who coined the term FOMO, short for the Fear of Missing Out, an affliction you’re probably familiar with, even if you don’t know it by name. It’s that sneaking suspicion that everyone’s life is better than yours. You might get FOMO when you see those delightful (read: highly selective, filtered, and cropped) photos of friends and family all over your news feed. Looking at those photos, you begin to wonder whether your own life stacks up.

I first observed FOMO back in 2004 when I was a student at Harvard Business School, before Facebook turned it into a chronic syndrome. Back then, my classmates were spending an inordinate amount of time fretting about what they were missing out on. Their anxiety was so pervasive that I satirized it in the school paper, the Harbus, in a piece called “McGinnis’ Two FOs,” detailing FOMO and a related phenomenon, FOBO, or Fear of a Better Option. The rest is history.

At the time, I figured their anxiety had something to do with post-9/11 PTSD. But I was wrong—it’s far worse today. FOMO may have existed long before the invention of social media, but Facebook and Instagram have turbo-charged it into a modern epidemic. Now, social media-induced feelings of inadequacy have been known to trigger all kinds of psychological problems, including depression.

What’s surprised me the most about the two FO’s is that FOMO got all the press. From the time I first spotted the two FO’s, I was always more alarmed by FOBO.

The way I see it, FOMO doesn’t make you a rotten person, but FOBO does. FOBO makes a person say maybe instead of committing; go silent when it’s time to finalize plans; and cancel at the last minute when something better comes along. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. He or she is always shopping for a better social opportunity, and if you happen to be their backup plan, you’ll find out when they post all those exuberant photos of whatever they did last night instead of hanging with you.

Over the last decade I’ve watched as friends have become experts at stringing others along. There was the colleague who scheduled two competing overseas vacations with two sets of people on two different continents, only to choose one 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. These are extreme examples, of course; the affliction usually comes down to making daily choices that are inherently selfish in nature.

Whereas FOMO only hurts the sufferer, FOBO impacts everyone around the afflicted. FOBO also tends to be a much longer term problem. At some point, FOMO fades; you just get too busy, and tired, to care about what you’re missing. FOBO, on the other hand, has continued to haunt my friends and me long after we graduated. A manifestation of narcissism, FOBO tends to take root as you get older, more established, and wealthier. The more options you have at your disposal, the greater the temptation to preserve option value, regardless of whether you waste the time or hurt the feelings of others.

Why am I so worried about FOBO? Because I, and many of my peers, learned about its downsides the hard way. In the first five years after HBS, as I watched my star rise and my calendar become increasingly hectic, I thought that I was entitled to preserving option value. After all, I was busy. If someone really wanted my time and attention, putting up with my FOBO was part of the deal. Then in 2008, everything changed. I was working in the investments division of AIG when the company imploded rather spectacularly. In an instant, I found out how quickly options, prestige, and security, can disappear. In fact, lots of people who had jobs that rewarded them for mastering FOBO (here’s looking at you, Wall Street), suddenly found themselves among the displaced.

When lots of your options disappear overnight, you start to see the world from the other side of the FOBO power balance. It’s hard to be a narcissist when you’ve gone from hero to zero; you find yourself at the center of a big, cosmic, “I told you so.” It’s at that point that you realize that the people you treated poorly and all of the unreliable ones with FOBO aren’t around to catch you when you fall.

So take heed of this warning: The next time you find yourself half-committing, canceling plans hoping that something better will come along, or stringing people along, stop for a second. Then say yes or say no, but don’t say maybe. That’s the first step toward recovery. It’s also going to make your life a lot simpler. Take if from me, the guy who invented FOMO. You’ll be better off.