Patrick McGinnis (MBA ’04), writing just before his graduation in 2004, defined FOMO for the HBS campus—and the world.
[Editor’s note: To complement this month’s article by Michael Deliakis, we are delighted to reprint the piece that began it all. McGinnis published this article in the Harbus in May 2004. Although some of the Harvard Square venues that McGinnis described have closed, his frameworks are timeless.]
Maslow has his hierarchy of needs. Porter has his five forces. Shah has his three Rs.
Lots of people have created helpful frameworks that allow HBS students to distill an entire career’s worth of work into a single catchphrase. While I prepare to graduate, I have been ruminating on a single subject for hours at a time. What sort of topic could require the singularity of focus of which I write? Human rights? The plight of the Sierra Leone? The Swan? No. I’m focusing my remaining time at HBS trying to understand the social structure in which we have lived for the past two years…..and I think I’ve figured it out.
Like any good framework, my approach to this problem came much like my efforts to glean insights from a case: preparation, discussion, and, most importantly, very thoughtful post-discussion reflection. I developed Part 1 of my social theory late last year as I realized that most e-vites sent around school garnered response rates of less than 50%. That’s a pretty paltry showing for a population of overachievers. Why would so few people respond to an invitation for a birthday party at Trio, especially when it’s been sent to 350 close friends? The answer is simple. It all comes down to what I’ll call McGinnis’ Two FOs: FOMO and FOBO. Allow me to explain.
First year, especially first semester can be a trying time socially. In this state of social flux, FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, weighs heavily on the psyche. Why else would a person routinely schedule nights that look like this:
5:00-6:50 – Sherry tasting with the WCS in the Williams Room
7:05-7:40 – NYC Admit Cocktail Party Reunion Drinks at Redline
7:50-9:00 – Small group dinner at Border Café
9:00-9:40 – Drop by at Finale to see the teetotaling Midwestern couple in your section
9:50-11:10 – Grafton with inner circle
11:13-12:30 – Kong with inner circle plus second tier
12:40-12:55 – Tommy’s with inner circle plus second tier plus random undergrads picked up at Kong
1:05-2:30 – After-party in SFP at Euro girl’s apartment – gouda cheese eaten
2:30-3:12 – Drunken emails: “Sorry I missed your 80’s theme party at Felt – you know that you are totally in my top 15”
On my rough calculation, in one night, a person who suffers from deep FOMO sees as many as 70-80 people (note, this calculation gives partial credit for waves, but full credit for small talk).
Given the incredible stamina needed to sustain a FOMO lifestyle, many HBS students seek to impose order on their lives and instead seek to commit to single activities with fixed groups of people. While this decision looks healthy on the surface, there are risks with this approach to life as well. I call this complication FOBO. FOBO, or Fear Of a Better Option, drives us in the other direction from FOMO. Consider the sad case of a person I’ll call Aldrich Spangler.
Aldrich Spangler: FOMO and FOBO in Action
On Monday morning, Aldrich foolishly accepts a just-sent invitation for a Thursday night Crimson Greetings Reunion at Redline. As he presses send, he thinks to himself, in classic FOMO style, “Phew, now I’m set for Thursday night.” In fact, he circulates an e-mail back to the group saying, “I’ll be there….crimson greetings = good times!” Then disaster strikes.
Wednesday night he gets an email from his buddy Cumnock Hawes, inviting him to a Sox game followed by a three-host birthday party at Noir. Let’s face it, a mistake has been made. Who would pass up the Sox/Noir combo for Redline? Still, Aldrich sacrifices the game in favor of Crimson Greetings because he doesn’t want people to think he’s outgrown his humble card salesman roots. The end result? The next time Aldrich responds to an email from the Crimson Greetings group he writes: “Hmmm, that sounds nice. I will definitely try to make unless I’m out of town…I’ll keep you posted.” Notice the change in tone and the expert use of “…” to imply interest yet avoid commitment? FOMO, meet FOBO.
Now that I’ve defined both FOMO and FOBO, I’d like to discuss their complicated relationship. FOMO and FOBO are irreconcilably opposing forces, the antithesis of yin and yang, and can drive a person towards a paralytic state I’ll call FODA, or Fear Of Doing Anything. We’ve all seen the effects of FODA on certain classmates over the last two years. I tend to think of one RC victim, Morgan Kresge, who made a huge splash in Foundations, hitting every event. Although she embraced a FOMO existence, she always maintained an escape clause on any social event due to a severe case of FOBO. After a few months, however, Morgan shunned all group activities, started going to yoga several days a week at Shad, and avoided the Spangler catwalk at all costs. Last I heard of her, she was taking all of her classes at the Ed School. She’d gotten totally FODA’d up.
These examples, combined with a little bit of analytical thinking, have allowed me to come up with a framework that crystallizes my theory. Notice that as a person becomes more and more FOMO, the energy needed to maintain such an active social life is tremendous. On the other extreme, practicing aggressive FOBO will only serve to alienate your friends. Poor management of the trade-offs between the two forces leads to FODA.
Interestingly, although I hope McGinnis’ Two FOs will be seen by some of you as groundbreaking, I’ve seen these two terms break into EC parlance over the last several weeks. Just today, I observed the following e-mail exchange evolve regarding post-graduation travel plans:
PT: “What’s the latest on summer travel plans?”
TC: “Don’t know. McGinnis and I are definitely going. Are you guys in or out? Say no to FOMO and FOBO”
SS: “I think I’m out for now…”
PT: “I’m in, it’s just a matter of dates and exact itinerary given the dates. I’m figuring it out next week. If you and Pginnis have an itinerary or rough dates, can you send them over? Thanks. Non-committal SS is Mr. FOBO.”
I hope that in your remaining weeks at HBS you will consider employing the McGinnis’ Two FOs framework. I know I will. Partly to try and gain momentum for some hard work that I believe could change social theory as we know it. Partly to overcome my FOWA, Fear Of Working Again.
Patrick J. McGinnis (MBA ’04) is a venture capitalist, writer, and the creator and host of the hit podcast HBR Presents: FOMO Sapiens, which is distributed by the Harvard Business Review. He is also the author of the international bestseller The 10% Entrepreneur: Live Your Start-up Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job, a guide to part-time entrepreneurship. His new book Fear of Missing Out: Practical Decision-Making in a World of Overwhelming Choice comes out in spring 2020. Find more on Patrick at patrickmcginnis.com.