March 28, 2012

Q&A, Priya Parker, researcher and founder of Thrive Labs

Posted by: in North America

In researching our recent report on FOMO, we had a chat with Priya Parker, researcher and founder of Thrive Labs, which aims to help develop Millennial leaders. Drawing on 10 years in government, social enterprise and diplomacy in the U.S., India and the Middle East, Parker works with companies and leaders to zero in on their core purpose and build out smarter strategies.

Parker is an expert in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab and serves as faculty for the MIT Sloan Innovation Period and for Mobius Executive Leadership. She co-founded the international Sustained Dialogue Campus Network to help universities develop future leaders and also speaks on Millennials, most recently at TEDxCambridge. She talked to us about how the fear of missing out is becoming a way of life, how people can combat it and how marketers can tap into it.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your work?

I run a company called Thrive Labs and conduct what I call visioning labs, particularly for Millennial and young leaders. We work both with large organizations and very early stage startups that are just formulating or securing round one funding. We create experience design labs in which we come in for two to three days to very crisply help them ground, articulate and implement their vision.

The other aspect of the work I do is spending time researching, investigating and talking with Millennial leaders in the U.S. and abroad. My most recent research has to do with the leading edge of the Millennial generation, aged 29 to 30, as well as Millennials who have decided to go into dual degree programs—master’s programs in which they’re taking two different degrees. Sort of a proxy of people who have many choices and who prefer not to choose just one.

How does FOMO tie into your research?

FOMO was a term I first heard in 2008, in the context of a graduate school program orientation. The woman at the front of the room was basically giving a warning to the incoming class of Harvard graduates that the biggest problem they’ll experience in the next two years is FOMO. Everybody sort of looked around and asked what that meant.

It started becoming a term among the people I researched, friends and colleagues. For the last three or four years it’s been particularly focused on the social landscape and definitely fueled by technology. The conventional wisdom in FOMO is that it is a technological phenomenon driven by social media. Particularly in the last year, my research really suggests that it’s actually becoming more a way of life.

While things like Twitter and Facebook drive the ability to know what your friends are doing at any moment in the day and wondering whether or not they’re having more fun than you are, it’s starting to penetrate into choices about jobs, choices even about spouses. “If I propose to this woman, is there a better one out there?” People have said that to me in interviews. There’s excess information, and everything’s at your fingertips. There’s a huge fear of making decisions and commitments just in case there might be a better one out there.

It’s been said that we have a very infantile relationship with technology. It’s as if you give a little kid a bag of candy. Do you think we’ll learn how to live with FOMO in a more healthy way? Or is this how we will live from now on?

In any type of social phenomenon, anytime there’s a new way of being, you have a learning curve. Right now we are hitting the early stages, and you’ve seen in the last six months or year the early stages of people starting to say “Enough is enough,” declaring email bankruptcy or purposely getting off Facebook. I might add that most of the people declaring email bankruptcy tend to be in their 30s and 40s, they’re not 13-year-olds or 20-year-olds. They tend to be people with fuller lives, often married, and realize that there’s more to life than being online.

We are at a reflection point in our relationship to technology, and if you look at the press there’s starting to be a sense of irony in the relationship to technology. As one of my interviewees put it, once we have language for something, it takes the power out of it. We now use “FOMO” in a slightly ironic way: “Oh, I’m suffering from so much FOMO,” and everybody laughs. And there’s a consciousness developing that this isn’t necessarily a good thing, which often leads to ways of dealing with it.

People are starting to use applications that literally turn off the Internet for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, such as Freedom. In most cases, if you look at the people who are either speaking out against the always-on culture or developing applications to help us get offline, they’re often the ones who are savviest about technology.

Trends have phases the same way people do. In a sense, social technology and our relationship to it and the FOMO-driven aspect of it, we’re in our teenage years. Some of us are just getting ready to leave the nest and go to college and maybe binge-drink for a few years and then realize, “You know what, I actually don’t need that anymore.” Again, it’s the early adopters who even know the term FOMO. I think you’ll watch it ripple through the culture.

I’m already hearing “cousin” terms to FOMO, one being FOBO, Fear of Better Options. The woman who described it to me was saying FOMO is something we all know to be social and technological. FOBO is actually what most of us suffer from, which is the fear that something better might come along and so we might as well sit and wait, keeping as many doors open as possible, until we absolutely have to make a decision. Even then you wonder if you made the right decision.

Do you think Millennials suffer from FOMO and FOBO more than older generations?

I think they suffer from it in different ways. You often see the world through your own lenses, and so I am a Millennial, and many of my hypotheses and thinking are unique to my experience. Among Baby Boomers I’ve interviewed, many have said, “We suffer from FOMO too. It’s just in different forms.”

A lot of it has to do with the context you’re in. If you’re married, you’re hopefully not thinking, “Oh, I should have proposed to somebody else.” Particularly now with jobs becoming more mobile, sectors changing so rapidly, there’s many people, regardless of age, that are wondering whether or not they have a better option somewhere else. The big decisions but also the small affect us all: Should I have an iPhone 4? If I have an iPhone 4, should I buy the 4S if my friends have it or wait five months to get the iPhone 5?

Even that, in a sense, is a fear of missing out, of missing out of an experience. A fear of missing out on feeling good about yourself for a little bit longer. It’s human nature. I definitely suffer from it. I wouldn’t be so interested in it if I hadn’t realized that it’s such a powerful force. It just affects different people in different ways depending on where they are in their life and what they see around them.

Who’s the typical FOMO sufferer?

It depends. So, the demographic I’ve seen suffer from it the most is Millennials between the ages of 22 to 29, maybe even a bit older, who tend to have middle to upper income, tend to have a lot of options and choices—whether it’s the type of cereal or phone they want to buy, whether they want to intern in Africa or work for an auto company in Detroit, rebuilding it. It tends to be more middle to upper income for larger life decisions because they have more options. So it’s not a psychographic, it’s access to decision-making power.

The new thing is not so much that there’s so many options for products, which there are, but there’s so many options of lifestyles. There’s so many options of just ways to be. That’s a good thing, and that’s also an extremely terrifying thing. It’s an aspect of modernity that there’s so many different versions of the person you could be and that it’s no longer necessarily tied to a certain cast or a tribe or religion. When it’s completely based on you and your choice, it’s both extremely freeing and extremely terrifying.

Do you think FOMO prevents people from engaging in the here and now, especially tech-driven FOMO?

There’s technology that helps us not be in the here and now. So if I’m sitting at the dentist’s office, I’m able to quickly look up my social feeds to see what people are doing. And that’s not even driven by the fear of missing out of what other people are doing—it’s also fear of missing out on the most important article of the week, if you want to be a fully engaged person or even a citizen.

In terms of one of the effects of FOMO, it’s one thing to feel badly sitting at home watching your Twitter or your Facebook feed and see people have more fun than you, but another byproduct is that you’re never present wherever you are.

It’s terrifying, particularly for the under-30 cohorts, but we’re much more fragmented, even in our personal social relations, because we’re so worried about who we’re not with, we forget about who we’re with. There are certain things that technology fuels that lets us not be fully present. Even when people are in person, the amount of time you spend thinking about something else or just distracted is increasing. It’s a lot easier because you’re so used to that in your normal [tech-driven] life or your work. Our ability to concentrate is going downhill. I think we’re gaining a lot, and we’re also losing a lot.

How can people learn to combat FOMO?

The first thing is spend more time focusing on what you really want to be doing. I’ve studied this. And the people who are “thriving,” as I call it, are those who have a sense of what they want to do and what they want to be. They have either implicitly or explicitly a vision for themselves. They know who they are and who they aren’t, they know where they want to be. And that’s the clearest dividing line. That’s why I spend so much time on visioning, because when people have a sense of the direction they want to go, what’s good for them, what they’re most excited about, it’s a lot easier to turn off everything else. It’s a lot easier saying no.

Bill Ury wrote Getting to Yes, from the Harvard Negotiation Project, and he discusses the power of a positive no. Part of this is reframing no, but knowing what you’re saying yes to. For example, “No, I’m not going to go to the party Friday night because I’m saying yes to spending time with my brother.” You can say no with a yes alternative in mind rather than a “No, I’m missing out on this.”

The second thing is for people to know what their non-negotiables are and what kind of life they want to live. David Chang is a very good example of this with his Momofuku restaurants. He’s not trying to please everybody. He knows what he likes, and he’s OK with people not liking him or not liking the food. But he’s very clear on what he wants, and he lets people respect him for that.

The third thing is to cut out the chatter. People who end up not suffering from FOMO as much wean themselves off social media, whether it’s a morning ritual where you check Twitter once at 11 or you pre-time all your tweets using HootSuite or other apps so you’re not actually on Twitter. Turn your phone on silence for a number of hours.

The last thing is to be willing to know that you may not make the best possible decision and to be OK with suboptimal outcomes. This is probably the hardest one to do. Those who are willing to say, “This may not be the best use of my night, but I’m going to commit to it” over time are much, much happier. There’s a book, Fooled By Randomness, in which the author talks about “satisfiers” and “optimizers.” And optimizers are those who try to get the best out of every possible choice. Satisfiers are those who take the first thing that meets their adequate framework, whatever fulfills the least common and the most common denominator. Over time satisfiers are apparently more happy than optimizers, and I would describe a lot of people who suffer from FOMO as optimizers.

One more thing I’ve found to be very helpful is being willing to eliminate some options—to close doors and in some cases be willing to burn bridges. At some point knowing when to say enough is enough, and I don’t have to go to one extra networking party just in case. It’s really focusing on what you like and what you most want to do and be in the world.

What kind of opportunities does something like FOMO present for marketers and advertisers?

There’s two ways to tackle FOMO if I were a marketer. The first is to play into FOMO, and the second is to basically drive against it. The first is to play into the aspect of multiple options, whether it’s a product that makes the decisions for you at some level—I mean, it has all of the elements and you don’t have to worry about which wallet to buy because this one has all the pockets and sleeves and the clip and the color.

But I think the more powerful and probably the more effective one is going to be the marketers and the brands that actually go against it. Nobody wants to suffer from FOMO, and people aren’t sure how to get out of it.

Having a term for any of these things, having this ironic twinge to it and kind of owning it, is something that lets people get over it. FOMO is a shared experience and we’re all suffering from it, and it’s an embarrassing thing to suffer from, right? [Laughter] And no one wants to admit that they suffer from it. And yet to live, particularly in this society at this time, it’s almost impossible not to unless you’re wearing blinders. You can put a little bit of humor in FOMO when you realize we’re all figuring out how to go through this together.

A really powerful way a company or brand could inspire people is ideas like technology-free Sundays that catch on like wildfire because everybody is suffering. And if your friends aren’t picking up the phones, it gives you permission to do the same.

1 Response to "Q&A, Priya Parker, researcher and founder of Thrive Labs"

1 | Divya Jumani

May 7th, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Avatar

Thank you Priya for this awesome article. My head is spinning with ideas :)

Comment Form

SXSW: Raging Against the Machine

SXSW: How Brands Can Get ‘Circular’ and Why They Must

New Trend Report: The Circular Economy

2014 iPad App

Updates

Sign up for Email Updates

JWT AnxietyIndex

Things to Watch

  • Nestlé’s animal-welfare standards
    August 28, 2014 | 10:00 am

    Nestle

    We wrote about rising concerns over treatment of the animals that people eat back in 2012 as brands including Burger King, McDonald’s and Hellmann’s pledged to institute more humane practices. We also included Humane Food among our Things to Watch for 2013. The trend recently picked up more steam with Nestlé’s announcement of animal welfare standards for its suppliers worldwide, following an investigation by the group Mercy for Animals.

    “The move is one of the broadest-reaching commitments to improving the quality of life for animals in the food system,” notes The New York Times, “and it is likely to have an impact on other companies that either share the same suppliers or compete with Nestlé.” Observed the influential blogger Food Babe: “People want to know where their food comes from, and in order to survive the next decade, the food industry will have to change.” —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Nestlé

  • Alternative waters
    August 19, 2014 | 1:59 pm

    Vertical Water

    With the coconut water craze going strong, watch for more variations on H2O thanks to consumer interest in more natural alternatives to soda and openness to novel products. Antioxidant-rich maple water (made from maple sap) is gaining attention, while almond water from the startup Victoria’s Kitchen has secured space at Whole Foods and Target. As the AP reports, there’s also cactus, birch and artichoke water—made from either water extracted from the plant or boiled with the ingredient in question—whose makers tout their vitamin and mineral content, as well as their infection-fighting properties. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Vertical Water

  • Smart mannequins
    August 13, 2014 | 5:01 pm

    Iconeme

    One of our Things to Watch in 2014, beacons have been popping up everywhere from airports to restaurants to museums. But the biggest pickup for these devices—low-cost transmitters that use Bluetooth to precisely track consumers’ mobile phones and send targeted content—has been among retailers. Now, British retailers including House of Fraser, Hawes & Curtis and Bentalls are testing mannequins outfitted with VMbeacon technology from the startup Iconeme.

    A “smart mannequin” enables nearby shoppers with a related mobile app to get details about what it’s wearing and how to find the products in the store or buy them online. The big question is whether customers will be motivated to opt in; skeptics say the technology doesn’t yet provide enough real benefit. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Iconeme

  • De-teching apps
    August 7, 2014 | 10:55 am

    De-teching—the idea that more people will choose to temporarily log off—was one of our 10 Trends for 2011, and in our 2014 trend Mindful Living, we discussed the idea that digitally immersed consumers will try to use technology more mindfully. Perhaps ironically, several new apps aim to help people do so.

    Moment tracks phone use and alerts users when they reach their self-imposed daily limit. Pause is “designed to help us reconnect with real life”; it encourages people to use Airplane Mode and engage in real-world activities, and attempts to turn this behavior into a game among friends. Finally, Menthal is part of a research project out of Germany that helps users find out, “Are you in control of your smartphone? Or is your smartphone controlling you?” —Marian Berelowitz

  • Intuitive eating
    July 29, 2014 | 5:00 pm

    Veggies

    As spotlighted in our 10 Trends for 2014 report, people are becoming more interested in Mindful Living, including the notion of eating more mindfully. And with consumers showing declining interest in dieting, the idea of “intuitive eating”—paying closer attention to the body’s hunger signals rather than following a strict regimen—has been steadily gaining traction. Recent media mentions include articles in Fitness and New Zealand’s Stuff, and a Refinery 29 writer is blogging about adopting the practice. With a recent analysis of studies finding that intuitive eating can be a successful strategy for people who are overweight or obese, watch for more consumers to embrace this anti-diet philosophy. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Theresa Kinsella

  • Chinese mega-cities
    July 24, 2014 | 1:15 pm

    Tianjin

    China, home to the world’s second largest rural population, is expected to add close to 300 million more urbanites by 2030, when Shanghai and Beijing will likely account for two of the world’s Top 5 mega-cities, according to new UN research. “We are observing one of the most significant economic transformations the world has seen: 21st-century China is urbanizing on a scale 100 times that seen in 19th-century Britain and at 10 times the speed,” notes a new McKinsey paper on cities and luxury markets. China’s wealth will be concentrated in these urban areas: Over the next decade, McKinsey expects Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Shenzhen, in addition to Hong Kong, to join the list of “top luxury cities.” —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Jakob Montrasio

  • Brands + Google Glass
    July 15, 2014 | 6:09 pm

    SPG

    As Google Glass makes its way into the hands of more people (last month it became available in the U.K.), brands are experimenting with the new possibilities that the platform affords. In March, Kenneth Cole became the first to launch a marketing campaign—the “Man Up for Mankind Challenge”—through a Glass app. Users were challenged to perform and document good deeds for the chance to win a prize.

    Starwood’s new Glass app, billed as the first such app from the hospitality sector, lets people voice-search its properties, view photos and amenities, get directions and book rooms. An array of other marketers have turned out apps for early adopters, from Sherman Williams’ ColorSnap Glass (easily create a paint chip that mirrors anything in view) to Fidelity (delivers daily market quotes for Glass wearers). —Tony Oblen

    Image credit: SPG

  • Ugly produce
    July 10, 2014 | 2:45 pm

    Intermarche

    Ugly Produce, on our list of 100 Things to Watch in 2014, is proliferating in Europe, thanks in part to government efforts to reduce the 89 million tons of food wasted in Europe each year. In France, Intermarché has been getting buzz for creating a produce section dedicated to “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables”; a whimsical ad campaign reportedly drove a 24 percent rise in store traffic.

    U.K. supermarket Waitrose recently began selling packs of tomatoes that are misshapen or have fallen off the vine naturally. And in Portugal, Fruta Feia (“Ugly Fruit”) is a cooperative launched in late 2013 that sells unsightly produce that would have gone to waste. Per The New York Times, the group already has a waiting list of 1,000 customers. In line with one of our 10 Trends for 2014, Proudly Imperfect, watch for ugly produce to catch on with both retailers and shoppers. —Jessica Vaughn

    Image credit: Intermarché

  • The $1.25 Cube
    July 3, 2014 | 12:30 pm

    As we outline in Immersive Experiences, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond, entertainment and narratives are becoming more enveloping in a bid to capture consumers’ imagination and attention. An immersive project from JWT Israel, a winner of the Cannes Chimera challenge, aims to help people experience what it’s like to live in extreme poverty. Once it’s created, the cube will create a multisensory experience that uses tools like augmented reality to simulate sights, sounds and smells and elicit certain feelings. Participants can exit only when the person in line behind them inserts $1.25, a metaphor for the collaborative efforts needed to fight poverty. The aim is for the cube to travel to international events like the Davos conference in order to influence global leaders. —Hallie Steiner

    Image credit: JWT Israel

  • Google’s Android Auto
    June 26, 2014 | 3:00 pm

     

    Android

    The connected car is rapidly becoming a reality. Fast 4G LTE connections are turning vehicles into hot spots that come with a data plan, while Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are making their way onto dashboards. This week Google introduced Android Auto, with the first compatible cars expected by year-end. Apple’s similar CarPlay, which turns the car into a platform for an iPhone’s content, was announced in March and is included in new Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo models.

    Car-based app ecosystems will provide relevant info (traffic, maps, vehicle diagnostics, restaurant suggestions) and entertainment, combined with safety precautions like voice control. As we outline in our mobile trends report, connected cars—complete with Internet hot spots, a suite of apps and sensors that communicate—will eventually link up with drivers’ homes, mobile devices and other gadgets to form a seamless system. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Android

  • RSSArchive for Things to Watch »