March 28, 2012
Q&A, Priya Parker, researcher and founder of Thrive Labs
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.