In the late 1970s, as a law intern with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (in Washington, D.C.), I had occasion to speak with a lawyer/reporter who was facing disbarment because of something he had done as a working journalist. On behalf of the Reporters Committee, I was offering assistance to fight the disbarment, but he politely declined. He explained that he had found his calling as a reporter, and he didn't mind losing the options a legal career offers. At the age of 23, I was stunned that he wasn't afraid of making the wrong choice and regretting it later, something we now call FOMO - Fear of Missing Out.
Every choice we make leaves a road untraveled and the possibility that something better might have been ours - if only we had chosen differently. In fact, however, we'll never know what would have happened if we had chosen differently. If things were different then, things would be different now, and there would be no comparison to make.
Happiness lies in learning how to make decisions, and then how to live with our choices. That, I believe, is the secret to avoiding FOMO, as well as being a big part of becoming a mature, healthy adult.
FOMO Lurks in Every Choice
One place to start is making sure our choices are a manifestation of heading toward a goal, rather than running away from something we fear or dislike. The latter lacks direction and connotes retreat, if not defeat. The former implies a sense of hope, of potential achievement, of choice rather than default. But to make that work, we have to choose a goal. Choosing one goal as our priority means discarding others, and the pressure we put on ourselves to make the "right choice" of a goal can trigger another FOMO-attack.
FOMO has made it into the dictionary, and it has a bona fide definition that makes reference to the internet: "Anxiety...often aroused by posts seen on a social media website." But that isn't really fair. The increase in awareness and opportunity that today's technology and social media offer may have added to the burden, but it didn't cause the problem.
FOMO predates the computer. Every choice has always provided an opportunity for second-guessing. But now, as the magnitude of choices offered through our electronic devices has increased exponentially, we have had to come to grips with the fact that it is impossible to ingest everything the internet offers.
Making Peace With Our Choices
Meanwhile, friends and strangers who have made different choices share moments of their lives online almost constantly, inviting us to gaze at their images and wonder whether they chose better than we did. That's why it is more important than ever for us to learn to make peace with ourselves ahead of time, recognizing that the choices we make today will be thoughtful and purposeful, and committing to ourselves that, whatever results from today's choices, we will graciously look back tomorrow, recognizing that we are choosing as wisely as we can today, and there can be no blame in that.
The team behind Note to Self, a WNYC podcast, has launched an ambitious project to help info-consumers make better choices - "better" being defined by self-set goals and a desire to reduce the stresses of FOMO. They say they will start by providing participants with tools to turn our info-overloaded lives into something "Info-Magical."
Taking the Infomagical Challenge
I joined the "infomagical" study last week, which is not a choice I would usually make. During the next five days (February 1-5, 2016), there will be "daily challenges" which, I assume, were designed to make me more conscious of how I use my digital devices to access the limitless trough of information they offer.
I've signed up because I am curious to see whether the project will also address the issue of learning to live comfortably with the choices we make. And I admit, I am also interested in hearing what they have learned and seeing what tools they have to offer. But, perhaps most of all, I am intrigued by the irony of turning to the internet and subscribing to an online information source to solve the problem of information overload and FOMO.
I couldn't resist.
CORRECTION: This piece previously stated that 'Note to Self' is an NPR podcast. It is in fact produced by WNYC.