Meet the man behind FOMO

By Kitty Knowles 22 March 2016
Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 10.23.45

Do you suffer form 'Fear Of Missing Out'? Meet Patrick McGinnis, the man behind the meme.

Do you suffer from the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, there’s something cooler, more happening, taking place elsewhere?

You know it. It’s that worrying sensation that keeps you out past bedtime, when your body’s a wreck and you’ve got a 6am start the next day; It’s when, whatever you order, you worry your dinner companion made the better decision; It’s what, way back when, made you ditch your MySpace account for a shiny new ‘Facebook’.

Coined in 2003, ‘Fear of Missing Out’ ran deep in our collective consciousness as we strode into a 21st century full of soaring work stress and burgeoning social media.

In the year’s that followed FOMO has spread like a virus, infecting the English-speaking world. It make it The Guardian‘s glossary of youth Internet slang in 2008 – people complained of it, suggested solutions to it – and still do to this day.

Patrick McGinnis is an entrepreneur, angel investor and author, and he’s the man behind the meme.

We asked him exactly how FOMO came about, why it ails us, and how it shapes us today…

Kitty Knowles: What caused FOMO? Hasn’t it always existed?

Patrick McGinnis: It has always existed, but not in such a personal way.

Thanks to laptops and mobile phones, we now carry our lives around with us as never before. When I started at Harvard Business School in 2002 there was a Perfect Storm for FOMO.

While I was studying, we saw the emergence of the first social media (Friendster, believe it or not) combined with the trauma of 9-11 and the dotcom bust.

This all left us all feeling like we needed to live every day to the fullest. But for the first time, we also knew what we were missing out on as never before thanks to the rapid adoption of mobile technology and social media.

You inject all of that into a community of ambitious, competitive, and social people (the archetypical Harvard student) and you get FOMO.

KK: What is the essence of FOMO?

PG: To me it’s fundamentally about optimising. Or rather over-optimising. Have you noticed how everyone loves the word curation these days?

When we try too hard to curate our lives, FOMO takes hold.

When and where did you first give FOMO a name?

It was a word we used around my ski house at Harvard in 2003 and 2004. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I knew it was special and I decided to document it for posterity in our school newspaper.

I wrote a satirical article called “Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs” in May 2004. I wanted to document FOMO and its role in our lives because I knew that this phenomenon was so unique to that moment in time.

You also coined FOBO, how’s that different to FOMO?

FOMO is a universal concept – it can hit anyone – FOBO is a concept that applies more to people as they get more established.

‘Fear of a Better Option’ implicitly asumes that you will, in fact, have better options from which you might be able to choose at some point. As a result, I think FOMO is just more relatable and widespread concept and that’s the one that got popular.

I still believe that FOBO is far worse however. With FOMO you mainly hurt yourself, while FOBO is about being fundamentally selfish when it comes to others.

When and how did FOMO spread?

I continued to use the word and it became mainstream at Harvard thanks to that article.

Like any virus, it was spread by human contact.

900+ MBA students graduate from Harvard Business School every year and they are a pretty garrulous crew, so I think it was world of mouth as those people spread across the world.

When did FOMO hit the mainstream?

NPR (National Public Radio) thinks that perhaps its when co-founder of Flickr, Caterina Fake, wrote about it on her blog in 2011. It could be. We have no way of knowing. It was already well established at that point, but perhaps she put it over the edge.

Obviously, my article is timestamped in May 2004 and something happened in those intervening years. I feel like this was the result of a very democratic and widespread appropriation of the term by young professionals in the English speaking world thanks to my classmates and a few MBA-centric blogs that linked to my original article.

Has the phenomenon peaked? Or is it getting more intense?

It has really taken off in the last few years – I knew it was mainstream about a year ago when my dad texted me a photo of a TV advert using the term. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t get an email from a friend with a FOMO reference.

FOMO is still growing.

To imagine that we got stressed out over seeing an event we’d missed on Friendster. How quaint.

Social media is now pervasive and FOMO has developed into a very virulent strain.

Does FOMO impact you as an entrepreneur and investor?

Yes. But I have learned the hard way that FOMO is more likely to cause you to make a poor decision than a good one. Rigor beats momentum when it comes to business decisions.

Did FOMO prompt you to write your book?

I feel like much of the first stage of my career was driven by FOMO. Everybody I knew went to banking, so did I. Everyone went to private equity, so did I. I’m glad I did those things, as a learned so much, but once I beat down my FOMO, I became a far more creative an open minded person.

I would have never written a book if I hadn’t beaten down FOMO.

You need to spend months locked in a room to write a book, so there’s no room for FOMO.

What’s your book The 10% Entrepreneur about?

My book seeks to help the millions of smart, well connected and talented professionals face a pervasive dilemma – it’s a direct result of my experience as a refugee from the 2008 financial crisis.

Although traditional corporate roles are neither as stable nor as rewarding as they once were, pursuing the upside and excitement of full-time entrepreneurship is not for everyone.

Depending on your particular skills, your interests, and your stage in life, you may find that taking an entrepreneurial course is not practical or even accessible.

The answer to this dilemma is to become a 10% Entrepreneur: You don’t have to be a full-time entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial. Instead, you can invest, advise, and start entrepreneurial ventures all without leaving your day job.

My 10% has made life far more fun and interesting: I’ve invested at the earliest stages in now highly successful companies like ipsy and Bluesmart and even backed an upcoming stage production of The Last King of Scotland in London’s West End.

Why should people buy your new book?

FOMO obviously. Just kidding.

Find out more about The 10% Entrepreneur. Available to pre-order on Amazon from £14.99.