Tuesday, April 8, 2014

FOMO of FOMO and the Paradox of Choice

So, I am the fourth of our bloggers (here, here, and here), among others, to write on FOMO (fear of missing out), and I almost didn’t write this post for fear that my FOMO on the topic was the motivation:  FOMO of FOMO.  I decided that wasn't the reason and that it was worth writing (at least for me).

FOMO has always been an issue for me.  I have always been a researcher, and I don’t mean just in the scholarly sense.  When I look for a car (and I really like cars), everything is on the table. Few people know more about the various options and configurations of vehicles on the market than I do.  It shows when I shop; I have never bought a car from someone who knows more about the product than I do.  (They know more about selling cars than I do, but not about the cars themselves.)

 This need to try to get it right (a common cause of FOMO) has mixed returns.  I never blow the budget on the car, which means I always know what I am missing.  Thus, my FOMO ensures in some instances that I will, in fact, miss out. When it comes to cars, this is not really that important in the big scheme of things. But for other personal and professional decisions, it can have an impact.

 This concept has been explained well by Psychologist Barry Schwartz.  I read his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less in 2010, and it helped explain a number of things to me.  (You can also see  Schwart’z TED Talk here.) I can’t say Schwartz helped me get rid of my FOMO, but it did help understand what’s going on. He explains:

Part of the downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs, and trade-offs have psychological consequences.   The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.

I think such decisions can be especially hard for academics, though I appreciate what good fortune I have to have this “problem.”  One of the reasons I wanted to become a law professor was so I could make the choices I face so regularly. I have great latitude, if not full freedom to choose what I research, what I write about, and what I teach.  In practice, I did not have that kind of freedom, most of the time, and one of the many things I love about my job is that freedom. Still, as Schwartz explains, such options come with psychological consequences.

I also have flexibility in my job that I never had before.  It’s easier, though not always possible, for me to participate in my children’s lives at school.  I want this, and I often have the option to write or prepare for class in off hours so I can participate in their activities. Many people don’t have that flexibility, and I know I am lucky.  I appreciate that flexibility, but it still points out more clearly when I have prioritized either work or family, and that’s not always pleasant in either direction.  My wife and I are both on the faculty, too, so there are times when one of us must miss out on something professionally because of family obligations, at least when we aren’t able to make other arrangements.

I try to keep in mind that the whole FOMO concept, while real, is also in many ways a problem of relative affulence.  We are fortunate to be healthy, and have healthcare. I don’t have to worry about whether we have food, clothes, or shelter. I get to worry about whether I should do another edit, write another chapter, revamp my lesson plan, or go to my son or daughter’s read aloud.  I am now trying to remember how fortunate I am to have such choices in the first place rather than worry about the choice itself. As a friend and colleague likes to say, Good Enough is the New Perfect

In closing, I’ll go back to some advice Barry Schwartz gives on avoiding social comparisons in assessing ourselves.  He says:

1. Remember that “He who dies with the most toys wins” is a bumper sticker, not wisdom.

 2. Focus on what makes you happy, and what gives meaning to your life. 


Joshua P. Fershee, Law School, Teaching | Permalink

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