Fear of Missing Out


Design is a performance of smart people among smart people where it’s easy to conflate merit with your in/ability to solve the kind of algorithm you’ll probably never actually encounter in your day-to-day. While reminding yourself you’re not the smartest person in the room is probably key to doing quality work, it’s easy to start believing you’re the dumbest.

This sense of being head and shoulders below a colleague fuels this survival impulse to try to further clamber-up the tree because not only do we convince ourselves we’re deservedly lower in status, we assume that because they know React they are living a better life.

The fear of missing out is part of a vicious cycle that motivates us to subscribe to a shit ton of newsletters, grind through tutorials, join and try to be fully present in a dozen slack communities, write for UX Collective or Hackernoon, chat-up John Cutler on Twitter to try to soak-up that residual experience, while doing our job, gigging on the side, having a relationship, walking 10,000 steps, until your will just nopes out and you succumb to the neuroticism endemic to the industry.

Our symptoms are exacerbated by the times but this is an ancient poison. You just know the mad emperors of Rome were insecure. What — had Nero asked this of Seneca — would a Stoic advise?

I think Seneca might suggest that the fear of missing out is a prioritization problem.

We either feel we’re missing out because our brief time here is spent on the joyless hustle, or we feel FOMO despite being otherwise content because there is a signal-to-noise ratio disparity.

In one case, FOMO is a ticking clock, a reminder not only that there are experiences you want but that your time left to experience them is short. Stoicism at its core is a prioritization framework. We use the deliberate practice of reminding ourselves that there’s no guarantee there’s a tomorrow to make easier decisions about how we spend time. If you think you are really missing out to your detriment, what are you waiting for?

This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow. — Marcus Aurelius.

What’s more likely is the other case, where we might see how the fear of missing out can be the result of a practical signal management problem.

The Stoics were concerned with jealously reserving their attention because information overload can dilute perspective. You can be awe-struck when you stare at the horizon — and sometimes you should — but you really don’t want to be awe-struck in the middle of a road.

Your monkey brain, engaged in watching all the other monkeys in the industry, wants to monkey-do. In the interest of staying current we subscribe to newsletters, join communities, and watch social because we perceive there to be value in staying current. Maybe you’re working with Sketch but see that screen-names you admire use Figma, or perhaps you are tap-tapping away at some jQuery but see in this morning’s newsletter that you can program a robot with Vue. This is interesting, sure. Have you ever asked yourself why you care? Does it really matter to you?

This is just as much a prioritization problem as the other, because it is either in your control and your best interest to learn all this stuff - or it isn’t.

Some of this is perpetuated by the fallacy that the more bullet-points on our resume make us more marketable, but that for the most part isn’t true. What’s left, then, is whether you have the control of your situation to learn a thing, and whether - memento mori - following a tutorial is really how you want to spend your brief time.

If it sparks joy, go for it. Life is short. Whittling your to-do list to things that are worth your time is the Stoic template for resolving FOMO. If it doesn’t, be honest.

It’s hard to admit that you don’t care about WordPress’s Gutenberg, because caring about Gutenberg is wrapped-up in what it means to be a WordPress professional. So, because we choose to care what other WordPress professionals would think of us, we continue to subscribe and read these newsletters only to delete them without further action, burning the time we could use for something else, devoting attention to information we can’t and won’t use. We open ourselves to signals motivated by the myth of staying current - when, really, we should stop listening for the signals entirely. If it doesn’t spark joy and it doesn’t make you measurably better as a human, unsubscribe.

Such are the lessons of the Stoics:

  1. Know what really matters

  2. Jealously guard your gift of attention so you stay focused on what really matters.

Craft virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield