How to overcome the fear of missing out (in five easy steps)

FOMO is a famous acronym in the acronym-rich tech culture of today. FOMO is the fear of missing out.

The fear of missing out is what prompts many of us to do many of the things we do.

The fear of missing out is, in large part, responsible for the viral loop which has seen Facebook become one of the biggest companies in history and made it Public Enemy Number One for many people who feel (not without justification) that the combination of its unsettlingly uncharistmatic CEO, its desperate drive for profit and the compulsive daily use of many of its 2.5 billion users is an existential threat to modern society.

When Facebook was starting out in the frat buildings of American universities in the mid-2000s, the fear of missing out on a place in The Face Book compelled people to sign up in droves.

And the more who signed up, the more who were destined to sign up. Because, the fear of missing out.

The fear of missing out is folly, though.

Because one cast-iron certainty of life is that you will miss out on a countless number things.

Every little thing you choose to do, you are missing out on an endless number of other things you could have chosen to do.

When you understand that the fear of missing out is the modern manifestation of an ancient, almost pre-human part of your brain, which was designed to ensure your safety, security and survival, you begin to realise that it is something you can safely ignore.

And FOMO can be overcome.

How to Overcome the Fear of Missing Out (in 5 easy steps)

  1. Notice the fear (because noticing our thoughts is one of the foundational principles of cognitive behavioral therapy)
  2. Call it what it is, aloud (because voicing something has a way of disarming it)
  3. Write it down (because writing things down makes them more real and less intimidating)
  4. Acknowledge that it is the manifestation of an ancient part of your brain (because evolutionary psychology is a real thing)
  5. Laugh about it (because laughter about oneself, especially the things that are outside our control, like our ancient brains, is a building block for great humility, and humility derails FOMO like almost nothing else)

400 words about the uncertainty of adulthood for all young adults

Approximately 60,000 people in Ireland take the State Leaving Cert exam each year. The equivalent of a packed outdoor arena full of young men and women, taking something labelled with such finality as the “Leaving” exam.

Leaving what? Leaving to where?

This is just one little country. The population of Ireland makes up just 0.06% of the world’s population. All over the world, there are young people taking tentative first steps into adulthood.

If you’re one of them, you are doing this at a time of great uncertainty too.

You are reaching adulthood just as a pandemic of new illness sweeps the globe, with all the suffering and fear it brings.

You are entering into a technology-heavy culture in which the way we do everything changes often and rapidly.

You are becoming a man or a woman, and a citizen and a role model and a leader too, because whether you know it or not, people everywhere will look to you to see how you do things.

Here’s a short, unordered list of things to take with you into the uncertainty of adulthood:

  • Times of great uncertainty are common. In fact, they’re so common that the only certainty is that you will experience great uncertainty many times in your life. At least once a decade, and maybe more.
  • The knowledge that times of great uncertainty are common should make uncertainty easier to bear.
  • Uncertainty about yourself, and your place in the world, your purpose and the grand questions (the meaning of life!), is just as common.
  • Uncertainty will make you stronger. Because uncertainty is, in fact, certain, having certainty about anything is a weakness.
  • Uncertainty and indecisiveness are different things. You can be uncertain and decisive. In fact, this is what you must aim for, because decisiveness amid uncertainty is how great leaders live. (And you are a great leader in the making, whether that’s in a public role, or within your community, or your family, or just a great leader of your own life.)
  • Uncertainty makes you humble, and that’s a good thing, because humility is one of the best states of being human. (Benjamin Franklin wrote 12 virtues before adding humility as a 13th only after being advised to do so by a Quaker friend, who found him occasionally overbearing and insolent. So Franklin added humility, with the simple description: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”.)

The universal language of touch

There was a documentary about bears and bear research on the BBC last weekend. It was called “Bearwalker of the Northwoods”, and it followed Lynn Rogers, an American bear researcher, on his daily work to study and better understand the black bears of the American back country.

Rogers, who is now 81 and is still the principal biologist of the Wildlife Research Institute, has been learning about and learning from the wildlife of Minnesota, and especially bears, for more than half a century.

During the documentary, he gets up close with bears, and runs some educational programs where he helps others do the same, to demonstrate that black bears may not be the two-dimensional villains they’re often made out to be.

“It isn’t that they like me,” he says at one point, “it’s that they trust me.”

In another scene, he is so close to a black bear that he reaches out and caresses him with the back of his hand, and he says,

Touch is a universal language. We get data from touch that we cannot get by any other means.

These words shone out like a beacon. I heard them during the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-July 2020, and more than a decade after “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” was originally filmed and screened.

At this time, touch has become something dangerous. Social distancing has become the norm of every day. We are warned about the dangers of touching our faces. We are tentative about hugging our loved ones.

And yet, touch is one of the five senses that make us what we are. It is a universal language that allows us to gather information from the earth, and allow the earth to gather information from us.

As we move into a more digitised world, where information transmits globally in seconds, where many people read ebooks or listen to audiobooks or carry all the information they need in their smartphones and tablets, touch is a sense that has already been marginalised.

Covid-19 has marginalised it still further.

But touch is essential and universal, and a life without the experience of touch is in many ways lesser, substandard, incomplete.

The meaning we make

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and psychiatrist who spent years in four concentration camps during World War II, where at least four family members died: his wife, both his parents and his brother.

When the war ended and he was freed, he wrote his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in just nine days. He later re-married and Elly was with him for the next 50 years before he died, aged 92, in 1997.

By the time he had entered the concentration camps, Frankl had already invented the psychological treatment process called logotherapy, literally “healing through meaning”.

Frankl disagreed with his fellow Austrian psychological forefathers Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, whose respective theories of psychology were that humans were driven by the need for pleasure (Freud) or the need for power (Adler).

Frankl, on the other hand, believed strongly that the meaning of life was meaning itself.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked … Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Each of us is questioned by life. It is not up to us to question.

We can not search for meaning, nor can we ever find it.

But we must make it, because meaning is among the most powerful drivers.

We must make meaning out of whatever it is we are going through, or have gone through, and the meaning we make must relate to the service of others.

And when we succeed in making meaning out of our endless little problems and minor tests and major struggles in this life, the meaning we make from them will make everything worthwhile.

We choose the meaning. It’s up to us, but it relates to others.

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.

And while that could feel like a heavy burden — it’s quicker, always, to take on a thing given to us by someone else than to craft something for ourselves — there is joy and liberation in it too.

We make meaning out of whatever it is we go through, and the meaning we make makes life better for people other than ourselves.

As life philosophies go, it’s not a bad one to live by.

How to get back to normal

The best way to get back to normal is to fully appreciate these two things:

  1. There is no normal
  2. There is no going back

The normality we might yearn for was a way of being that was built by two things:

  1. Habits: The things we do every day or at least every week, and because we do them as a matter of routine, and do them over a long time, they become habits. “You don’t decide your future. You decide your habits, and your habits decide your future.”
  2. Safety: When we look back, we see a false version of the past. Why? Because the past that we see, that was in some way a normality that we now crave, has only revealed itself as a cradle in hindsight. When we are in the moment, we are afflicted — whether we fully appreciate it or not — by the uncertainty of what comes next. That uncertainty poses some threat to our safety always. When we look back at some normality, because we are armed now with the knowledge of hindsight, we cannot imagine any of the low-hum anxieties that existed in our minds back then. And so we see a time when we were safe, and that safety is the normality we crave.

So if there’s no normal, and there’s no going back, what can we do?

Perhaps also, we do two things:

To be present with our present anxieties

We can try our best to appreciate that our innermost anxieties about what follows the present moment is never, ever going to go away. It will always be there, low-hum or full blast, in every present moment we ever experience, and since there’s no avoiding at (as avoiding it is to be irresponsible and therefore unsafe) the best we can do is to be at one with those anxieties. To appreciate them fully as an essential part of what it is to be human, moulded by a hundred thousand years of evolution, and to embrace this deep innermost part of who we are.

To strengthen ourselves against all that is to come

No matter what stage of life we are at, it is our opportunity and our responsibility to strengthen ourselves. To get stronger in mind and body and spirit. It is not about installing a home gym and pumping iron every day (although for some of us, that is a legitimate next step). It is about reflection. Reflecting each day and each week on the things about us that make us strong and the things about us that tend to weaken us. And then we can refine our strengths, and bring our weaknesses into the light where we can remove them or turn them into strengths.

There’s no going back to normal.

There’s only going forward, cresting the wave of the unstoppable passage of time, and making the best of whatever each moment gives us.

There’s only uncertainty, and uncertainty is normal.

Caring vs careful

There’s a difference between being caring and being careful.

Caring is looking around you, outside you, seeing what needs care, and offering that care.

Caring is a generous and selfless act.

Careful is looking at yourself, inside you, seeing dangers that need to be avoided, and avoiding them.

Careful is often about you and your fears, worries, anxieties.

Selfish is a loaded term. In human society, where for a hundred thousand years togetherness and generosity have kept the collective alive, an accusation of selfishness cuts deep.

But carefulness can be selfish. Excessive carefulness is selfish.

When it becomes routine and habitual, careful is the opposite of caring.

To be careful prevents you from being caring.

Next time you’re around children at play, tune into the presence of the grown-ups around them and the use of the words “be careful”.

For children, to be constantly urged to “be careful” is to be constantly made aware of the endless little dangers of the world.

The world is full of dangers, little and large.

We shouldn’t be naive about them.

But equally, we can’t avoid all of them either, and when we try to avoid them we try to lead a risk-free life.

In choosing a life of excessive carefulness, we miss all the glories that life has to offer.

Snippets of possible definitions of grace

How might anyone offer up definitions of grace? Perhaps, instead of defining it, it is better to offer an incomplete list of places where grace occurs.

Grace is the prayer our forefathers said before and after meals, and which for many of us is lost, and in losing it, I think, we lose more than just a short prayer.

Grace is an Irish ballad about the marriage in prison of a leader of the Easter Rising, Joseph Plunkett, to his fiancée, the artist Grace Gifford.

Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love, I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won’t be time to share our love for we must say good-bye

Grace is how Seamus Heaney described his relationship to poetry. His teaching, he said, was his work; his poetry was his grace*.

Grace is the word used to describe Mary, the mother of Jesus: “Hail Mary, full of grace”.

Grace is the name of my young cousin, who smiles easily and often, a smile that radiates joy and warmth and intelligence and, yes, grace.

Grace is how Caroline Myss described the energy of the El Camino: “this thousand-year-old walk is a tunnel of grace”.

Grace is, perhaps, indescribable. It’s a feeling that is by necessity wordless. Maybe “grace”, in its soft single syllable, is the best word for something so simple and yet so profound and central to the entire human experience of the world.

There are a couple of definitions I found in an academic article about Heaney called “Gravity and Grace: Seamus Heaney and the Force of Light”, which describes grace as

mystical unions with the divine


experiences of transcendence.

For now, for me, that will do as well as anything.

A life full of grace is reserved for the most devout amongst us, perhaps.

But a life with experience of grace?

That seems to be possible for us all, and all it takes is for us to be open to accepting grace when it comes, and it is sure to come.

* These words of Seamus Heaney have been lodged in my head for several years. I’ve struggled to find the source, but it may be somewhere in the excellent two-part radio documentary, Professor Heaney, about his time at Oxford and Harvard universities.

Off the beaten path

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece about Caroline Myss and her experiences along the path of El Camino in northern Spain, when she spoke of a “tunnel of grace” built up by a thousand years of the footsteps of pilgrims.

And it made me think of the footsteps of our ancestors.

Motorised transport is still such a recent thing. My father, can remember a time when cars were so scarce in his town in Donegal in Ireland that his mother, my grandmother, got a lift to the hospital a couple of times a year. When my dad started working (towards the late 1960s) he got a job in a town 60 miles away, and his Friday evening and Sunday afternoon commutes to and from his “digs” could take several hours, usually relying on a series of hitch-hiking hops each taking him just a few miles further along the road.

As motorised transport is so recent, it follows that most of our roads are recent too. These roads criss-cross the country and concrete over the ground beneath them and remove the closeness of our connection to the earth.

Roads are not going away; it would be ludicrous to want them to.

But it’s not a binary choice. We can benefit from all the wondrous possibilities of modern transport without losing our connection to the paths our ancestors walked.

In many cases, when we get off the beaten path we find paths and trails and tunnels of grace that have been walked for dozens of centuries by those who went before us.

When we leave the newly beaten path, we might find a path that was beaten down by others hundreds or thousands of years ago, opens up an invisible but tangible history to all of us.

The trails of old pilgrimages and hilltop monuments and riverside towpaths all present opportunities to experience our own tunnel of grace. Go out and take the first step, and be open to what the energy of the world can give you.

Craving real connection in a connected, disconnected world

We are more connected than we have ever been.

Despite a lockdown that has affected the lives of billions of people, all over the world people were able to “work from home”, taking advantage of recent developments in technology to contribute to workplaces and remain productive in ways that would have seemed like science fiction just a few short decades ago.

In some ways, the unprecedented level of connection — which started with the World Wide Web through the 1990s, led to the birth of global social networks in the 2000s and became, in the past decade, an existential crisis as the threads of technological connection left democratic societies vulnerable to the influence of hackers and malcontents — has left us bereft, overwhelmed and confused.

With added irony, all the connection has led to massive disconnection.

A wise boss once told me, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

In the same way, if we are connected to the whole world in real time, then we run the risk of feeling disconnected from everything.

This feeling of disconnectedness is a natural outcome from the frenetic always-on world, where no matter how fast you run, you can’t seem to keep up.

The thing is, it’s not about keeping up.

Keeping up is an impossible task.

Instead, it’s about slowing down.

It’s about slowing down and noticing the possibility for connection around you all the time.

Stop, slow down, and notice the opportunity for real connection.

Because real connection is what we crave, and we can open ourselves up for real connection multiple times in every day.

We get real connection by giving it.

To give it, we must notice somebody, and see them, and hear them. When people know that they’re seen and heard, magic can happen.

When you’re moving at a hundred miles an hour, and others are too, all you can ever hope to see of each other is a blur.

Slow down and lean in, and the wonder of a real connection with another human being — either at the coffee kiosk, or in a Twitter conversation — can become clear.



The energy of the right path

I spoke with a friend of mine earlier this week, for the first time in a long time.

Melissa is an energy healer, and she radiates a beautiful energy. She left a corporate life and lifestyle in New York several years ago and moved to Hawaii, where she works with women and couples.

She mentioned a video by Caroline Myss from a number of weeks back, where the author spoke about the world amid coronavirus and reflected on her time walking the Camino in northern Spain with friends.

Those that are on the Camino are obvious, they’re wearing backpacks, and they’re all going in the same direction. The people that you pass or end up sitting next to for a break, everybody talks to you. Everybody says ‘Blessed Camino’ to you, ‘Blessed Walk’ to you, and we’re all going in the same direction.

One day, on this walk, while we were walking through a town, i stepped off the sidewalk. We were on the Camino path through the town, and I just stepped off the sidewalk, just one inch of the sidewalk.

Now I was in the town area, off the energy of the Camino, and nobody said blessed anything to you, they were just going about their everyday life, walking this way and that. I was into the energetic chaos of ordinary life.

I took a step, and I was back on the Camino, and everybody was walking the same way and smiling … Everybody knew where we were going, everybody was walking the same way.

And I realised that this was a tunnel of grace. This 1000-year walk was a tunnel of grace, having been walked by how many countless pilgrims, all on this walk toward God, this pilgrimage, this walk of faith, with some prayer in their heart, some reason. It was a walk of transformation, a walk of hope, a walk for a reason.”

All 20 minutes of it is worth pausing for and listening to.

She talks about:

  • what walking in faith might mean (and it’s not specific to any religion, or even to what we call “religion” at all)
  • the problems of the present moment
  • the nature of the mystical divine and why it’s not based on logic or reason
  • how we can give each other hope

Watch “The world is going to start over again” by Caroline Myss on YouTube here