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Interview with Patrick McGinnis, HBS Alumnus 2004, venture capitalist and author of two books.

di G. Libonati e A. Signori

Patrick McGinnisThe word ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out) is the MBA in a nutshell: you learn it during the first few hours of the programme and it accompanies you until the very end. To the point that sometimes you wonder: will I ever live without it? To Patrick McGinnis the answer to this question is very simple: FOMO is something as old as the birth of men and as eternal as the art of choosing. The ‘Fear of Missing Out’ and the ‘Fear of a Better Option’ are two emotions strongly associated with the MBA: in truth, we face them any time we have to navigate a sea of choices. HBS Alumnus 2004, venture capitalist and author of two books, Patrick brings us back to the MBA time by starting from the idea that changed his (and our) lives…


‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out) is the word that is most strongly associated to the MBA experience. Can you let us know what inspired it and how you came up with this concept?

Just after I started my MBA, two major events happened: the tech bubble and, just a mile from my apartment in lower Manhattan, the 9/11. Economic dislocation and terrorist events that followed made me feel very uncertain about the future: I started to realize that I needed to live everyday as if it were the last one and take every opportunity I faced.

And here comes the MBA: a ‘choice-switching’ environment with tons of stuff to do every day. I wanted to do it all to the point that I even applied to jobs I wasn’t interested in just because everyone was applying. I started suffering from sheer pressure to do everything and this gave me lots of anxiety: I realized it was a ‘1% problem’, but still I couldn’t stop it. It was then that the idea of ‘FOMO’ started to articulate: I talked about it with my friends and everyone got it immediately. After graduating, I published an article on HBS newspaper (2004): that was the first time the acronym was used.

Often, I get asked why the word spread so fast. I believe it’s a combination of two factors: it became very popular in the small circle of HBS first and inside the MBA community at large. All these MBA graduates then went working for McKinsey, Google, Morgan Stanley, and they brought the lingo with them. That’s really how the word entered into our everyday vocabulary.


What about ‘FOBO’ (Fear Of a Better Option)? Are these two concepts two sides of the same coin or are there fundamental differences between them?

The two words are definitely related: they are both based on the perception that we have lots of choices. Whether or not this is actually true, it’s another story…

To understand ‘FOBO’, think of choosing the job for your post-MBA life: you decide where you want to apply and you actually get the job! But…then you hear that the majority of your class is applying to Private Equity and you wonder: ‘Shall I apply as well? Or shall I stay with the position I just got?’ This is when you enter into what I call ‘analysis paralysis’. With ‘FOBO’, you always strive to optimize for the perfect outcome: every experience should be perfectly amazing and you spend lots of time to make the perfect decision. Remember when you were trying to decide a holiday destination for summer break during the MBA? You talked to 7 different people and ended up (partially) committing to 7 different vacations…

The word ‘FOBO’ didn’t become as famous as ‘FOMO,’ which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. (although FOBO has been written about in the NY Times and The Guardian). This is no surprise as ‘FOMO’ is easier to grasp: nearly everyone on the earth has felt it once in life. You only require an active imagination and a social medial account to become a ‘FOMO’ victim. ‘FOBO’, instead, is more subtle: the more wealth and success you have, the more you suffer from ‘FOBO’. That being said, Netflix is a great producer of ‘FOBO’: you are exposed to too many choices and this produces a sort of paralysis. But the effect of ‘FOBO’ is much more damaging and dangerous for business people.


Choosing among different options can be a daunting task. Can you tell us a bit more about the psychology of choosing and why having many options can be very stressful? 

Psychology is also biology: feelings have been part of the human experience since the beginning, but it’s really our generation that has become a ‘FOMO sapiens’ by being constantly overwhelmed by choices to make.

Historically, humans have always been keenly aware of what they needed to survive and what they need more of: Buddha came up with meditation to help detaching from this feeling of what you have and what you can have. There is nothing entirely new in there.

What has changed is the psychological perspective: there are many more choices than there used to be. Think about ordering food online, taking jobs everywhere in the world…It’s simpler to choose for us than it was for our grandparents. But on the other hand, by having so many choices we become overwhelmed and depreciate all the good things we already have. By focusing on what you don’t have, you don’t appreciate what you have and thus you feel dissatisfied. Try going on LinkedIn: you might be a very successful person in truth, but if you compare yourself with other people and you are in a status of information asymmetry (you know your life very well, but you judge others’ life by LinkedIn successes), you can become very unhappy.


‘FOBO’ can block many alumni (across seniority levels) from changing jobs; what’s your advice to overcome ‘getting stuck and delaying action for fear of a better outcome’?

Let me give an example: let’s speak about consultants. Consultants are the masters of ‘FOBO’: by year 4 in the job, they want to get out of consulting. Fast forward 7 years later and they are still there. Why does this happen? When you feel ‘FOBO’, you tend to be ‘risk averse’. On the other hand, by choosing an option, you eliminate by default all the others. In our society, we place lots of value on having multiple options so this creates the paralysis mentioned before. By choosing, you need to accept that something can go wrong and you need to commit to something specific: on the other hand, you really want to keep the freedom to choose. You desire to take riskless decisions, but this is impossible (in a context of information asymmetry).

In these cases, there are three things you can do:

Figure out your TRUE set of options (removing the “perception is deception” dogma) and have real facts replacing fears and feelings

Let go of what you can’t have: pathology is when we move in circles around the same set of options and never decide or eliminate

Add options and don’t lose them

A common mistake done by people with ‘FOBO’, is to think their options will be available forever. This is not true: delaying decisions can actually lead to a worst set of options. We often forget that the whole point of making decision is to move on to the next set of decisions: if you don’t do it because of ‘FOBO’, you risk remaining stuck. It’s like putting yourself in a prison of your own design, while all you really want is to get out of that very same prison.

It’s such a fascinating topic, I dedicated a whole TED talk on this (“How to make faster decisions”).


In your opinion, what is the most recurring ‘FOMO’ or ‘FOBO’ during the MBA and after, when joining the job market?

An interesting finding comes from the study showing that the most popular recruiting industry at Harvard in any year is a predictor of a sector deemed to have troubles in the near future (think about hedge funds in 2007). This has to do with the “herd mentality”. People arrive at the MBA with different backgrounds and they soon spot the sector associated with money and status in that specific moment. These are industries which are trending and that attract many MBA people who might lack the needed experience. Think about people who want to transition from Non-Profit into Banking or Private Equity: it’s a very steep turn and proficiency in the former doesn’t automatically transfer to the latter.

Those students who do not choose based on their real interest or vocation, but rather fall trap of the “herd mentality” follow a very predictable pattern (well explained by a New York Times article called “The Power of Habit”). What the article demonstrates is that those people who went for job only out of sheer peer pressure become very unsatisfied and bored when showing up at 5 or 10 year reunions. This happened because their perception of the job and of the life attached to it didn’t match reality. Other people instead, who at the end of the MBA took some time to figure out what they really wanted to do and followed their passions (thus leaving ‘FOMO’ behind at some point), on the long term turn out to be happier. I am the very proof of it: I didn’t know what I wanted to become at first and I was definitely ‘Mr. FOMO’: now instead I found my own voice.

The take-away here is that when you have ‘FOMO’, you are living someone else’s dream: truth is you might not be made for that specific job and thus you will never excel at it. And if you don’t know which are your dreams, it’s fine. Take the time to discover it. If you follow someone else’s dream, you can end up profoundly disappointed because you don’t find meaning in your job, even if you are successful and making lots of money. That’s the dangerous side of ‘FOMO’. The good side of ‘FOMO’, instead, is that it provides the opportunity to think about what we really want and pushes us to experiment also sideways path: so that we can figure out what we really like.


To conclude, we want to hear from you: which is your biggest FOMO today?

During the lockdown, my biggest FOMO was to miss travelling: especially cause I had big plans for this year. I’ve travelled a lot in my life, visiting over 100 countries: everyone who knew me kept saying “you must be missing traveling!”. To be honest: it was actually fine! I enjoyed a break from that life even if I do miss the ability to get on a plane and go places.

Why I was fine? Because it’s actually very unproductive to feel ’FOMO’ when you can’t do things. I accepted this learning and what I did, instead, was to cook dishes of the places I wanted to go. Instead of going around the world, I brought the world to me: one recipe at a time.