Over the past few weeks, I have tried to tune out the constant social media updates from my former high school classmates as they finish up their final exams and head home for the summer. In what feels like every Snapchat story and every Instagram post, my friends are reuniting with their families, their dogs, their houses and each other. The realization that most of my friends at other schools have already completed their freshman year has produced many conflicting emotions. In some moments, I find it hard to grasp that I have just under a month left; at other times, I can’t believe that I will still be taking final exams in mid-June. The remainder of freshman year simultaneously feels like a millisecond and a millennium.
The second half of spring quarter has brought a mix of excitement for summer, premature fear of the sophomore slump and pangs of jealousy every time I see a picture of one of my friends shopping at our local mall or eating at our town’s renowned deli. My reaction to my friends’ homecomings and reunions is a classic example of FOMO — fear of missing out.
Watching my high school friends return home has certainly not been my first experience of FOMO at Stanford. FOMO is not limited to circumstances in which the coveted experience occurs on the other side of the country; events happening across campus or across the hall are just as likely to induce FOMO. But this quarter, the combination of FOMO from within and beyond Stanford has pushed me to think more critically about the issue and consider some solutions — beyond the unrealistic suggestion to delete all social media accounts.
At Stanford, with its combination of busy students and countless classes, student groups, speakers and social events, the feeling of missing out is both ubiquitous and inevitable. When a friend raves about a professor whose class I almost took but couldn’t fit in my schedule, an academic sort of FOMO ensues. It manifests itself whenever a brilliant speaker is giving a talk during a class that I can’t skip or on the evening of a midterm that I can’t neglect. Spring quarter makes the potential for social FOMO especially strong. Those of us who have taken on a heavy course load are out of step with our peers who have taken more of a Camp Stanford approach. Meanwhile, the “darty culture” extends the tradeoff between partying and productivity to every weekend afternoon. An abundance of friends and dormmates who have newly joined Greek life only heightens the FOMO effect — and the reunion of high school friends makes FOMO all but inevitable.
In its most limited form, my FOMO is the disappointed but fleeting acknowledgment that I wish I were doing something more desirable in a given moment. It stems from pesky but inescapable realities that I am easily able to accept. Because I will never be invited to every party, see every guest speaker, take every class or get home during the month of May, there are moments when I will have to deal with being jealous or upset. But in a more extreme form, FOMO is more reflective of the emotion that gives it the first letter of its acronym — fear. Recurring jealousy of others’ experiences spirals into the doubt that the activities we are pursuing are not the most enjoyable or satisfying ways to spend our time. Knowing that the chance to be at Stanford is unique and fleeting, yet feeling that we would rather be elsewhere, brings about the unsettling notion that we are not correctly allocating our time here — perhaps even wasting it. It’s justifiable to be scared that we are not taking the right approach to our Stanford education, which has been presented to us as an incredible privilege and potentially the best four years of our lives.
In its extreme form, the paralyzing fear of missing out becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worried that we would be happier somewhere else in a given moment, we are unable to enjoy our present reality. Getting out of this trap requires the recognition that we can never be everywhere or do everything, but we are always somewhere (and almost always doing something). Focusing on FOMO forces us to miss out on wherever we are in the moment, without actually enabling us to take part in the desired and unattainable activity. The inclination to question our choices and imagine ourselves in other situations may be inescapable, but this curiosity does not need to prevent us from recognizing the value in wherever we are at the moment.
To curb FOMO’s capacity for damage, we can start with a change in its definition. What if we were to break down the acronym of FOMO and reframe it as Facing Overwhelmingly Many Opportunities? This phrase more neutrally describes the reality that produces the negative feelings associated with missing out at Stanford. We are only able to feel that we are not spending our time in the best possible ways because we are presented with countless appealing alternatives. A new conception of FOMO would encourage us to see the value in wherever we have ended up. We can recognize that the choices we make, the events we attend and the pursuits we undertake are one set of options from an array of opportunities. Even if we speculate that some other opportunities out there might be preferable in a given moment, they are all part of the overall menu of what Stanford has to offer. Just because we may be jealous of certain corners of Stanford does not mean we are missing out on the Stanford experience overall. The only way to truly miss out on Stanford is to constantly worry that we should be approaching our college experience a different way, disregarding the value in the choices we have made and the places we have ended up along the way.
FOMO becomes inhibiting when momentary jealousy of others’ experiences spirals into the recurring worry that we are not making the most of Stanford. Perhaps this has helped to stir up my FOMO as freshman year winds down. Seeing all of my friends return home has made me confront the reality that my freshman year is also coming to an end, prompting me to reflect on whether I “did Stanford right.” But after some reflection, I know that getting consumed in this doubt is really the only way to do Stanford “wrong.” By seeking to do as much as possible in the face of overwhelmingly many opportunities, Stanford students will inevitably question or regret some of our choices. Rather than ending freshman year with fear about my decisions, I hope to end with gratitude for the ability to have faced overwhelmingly many opportunities, to have picked many meaningful ones along the way and to have three more years ahead of me to continue exploring.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu