“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut
I made the unfortunate decision to glance at my LinkedIn feed in the middle of a recent Tuesday afternoon. It normally wouldn’t have been anything more than a slight distraction, an innocent way to take my mind off the meaningful creative work I was doing at the time.
What a mistake.
As I scanned my feed, full of work anniversaries, posts about managers looking to fill open positions and feel-good shares of how to “hack” your way to success at work, I stumbled upon a post by John (not his real name). John used to be a co-worker, about the same age and level of seniority as I. Instead of doing as I did and quitting my job to travel the world, and then moving into an entirely new field; John stayed put in the tech industry. We lost touch 6–7 years ago.
Glancing over John’s post, I clicked to see what his profile said about his career. I saw that he was no longer working for my alma mater (Microsoft). He had left while I was still working there, and in the course of the past few years had launched his career into the stratosphere, currently serving as founder/CEO of a fast-growing startup hell-bent on transforming an industry and flush with boatloads of VC cash. Not only that, I noticed that another colleague I had once worked with, was now in an exec-level position at the firm.
My innocent decision to check my social media account spiraled into a full-blown severe case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Even worse, I started to feel the more terrible afflictions of jealousy and regret. The later is not necessarily a bad thing depending on the circumstance. Regret, in metered doses, is an opportunity to learn from the past. This time, I OD’d.
Thoughts kept swirling around in my head. I couldn’t focus on my work. I constantly wondered “What would life have been life had I stayed at my job?” and “Should I go back to my old life?” and “Did I make a mistake by quitting my job to travel the world?” and “Am I giving up on a bigger opportunity to make a positive impact on the world?”.
After too many hours of being terrorized by these thoughts, I did what I usually do when I need to get out of my head; I went for a jog. After a few miles of cruising around the meandering paths in the fresh air under blue skies (one of the perks of living near Denver, CO!) I felt better.
Having space and distance from my problem helped me get over my emotional reaction. I realized that my negative emotions were the result of ignoring a few important realities. I’d like to share them with you in the hope that they will help you to overcome any similar situation you may face down the road.
With social media addiction on the rise, it seems that FOMO and regret are also on the uptick. By checking into these three truths, you can move away from jealousy and regret and move towards something bigger and innately unique within yourself. Above all, you will find access to greater peace and calm in your day, regardless what Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn throw at you.
1. The Emotions You Feed Grow Stronger
There is a Native American saying that within each human there are two wolves, one good and one bad, whichever you feed grows stronger.
“A grandfather is talking with his grandson, and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, the one you feed.”
The emotions we feel are real. When I felt the jealousy and regret born from seeing the wild success of a former colleague, those emotions were incredibly strong and real to me. What is important to understand, is that while the emotions are real, the source of the emotion is not.
After all, my emotions were generated from my thinking. Any emotion we feel is the result of neuro-chemical reactions and mental interpretations. In the same way that one person can perceive a five-mile jog in fresh mountain air as torture while another can see it as a tremendously fun outing, our mind creates the meaning for our experience of the world.
My practice of meditation has taught me that when I don’t feed my thoughts by engaging with them, they eventually pass. This is one of the few things that are guaranteed in life (in addition to taxes being due in a week for those of us in the USA!).
If you wait for a few moments without engaging a thought, a new one (or several!) will swoop in to take their place. Guaranteed.
Ignorance is not bliss. However, not feeding thoughts that cause pain is a powerful way of both acknowledging the thought and allowing fresh ideas and emotions to flow inward.
The result will be a sense of freedom and lightness in your mind and body.
2. The Power of Gratitude
What is the psychological basis for FOMO and regret?
We know from extensive research, by the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, that we are highly averse to losses. (Sidenote: if you want to go deeper into the remarkable work and collaboration of these two men, read this book.)
Specifically, we are almost twice as sensitive to a potential loss as we are to a potential gain. That is to say, that people would fight much harder to defend against a potential loss of $100 as they would work hard to win $100.
When we fall into the pit of FOMO and regret, we are captivated by the notion of losing out on something that was potentially ours. These are fictitious gains not found on a path not traveled, but one we are convinced we could have strolled down. We forget the benefits we have gained through living our lives on our terms and become completely beholden to what could’ve happened had decisions been made differently.
This fact comes on top of the features of the human body that have evolved to favor one’s capacity to be knowledgeable and familiar with surroundings. When we feel like we are missing out (or become jealous of the gains of others), our brain and limbic system can trigger a fear response akin to what our hunter-gather ancestors must have felt when venturing into new terrain, unsure of the sources of food and water. It’s in our biology to want to know our landscape and be confident that we have the best potential lot in life that we can get.
How do we overcome these traits?
- A mental trick that helps me immensely is to make a list of the things I am grateful for in my life. Many of these things are the direct result of the life I chose when I quit my corporate job to travel (and eventually start my business as a coach).
- Next, I imagine what my life would be like if I removed these things one by one. E.g. Freedom over my schedule. The ability to impact people’s lives directly. The capacity to spend time directly learning about the human mind and science of achievement. Have a home in a location where I get to see the sun all the time (Hello Colorado!).
Instantly, this exercise reminds me (strongly!) how important and cherished my life is. We too quickly forget the value of what we have and place undue weight on the attainments of others. This activity reverses that affect.
This exercise uses the combined ideas of loss aversion and the power of gratitude to your advantage. Instead of being left with a feeling of jealousy, you will be left with a stronger sense of appreciation for having the life you have created for yourself.
3. The Value of Values
What do you deeply care about?
All human beings care about stuff. When you go beyond the surface (i.e. beyond the material possessions you care about), this stuff, at a fundamental level, reflects the values your hold. Values are deep-rooted and durable. While they do change, they don’t change often and require a sizeable shift in mindset or life circumstance to do so.
For me, at my core, I care deeply about freedom (ownership over my time), knowledge (of myself and the world) and contribution (to others in helping them live a meaningful life). I care about other things as well (like recognition), but the previous values are the driving forces in my life and guide the big decisions I make.
When I lose touch with these values, I get discomfort (at least) and pain (at the extreme). In a moment where I feel anger, jealousy, FOMO, greed or any other negative emotional state it’s always because I’ve lost touch with my values.
The simple act of remembering what I care about, defined by my values, and reflecting on them for a few minutes brings relief. My values are also a common focal point for my moving meditations. For example, I might dwell on my values, and why I care about them, during a jog or a yoga practice.
I find it impossible to reconnect to my values and not feel better about my path in life. When I feel better about my path, I’m better able to positively view others successes (instead of feeling jealousy) and step into the clarity of mind that is needed to make decisions and move forward in a world where we all have our unique way of living life and finding meaning in it.
It all comes down to taking care of your well-being.
As professor Barry Schwartz states in his outstanding book, The Paradox of Choice:
“Stop paying so much attention to how others around you are doing” is easy advice to give, but hard to follow, because the evidence of how others are doing is pervasive, because most of us seem to care a great deal about status, and finally, because access to some of the most important things in life (for example, the best colleges, the best jobs, the best houses in the best neighborhoods) is granted only to those who do better than their peers. Nonetheless, social comparison seems sufficiently destructive to our sense of well-being that it is worthwhile to remind ourselves to do it less.
If you are unable to heed Schwartz’s wisdom and fall into an emotional pit, use the tips in this post to help you climb out.