Priya Parker: The Fear of Missing Out at TEDxCambridge 2011 (Full Transcript)

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Priya Parker – Founder, Thrive Labs

Fourteen months ago, I was on a [Southwest] flight and my eyes rolled back in my head. I slumped into my seat, unconscious. I woke up to the plastic rubber floor of the airplane, right in the middle of the seats and I was wheeled off in a stretcher in Atlanta Georgia, and I ended up in an emergency room, followed by months of tests, months of doctors’ visits, a number of gluten tests. I got really good at making those quinoa loaves for breakfast.

And, I finally got a very unsatisfying explanation. Ambition and stress placed the body on a war footing, my doctor told me. I’d been running hard for ten years through my twenties, and my army had simply run out of supplies. I took some time off and the strangest thing happened. Hard charging, high performing people started coming up to me, often in whispers, and told me that they too had collapsed recently. That they’re suffering from insomnia, from lockjaw, from losing chunks of hair, these invisible diseases all around me due to stress and anxiety.

I started to rebuild my body, and during that time, my 93-year-old grandfather said something to me that really stuck. He said: “Priya, do you know what the word ‘Svastha’ means?”

And I said, “Yes Nana. It means health in Hindi”

And he said, “Yes, that’s how we use it in modern day Hindi, but it actually derives its root from Sanskrit. And it has a two-fold meaning: ‘Sva’ means self. And ‘stha’ means seat. So ‘svastha’ or health, means to be seated inside yourself.”

I began to build myself. To regain my strength, I spent a lot of time dancing. I also spent a lot of time alone, in silence, creating. And I realized that in trying of making something of myself, I had somehow lost the thread. And I realized that I in fact was not alone. I decided to do two things once I healed.

First, to conduct a study of the next generation of socially concerned globally minded leaders — basically the TED demographic — to find out what are their unique anxieties. Then, to work with individuals and organizations who were experiencing critical inflection points, to build bold visions on how they can thrive and how they can build a vision off of their internal core. I called these sessions, visioning labs.

As I conducted these labs and I conducted these interviews, I found that there were in fact things that this generation uniquely suffers from. Two stood out. The first is that we become untethered. The people that I work with, more than their parents, more than their grandparents, are less and less tethered to anything. We have full choice to make a decision about who we marry, whether we marry, what we want to study or eventually do. And this prolific rise, you could say, of choices, has made our life full of more variables and less certainty.

A doctor I was working with, a very successful young doctor crystallized this for me. She said, “I’ve become a skeleton. The layers have been stripped away. I no longer have institutions or tribe or family. It just no longer exists for me.” What happens when we lose our traditions, our cultures, our ways of being, our inherited ways of being, is that all of a sudden, we began to look and live our lives in a social mirror. We spend our lives looking at a mirror and all we have is the people around us to reflect back to us what normal is. And what has happened is that, we’re spending our time looking at this guy and saying, “Should I be doing what he’s doing?” Or, “What does she know that I don’t?” We’ve lost our organizing principles.

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The second thing I learned in these labs that stood out in these interviews, is that we’re suffering from the anxiety of opportunity cost. There are many things today to be anxious about. But the people that I was working with weren’t self-conscious. They didn’t lack confidence. They weren’t anxious about sort of the pointlessness of life. They were specifically and uniquely anxious about this strangely modern anxiety of opportunity cost.

We’ve been taught to relentlessly maximize our options. We live in fear to make sure that we’re trying to live the best of our possible future scenarios. And these people that I was working with were variously consumed with two terms: “FOMO,” the fear of missing out. And “FOBO,” the fear of better opportunities.

As I began to run these labs particularly, I realized that visioning is very powerful, because there is a strong link between those who disproportionately suffered from “FOMO” and “FOBO”, and those who lacked an internal vision, a vision for themselves. What they wanted to create in the world. And so I designed these visioning labs around three activities that I found most helped people to thrive: To envision, to embody and to enact.

People need bold authentic visions that align with their internal core. Align with what makes them come alive. Gathering external data is helpful, but if it’s not first aligned with what we most want to be, it’s irrelevant or at least not sustainable.

Second, to embody. People need to design structures in their lives that enable them so that they can spend their time and resources in ways that reflect their professed values.

And third, to enact. A vision is only as relevant as it is implemented. And so using peer networks particularly to help monitoring, drastically increases the likelihood of implementations. So you do a lot of work around social networks. In the last year I’ve run 85 labs. And given that the theme of this gathering is to thrive, I’d like to share five activities that I found most obstruct my subjects’ ability to thrive, and then four, to be fair to you, that helped thriving.

First, the obstructions. Number one. The GTD syndrome. David Allen, bestselling book, Getting things done, has become a productivity bible for at least my generation. But we’re forgetting to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’ve prioritized productivity over purpose.

The second. Hedging bets and maintaining optionality. A number of my interviewers told me that they chose consulting as their best possible option. Because it gave them high prestige, high pay, and it allowed them to push off a decision for two years and not close any doors.

Third. Again these are obstructions to thriving. Maintenance. It actually takes a lot more energy to create, to build, to think, than it does to go to sit in meetings or to respond to email. So maintaining as a way of life rather than creating.

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Fourth. They prioritize success over mastery. When a writer comes to me, somebody who wants to be a writer, and they’re given the option of going to a coffee for two hours basically networking, or spending two hours alone, staring at a glass and looking at the 17 ways they can describe that glass, they will always choose the coffee.

And finally, they’re stuck in their heads. This is more about the body section, next session. But people who suffer from FOMO and from FOBO, tend to not physically engage their body as much, and not engage in activities that increase creativity and increase relaxation and focus on time to refuel. So those are the activities that obstruct thriving.

There are now four activities that I’ve seen over labs that are inducive to thriving. The first is, people first ask before anything else, “What kind of life do I want?” They learn ways to cultivate their own listening and hear that answer and then organize their lives around that specific answer. So for example, one of my clients truly wanted to structure his time around an ability to control his time. And so that became his fundamental principle. And he created everything around his life from his job to the way he interacts with his friends around that specific principle.

The second is to increase your ability to accept sub-optimal outcomes. So they literally embrace the possibilities — I want to say this again, that sub-optimal outcomes may be a result of a choice. They don’t ask, “Is this the best possible activity?” Or, “Is this the best possible way to use my time right now?” They accept that it actually probably isn’t and do it anyway. So for example, rather than trying to go to three parties in one night, they decide to choose one party, one dinner invitation perhaps that they’ve been invited to, commit to the host to be there the entire time, and turn the phone on silent before they enter the room and keep it off the table.

Finally, they’re really good at saying no and they burn bridges, they’re willing to burn bridges. The people that I work with who thrive are the ones who are able to know what their own guiding principle is. They say no to venture capitalists that don’t reflect their values, and they start restaurants that are able to say no substitution on the menu.

So in closing, I’m now close to announcing a startup around this work. And our goal is to enable a generation to spend their time differently. A number of my clients come to me and they’re looking externally for a vision. They want to, I’m sure like many of you, help the world do something to help people. But in closing, I’d like actually recall the words of a great civil rights movement leader and a theologian, Howard Thurman. He said, “Don’t ask the world, don’t ask yourself what the world needs from you. Ask yourself first what makes you come alive and then go do it. For the world needs more people who come alive.”

Thank you.