“At 18 I wanted a house by 23. At 23 I wanted to have yearly earnings of nearly a million by 25.”
Familiar with FOMOMG? No, I wasn’t either, until model, brand founder, and Instagram influencer Leomie Anderson used the acronym – which stands for “Fear Of Missing Out On My Goals” – in a candid Instagram post about inadequacy and imposter syndrome.
“It’s become second nature to feel like you’re not working hard enough because of what you see others achieving on social media,” she wrote. “It’s easy to hide the anxiety you feel to the outside world. I wanted my followers to know that I feel it too, we all do to some extent and it’s okay.”
Anderson’s goals are certainly ambitious. But in the eyes of many, her success is already staggering – she’s been modelling for eight years for the likes of Victoria’s Secret, and founded her own clothing brand before she was 25. Hard to imagine she worries about not having accomplished enough – but perhaps she’s a reminder that no matter what we’ve achieved, it’s always possible to feel like we’re not reaching our goals.
On first reading her post, I was sceptical about adding yet another acronym to the ever-expanding list of letters assigned to familiar human emotions. Nor was I on board with the assumption that everyone walks around with a tick-box list of things they want to achieve in their heads – and due dates to go along with them. The chase to find a property and rapidly increase my earnings by as young an age as possible doesn’t resonate with me at all.
Having recently turned 24, do I have any comparable goals? I can’t think of any ‘milestones’ as such. I have a couple of career goals, like writing a book, but I’ve never been one to set timelines. I feel like I’ve got a long life ahead of me and can do it in decades to come. So, wondering how relatable the concept was to others, I decided to speak to other members of my peer group.
“I used to avoid looking at prodigies like Tavi Gevinson and Lorde because their success at such a young age made me so anxious."”
Becky, an artist who is currently teaching abroad, left university the same year I did, in 2017. While she has definitely worried about not achieving a certain level of success by a certain age, Becky says her goals – barring wanting a full-time career in illustration – aren’t specific.
However, an abstract fear has followed Becky around since she was about 14, she says, an age when the people she compared herself to were successful teenagers rather than adults. “I used to avoid looking at things about prodigies like Tavi Gevinson and Lorde because their success at such a young age made me so anxious,” she adds.
This part rings true to me – similarly to Becky, both Tavi Gevinson, who founded ROOKIE magazine at age 15, and Lorde, who found fame through Soundcloud at 16, were both people I looked up to in my teen years. But I’d say I felt awe-inspired and sort of motivated rather than intimidated by their successes, despite the fact they’re both a couple of years younger than me.
What determines the difference between those two feelings? Can motivation and intimidation ever go hand in hand – or even fuel each other?
Emily, 22, says that like Becky, her fear is abstract – there aren’t specific goals she’s going after – but that she still feels a constant pressure to achieve as she navigates new hobbies, skills and interests. “Goals change constantly for me, because I keep stumbling across new opportunities and interests I didn’t know about before,” she says.
“In many ways that’s a blessing, but the pressure cooker of your 20s can turn even blessings into a pressuring expectation in your head. Rather than ‘that sounds like a really interesting job, field or opportunity’, my brain can so quickly spin this into ‘well how quickly can you get good at this? Could you get to the top?’”
Time to speak to someone in their late 20s – Natalie, a 29-year-old journalist, says one thing she’d eventually like to do is buy a flat in London. She would also like to write a book, specifically a novel. But she worries she’ll never find the time, and finds the pressure to succeed by a certain age is one of her biggest sources of anxiety and stress. “Even when I do achieve something there’s an instant anti-climax, like – ok, well what’s next?” she says.
“I have a fear that if I don’t quickly get on with things, I’ll waste my life!””
For Emily, there’s a peripheral awareness of the fact that she still has time: “I’m frequently reminded by people around me that I’m only 22,” she said. “But I just seem to be plagued with such impatience. I don’t know whether it’s just me.”
The feeling of limited time is a problem for Becky too: “I have a fear that if I don’t quickly get on with things, I’ll waste my life!” she said. “I’m not sure what instilled this in me... I feel like if I don’t ‘make it’ by a certain age, then I’ve failed somehow.”
There’s definitely a cultural focus right now on achieving a certain amount at a certain age – and this is inevitably intertwined with the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve our goals while we’re still young. Perhaps this is partly because the early noughties seemed packed with news, documentaries and a broad societal fascination with child prodigies, particularly people who had reached educational milestones at remarkable ages. And this at a moment when social media allowed them – and us – a wider platform to share their stories.
The fear of not achieving enough might also be closely linked to structural advantage. Jess, 25, who is currently pursuing an MA in disability studies, relates it to the fact that she is autistic.
“My parents never went to university and I rely on watching other people to learn how to do stuff,” she explains, pointing out that some groups are automatically given a social or institutional head start. Both her disability and being a first generation university student has made career milestones more difficult to reach, she thinks. “I feel something like five years behind where I could have been career-wise, had there been adequate support for me.”
One of Jess’ life goals, although she’s set no deadline, is to own a house. “To me it symbolises complete independence and self-reliance,” she says. Jess would also like to get married – but doesn’t want kids and so feels she isn’t affected by the idea of a “lifescript”.
For Natalie, too, rather than tracking her progress against her own expectations, the pressure comes from looking around at what her peer group are doing. “The biggest thing is comparing my success to others. And I think Twitter is a hideous melting pot for that.”
Does putting this down to social media falsely frames “FOMOMG” as something distinctly new? “Status anxiety”, a concept that Alain de Botton talked about all the way back in 2004, closely resembles the feelings Anderson describes. His theory states that we’re taught to measure our self-worth based on traditional measures of achievement. And if the theory predates much of modern social media, does combatting it go further than unfollowing successful young creatives like Lorde, Tavi Gevinson and Amandla Stenberg on Instagram?
For me, actively celebrating the achievements of my peers has always helped me avoid worrying that I’m not doing enough – and sometimes through the active use of social media, like always remembering to post a congratulations comment if someone’s doing something great.
I also try to remind myself that I’m not superwoman, by acknowledging the barriers and challenges I’ve encountered as well as the fact that, like everyone, I have limitations. Sometimes I put less time to “achievement” with a view to self-care. That can mean consciously not going for some opportunities or cramming my schedule because it’s important to make time for self-care and rest. There are some areas in which I’m unlikely to ever excel – when all eyes are on me I’m reduced to a pool of sweat and anxiety, so I’m probably never going to be a great orator or do anything in front of a camera.
Becky finds that pursuing her passions helps, particularly those that are therapeutic and rewarding, like drawing and painting. Meanwhile, Natalie practises positive self-talk as a means of taking the pressure off. “I try to keep a lid on it,” she said. “I have to give myself regular pep talks that my own happiness and my own markers of success are not dependent on what those around me are doing.”
I’m still unsure whether the concept of “FOMOMG” warrants an acronym in its own right, but it’s clear lots of us feel we should be doing or achieving more. But rather than not living up to our own preset targets, like buying a house or hitting a prescribed salary by a particular age, the worry comes from comparing ourselves to others. So, “Fear Of Missing Out On My Goals” doesn’t quite capture it – the anxiety is more abstract, a pervasive sense of “I’m not doing enough...” with a peppering of “... and everyone else is”.
With the right techniques, it’s possible to remind yourself that we’re all on our own paths – and success is going to look different for different people, and at different life stages. Your priorities at 18 might be completely unrelated to your priorities at 23 – I know they were for me. Amid the fear of not living up to expectations, it’s important to remember the goal posts can always change.