“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?” Decision-Making and the Plight of FOMO

women-brick-wall-sitting-texting Photo : Rachel Mandel

“You’re in an old-fashioned ice cream shoppe. You’re holding a large cone with several scoops melting down your hand but you’re still gazing at the menu, deciding which flavor you’ll try next. And you’re sort of laughing at yourself because you have an ice cream already but you want to try something else. There’s a sense of gluttony here. But it’s a good kind of gluttony. And the menu—it’s not a list of flavors—it’s a list of things to do: bungee jumping, learning to sail, living far away. You know you can’t have all of them but you also can’t decide which you want. So you’re just standing there, smiling to yourself, as the ice cream melts down your arms.”

My mouth is slightly ajar as I listen to three strangers, my aura readers, paint this scene for me. Whether you believe in auras, energies, psychics or not—this description was the most spot-on portrait of my personality I had ever heard.

Allow me to explain—I have never been a good decision maker.

Ridiculous stories from my childhood are plentiful, and they are all cloaked in my personal brand of melodrama. Picture me, as a toddler, bursting into tears at having to face a choice between orange or apple juice for breakfast because I “didn’t want to hurt the other one’s feelings.” What a charmed life it would be if my biggest complication peaked with selecting a breakfast beverage.

When you’re young, everything is the end of the world; each choice a matter of life and death. Yet it’s the decisions made as we get older that are much more important. Juice options turn into selecting elective courses in school or whether or not you should get a cartilage piercing. As the options grow, so does the amount of power we’re given to decide for ourselves what is best.

The most common cringe-inducing query for a gangly tween: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a strange way to word a question for an age bracket who already thinks they’re “all-grown-up” and, frankly, a very personal one for a neighbor to casually toss at you as she returns the borrowed KitchenAid mixer. 

Depending on the day (possibly even hour), my answers to this varied from veterinarian to pastry chef to Olympic athlete of a sport I’d made up myself (Basket Balancing: intricate speed walking rounds of keeping a laundry basket on your head. Naturally).

The “check all that apply” and “areas of interest” portions of personality assessments filled me with dread. Because for every decision I made, I worried and wondered if there was something else that I was missing. I didn’t want to be placed on just one path. I wanted the answer key, the algorithm that would show me exactly how I could manage to be an art director AND a renowned marine biologist. Tell me why, again, that art and science consistently fall on opposite ends of the interest spectrum?

A quick sampling of my bucket list/life items include (but are not limited to): 

  • Be fluent in French
  • Learn to homebrew beer
  • Successfully create and maintain an herb garden
  • Get a scuba diving certification
  • Become an expert on major American conspiracy theories
  • Learn how to sail (or at least drive a Pontoon boat)
  • Own aforementioned pontoon boat
  • Build a kick-ass tree house
  • Retire as a piano teacher

And that doesn’t even include the time I’d like to spend walking the Camino de Santiago and maybe open a yarn cafe?! THERE IS JUST SO MUCH LIFE TO LIVE. And because I don’t want to miss out anything, I want all of it.

When I first heard the term “FOMO,” it was not the first time I had to ask a more hip friend than myself what the acronym meant. (If you’re among those who are unfamiliar, don’t worry—I won’t shame you). FOMO stands for the “Fear Of Missing Out” and I am a victim, a victor, and survivor. It’s not an uncommon feeling and millennials, especially, are more likely to carry this mentality in wanting the best of both, or all, worlds.

This hypersensitive panic at being presented with multiple options reached its peak in college, when the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question became inevitably linked to your selected major. I was not “undecided” but I was anything but sure about my “film studies” categorization. Every day I would silence internal misgivings about whether I should’ve auditioned for the theater school or what if I wanted to run my own business and “Oh, I’ve always had an eye for interior design!” Additionally, I was that kid—the eager beaver freshman who went to club meetings and introduced myself to people in dorm elevators. 

The exhaustion in sampling a bit of everything caught up with me one Friday night as friends were getting ready for a party while I toyed with the idea of staying in and watching Cake Boss reruns. I became so paralyzed with the anxiety about potentially missing a good time that I actually cried. Looking back, it’s hilarious: I shed tears over a night of cheap vodka and bad dancing! My roommate walked in, sat with me, and said it was perfectly okay if I didn’t come. I’m not sure if it was her words or the several sleeves of thin mints she brought me, but I started to believe her.

While FOMO is the face of many trendy memes, a result of pop culture that dramatizes nearly everything, it’s a delicate border between hilarity and hysteria—just how stressed was I that Friday night plans made me weep?

So. Back to the old-fashioned ice cream shoppe, ice cream dripping down my hands.   

I understood the portrait of myself and knew her well. Yet having it so poignantly illustrated by complete strangers—in the form of ice cream, no less! I could see how ridiculous it was. I already had an ice cream cone, one that had runneth over. Why wasn’t I enjoying that?

I had a list of things I wanted to try, apply to, consider. But the reality is—I was not paying attention to the present because I was too worried about missing out on what else might be going on. The grass may be greener on the other side. But if you can’t yet see that far, why even worry?

I deleted and unsubscribed from a lot of emails. I made shorter lists. I tried those simple principles people always say like “trusting your gut” and “not biting off more than you can chew.” 

FOMO is a lifelong struggle. But I want to appreciate what I have going on now before stressing about what’s next. I may not ever have an answer to what I want to be when I grow up. But I do know that ice cream is meant to be enjoyed.

Dedicated savory brunch fan and lover of all things French and film. Her only regrets are that she never knows the lyrics to songs and will always remain a Muggle. A true grandma at heart.
Dedicated savory brunch fan and lover of all things French and film. Her only regrets are that she never knows the lyrics to songs and will always remain a Muggle. A true grandma at heart.