How to Avoid FOLO (Fear of Losing Out) and have a satisfying career and life

What is FOLO (Fear of Losing Out)? It is an advanced form of “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO). Singaporeans often call it the “Kiasu” syndrome.

​If you have FOMO, then you have an anxiety that someone somewhere is having a great party that you are missing out on because you forgot to check your email. It could also be a regret from a perceived wrong decision in the past that has now prevented you from achieving something or getting something.

FOLO is the advanced stage of FOMO, where you feel you have not achieved success in your life, or life has passed you by. Others you know appear to be rich happy and fulfilled, whereas you are staring at a Game Over screen.

From a career perspective, you don’t have a job, or appear to be stuck in a dead end job, whereas your friends and enemies (especially your enemies) are CEOs of large corporations, political leaders, happy parents/spouses or all three combined. Or you have been stuck in a creative rut for years, and all your fellow artists are world famous and have produced many works.

Happiness as a State of Mind​

Okay, so you have FOLO and you are desperately unhappy. What can you do about it?

First of all, maybe you have more reasons to be happy than you think. Unless you really are at the bottom of the barrel, there are probably people worse off than yourself.

You are alive for a start. And you have access to an Internet connection, because you are reading this. And you know how to read. You are already better off than the majority of the world’s population.

Secondly, other people are probably not as happy as you think, despite their apparent success. I recall speaking to a colleague in the eighties. He drove a Porsche, which he parks illegally every day (because he claimed he can afford the parking tickets) and he earned hundreds of dollars an hour (which in the eighties was quite something). I remember making a comment that I would love to be as successful as him because then I would be really happy.

He said I should be happy now. I was young with my life in front of me, I had a reasonably well paying job and was buying my first home, I was married to someone I love, and I was in full health. He said many people who earnt a lot more money than me would wish they were as happy as I am. They had highly stressful jobs, they have huge business loans that they need to service, and everyday they are challenged by their competitors. They shoulder huge responsibilities and can’t sleep at night.

Since then I’ve thought of what he said and he is right. I was happier in those days than when I was a seemingly successful executive in charge of a business function and leading a team of people. I was stressed, I was fat, I had no free time, and I often had difficulty sleeping at night. I didn’t buy any clothes because I hated my body, and bought lots of toys like expensive cars, an ultra high end home theatre which I never have time for. I bought books that I didn’t read, movies that I didn’t watch, and music that I don’t listen to.

Several years ago I left work at the height of the GFC. I was overweight, I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and I had damaged both eyes due to the high cholesterol. On top of that, when I left, I was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Suddenly I was without work and without health.

I look the opportunity to have a career break. In that period, I regained my health (at least some of it) by cycling as a hobby, and I deliberately did not seek work but fulfilled my time as a volunteer in Lifeline.

In the process, I found my happiness again. I realised that my happiness was independent of my wealth. I was earning virtually nothing, and yet I felt I had a fulfilling and happy life.

Now that I am working again, I am still happy. I have discovered that Happiness is a State of Mind – I can be happy no matter what I do or what I earn, it’s the attitude I take and the situations I engage in.

Unrealistic Career Expe​ctations

Okay, you say. “I hear you, but I still want to be more successful. I understand that Happiness doesn’t depend on wealth, power and status, but I still have Ambition and I think there is nothing wrong with that.”

Fair enough.

But let’s examine what your expectations are. And strategies for achieving those expectations.

When I graduated and found my first job, these were my expectations:

  • Day 1: Start new job. Settle in.
  • Day 2: Make lots of friends.
  • Day 3: Everyone suddenly realises what an amazing worker I am and how fantastic I am as a human being.
  • Day 4: I get a raise and a promotion.
  • Day 5: I become the CEO of the organisation.

Okay, maybe I didn’t think it would take a mere five days. But I actually thought that was pretty much how it will unfold.

In hindsight, I was incredibly naive. Sure, I was smart. But I was pretty arrogant too. And I had no idea what it takes to get a promotion, let alone become a CEO.

An alternate strategy to becom​e a CEO (or any position you wish for)

Here’s an alternate plan and timeline that I will like to suggest, if you are keen to become a CEO (or any other position):

  • Day 1: Start new job. Settle in.
  • Day 2: Figure out what will make you and your boss successful (ie. your objectives). Figure out what will make your team successful.
  • Day 3: Figure out what everyone else does, how they contribute to the organisation, and what will make them successful.
  • Day 4: Do whatever you can to make your boss successful, your team successful, your colleagues successful, in addition to doing your job. If you spot an opportunity where you can offer help, help them. Don’t expect anything in return, and if your boss takes credit for your help, let him/her.
  • Day 5: Don’t be afraid of asking others for help in things that you do not do well. Understand other people’s strengths and leverage them. Learn from them when they do help you. If you have truly done Day 4 successfully, people will be more than willing to help you.
  • Day 6: Everyone suddenly realises what a useful person you are. You are regarded as a team player, and everyone wants you to be part of their team.
  • Day 7: You have helped so many people everyone knows you and you know everyone. You also know how everything works. People look to you for advice because of that knowledge. You have a reputation for making things happen, and an ability to organise people to do work for you.
  • Day 8: The Board realises you are actually the person most qualified to run the organisation.

That will take slightly longer than the (unrealistic) plan, but does have one advantage. You will be happy every single day whilst you are on that plan, because you will get along well with people, you will be respected, you will learn so much, and your job will be easy because of all the help you get. Even if you never become the CEO, you will have a satisfying and rewarding career.

Helping others does not mean doing their job for them. It could be something simple, like organising a meeting for them, or even buying them coffee. They may not even know you have helped them, for example you putting a good word for them knowing they are being considered for promotion. Or even giving credit to your boss for work you did.

It’s very important by the way to help others without expecting anything in return. Try not to ask for help from someone you have helped recently, because that creates the impression you helped only to ask a favour in return.

Be patient, this strategy may take months or even years to advance. But if you keep at it, you will advance.

C’mon really? Does that strategy even work​?

Yes, really. It is what I have tried to practice for the last five years. I am not perfect at it, but I learn every day, and I am happy every day.

I will make the bold claim that most successful people adopt a variation of this strategy.

Indeed this strategy is adapted from the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康) – who was the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府). The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan for nearly 300 years from 1603 to 1867.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was calculating and subtle. Careful yet bold. He could also be cruel, ruthless and merciless. And yet he rose to power following exactly such a strategy.

He made many alliances. He can be intensely loyal to those he served but also to friends and those under him. He was well known for his patience, sometimes waiting years for his strategies to succeed. In the end, everyone recognised he was simply the most appropriate person to rule Japan.

The novel Shogun by James Clavell is mostly inspired by his life. When I read it, it changed my life.​

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