In case you missed it, FOMO is now an official word in the English language. The “Fear of Missing Out” is now in the Oxford Dictionary, which has described it as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
Perhaps FOMO has become a contemporary problem because things are moving so much faster. But I believe there is a deeper fear — a fear of becoming obsolete. We’re afraid of being left out because we’re afraid of being left behind.
As individuals, we’re afraid of being left behind in our careers. A recent survey by Oxford Economics found employees’ top concern is that their position might change or become obsolete. Half believe their current skills won’t be needed in three years. And the fear has spread to the C-suite: a study by Adobe found that 40% of marketing executives feel the need to reinvent themselves but only 14% feel they know how.
As organizations, we’re afraid that our industries will be disrupted or that our companies are no longer competitive. Business leaders surveyed by IMD believe 40% of the incumbents in each industry will be displaced by digital disruption in the next five years.
Perhaps we should use a variation on FOMO when it comes to our companies and careers: FOBO, the Fear of Becoming Obsolete. The dictionary definition might be “anxiety that the world is changing so rapidly that your career and company will be left behind.”
There are good reasons to be concerned. The lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today. Gartner predictsthat one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Productivity is rising but jobs and income haven’t kept up.
We’ve been through transformative change before, but the rate of change was much more gradual. A century ago, it took generations for the economy to transform from agriculture to industry. These days, a career or business strategy can become obsolete in a matter of years.
So what should you do to prevent obsolescence? It’s a trick question. You don’t fix FOBO by updating what you do. You first have to update how you think. If you change what you do without changing how you think, you will get more of the same. But change how you think, and you will naturally change what you do. So the real question is how should you think to prevent obsolescence?
In times of transformative change, it is not just our skills, tools, and practices that become obsolete. More fundamentally, our mental models become outdated, rendering them ineffective, misleading, or outright dangerous.
Mental models are the (largely unconscious) ways we make sense of the world around us. They determine what we see or don’t see and connect cause with effect. For example, the typical mental model for how to solve a problem has us looking for what to do instead of how to think.
Our mental models are like maps in a GPS that tell us how to reach our desired destination. When things are stable, we just punch in new coordinates to get where we need to go. But when the landscape changes, our mental maps become outdated. We find ourselves making wrong turns and getting lost or confused.
Unfortunately, we can’t update the maps in our heads as easily as the maps on our phones. These models are like mental habits. And habits don’t change overnight. Change requires both learning and unlearning. The process is less like a teenager learning to drive, and more like a tourist in London trying to drive on the opposite side of the road.
Research on habit design tells us that the key to learning any new behavior is setting the right triggers and taking small steps. The same principles apply to mental habits. Here are a few to get you started.
When someone raises a problem, notice the tendency to immediately ask “What should we do?” Instead of that question, try asking “How should we think?” Are you trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it? Is someone describing a car and you’re thinking, “Oh, sounds like a horseless carriage”?
When you’re organizing an activity, check that everyone is aligned in their thinking before getting everyone aligned in their action. Just because they are using the same words doesn’t mean they are using the same mental models. When someone says “brand,” do they mean your logo, reputation, or experience?
When you read about a successful company, catch yourself merely seeking to imitate what they’re doing. Instead, look deeper into how they are thinking. The key to becoming the “Uber” of something is not creating another app-enabled delivery service but instead applying platform thinking.
When you’re making decisions, beware relying on “best practices.” By definition, a best practice is a tool or approach derived from an old mental model. Instead, look for “next practices.” Deconstruct the thinking behind their success and apply the principles to your situation.
The Fear of Becoming Obsolete is both real and warranted. Fortunately, we are not destined to be digital dodos. It is not we who have become obsolete; it is our mental models. The dodo couldn’t learn to fly, but we can learn to shift our thinking and create new mental habits. With an update in our mental models, we can be more resilient, more relaxed, and more relevant. All of which gives more time for checking social media and ensuring we’re not missing out on anything.
Originally published in HBR as
"How to Stop Worrying About Becoming Obsolete at Work"