Column | Dec. 8

Fear of missing out

As course selection draws near, I feel panic setting in. There’s this requirement and that distribution; I really wanted to take a class for fun, but there’s no space and no time. I look at ICE and see if I can still fit it in next year, but then there’s a whole slew of departmentals I’ve already entered in for next year’s schedule. I’m a first-semester sophomore. That means that three-eighths of my college career is over. By the end of this year, I’ll be half-done with college. That’s jarring to think about. It feels like I just walked through FitzRandolph Gate for the first time; in reality, that was over a year ago. Pretty soon, I’ll be closer to walking out of that gate than walking in it.

When I think about the fact that college is going to end, and that it’s going to end so soon, regret hits me pretty hard. People say not to feel regret or feel the fear of missing out, but it’s so hard when you’re capable of making the most independent choices you’ve ever made in your entire life, and they’re thrown at you all at once. I didn’t research clubs before coming here, so I just joined a lot that I didn’t stick with. I got a single because I thought I would sleep a lot more than I did, so I didn’t have special roomie bonds that others do. Some classes I chose were right for me; some were not. I’m still not sure if my major is right for me, but indecision only seems to make the clock tick faster, until soon I will reach the point when it’s too late to switch.

We choose whether to go to the Street or whether to stay in and do laundry and then live with the hangover or the Facebook pictures of what we missed the next morning. We decide whether or not to go on a service trip to Puerto Rico over the summer or work for Citigroup. We choose eating clubs that will funnel us toward certain friend groups. We choose whether to invest time in a college relationship or just wait it out until after graduation. Those decisions can mean everything, and the hardest part about making them is that every alternative is pretty good. Every eating club will have people you get along with, and every summer opportunity will offer you different benefits. You just don’t have the time to explore all of them.

What exacerbates our regret is the fact that other people make those alternative choices and appear to be happy with them. The fear of missing out is definitely peer-induced. In a setting like Princeton, where there are limitless opportunities and proactive classmates who will pursue all different ones, it’s inevitable to feel regret. But it doesn’t mean that others are necessarily better off. It just means they’re different people.

At some point, the fear of missing out results in pressure to do what everyone else is doing: If they’re all doing this, am I the one making the wrong choice? Am I missing out? This becomes a problem when it facilitates a herd mentality. We have a tendency to believe that we can “optimize” our lives if we make perfect decisions — if we choose the right major or the right extracurricular activities, we’ll be set for life. So to find out this mystical answer to the puzzle of what we “should be” doing, we look to fellow students. But life isn’t solely a result of decisions we make in college — it’s more malleable than that. And there is no uniformly optimal path.

People say just to stop feeling the fear of missing out, but I think the root solution is just to stop thinking these choices are the only choices that will ever matter. Our lives are not made by “perfect” decisions that we make here. It’s not a once-and-you’re-done kind of thing. The decisions will go on and on and on, and the good thing about college is that it’s a time to try out different opportunities. We can get closer to knowing which decisions are right for us.

Barbara Zhan is an Operations Research and Financial Engineering major from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at barbaraz@princeton.edu.

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