31 January, 2019

There are many motivation strategies in life: love, a will to win, the fear of shame. But FOMO – the fear of missing out – drove Andrew Dickens to achieve much, much more…

Looking down the slope in front of me, I feel my rectum loosen. The whiteness, cold and lumpy, disappears downwards at a gradient bordering on the vertical – at the bottom, my white powdery doom.

This is Écureuil: a black run (for the uninitiated, the most difficult category of ski piste) towering above the ski resort of Meribel, in the French Alps.

Écureuil is French for squirrel, but this hill is no pussycat.

A ‘heavy dump’ (of snow – nothing to do with my rectum) has covered the vertiginous surface with moguls: thick piles of snow that make the going unpredictable.

I’ve never skied on moguls. In fact, this is only the 12th day that I’ve skied in all my 44 years.

So, why the hell am I here? One reason: the fear of missing out, aka FOMO, aka #FOMO, aka the deadly sin of envy. Here’s a little background for you.

The things we do for love

Writer Andrew Dickens skiing in Meribel

I always ‘fancied’ skiing.

It looked sexy, glamorous, and full of melted cheese. There’s loads of technical gear, too. Ski boots, jackets, trousers, gloves, helmets, goggles, layers. And I love technical gear (we all have our ‘thing’, ok?).

It also looked like something I could do.

I mean, it’s mainly just sliding, right? But I also have some mental health inhibitors, depression and anxiety, so the desire was never quite strong enough for me to take the considerable financial and emotional plunge and lunge down a mountain.

I put things off. I said ‘not yet’.

Then I met my wife.

Five months into our relationship, she went on a ski trip with her friends. Then, as things got more serious, we took our big holidays together.

They were amazing experiences, but I could tell she had an itch – and it was going to take a ski pole to scratch it.

This left me with a choice. Either I learn to ski, learn to enjoy a ski holiday without skiing, or I stay at home gawping at Instagram as my wife whizzed around with her chums, having a whale of a time and draining her travel budget in the process, leaving little for a joint trip.

I’d be pressing my face against the window of a Michelin-starred restaurant while holding a stale cheddar and pickle sandwich. Figuratively, possibly literally.

As a result, FOMO kicked in big time, which is pretty natural, apparently.

Being part of the gang

“Psychologists back in the 1930s identified two drives that we have, a Need for Achievement and a Need for Affiliation,” says Lorna Cordwell, Head of Counselling at Chrysalis Courses UK. “It’s important for us to be connected to others, we are social beings. We want to do things that the group is doing if that group is important to us, whether that is a sport or a lifestyle.”

Driven by this fomotivation (yeah, I made that up, pretty proud, feel free to use), last year we went for a week’s skiing holiday in Meribel with six of our friends.

I was the only one who couldn’t ski at the beginning (actually, full disclosure: I had a brief lesson from Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards on a press trip, so I could do a basic snowplough, but I was effectively a toddler on a hiking holiday).

It went well. I did group lessons every morning and by the end of it, I’d graduated from the snowplough to parallel-ish turns.

I’d meet the group for lunch and we’d have our evenings together. It was a fun trip. However, I spent most afternoons alone. I was a mile – literally – behind the rest and I didn’t want to hold them up.

I still didn’t feel part of the gang, so when everyone decided on another trip this year, I had another decision to make: save my money, go and pootle around by myself again, or get good enough to join in properly.

Again, fomotivation won out. I signed up and here I am. It’s all downhill from here.

“FOMO is an innate drive to spur us into action,” says Nick Davies, a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, sports performance mind coach. “When we lived in clans off the land, being involved was a good strategy to keep you as an important member of the clan and meant your chances of survival were pretty good. Sitting in the background not helping was likely to get you kicked out and your chances of surviving alone were very slim.”

Setting my sights

Ironically, my chances of survival are probably best served by staying at home and watching Homes Under the Hammer.

The target I’ve set myself, you see, is to ski a black run. If I can do that, I think, I can ski anything my wife and friends ski. There will be no barriers! And possibly no feeling in my lower limbs, either, if I get it wrong.

“I wouldn’t recommend doing it,” says Nick. “Incremental change is best.”

Maybe, but not for me.

Not this week.

What I need to discover is whether fomotivation is enough to drive me on to something extraordinary. Can FOMO be more than a hashtag?

“Research on this gives mixed results, but I’d say generally that we can certainly be motivated by others,” says Cordwell. “I think that we have to have some common ground though. If we know that we just wouldn’t enjoy something, it is not likely that someone else’s enthusiasm is going to spur us on. There has to be either some neutral element (hey, that looks good) or alternatively, some thought that it will suit us.”

It does look good. It will suit me.

Time for school

Writer Andrew Dickens getting a ski lesson

I sign up with Parallel Lines ski school, the same company that taught me the first time around. They got me from plough to plausible in five days, so I have faith in them. More faith than I have in myself.

Monday morning and I join the ‘Level 4’ group, led by the excellent Zoë. This level aims to ‘polish your parallels’ and get you skiing tougher red runs by the end of the week (runs at most ski resorts go green, blue, red, black in terms of difficulty).

I’m probably not quite at that level – maybe 3.5 – but what I lack in experience and technique, I’ll make up for in determination and the ability to take a mountain to the face without crying or losing my nerve.

In the first two days, the year’s gap between donning the skis really shows.

Imagine learning to drive, then not driving for a year, then driving down a mountain. It’s not pretty, and I’m clearly the least accomplished skier in the group, but I’m improving.

Zoë is flooding me with information, trying to correct everything from my posture (think Quasimodo) to my balance (think drunk animals). It means I’m over-thinking when I ski, leading to some frustrating, embarrassing tumbles, but I know what she’s doing, I’m paying attention – and it begins to work.

I spend these afternoons eating huge lunches and honing my new technique, alone on the slopes, relaxed by a cool lager.

I go for a couple of easier runs with my friends, too. I’m so much better than I was, but I’m still well behind. It’s frustrating.

Screw the cost, I need a turbo boost.

Acclerating the process

On Wednesday, after my morning group lesson, I have a two-hour private session with another Parallel Lines instructor, Roger. We work on some very idiosyncratic Dickens-is-a-doofus issues: things Zoë could never cover in depth without neglecting my poor classmates.

He has me skiing down a steep red run with my arms in Christ pose and making exaggerated leg movements: it all gives the impression of someone doing the Karate Kid crane pose. The thing with skiing is it goes against everything your brain has learned since childhood: you lean down the mountain. Yet I begin to feel more at ease on the slopes.

The turbo boost, not least to my confidence, is achieved.

That afternoon I meet my friends in the neighbouring valley of Courchevel. I have a swagger, as much as you can swagger on skis (the French seem to manage it very well).

We ski a few red runs and, bar one slow-motion tumble, I’m not a million miles behind them.

I have them in my sights.

And this, really, is enough for me. I can ski with them. Well, I can at least ski close enough to them for them not to get too pissed off waiting. This is all I really wanted.

Except, it wasn’t my aim, was it?

On Thursday, in the class, we ski some tough reds that are icy in places. It’s tough and I’m knackered at the end of it.

I have another beery lunch and ski gently home to put my feet up for the afternoon. Because tomorrow I battle the squirrel.

Attack the black

This brings us back to the top of Écureuil, Mont Blanc in the distance.

It’s Friday morning, I’m staring, thinking, mentally whipping up the occasion far too much.

I’d watched GoPro footage of the run and it didn’t look this steep. It also didn’t have great lumps of snow all over it. Or a great lump of a human being on skis at the top of it.

But the great thing about skiing is, once you’ve started on a piste, there’s only one way to go: down.

And so, under Zoë’s watchful eye, I descend.

And I reach the bottom.

I won’t lie, it wasn’t perfect. I took a couple of tumbles. But one was near the top, as I grappled with the alien conditions and every single natural instinct that my mind has developed since birth; the other was on a patch of ice that I hit as complacency and smugness set in.

But still, I reached the bottom.

And I feel great. So great, that I go back later with my friends and ski it again. I fall again, quite spectacularly, but once more I get to the bottom, better and quicker than the first time. I feel great again.

Next year, I won’t fall.

I haven’t quite tamed the squirrel, but I’ve achieved what both my instructors describe as “not normal” for my second week for skiing. And I did it because of FOMO. Turns out it’s not just a hashtag.

“Success is all about your own drive to achieve your personal goals based on what you stand for and what those closest to you – friends, family, peers, etc – expect,” says Davies, who also says that we can use fomotivation to inspire others. “People are mostly motivated by seeing the actions and progress of those they are closest to, rather than being told what to do. So, when you change, those around you are likely to, too.”

So, when you feel FOMO tapping you on the shoulder, when you see people have a fine old time on social media, don’t just think to yourself, ‘that’s nice’.

Think, ‘could I do that?’

And if the answer’s ‘yes’, ask yourself why you’re not doing it. Are you saying ‘not yet’? Well, no more ‘not yets’. Let that fomotivation kick in – it’s a powerful force.

Though not quite as powerful as gravity.

Writer Andrew Dickens on a black run in Meribel

Three trips you don’t want to miss out on

Get a natural high in Peru

It’s also fun to go up mountains, and few mountains are more fun than Rainbow Mountain in Peru. Just look at it. You can feel the fomotivation, can’t you? On this trip, you’ll conquer it, camp out on under the stars and get loaded on pisco sours in Lima – among much else.

I’m fomotivated to go!

Rock a big rock in South Africa

South Africa

It’s also fun to go up mountains, and few mountains are more fun than Table Mountain in South Africa. Oh, we’ve done that. On this trip, you actually go up this mountain, then abseil down it. You also get seal-swimming, a tonne of history, marvellous wine and much more.

I’m fomotivated to go!

Turbo boost your life in Jordan

No mountains and definitely no snow here, but there’s a vast serving of opportunity to push your personal boundaries, from canyoning to desert glamping to hiking a ‘secret’ back route to the ancient city of Petra.

I’m fomotivated to go!

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