The FOMO Effect

Fear of missing out…the FOMO effect.

My friend Mike McCarthy is a true master of the FOMO effect, in that he gets you excited and enlists your help. He can recruit you before you know you’re being recruited. He makes it impossible to say no. The version of this that I’m good at is a part of my suite of “salesman of ideas” strengths. I, too, can get people excited about something and sell them on the cause, but I draw them in not only by the merits of the cause, but by mentioning their peers and what their experience/responses have been.

Selective name dropping, I guess, but not in the normal sense.

Most people name drop to elevate your opinion of them. I clue people in on a person’s connection to our cause to interest them by association. Sometimes, the person I mention isn’t necessarily a well-known person, but it’s someone with credibility to the person I’m talking to. Beyond mentioning the person to build credibility, I use how the person responded to move who I’m talking to to be convinced of my arguments. It’s essentially using persuasion and third-party validation all together in one conversation. For me, it happens organically, because like ideas naturally spring to mind. That may work for you, too.

Above all, be genuine. Don’t force it. YOU are a believer in your ideas, and your thoughts, your reputation as a leader and your sincerity should be the keys to getting people on board with your cause.

The continuum of cause-based work

There is a continuum of cause-based work.

On one polar end is the smallest, most fledgling neighborhood-level work, and on the other end are the biggest nonprofits. Even the biggest ones came from Champions of the Lost Causes foundational moments.

I work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and have ruminated on the Danny Thomas foundational story for years. Even it had that Champions foundational spark. After saying a prayer to St. Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes, saying “show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine,” Danny ultimately was led to found St. Jude, and its founding battle cry was to tackle childhood cancer, which at the time was considered an almost sure death sentence. He could not walk away from his promise, and he aimed his intent at an intractable problem everyone else had shied away from.

Danny Thomas was a Champion, and when he found the lost cause of childhood cancer, which others had seen and passed by, he “found” it, and the world is glad he did.

Like any Champion, Danny drew to himself early adherents, and off they went, building from the ground up, talking to anyone who would listen. St. Jude now has an annual budget of more than a billion dollars, and it employs more than 4,000 people.

It all started with someone who saw a cause he could not ignore.

Sharing the limelight lets the wins “earn interest”

Always share the limelight with others. It helps you expand your coalition, which is full of leaders, worker bees, cheerleaders and hangers-on.

Winning is everything, provided you act in good faith and with integrity, but you have a choice to make.

You can occasionally make a withdrawal of credit for a given victory, or you can double down and put that momentum in the bank, to earn interest and advance the cause over time?

Always choose the latter.

Take praise in stride and, outside of saying “thanks for your kind words,” look for ways to share the credit and fold forward the energy toward the ultimate goal. Let every smaller win within win “earn interest,” empower another actor, or animate another ally.

Let it all serve the wider win… the ultimate overarching win that set you all in motion from the beginning.

More on setbacks, doubt and the value of having a deep bench

As a Champion, you signed up for something you knew wouldn’t be easy.

Frustrations large and small are part of the landscape. Very few setbacks actually amount to the game being truly over. Until the highway gets built through your beloved park or the wrecking ball brings down your 100-year-old building, there is time left on the clock and plays to call. You may be waiting for a city councilperson to call you back before you can move forward on a given sub-goal of work.

Okay, while you wait, make progress on something else.

Talk things through with another member of your group. Champions take on multifaceted projects that can take years, and progress is often made in one-inch moves forward on hundreds of sub-goals. This alone can seem daunting at the outset, but Champions don’t think about this at the outset. We act because we have to. Someone has to and, since no one else is, we must. We don’t stop to think about what comes next until we have to, especially early on. When you reach a point of frustration, it can be helpful to reflect on the successes and setbacks of the past. Your mind may automatically conjure these up, especially when one setback reminds you of a previous one, or you’ll trip over an old email that reminds you of a problem that seemed unsolvable at the time. But you’ll smile as you remember how you worked through it.

Herein lies the strength of the group.

No one person is going to have it together all the time. We have ups and downs, and competing priorities will demand your time. When I am at my lowest or most tired, it is then that I remind myself that I only have to do my part. It’s about then that someone else on the team breaks through on another front. How wonderfully encouraging it is to realize that one of your team members has completed a project within (a business plan, a statistical analysis that supports your argument) or made a key connection at a mixer. Without any effort on your part, the group moved forward. You will be the energy person at another time when your teammates are low and think your group is in a rut. Once your teammate produces a piece of work, you read it and it dawns on you that this is the perfect backgrounder document to send to that journalist you were pitching on writing a story. That key connection your friend made is the exact person you need to get you a meeting at the foundation. Little by little, you move forward. A Champion is self-confident and endowed with great gifts, but he is not a one-man show. Champions know they have equally powerful Champions on their team, and they take turns giving the effort fuel, work and enthusiasm to carry it forward. Your team is like a basketball team viewed over a season. One night you might have the hot hand. Your teammates will feed you the ball and let you fill up the stat sheet. Other nights your mojo isn’t working perfectly. You crash the boards, play hustle D, scrap for 50/50 balls and try to contribute in different, smaller ways.

Your teammate might be the one to carry the scoring load.

No NBA team goes 82-0.

There will be nights you lose a game, but the season is long and defeat teaches us in ways that success can’t.

Setbacks teach us and develop our core strengths.

Setbacks teach us what we can’t learn any other way.

Setbacks not only teach us about our limitations, but they also help us better delineate our duties within the team.

As the early part of a campaign wears on, one person will emerge as the one who’s good with media, another is great with spreadsheets, analysis and building budgets. Learn to play to your group’s strengths, but be prepared to “crosstrain.” Sometimes an opportunity will fall into the lap of someone, and you have to just roll with it. That’s fine. Perfect execution is not required, only consistent effort is. Your group is implacable, resolute, determined. You’ve had setbacks, but you’ve learned to take them in stride. Even the ones that really hurt, you heal. You move through them. You find a way forward.

The more setbacks you work through, the more you learn to see them in perspective. What seems like the end of the world early on, will seem more like a mild annoyance later on.

After all, you’ve seen it before.

Actors in the drama will seem smaller later on in much the same way an elementary school seems smaller to the returning high school junior. When your effort is newer, you are more likely to be lectured by supposed experts. Sometimes this is helpful advice… actually there’s always something you can glean. In most cases, that person is truly trying to be helpful, but they may also fear that you will succeed where they failed, using tactics they never thought to use. Who are you, after all, to take on a problem and win the day when I, someone more seasoned in this realm, “found” this cause years ago, but let it “sit there.” They “found” the cause but, seeing it as too hard, set it back down. Take all advice with respect and humility, and assume positive intent, but realize that the person may also be trying to come to terms with their own regret for failing to take action. Don’t dismiss these people, because at their core, they are likely good people who care about their community and want to do what is right. Besides what you may learn, listening respectfully also may enlist that person in your cause in a peripheral way. If nothing else, they will appreciate the dialogue and be more likely to cheer your group on in social media or within their social circle.

All of this puts points on the board and, as a bonus, serves as an encouragement to that person, who has his or her own work and sphere of influence.

Gentle Controversy

There is power is controversy.

As activists, controversy is powerful wind in our sails, and any drama needs conflict as an animating element.

But too much conflict and people tune out, and you need people to stay engaged.

Any mass movement needs to leverage public opinion to sway elected officials, drive the news cycle and generally show people why, exactly, the cause has direct importance on their lives or the lives of those they care about. Many causes we Champions take up have an enemy: a seemingly immovable public official, a policy or statute we want changed.

You’ll feel the temptation to rail against what is holding back progress, but be careful how you respond to the call of the nemesis. At the outset, you have to make the case for change being necessary, and that may mean standing in opposition to powerful people and their plans.

Do it with respect.

Discipline yourself to treat these people with the respect of their offices, regardless of whether you think they deserve it or are acting in good faith in carrying out their duties. Why? Because it makes your cause more sympathetic.

But more important, treating the other guy or bad policy with a degree of restraint it makes you harder to dismiss, both by the person in opposition and by the people who thinks that person is right or “a good guy.”

The X-Factor

Why the exact right people show up right on time is a mystery to me, but it is nonetheless true.

As a person of faith, I think God calls each member, but it is also through the personal mechanism of meaning specific to each person. In a sense, the particular person sees a specific way he or she can contribute, I suppose. Somewhere between or among these logical and mystical explanations is the truth. I am sure they all contribute. Compare it to the body and how it all works together. We are more than the chemicals and organs and mix of blood and tissue. There is a spirit to each of us and an uber-spirit of sorts of the group.

Beyond pure reason lies an X factor… an alchemical magic mix of motivation, love, challenge and determination. The X factor yokes the group together with a seemingly unbreakable bond… to the stated cause, but also to each other.

They cannot fail.

They will not fail.

They have come too far to turn back now. They will not accept anything but success.


What makes us take up causes others think are impossible?

What draws others to the cause, bonds us together, and gives us an inexhaustible energy and an unwavering belief that we’ll succeed? I started Champions of the Lost Causes to foster a dialog about the successes, setbacks and team dynamics that move causes forward. I’ll share what I’ve learned through my cause, but I am also here to learn.

This is about what drives us Champions, but it’s also a forum about real projects. It’s about your beloved park, your shuttered building, your polluted river. It’s about your child’s struggling school, your growing local food system, your gerrymandered voting district. 

You’ve got a team of Champions assembled and are hard at work. You are strong, passionate and committed to your project and each other. Now, you’ve got a community of Champions cut from the same cloth who are rooting you on and sharing ideas and hard-fought wisdom from the trenches. 

Together, we will be even stronger.