Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Danger of Familiarity

I was speaking to a colleague this morning, recommending some places of interest, when he made an interesting observation.

“How could you know about these places after being here for such a short period of time.  I’ve been here for twenty years and I’ve never heard of them.  In fact, I drive past some of them every day and have never noticed them.”

I didn’t have an answer for him then but upon reflection, I believe I have an answer for him now.

My answer is based on the comfort and danger of familiarity.

The joy of exploring something new

Many of us have experienced the excitement (and scariness) of moving to a brand new city.  When we know nothing of a place that is new to us, everything is  fresh and exciting (even if it seems intimidating).  We want to know as much as we can, whether it is how to get around easily, how to find specific points of interest, how to discover the gifts that the new place offers, what its history is, etc.  Having grown up in a town of about 2,000 people, I still remember the first day I stepped onto 7th Ave in New York and thought “Wow …. now what?”.

Once we have been there for a while, we settle into a routine.  We know how to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, we have identified our favorite places and we settle into a routine that can be easily misinterpreted as living on autopilot.

Maybe it’s not a misinterpretation.

Once this happens, the gifts of the place start to become hidden from us or they continue to exist in plain sight but we don’t see them as we execute the mundane routine that is our lives.

Even I must plead guilty to times when the most adventure I experienced in a city occurred after I moved from the city and visited it some time later as a tourist.

The same is true about relationships

I think this is often one of the reasons why professional and personal relationships die.  How many times does a relationship die when one side decides that the relationship is not “fresh” or “exciting” anymore?

The person who is the subject of this analysis probably hasn’t changed that much.

However, the person making the observations likely has gotten too familiar with them and has settled into autopilot when it comes to exploring what is fun and unique about that individual.  With familiarity comes less desire to explore what makes a person special as when that individual was in essence a stranger to them.

I think this is also why results often wane in professional teams that have been together for a long time.  We become so familiar with our team members that we settle into professional autopilot, taking our team members known gifts for granted while not exploring them as we did when they (or we) were first introduced to the team.

And then there is the next generation

I think too many people see their children in the same way, especially when kids do something that drives their parents up the wall.  If the magic experienced during childbirth could be relived and replayed at difficult moments, I believe we would be much more tolerant and accepting as the next generation relearns many of the things that we learned at the same point in our own lives. 

Ask a parent who has lost a child what they would give to have that child around again, driving them nuts, and the answer becomes painfully lesson-filled.

And then there is how we look at ourselves

I wonder if this sense of familiarity also becomes problematic in how we view ourselves.  Maybe we have become so familiar with what we believe our gifts and talents to be that we have fallen into a sense of routine and comfort, using only a small percentage of our total potential while the rest of our potential remains hidden from ourselves and the world.

While there is comfort in familiarity, there is also complacency

When complacency sets in, there is the potential for apathy, boredom and indifference.

And when that happens, relationships and personal / professional potential die as the effort required for exploration wanes, being a small percentage of what was once invested when things were “new” and “exciting”.

I wonder if we should take some time to look at everything as strangers again – the places where we spend our time and the people whom we spend our personal and professional time with.

Maybe when we do this, we will have an opportunity to rediscover hidden magic, talents and potential that otherwise might have escaped our senses. 

Perhaps we will then escape the danger of living on autopilot that many of us have become accustomed to and in doing so, discover a new freshness that so many people seem to be craving for.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,

A complete stranger whom you’ve never met.

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