Re-Imagining Effective Work

Rethinking “Familiarity Breeds Contempt”

Familiarity breeds contempt. says the phrase meansThe better we know people, the more likely we are to find fault with them.” A longer version on the same page says “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful. For example, Ten years at the same job and now he hates it—familiarity breeds contempt.”

But let’s play with those words for a few minutes, and see where it takes us. lists six definitions for familiarity, and for my purposes here, the first three are sufficient:

  1. thorough knowledge or mastery of a thing, subject, etc.
  2. the state of being familiar; friendly relationship; close acquaintance; intimacy.
  3. an absence of ceremony and formality; informality.

For contempt, there are three definitions:

  1. the feeling with which a person regards anything considered mean, vile, or worthless; disdain; scorn.
  2. the state of being despised; dishonor; disgrace.
  3. Law.
    1. willful disobedience to or open disrespect for the rules or orders of a court (contempt of court) or legislative body.
    2. an act showing such disrespect.

What if the phrase isn’t a snippet of advice about people but actually a secret recipe for getting better? Familiarity – in the sense of thorough knowledge, of mastery, of a play-like ability to know everything about a topic – creates the conditions for seeing what’s wrong. Of what could be improved. Of how something could be made better. Of where change is needed to create that next level. In the sense of developing expertise (hat tip, Anders Ericsson, et al.) of having the ability, insight, and practical grounding to identify the locale of deliberate practice. To push your learning edge. To see what you need to practice for the next 100 hours. 

Contempt, just like physical hunger, dissatisfaction and disgust with the status quo can be a powerful motivator for making necessary changes. 

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Mastery creates contempt.

Contempt identifies deliberate practice opportunities.

Deliberate practice facilitates expertise.