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Finding Ideas In The Mundane and Familiar

How many times have you walked past something and not really seen it? How many times have you seen something a million times without ever really noticing it? It’s easy to take the familiar for granted. We’re so used to it, we see it as mundane and stop paying attention. “The Disease of the Familiar”

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
one lightbul on in a stack of lightbulbs
Finding ideas in the mundane and familiar

How many times have you walked past something and not really seen it? How many times have you seen something a million times without ever really noticing it? It's easy to take the familiar for granted. We're so used to it, we see it as mundane and stop paying attention.

“The Disease of the Familiar”, a term coined by Richard Saul Wurman, is a condition that plagues many people who are so familiar with something they don't know what it's like not to be.

The key to making things understandable is to understand what it's like NOT to understand.

Richard Saul Wurman

The familiar can prevent us from experiencing discovery. We may think we know everything there is to know about a subject, but if we're not open to new ideas,, we will not discover the new.

The Disease of the Familiar

We are all infected with the disease of the familiar.

Take, for example, your own home. You probably know every nook and cranny, but have you ever really looked at it? Taken the time to notice all the different textures on the walls or the way the light shines through the windows? Probably not. Because we’ve become so familiar with our home, we've stopped seeing it.

When I took over as CTO at Hewlett-Packard, a team was working on creating a new product. The team was so familiar with our customers and what they believed they wanted; they made a set of bold assumptions. They didn't bother to ask them what they wanted or even solicit their feedback. As a result, the new product was a total flop and our customers and shareholders were not happy.

It's a problem that a lot of companies have, whether they're creating a new product or offering a new service. They're so familiar with their customers that they don't see their customer with fresh eyes.

Functional Fixedness

This condition of familiarity is also sometimes referred to as Functional Fixedness which is a form of cognitive bias. It is when people are unable to see beyond the confines of their knowledge and imagination. They get stuck in their way of thinking and can only come up with “normal” or usual solutions that they are familiar with. This can happen to anyone, but especially those who think that they know what's best for a person or a situation because they're familiar with it.

Dodge The Familiar By Seeing With Fresh Eyes

To be inoculated from the disease of the familiar, you need to see with fresh eyes which means seeing familiar things as if you’ve never seen them before, i.e. with the same sense of newness and discovery that you presumably experienced the first time you experienced them.

It can take some work at first, but once someone becomes inoculated against this plague, their creativity will flourish because they'll have an open mind for new ideas and possibilities where others are unaware of the opportunities.

How To See With Fresh Eyes

Here are three exercises I use to fend off the familiar and mundane.

  1. Start by looking at familiar things with a new perspective, as if you've never seen them before.

One exercise to help someone see familiar things with fresh eyes is to take the common item that you are familiar with describing it in terms not related to its main purpose. This will help them see the object in a new light. Then list new possibilities for what they could use it for. In my workshops, I ask participants to describe a pen and then list all of its uses beyond writing. The outcome can be quite surprising when seeing a common object in a new way.

  1. Be curious and explore everything around you as if it's the first time you're seeing it.

One way to increase and deepen your curiosity is to engage in some form of creative exploration. This could involve taking different classes or workshops outside of your comfort zone, traveling to new places, or simply trying out new activities and hobbies. By exposing yourself to new experiences, you'll not only learn more about the world around you, but you'll also develop a greater sense of curiosity and openness towards life.

  1. Ask lots of questions and pay attention to the details.

An exercise where questions help to see with fresh eyes is to ask someone you know well to explain something they are familiar with in great detail. Ask them to explain it as if you have never seen or heard of it before. This will help you to understand the subject matter with a new perspective and see it from their point of view.

For example, journalists use questions to see with fresh eyes by asking people who are familiar with a subject to explain it. This helps them to understand the subject with a new perspective and see it from the person's point of view. This allows them to write better stories that are more accurate and informative.


The disease of the familiar is a plague that can creep up on anyone without warning. It can be overcome by seeing familiar things with fresh eyes, being curious, and asking lots of questions. These exercises will help you to think outside the box. By becoming inoculated against the disease of the familiar, you'll be able to see the world in a new light and find new possibilities that others are overlooking.

Which exercise did you find most interesting? Do you have other exercises for seeing with fresh eyes? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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