This week I realise I’m a scanner. Which is to say, I realise my chaotic, excited way of being, and all the dreams I juggle, makes sense!

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On Tuesday I got great news. All these years I’ve regarded the crazy array of careers I’ve dabbled in (restaurant reviewer, political speechwriter, TV dollybird, magazine editor and so on with no discernible theme), the disparate topics of interests displayed on my bookshelf (evolutionary biology to typography), and the endless hobbies I engage with, as signs of a weak, unfocused character. I’m a spray gun! A jack of too many trades and master of jack shit! A dilettante!

But Tuesday I was told I’m none of those things.

No, I’m a “scanner”.

New York-based author Barbara Sher, who coined the term, reckons I’m a classic case. A scanner, she tells me, is genetically wired to be fanatically interested in multiple things at once. “You love everything, right!” Well, yes. “But you get bored and go off on tangents! And you think it’s bad that you keep quitting things and moving on!” Yes, yes, I do! “Don’t! Have some fun with it instead!”

At 75, Sher’s written seven bestselling books, including Refuse to Choose! (a comfort manual for scanners), travels year-round on the speakers circuit (and is regarded as the godmother of self-help; the Observer ranked her in their Top Ten Self Help Gurus list in January), reads geography texts and spends spring in Turkey teaching e-commerce to village weavers. She breathes scanner theory.

Until the mid-1950s, scanners ruled the parlors and dinner parties with their erudite contributions on poetry, music, politics and science. From Aristotle to Asimov, generalists were people you wanted in your circle. Sher says the space race changed that. Funding to the liberal arts was cut and specialising (specifically in science and technology) became de rigour, while scanning was seen as irresponsible and somehow flabby.

Sher says scanners have come to doubt themselves terribly. We can’t decide on the one career path, because what if it’s the wrong one. We frantically think we need to focus, become an expert in something, but get bored when we have to do anything twice.

Her antidote?

Do everything and don’t finish any of it.

If you’re a scanner, such an idea has a delightfully twisted appeal, doesn’t it. Sher suggests keeping a “scanner daybook” in which you jot down every idea that excites you. I usually skip bits in self-help books that require taking out pen and paper, but this week I gave her daybook a crack. All the flotsam of potentialities that bounce around my cranium – ideas for radio shows, a herbal tea concept, a poncho product with profits going to a Peruvian village – got a fresh page each. I fleshed each one out, adding layers of revenue leverage and so on. Then I moved on to the next hair-brained project. Scanners are often very frustrated folk – they feel they’ll never get to all their ideas in one lifetime, which stops them from starting any, which in turn leaves them feeling resentful about the endless stream of exciting ideas that bubble in their brains. But this technique legitimizes the idea-forming process. And funnily enough, it was enough. Just fleshing them out satiated me. Who knows, one day I might come back to that charity poncho idea.

“Scanners are often deluded about how indepth their interest goes,” Sher says. Often we just need to play out the idea. Then move on. Or stay in a job right until the moment we stop learning. Then quit. “Scanners learn fast and need to move their passion onwards. A bee doesn’t hover on a flower if it draws the nectar quickly. Its passion isn’t the flower, it’s gathering nectar.”

Of course, we all have to finish stuff we start and hold down jobs. The godmotherly guru advises getting tasks finished by working in short sprints and developing a “scanner bag of tricks”, like taking notes of the banal conversations overheard from your dreary cubicle as you finish your annual report. And she suggests seeking out jobs that require generalist, pick-the-best-bits-and-reconfigure skills – from freelance writing to catalogue compiling. Or creating your own job, like the guy who wrote the ebook 100 Way to Get Rid of Moles and Gophers. He had no interest in moles or gophers, but liked interviewing people, compiling information and solving problems. He interviewed people he saw out watering their lawns, got their tips and put the best 100 in a book. Scanner genius!

In all seriousness, this IS possibly the most reassuring life advice I’ve been given. Do you relate? You a scanner… and do you need to be reassured that it’s OK to flit and not choose and to do it all…? Or do you do it already? (Bloody insightful of you if you do!!)

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • KA

    As the proud beneficiary of 2 “nearly” degrees (which I incidentally never finished for those very reasons), I’ve been on the “do everything, finish nothing” bandwagon for a long time now! I love watching peoples faces when I tell them all the things I’ve done over the years. Now working in IT, I find its a good field to be in for my far-too easily distracted mindset…ooh, look shiny…..

  • Hey Scanners – you may find Puttylike.com really interesting. That’s where I first heard about the concept of Scanners or Multipotentialites. It’s mostly geared towards helping scanners create a business/career out of their many interests. The founder of the site, Emilie Wapnick, is ridiculously inspiring.

  • I came across Barbara a few years ago, but re-reading about her in your post really couldn’t have come at a better time. I really needed to read it as i have made yet another choice to turn away from something I was doing. it all makes me feel like such a failure sometimes, but being a scanner, or having it named or recognised as such, makes me feel less of one.

    And judging by the amount of comments below we aren’t alone. We should start a club 🙂

  • YES! It’s such a relief to just accept who you are in the world.

  • Clara McAlaney

    Oh this is me!! Thank you for sharing. I arrogantly commented once that I was “good at most things”. What I meant was that if I focus on something for awhile, I learn it quickly, albeit not masterfully, but better than I did before. You’ve made my day sharing this!

  • Susanne King

    I can relate to this!! I have had such a wide variety of careers and I am multi-passionate! Thanks for the post!!

  • Diane

    Oh my, this is soooo me!

  • JB

    Oh I certainly relate…know the feeling of looking at the résumé and wondering how to put it altogether. Coincidentally, years later I did find myself in a job that used all of those disparate skills together. I advise my children that nothing you ever do in life is wasted and one day it may all come together. Thanks for the analysis of the scanner personality types – something to reflect upon. As for the ideas book, I used to carry one around with my all the time, my “Everything Book” because everything went in there for future reference and inspiration.
    Thanks for the inspirational posts.

  • JB

    I agree with your cross-pollination analogy. So often, one meets scientists and experts in their fields who are so wrapped up in their own field that they fail to see solutions to problems which may be obvious to an outsider. Some academic quarters are beginning to realise the value in cross-disciplinary learning and I remember hearing about a university in the USA that (for example – can’t remember the specifics) hired biological science experts to work on an astrophysics program because of the new perspective they can bring, even without any prior knowledge or experience of astrophysics.

  • JB

    Your son will also be lucky later in life – he would have learned precisely what he likes/dislikes, what he is good at or not, who is is and what he wants from life through trial and error. He will not be the middle-aged person who has worked in the same industry their whole working life only to wonder “what if” he had followed a different path. He is more likely to know his real goals and reach them and have a very satisfying life with plenty of wisdom.

  • Amy

    I’m a scanner!

  • lauri

    Interesting to read this today; i am considering two different women’s groups for the Fall and was wondering how to gracefully bow out if i didn’t gel with the ladies. How nice to get some advice; just let them know you are done, and move on. No harm, no guilt. It should be something we grow up learning, but at the age of 50 now, i can do this!

  • Bec

    Soooooo relate to this, and agree it is the most reassuring advice ever. I have recently become a bit more comfortable with being a scanner, and had some insights which lead me to understand the idea Sher talks about around scanners overestimating their interest in every single thing that shoots around in our brains. I took some stock and realised that there were (QUITE A NUMBER) of main themes that I don’t tend to lose interest in completely, and then there are all those little periphery bits and pieces that grab my interest from time to time. So I’m allowing myself to simultaneously focus on writing, teaching, health/food with a view to getting back to doco producing if I want at some point! It feels a lot more comfortable to be able to define this much more broadly than I ever allowed myself. And in the back of my mind, I think well I can always take on that masters course in linguistics, start that ecommerce business, learn a bit more about interior decorating/renovate a house, become a yoga and meditation teacher, write a book on spirituality, become a dietitian ….. or anything else I haven’t thought of yet….. if the time is right in the future!

  • Daniel L

    Another great post from the past 🙂 Thank you Sarah!

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog,
    conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall,
    set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone,
    solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook
    a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for
    insects.”

    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

    I don’t have anything against insects, nor planning any invasion, but it is nice to share the feeling about being ‘scanner’ with like minded people 🙂

  • Laura Kingdon

    I’m a project manager and have found it the perfect job for my personality. I am home based, can work across industries and manage my own diary. Some days I just want to get my head down and can be very productive. Others I just want to sit back and mull over things. It helps that I get to travel a couple of days a week otherwise I’d get bored of being at home.
    I have tried lots of hobbies… jewellery making, Spanish, baking, running. I get annoyed when I lose interest in my current exercise regime and then give up. Maybe I need to plan to change the exercise every month or two so that I don’t end up doing nothing!
    Really great article x