When I first started this blog, I talked about how my decision to leave graduate school early and not finish my PhD was partly motivated by my acceptance of the fact that I’m simply not a specialist. I came to this acceptance partly by reading a book by Barbara Sher entitled I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It. In the book, Sher classifies people as divers and scanners, or somewhere in between. I identified myself as a scanner with diving tendencies. In the comments of that original post, I was made aware that Barbara Sher wrote another book, specifically about scanners called Refuse to Choose! A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything You Love. I immediately knew I had to read it, so I headed out to my public library and grabbed a copy.
Before I talk about the book, I have a confession to make. I don’t normally read self-help books. In fact, outside of these two books, I can only think of one other self-help book beyond the personal finance realm that I have ever read. But this book spoke to me. The book is split in two parts – in the first part, Sher tries to explain what she means by the word ‘scanner’ and how to determine whether or not you are one; in the second part, she breaks down nine different types of scanners and offers advice for each of them.
What Is a Scanner, or Better Yet, What Isn’t One?
A scanner is someone is never satisfied by becoming a master of one skill. The opposite of a scanner is a diver, someone who relishes the opportunity to dive head first into something and not come up for air until they have mastered it. A diver is truly passionate about what they do, and often have little interest in anything other than what they do. To that end, a diver often has trouble understanding why people are interested in other things or not interested in their passion. A scanner, on the other hand, is interested and can become passionate about many things. To quote the book, “To scanners, the world is like a big candy store full of fascinating opportunities, and all they want is to reach out and stuff their pockets“. A scanner would never want to specialize in one subject, because that would mean not being able to learn about everything else that interests them.
Society Doesn’t Value Scanners
Society values specialists. We live in a world where expert opinions are sought after, where specialization is the key to success. As a result, scanners aren’t just in a candy store; in Sher’s words, they’re starving in the candy store. Many of us are forced into specializations because we’re made to believe that there is no alternative. We’ve grown up in a society where it is ingrained in us that scanning is a bad thing. If we don’t specialize, we’re still ‘finding our way in life’. That doesn’t have to be the case.
There are Different Kinds of Scanners
Some scanners like to juggle 6 things at once, never coming close to mastering anything. Others like to gain a basic mastery of a topic and then move on. Scanners come in all shapes and sizes. Sher outlines nine types of scanners, but many people will likely find they fall into more than one category. Personally, I think I’m somewhere in between a ‘serial specialist’ and a ‘serial master’. When something piques my interest, I gain an almost obsessive compulsion to learn more about it. Sometimes this will last a day, sometimes it can last years. But in general, as soon as I feel like I’ve achieved an above average mastery of the topic, I find myself ready to move on to something new. I have no desire to continue mastering the topic and become the absolute expert.
Other types of scanners include the ‘double agent’ (someone who is torn between two equally compelling interests) and the ‘sybil’ (someone who never finishes anything).
Its OK to be a Scanner!
The hardest thing to do is accept that its OK to be a scanner, that you don’t have to be a specialist and give up on learning or mastering everything else that interests you. It has taken me months of self-realization to come to terms with that. I used to feel guilty every time I stopped doing one thing to play out my obsession with something new. But now that I’ve accepted that this is a part of how I function, I’m learning strategies to harness that. One of those is blogging. This blog is a great way for me to let my scanning tendencies run wild. Though my blog has a focus, I can learn and talk about whatever I want, and the act of blogging gives me a way to direct my efforts into something concrete.
Refuse to Choose! Read the Book!
If you identify as a scanner, I highly recommend you pick up Refuse to Choose! and give it a read. Its not perfect. Some of the testimonial stories can seem a little too good to be true. And the scanner types are too absolute for anyone to identify with just one. But Sher also doesn’t try to sugarcoat things. She recognizes that some people will never find a career that maximizes their scanning tendencies, and she encourages some people to settle for the ‘Good Enough Job’, the job that gives you the freedom to be a scanner outside of your career. At the end of the day, I think there is something in this book for everyone who can relate to the desire to never stop learning.Like What You See? Share the Story!