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Are You a Scanner?
By Barbara Sher
"I can never stick to anything."
"I know I should focus on one thing, but which one?"
"I lose interest in things I thought would interest me forever."
"I keep going off on another tangent."
"I get bored as soon as I know how to do something."
"I can't stand to do anything twice."
"I keep changing my mind about what I want to do and end up doing nothing."
"I work at low-paying jobs because there's nothing I'm willing to commit to."
"I won't choose a career path because it might be the wrong one."
"I think everyone's put on this earth to do something; everyone but me, that is."
"I can't pay attention unless I'm doing many things at once."
"I pull away from what I'm doing because I'm afraid I'll miss something better."
"I'm too busy, but when I do find time I can't remember what I wanted to do."
"I'll never be an expert in anything. I feel like I'm always in a survey class."
If you've ever said these things to yourself, chances are good that you're a Scanner, a very special kind of thinker. Unlike those people who seem to find and be satisfied with one area of interest, you're genetically wired to be interested in many things, and that's exactly what you've been trying to do.
Because your behavior is unfamiliar -- even unsettling -- to the people around you, you've been taught that you're doing something wrong and you must try to change. But what you've been told is a mistake -- you have been misdiagnosed. You're a different creature altogether.
What you've assumed is a disability to be overcome by sheer will is actually an exceptional gift. You are the owner of a remarkable, multi talented brain trying to do its work in a world that doesn't understand who you are and doesn't know why you behave as you do.
And unless you know who you are, you're going to agree with them! Not only would that be unfair and inaccurate, it could prevent you from developing your gifts and making your contribution to the world. The stakes are very high.
Identifying yourself as a Scanner means changing the way you see yourself in the world. It starts with understanding that you should stop trying to fit into the accepted norm at once and begin learning about who you really are. To help you build the productive future you were designed for, you need a set of instructions. That's what I've tried to create in this book.
What is a Scanner?
Scanners love to read and write, to fix and invent things, to design projects and businesses, to cook and sing, and to create the perfect dinner party. (You'll notice I didn't use the word "or," because Scanners don't love to do one thing or the other; they love them all.)
A Scanner might be fascinated with learning how to play bridge or bocce, but once she gets good at it, she might never play it again. One Scanner I know proudly showed me a button she was wearing that said, "I Did That Already."
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.
It sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The problem is, Scanners are starving in the candy store. They believe they're allowed to pursue only one path. But they want them all. If they force themselves to make a choice, they are forever discontented. But usually Scanners don't choose anything at all. And they don't feel good about it.
As kids, most Scanners had been having a great time! At school no one objected to their many interests, because every hour of every student's school day is devoted to a different subject. But at some point in high school or soon after, everyone was expected to make a choice, and that's when Scanners ran into trouble. While some people happily narrowed down to one subject, Scanners simply couldn't.
The conventional wisdom was overwhelming and seemed indisputable: If you're a jack-of-all-trades, you'll always be a master of none. You'll become a dilettante, a dabbler, a superficial person -- and you'll never have a decent career. Suddenly, a Scanner who all through school might have been seen as an enthusiastic learner had now become a failure.
But one thought wouldn't leave my mind: If the world had just continued to accept them as they were, Scanners wouldn't have had any problems. With the exception of learning project management techniques, the only thing Scanners needed was to reject conventional wisdom that said they were doing something wrong and claim their true identity. Almost every case of low self-esteem, shame, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, indecisiveness, and inability to get into action simply disappeared the moment they understood that they were Scanners and stopped trying to be somebody else.
It appears that Scanners are an unusual breed of human being. One reason they don't recognize themselves is that they don't often meet people like themselves.
How do you know if you're a Scanner?
Maybe it would be useful to first discuss who isn't one.
Who isn't a Scanner?
Well, specialists aren't Scanners, obviously. If you're someone who is happy being completely absorbed by one field, I've labeled you a Diver. Some clear examples of Divers are professional musicians, scientists, mathematicians, professional chess players, athletes, business owners, and financiers. These people may "relax" with a hobby, but they're rarely passionate about anything but their field.
In fact, Divers often wonder how people can be interested in anything but what they're interested in. Sometimes they even make fun of themselves for it, like the racing bicyclist Tim Krabbé described in The Rider, who glances up from his gear to look at people walking and says, "Nonracers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me."
By contrast, Scanners rarely think what other people are doing is empty. They're always curious to know "what's out there" and love to poke their noses into just about anything. A Diver rarely spends a moment wondering what he might be missing when he's totally absorbed in his field. On the other hand, 99 percent of Scanners spend a lot of time scanning the horizon, thinking about their next move.
Many people look like Scanners, but aren't
People who continually move from one idea to another often have very different reasons for doing so. Some are simply trying to make up their minds, and when they find the "right" choice, they can easily give up all the other ideas they considered.
Others move between ideas for reasons that surprised me when I first heard them. Here are some examples.
I spent years frustrating myself and everyone around me with my constant jumping from one thing to another. What I learned about myself eventually is that I knew deep down what I should be doing all along, but was simply too scared to commit myself to it. The constant stream of alternative ideas was simply an advanced avoidance technique.
I think I've always avoided what I really want to do because I was afraid I'd be mediocre, or fail completely, so I'd keep changing my mind before I produced anything that could be judged.
Depressed people often make the mistake of believing they're Scanners. Depression can create a fractured consciousness that doesn't allow one to pay attention to anything for long, and some depressed people believe that the cause of their depression is their inability to find something they can care about intensely. But the reverse is usually true: They can't care about anything because they're depressed. One of the main symptoms of depression is the inability to feel desire. A woman who had experience with depressed people told me:
The types of attention span problems that have to do with depression are quite different than job-interest attention spans. When you get so you can't read a book (and even newspaper articles are too complicated to remember from start to finish), you can't pay attention during a conversation, and you have no idea where your keys and wallet are when usually you know exactly where you put them, then you need to talk to somebody about therapy and medication, both of which work wonders.
And then we have ADD. Before knowing who they were, many Scanners assumed that their "problem" might be attention deficit disorder (ADD), simply because everyone assumed that being interested in lots of things was a form of distraction. In my experience, I've found that many Scanners actually do have ADD, but they are true Scanners all the same. I've also met people with diagnosed ADD who appear to be Scanners but are not. Once you understand that a bona fide Scanner has no problem with the normal ability to focus (as opposed to ADD-style hyper-focus), the confusion with ADD usually clears up.
I'm a Scanner and have been diagnosed with ADD. And I can tell you that nothing is clearer than the difference between feeling stuck because I'm having an ADD attack -- that is, my mind is in a fog and I have trouble remembering what I'm doing -- and being stuck for the typical Scanner reasons of being attracted to so many things that I can't figure out which project to reach for next.
Of course, there are many people who are quite content in their fields and have a few normal interests in addition, such as a lawyer who enjoys cooking and travel, or an advertising art director who collects antiques. But there's a noticeable difference between someone with a normal range of interests and a Scanner.
Who is a Scanner?
Intense curiosity about numerous unrelated subjects is one of the most basic characteristics of a Scanner. Scanners are endlessly inquisitive. In fact, Scanners often describe themselves as being hopelessly interested in everything (although, as you'll find out, this isn't so). A Scanner doesn't want to specialize in any of the things she loves, because that means giving up all the rest. Some even think that being an expert would be limiting and boring.
Our society frowns on this apparent self-indulgence. Of course, it's not self- indulgence at all; it's the way Scanners are designed, and there's nothing they can or should do about it. A Scanner is curious because he is genetically programmed to explore everything that interests him. If you're a Scanner, that's your nature. Ignore it and you'll always be fretful and dissatisfied.
It's a whole new way of thinking, I know. And much of the world doesn't see Scanners' behavior as admirable or even acceptable. But it wasn't always this way.
A recent change in fashion
Scanners are the victims of a fashion change in history, and a recent one at that. Until the technology race with the Soviet Union after World War II changed our views, the kind of people I now call Scanners were admired. But by the mid-1950s, a dramatic change had occurred.
When Russia launched Sputnik, the first-ever satellite to be launched into space, the United States went into shock. Immediately our resources were devoted to catching up to and passing Russian technology, and everything else became secondary. University faculties turned into specialized training centers; science and technology -- the realm of specialists -- reigned supreme.
Departments of literature, the humanities, even history were seen as irrelevant luxuries. And with that decline in respect came a radical change in the stature of Scanners. No longer described as "well-rounded," "Renaissance people," or "erudite," almost overnight they were seen as irrelevant, silly, irresponsible. Now, regarding Scanners, this change in thinking is complete. Almost everyone in our society takes it as a self-evident truth -- obvious, simple common sense -- that Scanners are doing something wrong. Unfortunately, that has come to include Scanners themselves.
* Excerpted from the book Refuse to Choose! by Barbara Sher
Barbara Sher is a speaker, career/lifestyle coach, and the best-selling author of eight books on goal achievement. Her books have sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages. She has appeared on Oprah, The Today Show, 60 Minutes, CNN, and Good Morning America, and her popular public television specials air nationally throughout the year. Barbara has taught her revolutionary systems in universities, in Fortune 100 companies, and at professional conferences all over the world. Visit http://www.geniuspress.com/books.htm.
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