If you’ve not heard of the two terms ‘Scanner’, ‘Multipotentialite’ before they describe a person who pursues many interests and creative pursuits. Or as the term ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ which is bandied about when someone doesn’t appear to stick to one particular job or interest. Personally, I prefer the term ‘Renaissance people’. Think of the Leonardo Da Vinci’s, Thomas Edison and more who in centuries past pursued many interests and nobody blinked an eye.
While I wouldn’t be of such grandiose of character to put myself in the same league as the great inventors and creatives above, they do give some reference point to how scanners, aka multipotentialites, operate in today’s society that places emphasis on specialism and where having multiple interests are more often than not, frowned upon.
The origins of the Scanner and Multipotentialite?
Barbara Sher is the lady who initially coined the word Scanner back in the 90’s. As Emilie Wapnick’s TED Talk says, in true scanner style, we can’t settle one defining term to describe ourselves. Wapnik came up the millennial take on the scanner term, using ‘Multipotentialite’ to describe a scanner. Whichever you identify with both terms describe a person who has many interests and creative pursuits.
In this post, I talk about the challenges being a scanner has presented and how I finally feel like l am finding my path – thanks to discovering those who have travelled the road before me.
Discovering I was a Scanner
It all came to a head when I went to work for the BBC in London back in 2009/2010.
Imagine, dream job, dream opportunity and chance to make a career at last.
But I didn’t.
It was when a manager turned around and said something along the lines of “from people like you who want my job” that I realised a) that is what I’d been pursuing b) in that same moment that it wasn’t something I actually wanted at all. As one of the career coaches who worked with us trainees said, “the BBC’s not for you, Steph”.
Ouch! That stung – because it was true.
I do not thrive in hierarchy or with organisational politics. I’m too creative, too driven and I challenge the status quo far more often than not.
Being told this, while it hurt, was actually one the most freeing and perceptive things someone has said to me, though I didn’t see it like that at the time.
Upon returning to my native North East, I was at a loss with what I wanted to do with myself. It was only when I stumbled across a book on the shelf of the library job I had returned to that pieces of the jigsaw puzzle started to fall into place. The life-changing book was ‘What do I do when I want to do everything?’ by the wonderful Barbara Sher.
In this book, Barbara introduced me to the world of scanners and the types of scanners that this world has. I suddenly didn’t feel so rubbish for simultaneously wanting to freelance in websites, blogging, creating a podcast, setting up an Etsy store selling bead earrings amongst many other things.
The challenges of being a scanner
For years I’ve felt pretty rubbish and flaky for not being able to settle on one particular career path or pursuit. Overwhelm that has led to indecision and paralysis.
I remember an old friend saying about being “a jack of all trades” (as in master of none) when I was bemoaning my lot many years ago because of my inability to settle on a specific career path.
To put these difficulties as a scanner into perspective, imagine how you felt when you went into a sweet or toy shop as a child and being told you could have any toy you wanted – it’s overwhelming. As a young adult, I remember being at university and wanting to take most modules, especially when on my Masters course.
It’s the presentation and the option of choice that literally paralyses a Scanner.
Fast-forward nearly a decade since I first picked up one of Barbara’s book, with a hell of a lot of life experience happening in between. I’ve not been able to shake the feeling of indecision and paralysis of being interested in many things, and feel the shame of not being able to support my family or the confidence to make a living from the many talents people tell me I have.
Interestingly in Barbara’s book ‘Refuse to Choose’, chapter ‘I won’t do anything if I can’t do everything’ – explains the scanner paradox perfectly. The overwhelm of choice means that we inadvertently end up doing nothing
Weirdly, this paralysis of wanting to do everything means we end up achieving nothing of what a scanner and the rest of the world would think of as substance. It leads to much unhappiness, unfulfillment and an underlying sense of panic that we’re not achieving and learning all we’re meant to be doing this life. Trust me, it’s not a nice place to reside.
I can identify very well with this category. Having many projects on the go, along with a decent dose of not being particularly good at managing my time, means that I can keep as busy as the rest of the population, yet achieve very little of what I really want to do. It took some time from my initial discovery to learn one of the main reasons I wasn’t achieving my goals wasn’t to do with what I thought was my indecisive flaky personality.
Isolation is the dream-killer, not your attitude
For the longest time, I thought it was my attitude that was bad, that I was lazy. Unable to see projects through or seeing ideas through after the initial set-up stage. What I know now, are these are inherent traits of a scanner personality.
Us multipotentialites will learn what we need to about a subject, an area, a process until we are sated and then we have to move on to the next interest.
Over the years I’ve kept returning to Barbara’s sage advice. Watching Barbara’s hugely entertaining TED Talk – ‘Isolation is the dream-killer, not your attitude’, I realised that it wasn’t my attitude that was killing my dreams, it was isolation. What I realised more so, was that while some of these were societal, many were self-imposed.
In the video, Barbara talks about talks about how you must actively go after your dreams and wishes. That making your dreams come true, impacts on others in many practical ways that can set others on the path of their dreams. It is imperative that you go after your dreams.
This can be a difficult concept to accept, let alone enact upon. We all have responsibilities, bills to pay and our own limitations to overcome. There is still the social conditioning that we must pursue one particular career in order to be deemed successful.
From my own personal perspective, I think it’s also a difficult concept to accept as a person with dwarfism. For as long as I can remember I’ve lived with the conflicted feeling that I had to prove I can do most things that your average-height person can do and be independent. To ask for help is like a profound act of and an admission of failure and inability.
When in reality, or what I realise with age and life experience – is that that attitude and belief keeps you stuck, feeling alone, and exhausting yourself running around in endless circles.
Finding your path …and people
Some people are lucky enough to find their vocation in life young, which I admire and to some degree envy. I do believe, for scanners, especially those of us with low boredom thresholds, we need the life experience to put us on the path we are meant to travel, despite how frustrating this journey is.
Over the past year or so I’m re-learning it’s ok to reach out to people, to connect, to make dreams come true – and that is scary. That there are people out there who want to actively help and don’t expect the earth in return, that you do your bit and your best.
At the beginning of the year, I travelled to Leeds and joined UNION, the year-long coaching and mentoring for emerging artists and creative activists, and felt like I’d finally found my path. A bunch of us multipotentialites, do-ers’, change makers.
All the strands, all my interest, all my skills, my network came together and started to make sense. My multitasking-alertness multi-interests, multiverses-experience was validated and placed into context as a creative practitioner. That has given me a framework to work within, a language to use, and the space to take all my interests and channel them into a wider context of social change.
It’s only with the perspective of time and experience that I can see where a lifetime of help and encouragement at various chapters of my life has directed me to where I can finally feel like I have the self-permission to accept being a scanner.
Finding self-acceptance and moving forward as a scanner
Don’t get me wrong, I do live in eternal hope that one day the magic job or interest where I’ll be able to channel my energies, will appear. I’m now at the point where I’m realising I have to embrace the way I work. I can’t settle on one subject or job. I’m not meant to nor is it healthy for my super fast brain to constrain itself in that way.
The scanner struggle and shame is very real. I come from a background where you get a job, even if you hate it, for life. I can’t do that. It’s not how I’ve ever been wired.
Yes, left to my own devices I’ll gladly learn about some random subject and I still have more projects and things I want to learn about.
Awareness of this is key. Realising that I have a low boredom threshold means I’m not guilting myself for jumping from one thing to the next. That I’m better working on shorter projects, where I can have input, creative control and can experience diversity.
Taking active steps to be more productive, to manage the many ideas and opportunities I have around me. It’s as much about taking responsibility, as it is acceptance and acknowledging, for the way us scanners operate and work.
Scanners Need To Be Nurtured
The key takeaway from Barbara’s work is that not all interests need to be made into a career or job. Knowing that is freeing. Sometimes it’s enough of an outlet to give yourself permission to dream and imagine what you would do.
If you’re reading this and you move from subject to subject, job to job – know that you are not alone. There are a good few of us out there in a similar position – and that you will [ eventually ] find your way and your people.
Hello there, and welcome… I’m Steph and I’m a scanner – tell me all about that interesting thing you do.
If you’re intrigued and would like to learn more about Scanner and Multipotentialites here are a number of resources for the curious:
- Barbara Sher – Isolation is the dream-killer, not your attitude
- Emilie Wapnick – Why some of us don’t have one true calling
- Refuse to Choose – Barbara Sher
- What do I do when I want to do everything? – Barbara Sher
- Wishcraft – Barabara Sher
- How to be everything – Emilie Wapnick