About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
ALL ABOUT SCANNERS
Elaine has found a few hours for herself, a rare occurrence, and she's determined to do something she loves to do. Exactly what that will be is still undecided, but it won't be hard to find, because she loves to do so many things.
She stands in front of a large table in her garage, looking at two projects she has started but never finished. To her left are two straw baskets of brightly colored yarn, a tube of glue, and a package of construction paper. Looking at them almost makes her mouth water. She's always happy doing crafts and promised a scrapbook to a friend many months ago. She tries not to look at the shelves behind the table, where her clay rests inside a plastic bag next to some small wooden tools. When she has more time, she'll make that ceramic piece she thought up, a great idea she got while looking through some antique picture books a while back. But she wishes she could do it right now.
She forces her eyes back to the table. In front of her, still in the paper bag from the store, are four books she bought months ago about the history of Poland. Also, in the bag is a package of unopened audiocassettes and a device she bought that will allow her to record conversations on the telephone. She wants to interview the older members of her family, all of whom are immigrants from Poland. There hasn't been a moment to look in the books since she found them at the bookstore. They sit there like a tantalizing dessert, saved for some time when she can relax, after the chores are done. But some of her relatives are growing old; she really should call them soon. She wonders if she should make a phone call right now and at least set up some phone appointments with her family and learn how to hook up the telephone recording system. She misses her Aunt Jessie.
But on the right, sitting on the floor in a tall, narrow box leaning against the table, still in the box it came in, is the electric piano she got for her birthday 3 months ago. She could set it up in 20 minutes if there were just a clear space for it in the house. Elaine knows the piano has to stay set up somewhere, because if she has to bring it out and put it away all the time, she'll never get around to it. But who has time to clear out a space when the whole house needs clearing out?
If only she were five people instead of just one, she'd do everything, all of it, right now, today. She looks with longing at the black-and-white drawing of the electric piano on the box and can almost hear the music. Her voice feels like it's starting to fill up with music and her fingers remember the touch of the keys. Could she just open it right here in the garage and do a little before dinner?
No. Elaine remembers that she promised her 8-year-old daughter a costume for a party coming up in a few weeks, and she really should get started on that and leave all this for another day. In fact, she's had it set up on the dining room table for 3 days, and the family has had to eat on trays in front of the TV set. Embarrassing. She'll do that right now.
But she suddenly remembers that she had another wonderful idea today in the car on the way home from her meeting with a client, an idea about a way to bring in some income that would absolutely work and would cost very little to start, and Elaine feels a familiar sense of apprehension that if she doesn't do something about it right away she'll forget it like all the other good ideas she keeps having.
Every single thing she sees or thinks of sparkles with potential and pulls her attention. She wants to do them all. But she's totally stuck and ends up doing none of them. She might as well pick up the cleaning and head for the market. She sighs and walks outside into the fresh air and remembers she wanted to go for a run today. Her dog, who has been lying on the floor nearby, gets up to follow and wonders what's bothering her. So does she.
Elaine doesn't have attention deficit disorder. She checked it out with doctors long ago. And she knows that when she's involved in any project, she doesn't get distracted by irrelevant things.
So what's stopping her? Why is she so indecisive? For that matter, why is she interested in so many things? Why is she such a great starter but then runs out of steam and leaves a trail of unfinished projects behind her? She doesn't blame her friends and family for smiling knowingly whenever she gets enthused about something new--she lets that roll off her back easily-- but it bothers her that she almost never gets to see an end product.
But how can anyone choose between so many interests? Which is the right one? Which is the most important? Another thought comes to her. She remembers that she meant to polish up her Spanish, because she might be able to teach part-time next year, and she can use the income.
Elaine shakes her head, almost resenting the new idea and feeling a hint of despair that there will always be something new and interesting moving into her line of vision; even if she ignores them all and firmly chooses one project or another, these new thoughts have the power to make her unsure of any choice she's made.
Most of her acquaintances know exactly what they're doing with their lives. Why doesn't she just pick something and do it? After all, she's very smart and has been told she could do anything! Why can't she get going?
Does this sound familiar?
Does Elaine remind you of yourself? Do you also wonder why you're caught in this kind of dilemma? Are you unable to figure out what drives you and why you're so different from people who made their choices early and followed one path? Why can't you start working on your dreams--and stick to them? How will you ever focus your curious mind on one path when you can't bear to turn your back on anything? What makes you tick?
Believe it or not, there are very good answers to those questions. If, like so many Scanners I've met, you think the situation is hopeless, you're in for some nice surprises. Here's the first and most important surprise: If Scanners didn't think they should limit themselves to one field, 90 percent of their problems would cease to exist!
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 Krabbe 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