Reflections on Barbara Sher's Refuse to Choose
Version 1.0, 4-29-07
Sher, Barbara. Refuse to Choose! A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006. (also available in paperback with a different subtitle)
Scanners. You probably know some. Scanners are people who have many interests and a strong desire to pursue them all, and in many cases they try, flitting from one job or project to the next. In a society in which people are defined by their careers, this characteristic puts them in tension with the people around them, who want to know why they can’t just pick an occupation, stick with it, and make something of themselves!
Barbara Sher, a Scanner herself, identified this group of people in her work as a life coach. She recognized that they shared gifts that were more valued in earlier periods of history than they are now, and so their tremendous potential is left untapped because modern culture provides them no guide for making the most of their talents. Thus, her task in this book was to define what a Scanner is, explain why it’s okay to be one, and give Scanners a manual for achieving the goal that sets these people apart—to do everything in life that they love. Along the way she identifies roadblocks and offers creative tools for sidestepping them.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the question of what a Scanner is and the basic problems that any Scanner might face: Scanners tend to feel that they’re deficient because they seem so scattered. They’re often afraid that they’ll waste their lives. Many fear that committing to a job will keep them from following their interests. Some are just too busy for extra pursuits. Some feel so overwhelmed by their interests that they can’t begin to follow any of them. Some are too intimidated by their projects to start anything. And some begin lots of things and never finish them.
The second part divides Scanners into nine types organized into two broad categories—Cyclical Scanners and Sequential Scanners. Cyclical Scanners have a limited number of interests that they return to repeatedly, while Sequential Scanners move from one interest to another and leave the old ones behind. Within each category Sher sorts the types by how often they switch interests. Each type gets a chapter, which discusses the distinguishing traits of that type; its unique motivations; and the life design models, careers, and tools that will allow Scanners of this type to do everything that they love. Life design models are comprehensive ways of organizing your time, tasks, and environment that naturally fit your goals and styles of working.
In a word, this book is terrific. Barbara Sher’s writing is engaging, her descriptions true to life, her advice comprehensive and practical, and her outlook inspiring. The book could serve as a model for other self-help works. I have no real criticisms, only a few clarifications and issues for further discussion. Sher has a website with a forum for just such discussions at www.barbarasher.com.
This isn’t really a review, since I was too impatient to tidy it up much. The following is more a collection of notes I took on my reactions and reflections while reading the book.
Sher’s writing style is personal and engaging. Like many self-help authors, she addresses the reader directly and reveals her principles through stories. In her case they are largely accounts of her experiences as a life coach or other conversations she’s had with Scanners.
But what makes Sher’s book so compelling is her blend of profound optimism and intense practicality. She believes unwaveringly in the goodness and potential in being a Scanner, in spite of all appearances and obstacles, and this is because she’s seen what Scanners can do and has a comprehensive plan for making it work.
One Scanner, Ella, told Barbara about a story she heard when she was young called Rusty in Orchestraville, “about a little boy who couldn’t make up his mind which instrument he wanted to learn, and so he ended up not playing anything and couldn’t be part of the orchestra.” Barbara replied, “In my experience, Rusty becomes a famous conductor. He needed to study all the instruments, because his instrument is the whole orchestra” (35). I’m not sure Ella’s recounting accurately captures the message of the story (see the description here), but Barbara’s version is an apt image for the role of Scanners in the world. Another is, “You have the eyes to see what many people miss” (43).
She responds to the conventional wisdom about “buckling down” and devoting your life to one thing by demonstrating that it just isn’t true, noting trends in modern society as well as examples of successful Scanners throughout history (xiii–xiv, 115–116, and chapter 4).
She has tons of ideas for getting things done, and they seem like they could really work, because they’re based on her years of experience talking and working with dozens of Scanner clients, friends, and acquaintances.
An example of a good idea that struck me: “Sometimes you simply take an armful of books home from the library and read the introductions, the final chapters, and the index at the back. I get insights into very complex books I’d never be able to read all the way through” (236). I did this kind of thing once sort of by accident, and it was an effective way to get an idea of the subject. It would be worth being more intentional about the technique.
This book will open your mind to possibilities (and jobs) you never knew existed (see pp. 254ff). For example, you could get a job as an expediter. They do all the tedious, bureaucratic things that their bosses don’t have time for, and sometimes they have to wait in line for hours to do it, which gives them plenty of time for Scannery things like reading (265).
She asks a lot of good, probing questions. For example, to help Wanderers tie their random interests together, she has them ask during any activity that attracts them, “What element, if it were missing, would have made my exploration uninteresting?” (213).
She is very thorough in her advice. She anticipates a large variety of problems that Scanners will encounter when trying to become more productive and offers many practical techniques for overcoming them, and she even recognizes when a particular tool won’t do the whole job. For example, in chapter 7 she introduces the Backward Planning Flowchart tool for identifying the steps toward reaching a goal, but then she notes that identifying these achievable steps won’t necessarily make the goal seem easier to reach. It might actually make the goal more intimidating! There can be a huge psychological leap between planning and acting. So you need to identify what mental obstacles are still holding you back and look for other tools that will help you through them, many of which she provides in other parts of the book.
“Almost no one stays at one career ‘forever’ anymore” (50). One person I talked to about this point said that some fields suffer because people leave their jobs so quickly, and she was thinking specifically of public education. With a high turnover rate, there’s no consistency, and it’s hard to get things done within the field. I think this problem can be avoided in many cases with things like the LTTL system—Learn, Try, Teach, Leave (58–59). I love this idea, by the way, such a tidy way to be temporary. As long as the important policies and plans of an organization stay constant, the people can change, as long as each new person is competent.
At certain points Sher brings up practical caveats to her “do what you want” philosophy, such as the fact that you sometimes do have to finish things even when you’ve gotten bored with them. Then she gives tools for dealing with that too (113–115), though “when it comes to your own projects, who cares?” (36). And even though she’s spent the whole book saying things like, “Start everything. And don’t bother to finish any of it” (110), she closes with an epilogue on the idea that “As enthusiastic as you may be about every passion, an active mind doesn’t get refreshment from producing nothing. Scanners actually grow tired when they’re underused. So you’ll have to give hard work another look, because inside you there are highly original works waiting to be brought into the world. Nothing will do that but starting and finishing at least one of them—or all of them, one at a time” (249).
The point of this book isn’t that Scanners are just fine exactly as they are. They do need to be reshaped a bit, but the general thrust and contour of their life is all right. They have a valuable and truly different core. It just needs to be disciplined a little—but in ways that are most natural for a Scanner while still being effective. (243)
Throughout the whole book the key productive finishing skill for Scanners is the ability to pass on what their minds have collected in some way, through either writing, speaking, or creating. It’s not really okay just to learn or experience. (243)
Issues to discuss
The Definition of a Scanner
She quotes a Scanner: “If I have to slow down or use only one part of me at a time, I become bored, worse than bored—I feel like a part of me is dying on the vine” (28). I think this is what makes the difference between Scanners and other people. When describing the essence of a Scanner and contrasting them with Divers, it’s not enough to say that Scanners can’t have fewer interests or restrict themselves to one. For all we know, they may just be intractably undisciplined. But this part of my experience as a Scanner suggests that there’s something more going on. It’s the profound sense of withering when I’m deprived of my projects that makes me think all these interests are vital to me and that they’re not just whims I can’t resist.
The Goodness of Scannerhood
Barbara talks about the relief that Scanners felt once she began identifying them as such. “The realization that their behavior was different—because they were actually genetically different—explained so much that it was accepted right away” (xv). This genetic difference hasn’t been proven, but it certainly seems genetic anyway. That by itself doesn’t mean the genetic difference is a good one. Being a Scanner could be a congenital disability or character flaw, like having anger management problems. We have to evaluate Scannerhood based on its effects. This, of course, she does throughout the book. Scanners are multitalented people who have a lot to offer the world because they are Scanners. They do have some disadvantages, but these can be overcome by the use of all these great tools. Scanners do need some discipline; they need to be shaped, but not fundamentally changed. Their contribution to the world is not hindered by the fact that they pursue many interests.
“To be honest, the elated reaction of people who realized they were Scanners came to me as a surprise at first. I had no idea that simply knowing there was a name for them would cause such a complete turnaround in their outlook and feeling of self-worth” (24). Again, not enough to prove it’s good. Part of their relief was probably from the name itself. It sounds like a personality type. If instead she said, “You have Scanneritis,” they might not be so happy, because that sounds like a disease to be cured. Of course, she does say in the next sentence, “Now I’ve seen over and over what amazing things a Scanner can do with nothing more than simple permission to be herself.”
Rewards and Durations
“When you lose interest in something, you must always consider the possibility that you’ve gotten what you came for; you have completed your mission. … That’s why you lose interest: not because you’re flawed or lazy or unable to focus, but because you’re finished” (31). “The reason you stop when you do: You got what you came for” (103). I think there’s a difference between what my emotions came for and what my mind came for. Sometimes I get bored with what I’m doing because I’m tired of working, and sometimes I’m just tired of looking at the same project after so long, though I think those are a more temporary and superficial type of boredom. But these projects are important to me on a larger level, so I want to finish them. Usually this is either because later projects are intended to be built on them or because they fulfill some deep purpose I have for my life. It’s if I gave up on them that I’d feel a loss of meaning.
So what if what you came for isn’t enough? What if your feelings of excitement enjoy discovery but your sense of civic duty likes giving back what you’ve learned, but you lose steam simply because it’s hard work and takes a long time? What’s the tool for that?
But while feelings can’t indiscriminately be a good clue to Rewards, I think there’s merit to Barbara’s approach. There’s a certain kind of deeper boredom that can be a good clue. The clue comes when continuing the project isn’t just tiresome but actually feels pointless, as Barbara mentions a few paragraphs before: “It was the riveting experience of confronting something he’d never imagined before. That was the only part he really cared about. What followed felt pointless.”
Another caveat is that often I leave a project simply because I get distracted by other projects. I might still be perfectly interested in picking it back up if I thought about it, but often I don’t think about it. I wonder if this fits into Durations and Rewards or if it’s a separate issue, probably the latter.
“When you’re getting your Reward from any activity, you always feel happy, absorbed, energetic. And when you are satisfied, or the Reward diminishes, you get bored. It’s as natural as sitting down to eat when you’re hungry and leaving when you’re full” (32). Hmm, when I’m done eating I feel satisfied, not bored. If I kept eating after that I might feel unpleasant, though perhaps not bored, unless I was just tired of tasting the same food. Hard work doesn’t always make me feel happy, absorbed, and energetic, but surely it’s important for many projects.
I guess if you’re just trying to discover what makes you tick, those happy feelings are good ones. Satisfaction could also be a good clue, but that implies having reached a goal or at least a saturation point. Sometimes it happens on its own, and then using it as a clue would only require paying attention. Sometimes it requires having a goal to reach. But if you don’t have a good sense of your Rewards, maybe you’re not yet in a position to set the right goals.
Maybe part of this exercise should be to evaluate the project goals you do set and your motivations for them. Are you, for example, just trying to fulfill someone else’s expectations? Just trying to be complete? Once you reach your goal, what then? would be another good question. In one example, Barbara relates a conversation with Meg, who wished she had stuck with Spanish, even though it bored her after a year, because then she’d be somewhere by now, such as being a teacher. But when Barbara pressed her, Meg admitted that would bore her too (214). Paying attention to your happy feelings is also good for identifying the kinds of projects that would let you just play, which is something Sher thinks Scanners should be allowed to do.
Many of the common Rewards (33–34) are true for me in degrees. Maybe a five-point Likert scale would be good here.
Scanners and School
What does a Scanner major in? Barbara talks about what she did (“I gave up and took an easy major, anthropology … and with some disappointment, I went for the grades-and-graduation thing like everyone else.” [xii]), but what would she have done had she known all about being a Scanner back then?
Cathy Goodwin’s Review
I am not a career counselor, but Cathy Goodwin is, and she has reviewed Sher’s book on Amazon. Her review is not as glowing as mine, but it is probably more realistic.