Feeling inadequate as a scanner personality
December 3, 2017 2:34 AM   Subscribe

I’ve always been interested in tons of different things at once and I’ve never been very good at specializing. My whole life I’ve felt like this is a weakness, but after reading about Barbara Sher’s concept of scanner personalities (including her book), I have come to accept, even embrace, that this is just a natural facet of my personality. However, there are still times when this makes me feel inadequate and I'd love to hear how others deal with this side of being a 'scanner'.

Though I’ve accepted it (or am getting there), there are times that I do get quite sad I’ve never been able to dedicate myself to one thing in particular and get -really- good at it. I wish I could become a fantastic tennis player, or be an incredible ceramicist, or a skilled baker – anything! But by the time I get decent at something, my interest will wane and I’ll skip off to something new.

For many things it’s very difficult to progress to ‘masterful’ unless you have a great deal of consistent time to spend on it anyway, and since I’m completing my Ph.D. while also taking care of my dog + having a social life + wanting to try different things, I wouldn’t be able to progress much even if I wanted to. I’m currently learning Mandarin, in part because of my degree and in part because it’s a useful skill to have, but I just don’t have the time to continually memorize as much vocabulary as I need and practice as much as I should (and this is not new - I’ve studied three other languages in my past!) This frustrates me because I really feel like I could be really good at something if had the time or the personality to do so, but I largely have neither.

Even my Ph.D. research, which ostensibly should demonstrate my mastery of some topic, approaches something from four different perspectives/methodologies because I found that way more interesting (and useful) for understanding it. I'm pretty sure that some specialists in my department think my research is superficial rather than holistic as a result.

I see some benefits of having this personality – it’s easy for me to have conversations with people because of my dabbling and my interest in hobbies in general. I’m decently good at a lot of cool stuff and I can find connections between a lot of disparate activities/things/ideas/whatever. But when I see other people accomplishing fantastic things with their dedication – running marathons, shredding on their guitars, achieving whatever long-term goals they’ve set out – I get sad and jealous, and feel like I’ve just been wasting my time in some ways.

For the most part I'd like to learn how I can reframe my thinking at these moments when I feel like a "master of none". Do any of you have these conflicting feelings? I’d also love to hear your stories about accepting your scanner personality type and some of the positive ways you view it. Or, alternatively, have any of you pushed through despite having a scanner personality and become a specialist in some way?

Thank you!
posted by thebots to Human Relations (17 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this helps, and I've just 3 hours ago completed an extremely holistic unconference, but... I never knew what to do so I just drifted through about ... oh .. 25+ jobs; plastics, moldmaking, bodyshop work, concrete laying/pumping, a bit of mold-making and formwork, security - also a lot of solo travel.. you get the idea. In a REALLY roundabout way I discovered landscape architecture and have found it very useful to see what I previously did as filling space with things, things of plastic, of wood, of concrete and also developing very good situational awareness and understanding the language of industry, of makings things .. and of creating waste.

Now I form space itself; envision, describe and produce spaces which don't yet exist for people to live in using my landscape training coupled with these other, earlier languages.
Much of what I do now, I often feel on the edge, but now (generally) enjoy that as I have my framework of being.
I haven't stooped gobbling information and diverse conversations but I'm somewhat able to structure and focus my appetite.
The baker, the ceramicist, the guitarist - they too will have to have explored far, far more than what we see, for them to reach the peaks they do. I will watch this conversation with all ports open.
posted by unearthed at 3:20 AM on December 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, I've sort of dealt with it by finding a profession that allows me to be a generalist. I'm not saying public library work is for everyone, and there are definitely aspects of it that require specialization, but for the most part it rewards me for being interested in too many things. There are always new people and new questions, and it helps immensely to know a little bit about a lot of things. Not saying that's the answer for you, just mentioning that there are professional identities that are compatible with this trait. I'm sure there are others beyond librarianship.

Also: I'm more OK all the time about not being the best at anything. Focusing on my enjoyment of what I'm doing and interested in at the moment, rather than worrying about things I've abandoned or haven't achieved. That helps a lot. No strategies to cultivate that mindset, I think it's come with age.
posted by Knicke at 4:02 AM on December 3, 2017 [13 favorites]

To echo Knicke's comment, some people deal with this by choosing a profession in which having a broad, diverse knowledge base is valued. One example in the private sector is management consulting, which would be a good fit for someone with a PhD.
posted by shaudi at 4:17 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

wow this is so interesting! I have not heard the term scanner personality before but it is totally me. And yea, exactly what has been said above, I found a career that uses all of the different bits of knowledge that I have picked up while following my various interests. I am in the film industry doing VFX, so my job is all about making things look believable. My interest engineering means that I can make a spaceship flying and blowing up look real, I can digitally tailor a suit because I also like to sew, being fascinated by physics and fluid mechanics means that I can make someone getting shot look real, and being an artist that studied colour theory means I can make it all blend in seamlessly. You just need to find the thing that uses all of your skills and interests, there are a lot of professions where knowing a little bit of everything is an asset.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:53 AM on December 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

FWIW, this seems to me completely normal, for myself and everyone I know. The people who are single-minded enough to put 10,000 hours into one thing and achieve mastery are exceptional, that’s why we pay to see them perform/eat their baking/look at their painting etc.

I wonder if, being immersed in the world of a PhD student, you have a slightly skewed perception of what is normal for most people when it comes to single-minded dedication. You could reframe your thinking by simply accepting that you’re human, and similar to most humans.
posted by penguin pie at 6:18 AM on December 3, 2017 [16 favorites]

I'm more OK all the time about not being the best at anything. ... That helps a lot. No strategies to cultivate that mindset, I think it's come with age.

If you understand this about yourself, then the next part is acceptance. The other thing is to recognize that being a dilettante* can, within itself, be a focus. I realized that I had a million academic interests, far too many to cram in one discipline (the sum of which would be, admittedly, of dubious worth to anyone but me), so I got a job at a university where I could take classes for free. It's worked out so far, and 'so far' is an important point to consider, too. It took me forever to acknowledge that my interests will wax and wane, so I when I go for a deep dive into something new, I relish it, even as I know that it will probably not be as interesting later.

*It helps to have taken back the term dilettante. It only has a negative connotation if you allow it; just be aware that others may hold it differently, and be ready for that.
posted by eclectist at 6:24 AM on December 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

As a lifelong academic, I think your struggles have more to do with being a PhD student than any fundamental aspect of your personality. The PhD process, by design, rewards single minded dedication to a ‘millimeter of the universe’. Outside interests are not valued. Depth, not breadth. These are the ‘values’ of the ‘system’.

I’m here to call bullshit on these values. I’m well enough established that I’m continually pushing back within my department and my broader field on the toxicity these implicit values inflict on the mental health of everyone in this system. We are people, goddamnit. That means we have to eat, sleep, love, and dream. We are more than the single dimension of our scholarship. And we are better at our scholarship when we accept and nourish all of our dimensions.
posted by Doc_Sock at 7:09 AM on December 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I like what Doc_Sock says. A lot. I'm also an academic. I also identify as a scanner. I still feel occasionally frustrated by that feature of my personality. Most days, though, I embrace what I think of as my charmingly magpie-like approach to the world: Oh! There's this shiny thing! And look at this other thing. Oooo, there's a thing over there! I feel lucky to have lots of interests and to be interested by lots of things. It's nice. I'm not usually bored.

But also, I'd wager that most folks who have PhDs do, in fact, have the capacity for mastery. It's sort of the nature of the gig. I would bet, then, that if you thought about your skillsets (rather than a content area or specific topic), you would see that you have quite a lot of mastery -- over things like: how to find stuff out, how to manage complex workflows, how to think creatively or critically about more than one subject at a time, how to detect connections between seemingly disparate things/ideas, how to quickly assess logical structures or hone in on a critical detail.

What I'm saying is: scanning itself can often constitute a kind of mastery. Not everyone knows how to scan and scan well; not everyone has the kind of practice or has put in the kind of hours with scanning that you have. And a lot of folks really value that skill. My colleagues, for example, appreciate that I'm good at finding out information about a new topic and fast, and I'm just good at it because I am a scanner who spends a lot of time looking up lots of disparate things, which means I've developed a handy toolkit of strategies for doing that kind of work efficiently.
posted by pinkacademic at 7:48 AM on December 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm similarly inclined, and recently came upon this site:
Puttylike — A Home for Multipotentialites
I haven't engaged with the site much, but it seemed worth bookmarking for further exploration.
I see now that there's an associated (pay-to-join) community called The Putty Tribe, and they're accepting new members on December 12.
posted by D.Billy at 9:41 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh this is so me, and it used to bother me too (in grad school particularly!) Like, I have a functional smattering of 5 languages, and am learning a 6th, but never bothered to become fluent past that point. I read every damn thing I can get my hands on and retain it all in a patchwork synthesis of the way everything works, but am not even a true master of my own academic discipline. Knitting, blacksmithing, wood joining, computer programming, belly dance... so many advanced beginner skills.
I teach undergraduate philosophy and this career, along with library work, I truly believe is the ideal place for us dilettantes. Undergrad education in the humanities demands this flexibility and spread of knowledge to avoid the burnout and boredom those who are true specialists experience. The pay sucks a lot, but every day I get to pull from my vast scattering and connect dots with people who have not lived as long and thus do not have as much information about everydamnthing.
Being the living equivalent of Wikipedia is great when you work with people, both your students and colleagues from other disciplines, who want information or other work from you, and are all connecting with that information in different ways. Added bonus, they will often give you new rabbits to chase--but you simply won't have time to dig all the way into that direction of study as an educator, so your flexibility and willingness to drop it once you get it helps when it's time to focus again.
I don't want to encourage anyone to go into higher ed, it's stressful as fuck if you ever want or need to make good money. But it really is a dilettante' s haven.
posted by zinful at 11:09 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to get frustrated by this myself, and then I tried reframing it as "I'm an amazing beginner at anything". You need someone to fill in for your obscure team sport social league? I've never heard of it but I can go along and do a decent job. You want someone to join you for moral support in Hindi classes? I'm the right friend. A work team needs an extra person who can be instantly useful on their tech stack nobody else uses? They'll pick me. I can apply knowledge and skills to new contexts, see relationships between different topics, assess the usefulness of intro resources without even understanding what they're introducing and generally skip the "ooh my god what even is this where am I" phase of struggling with an unfamiliar world that most people seem to start in.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:06 PM on December 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

It's helped me immensely numerous times in seeing non-obvious solutions to problems, or seeing what the essential problem even is. I don't need to be an expert in X (training theory, communications, records management, law, sometimes tech), and don't pretend to be one. But I CAN see, because i'm somewhat familiar with X, that this problem is essentially an X and we don't need to reinvent the wheel. What we need is an X person. Also, I can see when everyone thinks X is going to help, but it isn't (often tech solutions to behavior or systemic problems).

The trick is to, in every subject, at least get past the "When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" blind enthusiasm, to the "oh shit the more I learn the more I realize I don't know" phase. You can see the possibilities, but still call the expert.
posted by ctmf at 12:54 PM on December 3, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. All of your answers have been really helpful, and it's also just nice to hear from people that are similar!

The atmosphere of academia certainly doesn't help things, but I think my main issues stem from social media (the source of so many problems these days!) Seeing people start out with a hobby or a sport and progressively get better over the course of many months or years can get me down sometimes, I guess, since it's a feeling I've never experienced. I do like the idea of focusing on skillsets and also thinking of myself as an amazing beginner though!
posted by thebots at 7:06 PM on December 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Also thanks @D.Billy for the link! Super useful!
posted by thebots at 7:10 PM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I once had a new boss introduce me to a team as a "Renaissance Man" after we had discussed my fairly wide-ranging hobbies and interests. It was a moniker that stuck with me, and gave me a measure of pride in my scanner personality. I've also had friends suggest that I'm on their short list of people to pair up with in a zombie apocalypse, since my skills and interests are broad enough that we'd have a good chance of surviving, regardless of the environment. A broad and shallow knowledge base is also helpful in just about any type of problem-solving, since you're more likely to at least know enough about $topic to get started, and you probably have the research skills to have a good shot at learning the information that you need to solve the problem at issue.

Another silver lining to starting new hobbies/interests/etc. is that for a lot of things, the beginner-to-intermediate portion of the learning curve is the really fun part of the learning curve, at least if you take satisfaction from seeing noticeable gains in whatever you're doing. I recently transitioned from a hobby I've been doing for 10+ years and reached a pretty high level of mastery at (whitewater kayaking) and replaced it with a new hobby (river surfing). The transition has been exhilarating; I'm no longer running roughly the same rivers with roughly the same skill level as the past few years; I'm seeing big gains in my skills and knowledge on a week-to-week basis. That's a really fun place to be in.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:28 AM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is also why I became a librarian in a public library! "Master of Scanning" describes it pretty well.
posted by exceptinsects at 9:42 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Pack-rat Mind" is how I've always labeled myself. I used to bemoan not having an over-riding goal or desire, like artists or athletes, but I knew I didn't have that killer drive; I just liked doing stuff or learning stuff. So my two most interesting jobs have been manager of a used bookstore and community theatre stage manager, different things to do every day, different people to deal with, being the fount of knowledge, etc. There are a number of other jobs I've held, some of which I loved and some which bored/irritated me. If I got bored/irritated enough, I would quit and go find something more interesting, or at least new, to do. I don't mind being called a scanner but now that I'm retired, I just putter around and hoover up trivia, sometimes doing a deep dive but mostly just gathering enough knowledge to feel slightly complacent but not enough to feel so bored that I'd never go back to that subject.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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