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What do you do when you want to do everything?

Some of us are focused. We find our path and we walk down it with purpose. But others are ‘scanners’, interested in so many things we find it hard to choose which to pursue. And that’s just fine, says Anita Chaudhuri

When Lucy was at school, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. From setting up a dolls’ hospital in her parents’ garage to being glued to TV medical dramas, her ambition in life was clear. No one was surprised when she went to medical school.

Her younger sister Amanda, on the other hand, is mystified by such single-mindedness. At the age of 34 she has yet to decide upon a profession, having moved from career to career. ‘When I left university with an arts degree, I thought the world was my oyster,' she says. 'So many different things interested me, I thought finding the job of my dreams would be easy.’

First she worked in marketing for a record company, but soon tired of that and got a job with the local parks department. Then she took a course to teach English as a foreign language and went to live in Japan, then Mexico, then Romania. Now she’s back in the UK, setting up a business offering podcasts and internet radio.

‘People have called me a dreamer, a drifter and a hopeless case because it seems that I lack focus,' she says. 'I think this is unfair. I do focus, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to explore all of my interests.’

Although people around her don’t understand her, Amanda is a great example of the joys of non-specialism. Her CV may be filled with seemingly random jobs yet, in her current business, she can use the skills from her previous adventures to offer something unique. Her training in marketing, audio editing and speaking four languages are all invaluable assets, and each new interest and experience feeds the next — no matter how different they may seem.

Author and life coach Barbara Sher believes that we all fall into two categories — scanners and divers — and has written a book, What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything?, in praise of generalists, or scanners.

‘Divers are perfectionists,' she says. 'They like to see projects through to the end and aim to achieve mastery. Scientists and musicians tend to be divers. Divers usually stick to one profession, sometimes even just one hobby, for life. They like to focus deeply, and feel comfortable when they are in control. However, you can also be a diver in one field, say a career, yet still indulge in “hit and run obsessions” outside work. I knew a neurologist who drove his wife crazy with his series of short-lived, passing hobbies.’

Scanners, however, tend to embrace everything that excites and inspires them — only to ditch those interests when something even more interesting attracts their attention. ‘People accuse scanners of being dabblers and they get a lot of grief for never finishing what they start,’ observes Sher. ‘This isn’t really accurate. Scanners do finish things, it’s just that they do it on their own terms. They bail out when they feel they’ve got what they need from a particular activity. They tend to be less ambitious than divers because they don’t fear failure. What scanners fear more than anything is boredom.’

Scanners are often attracted to the initial learning curve of a project, but once they’ve grasped a concept, they get bored and move on to something else. Divers, however, love nothing better than to immerse themselves and repeat the same experience over and over again, improving each time. You probably already know if you’re a scanner. Sher believes that the first step to achieving multiple goals and dreams is to decide what type of scanner you are.

‘For example, not all scanners are happy to skim the surface of a subject. There are “serial specialists” who stick to a particular career or field for four or five years and often excel at what they do, although they’ll eventually move on to something completely different.’ This type of scanner needs to acknowledge the pattern and start planning for their next big move well in advance.

Another type is a ‘plate spinner’, who likes to work on several projects at once. A more problematic type of scanner is what Sher terms ‘high-speed indecisives’, and the rest of us call ‘dabblers’. ‘These people fall madly in love with an idea for a few weeks, or even days, and then can’t remember why they ever liked it in the first place.’

Mark, 37, has always suffered from this syndrome. ‘I’m a musician and a writer, and also love to paint,' he says. 'I get a lot of ideas — inspiration can strike from anywhere.’ He will become besotted by an idea, ‘Then I talk about it compulsively for a few weeks, imagining every possible outcome. I literally exhaust myself in this way’ — without ever writing, drawing or composing a thing. ‘A few weeks later it feels stale and flawed, and I don’t know what I ever saw in it.’

Sher has observed similar symptoms between the ‘high-speed indecisive’ scanner and attention deficit disorder (ADD). The inability to concentrate or, at the other extreme, focusing inappropriately on things of no consequence, can afflict both scanners and those with ADD. ‘A lot of scanners at my workshops have been misdiagnosed as having ADD,' she says. 'But there are differences. Scanners don’t usually indulge in impulsive, hyperactive behaviour or display the "scatter-brained" forgetfulness that typically affects those with a psychological disorder.’ Still, the gap between the ‘successful’ scanner and the ‘failed’ scanner is a wide one.

Margaret Lobenstine, author of The Renaissance Soul, believes that the greatest example of a successful generalist is Oprah Winfrey. ‘What she does is an example of Renaissance Woman at its finest,' she says. 'She has brought her diverse range of passions, from self-development and psychology, to weight loss and fitness, to book groups, to humanitarian aid in South Africa to an international audience of millions.’ But even high-achieving scanners may be faced with disapproval. Lobenstine believes that the pressure to specialise begins early in life.

‘A typical example is the child who begs her mother for tap-dancing lessons. The mother goes out and buys expensive tap shoes and a leotard, and arranges a car pool rota to get her there. The child attends one or two classes, figures out the steps and then announces she doesn’t want to go any more. The mother then usually goes ballistic and accuses the child of not being able to stick to anything. Some children just aren’t wired that way.’

Lobenstine believes children should be encouraged to try everything that interests them because it’s good for personal development and because the future economy is crying out for generalists. ‘Increasingly, businesses believe in people working in teams. Those teams are usually made up of specialists. But who is going to lead those teams? The best candidate will always be the person who has experience of many different roles.’ She points out that those who like to excel at one thing are also being short-changed by society.

‘There’s this implication that if you specialise, then you’re stuck with it for ever. But in order to have achieved that level of mastery, a person has developed incredible skills of focus, drive and commitment. Why can’t specialists leave and start out again?’ Lobenstine herself has done this several times, and went from academia to opening bed and breakfasts in the US. ‘It’s daunting giving up your safe income and the status that comes from having professional recognition. But the toughest thing of all for specialists is having to deal with society’s negative perceptions if you want to change path.’

Now that we can no longer expect a job, or even a profession, to be for life, there are obvious benefits from adopting a more generalist approach. One recent survey suggested that today’s graduates may have as many as seven different careers in a lifetime that, thanks to diminishing pensions, will see them working into their seventies.

The fact that companies are now willing to let employees take ‘grown-up gap years’ is another sign that times are changing. One of the biggest problems for scanners is that they can get lost in a never-ending sea of flash-in-the-pan interests. Overwhelmed by choice, option paralysis can set in and the scanner — like Mark — never lives up to their potential. Or else they use perpetual indecision as a form of procrastination. Another downside is that, like a commitment-phobic lover, the generalist may find it hard to dedicate themselves fully to one thing out of a misplaced fear that they might miss out on a better prospect tomorrow.

As psychotherapist Andrea Perry points out, ‘If someone spends their time flitting from thing to thing, there’s a danger that they may end up feeling as if they’ve eaten canapés rather than a proper meal. There’s that feeling of vague dissatisfaction. Picking at things can be lovely, but nothing beats the sensation of being authentically “full-up” — and knowing how to attain that state is valuable.’ ‘At some point, scanners who never finish anything should sit down and look at what’s really going on,’ says Sher. ‘When a scanner hits a certain wall, they stop. Often, it’s because they’ve lost interest. But sometimes, boredom is actually just a manifestation of subconscious fear. I tell people that they must, at least once a year, push through that anxiety and stick with a project until completion. They need to experience that discipline. And there’s a chance they’ll experience twice as much joy from experiencing that unfamiliar degree of depth.’ Are you a diver or a scanner?

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