Thursday, October 29, 2009

How to be an eclectic and quit fooling around

Well, yes, I said 'eclectics.'

You and I know we call them/us Scanners, not Eclectics, but Google still thinks that's a piece of equipment so I'm using that term, too, so the multi-talented people with lots of curiosity and a love of learning new things will find this and quit beating themselves up.

In case you're new to this subject, Scanners are people who are interested in so many things they can’t bear to limit themselves to just one. The rest of the world seems united in their opinion of this problem: it must be changed. Everyone knows that if you don’t focus on one thing you’ll never get anywhere. And most people seem pretty sure that if you’re interested in everything and lose interest in most things before you’ve completed them, that you are almost certainly lazy, shallow (ever been called a ‘dilettante?), self-indulgent and afraid of hard work. As a result you are un-deserving of respect unless you change your ways.

And Scanners try. They really do. Almost no Scanner tries to defend himself because they’re convinced that their critics are right. As a result they’re overcome with joy when they become unusually enthusiastic about something, because they’re hoping that this time they’ve finally found The One Right Thing and they’ll never again have to endure the despair of losing interest and inviting scorn again.

And it’s not only the opinions of others that make Scanners unhappy. They fear that they’ll never find what they want, that they’ll never use their abilities in any useful ways or make their contribution and the world will never know they were there. And one part of that is true: if Scanners don’t learn how to handle their unusual love of discovery and fascination with learning, they could waste their often prodigious talents.

But there’s no major in college called ‘Eclecticism’ and no advisors to direct them toward a respectable career so they’re left to float in their condition, unhappily unaware that many people are just like them – and that there isn’t anything at all wrong with any of them.

It’s all been a huge mistake, a temporary fad. There was a time, quite recently, when specialists were considered narrow, and the most admired person was ‘well-rounded.’ Since the days of classical Greece and later, the Renaissance, Liberal Arts, not specialization, were the signed of a learned person. From Aristotle, through Petrarch, Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe down to Ben Franklin, Isadora Duncan and George Plimpton, the love of learning and doing new things was admired, not scorned.

All of that changed very recently in the U.S., so recently that I was in college and remember it very clearly. To students of mating age, majors in philosophy, comparative literature or ‘science’ were admired and students who walked around with slide rules in their pockets were considered narrow, nerdy and otherwise socially undesirable, and the next day you couldn’t get a date unless you did have have a slide rule in your pocket. In fact, you looked like a fighter pilot and an astronaut while everyone else suddenly seemed effete and useless. The Space Race was upon us and everyone in the west was in a panic that the U.S.S.R. would get their satellite orbiting the earth before we did.

They did. Sputnik was visible in the night sky and we redoubled our efforts to become hard and single-minded.

And over night, people with eclectic interests lost status.

Most people don’t remember this. They think that specialists have always been valued over generalists or people with many interests and abilities. So now they criticize Scanners with a kind of certainty that’s based on an event in recent history, not fact.

I got a letter some time ago with this comment:

"My mother-in-law regularly tells me that it is not ability that counts, but stickability. I never know how to answer her."

Before I wrote Refuse To Choose (What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything?) I gathered some interesting stuff on this subject, and went back through my files to dig it up. Truth is, there have been many studies in the past ten years or so that vindicate Scanner behavior. The next few posts will be a brief guide to some very special people who would know exactly how to answer her. I'd like you to hear from three of them in this post.

If you feel foolish because you’re constantly magnetized by mystery instead of applying what you already know, listen to the first one:

"The most beautiful thing is to gaze at a mystery and say why is this here? How does it work? The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."

You'll know his name: Albert Einstein.

You might not know the second person, a scholar in a field most of us haven't studied. Like most Scanners, I always despaired that I would need an endless, laser-like focus and a huge tolerance for tedium to create work that would make me an authority in any field. Then, one day, after buying a book from a shelf an anthropology major had no business visiting, I found E.R. Curtius, a widely renowned scholar who dedicated his life to writing his masterpiece, 'European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages'.

He wrote something that lifts the heart of any Scanner, but unexpected from the pen of a 'dry as dust' scholar. It changed my opinion of scholars forever:

"Through loving and hating, all intuition and knowledge of value is built up…Applied to the method of scholarship, it means a flair for noticing that certain passages in a text are ‘important’—even if it is not yet clear why…The individual traits that matter cannot be sought out, they must flash upon the mind."

If you're a Scanner, you know what he means; you come upon something exciting, important, wonderful, and you run out and tell everyone and find that your listeners aren't nearly as delighted as you are. Until this year, I was only sympathetic, consoling to my fellow Scanners, and irritated at the ignorance and unkindness of people who refuse to be thrilled by their honest, childlike enthusiasm.

But I'm beginning to change my mind. That scolding, bromide-ridden mother in law above may just be mean, but even people who aren't mean often don't understand why you're so excited about your new discovery. I'm starting to see that this isn't really their fault. They don't see what you see, but no one saw what Curtius saw either, until it clicked in his head, and he understood it -- and then explained it to them.

In fact, even bright, curious people might not be enthused by what you find delightful in your travels because what you saw didn't leap off the page for them. But something else did; something that might make you scratch your head in confusion. I'm convinced that everyone has an inner magnet, different from anyone else's magnet, that pulls only relevant things to them like steel shavings, and those things come to form a pattern that not many people can see. Until, that is, you take the time to explain it to them.

Scanners don't have to keep their thrilling discoveries to themselves. No, they just have to grow up (in certain ways) and quit fooling around (in certain other ways). Here's how I believe you should do that.

First comes respect for what interests you. Curtius has given you permission. No more beating up on yourself. You can't explain anything to anyone unless you first respect, as Curtius did, the fact that if something seems 'important' to you, it is.

It is important whether or not you can justify that importance. You have to respect your own enthusiasm, and understand that it's really good, maybe unerring, in its ability to direct you to exactly the material you need to form your own best insights.

It's important that you don't get discouraged when you're not understood. It's not only important, it's irresponsible to allow yourself to feel demoralized when no one knows or cares what you're up to. Too many Scanners have a voice running in their head that belongs to critics, and that voice stops them from trusting their own enthusiasm. Too many Scanners have belittled themselves to me when there wasn't a critic in sight: "So here, again, I get all excited like some kind of 5 year old idiot, and what can I do with it? I wish I'd just grow up and stop fooling around."

You know what? If you've ever thought something like that I have to say that I, too, wish you'd grow up and stop fooling around, though I have a hunch that I mean something very different from what you think.

Scanners are vulnerable, and in the best ways, like kids: they're eager for new knowledge, they love to share, they're rarely competitive. My experience has shown me that most Scanners seem to be extremely kind, never belittling, often protective of other people's feelings. But they're as hurt by criticism and misunderstanding as a child, too.

But I'd like to make a plea that Scanners must grow up, at least enough to understand that people never understand anybody at the beginning of a new venture. If you're an original thinker, like an artist, you're always ahead of your time. But if you can 'grow up,' you'll develop the patience to forego approval at the beginning and honor the importance of what you're discovering.

And if you quit fooling around, you'll understand that you have to stick to your sleuthing as long as it fascinates you, until it yields the reason it was 'important' in the first place. And then you'll have something important to share with the world. And you must share it. You have to try to help the world understand it. That's your obligation.

See, if you're a true Scanner, when your mystery finally takes shape, you're obliged to try to explain it. And, if you're a true Scanner, you have to do it fast, almost the moment you have that Eureka! moment. Because you're not like an inventor or industrialist or gold miner who considers discovery nothing more than a path to success with all its rewards. To a Scanner, the discovery itself is the good part. But as soon as discovery becomes a commonplace to you, you'll move on to something else. And I say you have to wait a minute. You have unfinished work to do before you leave one scene and look for another.

You have to stop fooling around, and take up the challenge of pulling those important findings together and explaining it clearly and patiently to anyone who needs to know about it. (Don't talk to me about experts and credentials and publishers, either. Just start a blog and start writing, like I'm doing right now.)

And when the work of explaining your discovery is done, then you can get on to the next mystery.

If you do this, you'll be in the company of the best people there are, anywhere. Fortunately, some of them write books for us amateurs. They're usually called scientists or artists or mathematicians, but they're more than that because they're as enthusiastic as children about their interests and they want to tell the world what they've found.

Which brings me to the third very special person you should know about. Head over to and watch and listen to some amazing people go up on a stage in front of a thousand people and and enthusiastically talk about the NEATEST stuff they just found out!

I think one of the more delightful and wilder of the bunch, and the best for any Scanner to start with is Clifford Stoll.

He's had some exciting adventures; he's famous for finding KGB spies and stopping them from hacking classified information, but In his talk he explains that these days, things that used to interest him have become boring. "The first time you do something, it's science. The second time it's engineering. Third time you're just a technician. I'm a scientist. Once I do something I want to do something else."

He waves his arms and jumps around and changes the subject and reads notes he wrote on his hand, but he's totally wonderful. And he's not just a genius in a tower, enjoying himself, he's a genius who wants to talk to us.

He says, "If you want to know what the future will bring, don't ask me, don't ask a scientist, or someone who's writing code. Ask an experienced kindergarten teacher. She knows."

He says we should all volunteer to teach kids in school.

Stoll has fun and acts like a kid but he's a grownup and he really isn't fooling around anymore, and he'll tell you how to stop fooling around, too. Not only that, he'll show you how to remain a happy, childlike Scanner at the same time, one who has a delicious time just being conscious.

Check him out.

Be sure to stick around until the end because Stoll says important stuff. The finale is worth waiting for, especially for a Scanner who can't defend your delight with learning new things, and your lack of 'stickability.'

He closes by telling us something he read as a student (actually, it was engraved on a bell in his college campus tower, where he found himself after escaping from a campus riot). I'll write it here, but you really want to hear him say it.

"All truth is one in this light.
May science and religion endeavor here for the steady evolution of mankind,
from darkness to light,
from narrowness to broadmindedness,
from prejudice to tolerance.

It is the voice of Life
which calls us to come and learn."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Scanners write me or tweet me and ask where they can find other Scanners to talk to. People have started Scanner 'Tribes' and you can find them by that name on Twitter.

My Big Bulletin Board at is a good place to start. It's been up since 1999 and has been very active ever since. It also has great, kind, smart people on it (we toss out the rude, the stupid, the obnoxious, the mean-spirited ) and it has a forum for Scanners: scroll way down and you'll find it under 'Refuse to Choose.'

And, not to confuse the issue (much) a year ago I opened to everyone a site I had originally created for the grads of Scanner Retreats: You can't get into the private forums, but everything else is open.

If you need a face-to-face with a living, breathing Scanner on short notice, go to a bookstore. Anyone who works in a bookstore loves books. Anyone who loves books is a Scanner. (Specialists love engineering or art or religion or philosophy, not 'books.') Walk up to anyone who looks like they'll probably never try to become rich and ask, "Can you recommend a book? I'm out of ideas."

This person will ask what you're interested in. Prepare a list in advance and just hand it to him/her. If they smile and try to read the whole list, they're Scanners. If they look distressed and tell you to make up your mind, they're not Scanners (and I'd like to know what they're doing working in a bookstore!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Great Careers for Scanners

On Oct 11, 2009

Dear Barbara -

I am definitely a scanner - though not an easily categorized one (go figure). Who's to say? A writing scanner or a scanning writer? G.

Hi, G.
I don't know if most writers are Scanners or not, but I do know that if you love to write you can have a great Scanner career. Writing is one of those 'umbrella' skills, like being a talk show host or a literary agent, that allows you to cover almost any interest that takes your fancy.

Let me see what other careers are like that...looking on my bulletin board (everything, I mean everything is there. go see for yourself:

Oh yes, of course: Indexer!
(and if that doesn't sound exciting to you, read this post from someone who was given this suggestion by my favorite indexer anywhere, DoMiStauber. Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing -- and no, I am not an affiliate :-) DoMi doesn't even know I'm doing this.)

Dear Domi!!!
I got so excited when I read this post! This is something I think I could do and love. [Reading everything I can find] but am very intrigued. I thought it was interesting that I had trouble finding entries in the index for becoming an indexer.

So my question for you is this - how daunting is the prospect for becoming an indexer? I can barely contain my enthusiasm for the prospect, and am really really hoping that this isn't just another of my magpie attractions.
Here's where the discussion began:

Fionna wrote:Hello!

I just attended Barbara Sher book signing/talk this week (IT WAS GREAT! As is the book.) She mention a job - book indexer. I was extremely interested in this career. Anyone know a book indexer? I would love to ask a few questions?

A) What is the day like?
B) What makes a person successful as an indexer
C) Do you work at home or at an office
D) How is it done
E) How did you get the job
F) Salary ranges
G) What is the most interesting book you indexed

Thanks for any and all help!!

And Do Mi originallly answered:

Hi! This is Do Mi, the indexer someone mentioned. I'll try to answer your questions and give you some resources for further info.

What the day is like: I work at home, so every day is different (although some indexers have more regular schedules than I ever manage). My jobs come to me from regular clients (publishers, book packagers, and occasionally directly from authors) via Fed Ex or the Internet. I spend about four hours a day working at my computer: reading the book (and yes, you do have to read the book in detail), thinking about what a reader might look up on each page, and organizing that information using my wonderful indexing software, Macrex, which doesn't do the thinking for me but does do everything else. Depending on the kind of book I'm indexing, I do an hour or more before needing a break. It can be intense, creative thinking work, and you're always on a tight deadline, because the index is the very last part of the publishing process.

What makes a successful indexer?

You need to be able to read fast and absorb ideas easily. You need writing skills--indexing is a kind of writing, in that you often need to choose a word or phrase to express a concept. It's helpful to be a scanner (see Barbara's new book!) since you're dealing with a different subject every couple of weeks. You need to have what I have found to be a fairly rare kind of mind: one that can pay close attention to details (like whether a letter is lower- or upper-case, or whether you've indexed every single one of a pageful of names), but also can deal with broad concepts and their relationships. And you need to enjoy the process--some people just don't! You also have to be able to deal with absolute deadlines.

To investigate further:

--read Indexing Books by Nancy Mulvany. It's the standard text in the field.
--then read Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing by me!
--sign up for Index-L, the listserv where lots of indexers talk to each other. There's a link to it on the American Society of Indexers website:
--then find a textbook in a field you're familiar with, and take a crack at indexing it! You won't know what you're doing, and you'll be totally confused. The goal is to find out whether you're confused and frustrated and want to throw the book out the window, or whether you're confused, intrigued and thrilled. If it's the second, you might want to look into indexing education.
--The best way to learn indexing these days, in my opinion, is the University of California Berkeley distance learning course. There should be a link to it from the ASI site; if there isn't, email me and I'll find the website (I'm not on my own computer right now).
--You do need to know that this isn't a fast moneymaker. It will take you about a year to learn to index and find enough clients to make a living; it can take even longer to have enough jobs that you're comfortable, turning away work, and taking vacations when you want instead of when they're forced on you!
--You won't get rich, but you can make a decent living.

I hope that's helpful!

Do Mi Stauber
Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Having lots of interests and ideas is good for you

If you're a Scanner you have 'too many ideas,' and 'too many interests,' right? (Does anyone hear echoes of someone saying to Mozart, that his work had 'too many notes.')

Even worse, you rarely follow them through. You're fascinated for an hour or a day or a week, and then fascinated by something else. That can't be right. As a result, too many Scanners try to ignore their new ideas, even wish they didn't have them.

But Scanners shouldn¹t throw ideas out like trash, no matter how many they may have, no matter how 'half-baked' the ideas may be. Respect for ideas is the same as respect for the idea maker: you.

That's why I want you to learn to use the most important piece of equipment in your survival kit: I call it the SCANNER DAYBOOK.

This is simply a blank book devoted to what you do all day -- as a Scanner, of course. Just anything related to being a Scanner -- a place to capture your best ideas and write through the tangents that pull you off those ideas. This is your personal version of the notebooks of another famous Scanner, Leonardo da Vinci. It's like a gathering of notes or the paper tablecloths we draw diagrams and take notes on. It's an idea book.

If you allow yourself to use these pages as Leonardo did, you'll find yourself welcoming new thoughts more and more, because you realize you are not required to do anything but write about them. No follow-up is required unless it takes your fancy to do so.

What's the purpose of this writing? There are many, but for now you can justify it the same way we justify jogging, or dancing: it's good for you.