Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher: Book Review

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After I first discovered I was a Multipotentialite, I read a lot of books about it. One of my favorites is Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher.

Multipotentialites, In Brief

A multipotentialite (Sher calls them Scanners*) is someone who has multiple, often disconnected interests.

And that’s it. The definition is pretty straightforward. Probably a lot more people are multipods than they realize. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, which is why reading books about it is such a good idea.

The Daybook

One of the first things Sher discusses is what she calls the “Daybook,” a journal, notebook, or other kind of writing thing that you, as a Scanner, can keep track of all your ideas and projects in.

It’s a fantastic idea, and I nearly stopped reading right then and there to leap up and make one!

I did manage to finish the book first, but I have a Daybook section in my filofax now, and it’s been amazing.

Basically, whenever you, a Scanner, gets interested in something other than something you want to work on right then, you write and plan about it in your Daybook, using up at least two pages. You can draw, cut out pictures (who does that though, let’s be honest here), take notes, look up research, whatever it is. I have a page for my garden that’s waiting for Spring. Anytime I get the bug to garden but am currently unable to due to weather or other projects, I add a few more notes to my Daybook garden pages.

The point is not to clog up a notebook with things that will never be used. You may never get around to making that comedy podcast for kids. The point is to show that your ideas and interests have enough value to set down in writing  – to pay attention to, even if it’s just for the space of two pages. And if you’re ever stuck with nothing to do, heaven help you, you can rediscover old interests through the Daybook.

I love this idea. I think most Scanners would. Part of my multipotentiality means I love planning and thinking about projects, but I hardly ever get around to following through with them. With the Daybook, I have more freedom and less guilt. I can write it out and leave it, if I want. I can come back to it later, if I want.

The Many Kinds of Scanners

 

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We wish were as slick as this. (Photo from PCMag)

 

In Sher’s book, she talks about the kinds of Scanners. She divides the major groups into Cyclical Scanners and Sequential Scanners. Each chapter details the struggles of the type, accounts of people who have owned their type, and instructions on how to best utilize your type in work and life.

Cyclical Scanners

Cyclical Scanners have a pretty set list of interests that they rotate through fairly regularly. There’s no time limit on cycles, but you know that if you’re a science and history nerd, you probably won’t suddenly be infected by the desire to embroider.

First up is the Double Agent, someone who has really only two major interests. This can lead them to feeling like they live a “double” life. These kinds of Scanners often have fairly fulfilling day jobs that they’ve been at for some time, but have a dream (spend a year learning to cook in Rome, work with refugees abroad), and can’t figure out how to do both. Sher gives a wonderful exercise to help overcome this thinking and find creative ways to do what you want.

Secondly, we have the Sybil, someone who often has a lot of trouble because of the conflicting pull of all their interests, “but [who is] more concerned about having nothing to show for their lives” (Sher). This type of person rarely finishes a project completely before being pulled into the next one, and so feels they haven’t accumulated worth or are in danger of leaving behind no legacy. (For the record, I’m a Sybil. When Sher mentioned being surrounded by “creative clutter” and I looked around my apartment – heyo, bingo.) The biggest takeaway for Sybils is to schedule. This can sound terrifyingly limiting, but it’s just what someone who is pulled in so many directions will benefit from.

Finally, we have the Plate Spinner, and as you can probably guess, this is a Scanner who is able to keep several interests or projects going at once. These people generally enjoy challenges and coming up with creative solutions, and tend to like learning for practicality’s sake, not just the joy of it. You work fast and can move between projects easily. Problems arise when they’re so invested in helping others that they don’t get to work on their own projects, which can physically and mentally draining.

Sequential Scanners

A Sequential Scanner looks very different from a Cyclical Scanner at first glance. And indeed, many Sequential Scanners might not realize they are Scanners. These types do have varying interests, but they don’t return to them. “When they’re finished, they don’t look back” (Sher).

First up under this brand of Scanner is the Serial Specialist. Like the name implies, a Serial Specialist often spends several years at one job or with one project, deeply immersed to the exclusion of much else, and usually gains a lot of experience and expertise. These types can feel the same guilt as any other Scanner though; they might not stick with a job for more than a few years, and just when they’re getting up the corporate rung, they lose interest and jump to another job, causing plenty of people around them to scratch their heads and wonder. Sher has plenty of advice, not the least of which is finding an overarching theme to include the various interests as they come and go.

Next, we have the Serial Master, someone who, like the specialist, usually spends quite a while at one thing before moving on. The major difference is that the Master becomes, well, a master, going far in their field. It’s typically someone who enjoys being in the spotlight, making their company or brand better than they found it, and earning accolades or awards to show their hard work.

Sher makes a point of saying that every Scanner should try mastery of something, even those of us who aren’t Serial Masters or Specialists. For Sybils, Plate Spinners, and all the other Cyclical Scanners in between, it can be hard to have anything mastered on our lists. If you can’t find the time, Sher says to at least adopt the attitude of mastery, or giving something your all while you’re in it. I agree with that whole-heartedly.

Other Kinds of Scanners

Now we come to the Jack-of-All-Trades, a term many people have come to hate before they learn to embrace their multipotentiality. A Jack might have all manner of degrees and certificates, be adept at just about anything they try and feel they haven’t ever had a real passion for anything. A Jack may differ than other Scanners because they haven’t really pinpointed what they’re passionate about, where many other Scanners are concerned because there’s too much they’re passionate about! Sher’s advice for Jacks – keep doing what you’re doing. You may stumble across your passion or an amazing career, but straight-lacing yourself into one is definitely not the way to go.

Lastly, we have the Wanderer, someone who may appear on the surface much like a Jack, but rather than worrying about having a plan in life and failing to meet it, Wanderers are happy to drift between interests, wherever the winds may blow them. Sher really encourages the use of the Daybook here so Wanderers can understand the theme or overall direction of their wanderings.

These are just brief summations; if you recognized yourself at once, awesome! If not, read through each chapter to see what resonates with you. Sher often asks questions to help guide the reader to deeper understanding. There are a few more types I didn’t mention, mostly for brevity, so definitely check out the book for more information.

Careers and Life Models

One of the best things about this book is the sheer (ha, Sher) amount of information in it. The first section deals with the idea of Scanners as a whole subject, which is great if you’re still not sure you are one.

But the second section, where she talks about all the kinds of Scanners, gets really good. She gives an overview, shares stories of people who have struggled and overcome their own brand of Scanner-hood, and then gives models. There are various models like the Teacher Life Model, the Odysseus Life Model, the Umbrella Model, and more. Each type has a recommended list of life models they can choose from and specific instructions on how to apply their uniqueness to it.

It’s like a roadmap for your life! This is great for someone like me who has always worried about inserting my interests into my career or just doesn’t realize there all these options for how to live life.

For me, I had huge problems all my life about the idea of a career. I fought against the idea of an office job tooth-and-nail. I fought against being a teacher until the rest of my life looked me in the eyes and I had to pick something, and just then teaching didn’t look so bad.

But the worst thought of all was doing the same thing for the rest of my life…and it might not be the right thing! Searching for the “one” career that would suit me as passionately as many search for the lifelong, single soulmate, I went from interest to interest, getting increasingly fed up until I finally came to a place of despair over the rest of my life. I didn’t trust myself anymore. I thought I had no guts to find the right job and stick with it. I thought that everyone else must feel like me about their chosen profession, but had somehow muscled through the burnout and kept on doing something they hated while more interesting things flew by.

No, I’m just a Scanner. You’re a Scanner, if you’ve had this same problem. A career, as defined by tradition, probably won’t do. Your life won’t look like the traditional life. People will ask, coyly at first, then with more worry as you get older, when you’re going to settle down, stop moving about, stop changing jobs, get a real job, or any job. And each remark will be a chip in your self-worth, a small indictment that you aren’t as human, as hardworking, as ethical, as successful, as whatever as the idea of a worker is. You, and I, will have to fight this flaking of value every day, every time our interests change, and it will be very hard some days, when your friends are getting promotions and moving up and making a lot more money and seem really happy, and you are stuck wondering why you can’t just suck it up and do that.

I’m getting down just thinking like that. That view of life is not true. It’s not. We are not like that. We are not more valuable, or less. We are different. There are a lot of us, some hiding in those real jobs, and some not. We live differently. And that is not wrong. I tell myself this all the time. It is not wrong.

And Sher’s models for different career types was totally eye-opening. It’s like knowing someone invented a doorknob. I mean, hello, of course, that’s so obvious! But I never thought of it! 

Personal Experience

One thing that makes many Scanners uneasy about themselves is how often they fail to see through a hobby or project to the end.

I found this to be true in my own case. I got into woodworking hardcore for a couple of weeks, looking up videos and reading books, and was finally able to get the tools around Christmas. I was over the moon about the neat roll-up of carving tools, and the long bit of balsa to carve. Maybe it wasn’t balsa – that stuff is soft. Anyway. I had my stuff, I was all ready to go, and off I went. To carve…half a duck. Yeah, just half. Then I was done. Love affair over, and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I threw the wood away after a while and sold the tools in a garage sale, I think.

I was ashamed about that for a while, and I wondered as I was reading Sher’s book, what was my reward then? Did I psyche myself out by thinking too much of the finished project? Did I get my satisfaction from the videos, the books, the planned projects, and the brief bit of tactile play? What then, was the real reward? Perhaps just knowing that I had done it. The knowledge that I had turned a piece of wood in my hands and made those cuts at the right angle, according to the books.

If I had to say, I think my reward is often vision; planning things, imagining the possibilities, picturing a life with whatever in it. It might not always be vision; it could be beauty, experience, sensation, creation, expression…but whatever I get out of something, I don’t feel guilty anymore about not “finishing” according to someone else’s idea of what finishing looks like. I call my woodworking a success where most people wouldn’t. But I won’t let them judge.

Finally, Check Your Feelings

Sher makes a point to remind Scanners to check their feelings regularly. Since most of our interests stem from passion, and that passion and subsequent lack of passion often fuel guilt, she says it’s important to figure out how we feel about things and to validate those feelings.

I love this idea (I did a whole “how do I want to feel” course courtesy of Danielle LaPorte). I think for Scanners, we fluctuate between so many emotions, so many ups and downs, that we start to put aside our feelings for the sake of loyalty or duty or being grown-up; and that’s a recipe for disaster and heartache.

If you’re hurting, say “ouch.” If you’re in love with something, be in love with it. If the interest wanes, be grateful to it and let it go (this is for interests, mind; Sher does point out that some things in our lives require commitment through tough times – family, health, etc.).

Guilt

A feeling many Scanners deal with regularly is guilt. Guilty because they can’t settle. Guilty because they can’t stick something out or hold down one job. Guilty because they spent so much money on a new hobby only to lose all interest after a couple of weeks (hello). Guilty because they didn’t see a new hobby through to the end (didn’t carve anything to keep).

Guilt is terrible. Guilt is the feeling that we have failed in some way; against someone’s expectations, against our morals, against the image we have of ourselves. It’s also wrong, in most of the above cases. It’s the same class of guilt we get when we choose a job or loved one our family doesn’t approve of. It hurts, but ultimately it’s our choice, and to go with others’ desires would make us miserable. Objectively, we know that to be the case. Subjectively, it can be devastatingly hard to go against the flow.

Many creative people struggle with this. It’s a classic stereotype that artists must rail against parents to fulfill their dreams, or bankers must rail against artistic parents to work on Wall Street.

Watch out for guilt. Watch out for feeling that there is a “correct” and “best” way to live your life, as funneled to you by parents, friends, society, or your ideas. Go in the direction of your interests without guilt.

Refuse to Choose has a lot more to offer. It’s a dense book packed with practical advice on following up on dreams. She talks about backward flow charts and team meetings to brainstorm ideas, how to find the common theme of seemingly disparate ideas, and way, way more. I can’t recommend it enough. I mean, I just wrote a three-thousand-word review of it.

Sher’s book is like a big hug for Scanners. It’s a huge affirmation of what you are, how you live your life, and it has a lot of practical advice too. I highly recommend it to anyone who suspects they might be a multipotentialite or needs clarification or just wants some really fun ideas on what to do next!

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*Multipotentialite is the word I first heard to understand the term, so that’s what I use when I feel like I need to be official about it. Different people use different words. I’ve heard multipod as well, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, and as Sher uses in her book, Scanner.

**I talk more about what Multipotentialiates are, the stigma around them, and how awful it can be living life thinking there’s something wrong with you here.

***Photo from the Barnes & Noble website.

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