On being a “scanner” personality

Refusing to choose one single activity

One of the most important mental shifts I have experienced in the last year was reading a book by US author Barbara Sher called “Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love”.

I came across it after a friend liked a review on Facebook and it sounded intriguing.

Essentially, the book is about a personality type that Sher calls “scanners”. Scanners are people who like to explore everything, try out many different careers and, as the title suggests, who “refuse to choose”.

A scanner type personality has a hard time focusing on one single occupation, hobby or career. There are too many interesting other choices! Scanners often start with one activity, only to lose interest in it after a short time. This has nothing to do with ADHS (attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome).

People suffering from ADHS can’t concentrate on a single thing while they are doing it.

Scanners burn for a range of things and pursue them with passion and energy. But they often don’t keep at it for longer than a few days or weeks at a time.

Scanners have the ultimate “fear of missing out” on life. They are equally fascinated by quantum physics, ancient Roman societies, obscure languages, and developments in web technology. scanners would like to do everything at once or, at least do everything at least once.

I should know, I find myself to be this exact type of person. Reading the book introduced a powerful mental model, even though it sounds counter-intuitive and counter-”everything others have been telling you”.

Sher states that Scanners excel at starting and learning. They derive pleasure from finding out how things work. They love planning, thinking, juggling ideas.

My main takeaway from this book is: “you have no obligation to finish every single thing you start”.

But wait, isn’t this the opposite of “done is better than perfect”, “fail forward”, “finish early and often”?

Yes and no.

Yes, because Scanners collect unfinished projects like others collect shoes.

Offices are full of special books on a wide range of topics. You have software for making music, 3D models, maps and learning Mandarin.

No, because the goal is never mastery of a topic, scanners don’t aim to be masters of what they start. It’s not about completion. It’s about starting.

Unfortunately, scanners are often unhappy with their activities, because the general consensus is “finish what you started”.

It’s a mantra that parents tell their kids, teachers tell their students and it is expected in a professional context. It makes sense if you need to have results. In your job, if you work for others, you work FOR OTHERS. You start and finish FOR OTHERS.

What about yourself? What about the things you do FOR YOURSELF?

At the beginning of the last year, I was unhappy. On the job, I wanted to go home to pursue my interests, but at home, I had little energy left.

Plus, I didn’t know where to start: working on one the many story ideas?
Programming?
Building a startup on the side?
Making music and if so, choose guitar, keyboard, synthesizer program?
Continue on developing a game or the website that I talked about with a friend?
Start a meetup and a new online community for creatives?
Go out and take pictures or start editing the thousands of pictures from the last vacation?

I felt that I needed to finish all the things I started. I felt pressure and negative emotions because if I had started, I needed to finish. That’s what you do, right?

Maybe not.

If you are a scanner like me, enjoying the act of discovery and learning is all the payoff you need from that activity. I had the idea of “you are not allowed to do something unless you invest a lot of time and finish it.”

I have lots of ideas for stories, books, novels: some of them consist of a single sentence, others are worlds full of characters, plot lines, descriptions of surroundings. Maybe none of them will ever be written. That’s OK.

I can now allow myself to think about story ideas that would make great novels without having the need to write it. The act of creating the world and thinking about possibilities gives me enough joy. I do like writing (obviously) and I’m coming back to one story, in particular, adding a few lines every few weeks.

Ultimately, I’m now much more at ease with my ideas.

I have a red book called my project book, into which I just write my ideas. I think about them as long and hard as I like, sometimes it’s a few sentences, sometimes it’s 2 pages of dense text.

The ideas, projects, and visions are there. My work is done, I have no obligation to ever finish them, bring them to life or act upon them. I know perfectly well that if I really wanted to see my book sold online or in retail, I would sit down and write it. I have no problem to finish projects — especially not for others.


A different word for scanners are “polymaths” — people who have a variety of interests and knowledge on a range of topics. The idea has come out of style in times where specialization is hailed as the ultimate key. But there is no use ignoring our instincts. If you are a scanner, embrace it. It will make you happier.


As always, thanks for reading. Are you a scanner, too? How do you feel about it? Let me know.