I have a problem. It’s a problem that’s been with me my whole life. It never had an adequate name but it was given various titles so as to try and pin it down: ADD, hyperactive, jack of all trades, short attention span, wild imagination. As a child I was interested in everything. I played cricket, played shops, had trucks, loved dinosaurs, had dolls, adored science kits, I did athletics, wrote stories, sung all of the time, read like the book was burning up in my hands, pulled things apart to see how they worked then put them back together, cooked up atrocities of gastronomy and was constantly moving from one thing to another leaving a trail of chaos in my wake. It wasn’t that I was purposely being messy; I was just so focused on what I was doing at that very moment that nothing else mattered. And then, like a switch being flipped inside a mechanical brain, the interest would dissolve and I’d be off somewhere else: on the roof watching clouds, up a tree pretending to be a pixie, painfully trying to master roller skates (something I never managed to do).
As I got older I learnt that I should clean up my messes (although I still struggle with that) but the desire to know everything and to do everything all at once never faded. I have many passions and even more interests but they never hold me long enough for me to master anything. That being said I studied both music and science and I have accreditation in both. But those endeavours were a constant struggle and now, having a newly completed medical science degree against my name representing three years of focus fighting, stress, tears and mad lab skills, I find that I don’t want to work in medical science one bit. I’m still interested in it, I enjoy teaching people about science and I love reading about new discoveries. But the thought of working in a lab for the rest of my life, doing the same thing over and over, causes me to wrinkle up my nose in disgust. I’ve spent three years in and out of labs, lectures and seminars and I’ve had enough.
I envy those who find a career or a job the like and can do it all day, every day, perfecting their knowledge for the whole of their life. I have trouble staying on topic for more than an hour sometimes. I try and I have the best of intentions but once the interest flies away it’s almost impossible for me to refocus my attention. But when it’s held I could go days or weeks or even longer so enthralled in one topic it borders on obsessive.
So when I recently came across the idea of a Scanner (or Renaissance Soul) I was very excited. Not only did I have something to describe how I think, but I also found out that other people feel and act the same way. These communities of people understand that a sometimes fleeting attention span and a bajillion different interests isn’t necessarily a lazy or shallow or stupid mind, it’s just another way of thinking. It seems some people were just wired in such a way that would make other else cringe at the chaos. But that’s ok! Spice of life and all that jazz.
The message I was getting from these communities and from books such as Margaret Lobenstine‘s The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People With Too Many Passions to Pick Just One is that focus is required to benefit from this trait (otherwise you do indeed become listless and unproductive). I found that most of the books and blogs written on the topic have suggestions for taking the unbridled curiosity of a renaissance soul and focusing its attention so as to obtain benefit in everyday life. In an ideal world, I’d have so many different things that I could instantly access and discard so as to always be focused and entertained. But I’d never achieve anything and, for me, being able to achieve something with what I’m doing is very important.
But while it may seem all over the place, I wouldn’t trade being a Scanner for anything – I can talk to anyone about anything because I’m legitimately interested in everything. I love people and in everything I do I look for ways of providing benefit to people or making them happy and being all over the place can actually be a blessing sometimes. Some don’t understand how I can be so ‘all over the place’ (as many of my teachers and lecturers have put it) but I don’t understand how people can be so focused on a limited number of things. To me it doesn’t offer enough to feed my curiosity for life and I feel limited (although there is of course a limit on how all of the place you can be!). But that’s just the beauty of humanity and one of the delicious differences between us all. It may be a stupid idea and a silly name – it probably is – but I’ve never shied away from a silly thing in my life because silly things often provide a great deal of learning.
I’d be very happy to hear from other people on this. Are you Scanner or do you have fixed interests? If you’re a Scanner, how do you curb your curiosity without feeling boxed in? If you’re not, how do you sustain your interest in the topics you enjoy? The inspiration for the Renaissance Soul stems from the idea of the ‘Renaissance Man’, particularly from polymaths such as Aristotle, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and so on. I certainly don’t fall into their category of genius. These were men who had expertise in many areas – due to my dyslexic brain I have trouble retaining all the finer details I absorb. Hell, I often have trouble enough remembering how old I am. Additionally, societal convention has moved towards to the idea of specialisation rather than generalisation and it is therefore encouraged to be good at one particular thing. However, of late it seems as though we are rediscovering that having a broad knowledge base can be a beneficial trait.
So the next time you see someone bouncing around trying to find their passions don’t automatically think that they’re slackers or lost causes. They may very well be slackers or lost causes, but they may also be Scanners trying to understand the world around them. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not, an idea which I think needs to be turned around. Let’s try and clear up some misconceptions not only regarding scanners but regarding everyone who ever tried to add another string (or five) to their bow.
As Robert A. Heinlein said: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”