Anyway, that comment led me to read a couple of books: Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher and The Renaissance Soul, by Margaret Lobenstine. Both books are written for people who are having a hard time building a satisfying life because they have too many interests and/or keep getting bored in jobs. Sher calls then "Scanners" and Lobenstine calls them "Renaissance Souls". Going in, I wasn't sure whether or not I would really categorize myself in this way- after all, I've managed to get a PhD and work for over ten years in the same field. But as I read, I recognized a lot of myself in their descriptions: I had a lot of disparate interests in college (the fact that the University of Chicago "made" me take extensive distribution requirements was one of the things I loved about it) and another way to describe my career arc is that I have continually shifted my focus area as I go along, always looking for the next new challenge. And there is no denying that I have been getting bored in my jobs. My husband has been teasing me about this for years. I go in all gung ho and happy, and then within a year, I'm restless and bored. I am still not sure I'd call myself either a Scanner or a Renaissance Soul (and not just because the names are cheesy), but I found a lot of useful ideas in the books.
The most useful idea for me was Sher's honeybee metaphor. She argues that just like honeybees leave a flower when they have achieved their goal of gathering the nectar, Scanners will leave a project (or job) when they have achieved their goal. The catch is, everyone's goal is different, so to figure out how to arrange your life, you have to figure out what your "nectar" is. This may sound a little trite, but I've found it to be a really powerful way to think about my situation. I think my "nectar" is the satisfaction of having figured something out, but I'm still thinking about this and trying to really pin down what brings me the feeling of satisfaction that I have in my happiest work experiences, and what is gone once I start to get bored. As Lobenstine argues in her book, for some people, a feeling of success is based more on the challenges they have mastered than on more typical measures like money or their place in a corporate ladder. I think I may be one of those people. I certainly like having money, but that is not what makes me feel successful. I had never really thought about what does make me feel successful, beyond being happy. But what makes me happy? One thing is solving hard problems, i.e., mastering challenges.
I also found Lobenstine's idea of having multiple "focal points" in your life to be useful. She argues that Renaissance Souls need to have multiple interests at any one time, but that this can get overwhelming to the point of paralysis, particularly if you have too many interests. She thinks that most people will be happiest if they have four main interests, which may change with time. She calls the collection of interests you are pursuing at any one time your "focal point sampler." She makes an analogy to an ice cream shop, but I see a beer sampler tray in my mind's eye.
|Just because I like the amber, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the porter!|
I have always had multiple interests, so this wasn't a big revelation, but I liked her way of explaining it and normalizing it- she is right that some people view having multiple interests with suspicion. And although I recently came across a Harvard Business Review article that sung the praises of polymaths in the workplace, I have yet to have a job that really allows me to explore lots of different interests. I was hired to do something, and it is fine if I tinker around the edges, but I'd best get my main job done first. So Lobenstine's idea of consciously choosing a set number of interests to focus on is intriguing to me, and I think I will try it.
Both books also had several useful practical ideas, or "tools," as well. I was interested to note that there were some things I was doing already- such as having a notebook in which to capture my ideas. However, I have refined this a bit based on Sher's advice. I had a small notebook that fits in my purse, and I mostly write ideas for posts and other writing projects in that. Sher advocates setting up a "Scanner's Daybook" to capture details of all your possible projects, whether you act on them or not. I liked that idea (but hated the name), so I bought one of my favorite Moleskine notebooks and titled it "Ideas (that I may or may not act upon)." I carry it in my backpack, and like writing ideas for potential projects or businesses that come into my head. Sher is right that it is fun to do this. It is liberating to allow my brain to chase an idea down, instead of just putting it aside as something I'd never pursue. I may never do anything with the ideas in that notebook, but that's not the point. The point is just to allow my brain to stretch itself and explore new ideas.
Lobenstine advocates having a "focal point to do list" where you write the next steps for the focal points you are pursing. I'm a huge fan of lists, so it is not a surprise that I already have something similar. I keep my list in WorkFlowy. Once again, though, the book had some good tweaks that I can apply to my system. For instance, Lobenstine advocates making weekly lists that ensure that you will spend time on each of your focal points, instead of just having one big global list. The idea of writing lists for a specific period of time should have been obvious to me- I use this trick all the time at work. But I had never thought to apply it to my non-work interests. I think this may be because I don't take them seriously enough, and have subconsciously decided that they aren't worthy of inclusion on a more focused to do list. When I bring it out into the open and think about it, though, I don't really believe that only my paid work and essential chores are worthy of my to do list. I will be adopting some of Lobenstine's ideas about having a weekly focal point to do list, but right now I think it may work better to think in terms of months not weeks, so I might change the time scale.
Other "tools" I may try out are the six year plan/calendar that Sher advocates, as a way to convince myself that I really do have time to work on all my projects and some modified version of Sher's "interest index binder" as a way to gather information relevant to projects, even if they aren't what I'm working on at this time. I had already hit on the idea of having a "five year plan," but I like Sher's ideas for mapping things out onto a calendar, to help me visualize the plan and also to keep me motivated when I'm in a patch of time that doesn't have a lot of "fun work."
I was also inspired by various suggestions in both books for how to find time for your projects, and how to arrange your work and life so that you get time to work on the things that interest you. I liked the fact that both authors acknowledge that for some people, their main job will not allow them to pursue enough interests to keep them happy, and so their life plan needs to allow time for other pursuits. They also had ideas for jobs that would provide more flexibility, but to be honest, they didn't have anything I hadn't already thought of there, except for perhaps the idea of trying to get onto the lecture circuit. That one seems a bit farfetched for me, but I guess you never know.
I liked the way both books included the option of keeping your "day job" and using it to finance your other interests. I had originally thought that this would not be a feasible solution for me, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is an option I should consider carefully. After all, I have a pretty darn good "day job" and there are definitely aspects of it I would miss if I were to just walk away and try to do something different. Also, I really like having money. This line of thinking was also reinforced by my recent reading of You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi, which includes his advice that aspiring writers should keep their day job. You can get a taste of his opinion on this subject in this old post from Whatever. (You could in fact find all of the essays in the book on Whatever, if you were patient and clever enough with the search function, but frankly, at $5 for the Kindle edition, I recommend just buying the book if you're interested.) Although he is writing abut writers, I think the advice is equally sound for a lot of other potential careers.
Sher has some good ideas for how to extend your interest in your day job, too. I particularly liked her suggestions about including teaching your area of expertise in your work plan. I am now seriously considering the idea of trying to write a book about how I manage projects. Even if the book never found much of an audience, writing it would be a new challenge. Also, I'd need to really break down my project management methods, which would probably make some of my more mundane tasks at work a little more interesting again.
I haven't figured a grand plan for my life out yet- I still have several different ideas for what I might do bouncing around in my head. To be honest, I may never come to "the" answer, because new ideas will always come up. But I have more ideas about how to proceed. I need to keep thinking about what my reward is- i.e., what is the thing I achieve that then makes me "done" with a project or interest? I want to come up with my first "focal point sampler." And my husband and I are talking about some ideas for how I can get some more uninterrupted time to work on my non-work projects. This is a particular challenge for me, because Petunia is at an age where she is very prone to interrupt me if we are both in the house. Therefore, our ideas mostly involve ways for me to get time away from the house and/or get the kids out of the house so I can get some time to concentrate. Of course, I have to balance those ideas with the fact that I also want time with my kids. Lobenstine has some interesting suggestions for how to ensure you get balance, though, which are helping me as I think about how to arrange my time. For instance, I could consider "parenting" one of the focal points on my sampler, and budget in time for that as well as my other interests. It sounds very regimented, but her suggestions actually are geared towards finding ways to organize time that also provide flexibility.
I think that if I do these things, I will be better situated to formulate a plan for any career changes I decide to make. I'm currently leaning towards going out on my own as a consultant/contractor in my current field, and using the flexibility that affords to allow me to devote enough time to one of my other interests to see if I can found a company out of it. For a variety of reasons, though, I don't think I'll want to do that for several more years- maybe not even for five years or more. In the meantime, I need to explore my interests, both for my own sanity and to help me choose an interest that could be the basis of a company. Reading these books has helped me see that there are many different ways I might stave off boredom, and not all of them require a drastic overhaul of my life. Even if I don't ever leave my "day job," I can still get what I need to be happy, and that is what matters most to me.
What do you think of the Scanner/Renaissance Soul formulation? Is it useful to make a distinction between people who have a lot of interests and people who like to specialize? Which type are you? If you are a "Scanner," do the ideas I've described in this post sound useful to you? Let me know what you think about those questions, and anything else from the post, in the comments.