Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scanning My Renaisance Soul

Awhile back, I wrote about how I've been feeling restless at work, and how I had realized that was because I was bored. In the comments, caro pointed me to the books by Barbara Sher, and referenced someone's blog post on the topic of scanners vs. deep-divers. I'm so glad she did! This is one of the great things about blogging- I get the benefit of all of your ideas and wisdom.

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.

34 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I love this post, and totally need to read those books. I am so totally a scanner. In fact I just had to explain to a hiring manager why I don't want to work on designing features for a specific product and why I prefer overall project management, and it's totally because I like the big-picture view a lot better. My favorite jobs are where I get to learn about the whole product, not just the part that's "mine".

    I do already make lists for non-work related stuff (crafty and general house chores) because otherwise it would never get done. Especially the crafty stuff because I need to prioritize the million things I want to work on.

    I have a ton of Moleskines as well :)

    I just started the practice of "morning pages" today, from The Artist's Way, which is where you write everything that comes into your head for about 3 pages each day. From that you might get to-dos, future project ideas, or just a clear head to start your day. It's kind of cool. And of course I'm doing that in a Moleskine as well :) I have a thing for paper products.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it.

      Moleskines rule. I love blank notebooks, and have a bunch of different ones I've gotten as gifts. My current "post ideas/drafts" book that I use at home when I want to write but can't get the computer out because the kids will demand to see Elmos or something, for instance, is a beautiful one. But if I'm buying one, it is a Moleskine.

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    2. the milliner7:06 PM

      Morning pages are great. It's been a while since I've done them, but they're such a great way to get some clarity - weather it's for your ideas, if you're stuck in some area, etc.

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  2. Very interesting post. I'm a scanner on a small scale, that is when it comes to my work, which is academic science. I've really struggled with this in my career, because there's no doubt, there have been studies, anecdotes, that specializing is a key to success in science. But I find it all so interesting, and I just love to dive into some relatively new branch of my field and learn about the latest questions and try to solve them. And I do have about four focal points within my research. I often have to stop myself from delving into new areas so I can focus on 'just' these four. So far I've managed reasonably well with this model. Who knows, I may have been a superstar if I'd focused more, but on the positive side, I love that I have a job where I have the freedom to scan in this way at least to some extent. But I think I should read these books for ideas on how to manage this 'micro-scanning' tendency.

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    1. Or maybe you're going to have a massive breakthrough precisely because you've pursued so many different topics....

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  3. interesting to try to translate into academia, particularly the post tenure "slump." With the "fixed parameters" of a professorship it is a little harder to find ways to "move on," but I think it is do-able. I set out a new goal for myself during this sabbatical because I realized that without tenure hanging over me I was going to have a hard time being focused and motivated. The same thing happened after I filed the dis.

    Am I the only one who reads polymath as "many maths" :)

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    1. It is funny, I have often wondered if I'd have less trouble with this if I'd stayed in academia, because I could keep branching out to new areas of research. Of course, I'd have to get funding for them. So maybe it would be just as hard.

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  4. I will have to forward this to DH.

    In terms of my career and academia... I don't think I've been this busy since my last year of graduate school. I have so much going on it is crazy. No time to slump. Though today I may need more caffeine than what's in chocolate.

    Polymath does mean many maths. Math just encompasses everything. :)

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    1. I wish I could tell your DH which of the two books to read, but I actually found I got different things out of each. There was a lot of overlap, too, though.

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  5. Here's my epiphany after reading this post: I have spent many years exploring interests thinking that I had not really figured out what I want from life. But perhaps jumping around from interest to interest IS what I want.

    I'd better ponder that for six months until a new theory comes along. :)

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    1. I have always held fast to the idea that finding out about stuff I DON'T like is just as important as what I do, so I know what to avoid :)

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    2. It was a bit of an epiphany for me to read about Sher's problem with choosing a major. I remember feeling similar things when I'd look at course catalogs and realize how many cool sounding classes I'd never get to take.

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    3. @Cloud - I have two majors and two minors as a result. Luckily, I went to a very small college, so the offerings were less overwhelmingly diverse than they would have been at a big university. I might have had a meltdown!

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  6. Great post! (I know I say that all the time, and I mean it!) "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."

    Me neither, and honestly, I think I might get kind of bummed out if I did have a Grand Life Plan, due to my personality - I like to do everything I plan to do. In an obsessive way. Like - I have to complete this, even if I don't love it because I told myself I would! So I am very careful about my plans, because sometimes they can fence me in. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone but me. I love the smaller plans that have a near-term endpoint.

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    1. Interesting! That is the opposite of what most people struggle with.

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  7. This post reminds of Stephen Covey's book ~ The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in which he promotes the idea of planning out of the various "roles" in one's life. My memory is that planning out of roles is a way to make certain you aren't "all work and no play", for example. So, perhaps instead of focusing on making the work situation more satisfying it may be a matter of amping up some other "role" in your life.

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    1. I've never read that book. I have a completely unfair knee-jerk negative reaction to it, and I have no idea why. I've been resistant to reading self-help books in general, but obviously I'm getting over that. Maybe I'll check Covey's stuff out.

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  8. The great thing about being a writer (as a career) is that I get to scan stuff for an article...then move on. Scan for a book, deal with it for 2 years...then move on. One of the reasons I've always worked for myself is I didn't want to be a beat reporter covering one thing. Of course, newspapers/magazines are so thinly staffed these days that reporters have be polymaths anyway (reporters of many maths? As most reporters can't do math this is kind of a funny thought).

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    1. That is indeed one of the things that appeals to me about the idea of being a writer, when I'm daydreaming about other potential jobs.

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  9. I have never heard of Sher but really like the ideas in your post. I tend to gather info and clip articles for future projects/random ideas like crazy but not knowing what to do with these, I end up dumping them.

    I don't distrust those with many interests but I have noticed that friends/family like this tend to go from one unfinished project to another. Of course that's not saying the only success is completion of a project -- sometimes the challenge/fun is in the process itself. I am more of a one (or two) main interest kind of person and I still don't find the time to do much outside of my day job and family!

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    1. The books have lots of ideas about how to finish projects, too. That isn't my problem, though- I'm a project manager, after all. I'm good at finishing projects!

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  10. This post really resonated with me. Anytime I go into classes and tell them about my education/work history, I talk about my multiple interests and how I bounced around a lot (from music to astronomy to sociology and back again). I usually end by saying "And I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and that's fun for me!".

    Funny, though, during my PhD when I was DYING to do something different, I felt so guilty for having outside interests and wanting to pursue them. I thought thinking like that (wanting to leave to do something else) make me lazy, unreliable, or a quitter. Clearly, though, I'm not the only one going through life like this.

    I'll have to check those books out!

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    1. Yes, it sounds like you fit the Scanner/Renaissance Soul definition really well. If you do read them, come back and tell me what you think! (Or post it on your blog.)

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  11. I'm so glad you got some good ideas from that book! And this post was so interesting to me -- reminded me of a few ideas that struck me from Sher's book when I read it a few years ago ... things I could stand to revisit now.

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    1. I'm so glad you pointed me to it! Thanks.

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  12. the milliner7:21 PM

    "Ideas (that I may or may not act upon)."

    I love the title of your ideas book! Just may have to, um, borrow that :). It's a good reminder to me that some ideas are just supposed to be ideas and that they won't go further than that. I tend to think about all of my ideas I *haven't* put into action and it makes me feel like I haven't accomplished anything.

    Honestly, I think I'm kind of both a scanner and a deep-diver. Just depends on the subject. What I'm finding lately is that people (especially in a work situation) are bent on fencing me in to a particular role. They have a hard time understanding that I could have equal interests (and abilities I might add) in multiple areas. They need me to be either/or, not both or many, and I find that to be very limiting.

    One thing I've figured out (at least for now) is that I don't think I can have a day job who's sole function is to finance my interests/life. It feels crushing to me to spend so many hours a day in a job that does not relate to my interests and passion. I totally get how that can work for some people. But I know for me that I just can't make the separation.

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    1. I don't think I could have a job that didn't interest me at all, either. But I'm starting to think that I can stand a job that isn't always the "starring" interest in my life, if you know what I mean. But I haven't really sorted that out yet.

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    2. We were just talking about this at work today - the idea of seeking "inspiration" from your work and the view that many (most?) people don't feel that way. I also couldn't do something I didn't find interesting and fun just for the money.

      I know this because I have done it before and honestly there is no amount of $ that is worth it for me.

      My usually very practical and fiscally conservative husband found out the same thing and he's definitely NOT a "follow your bliss" kind of guy.

      But I do like the middle ground, where work is interesting and fun, but is not the ONLY Big Thing in one's life :)

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  13. Anonymous8:47 PM

    Thanks for writing this up; it was just what I needed today. I had read the Renaissance book before, and enjoyed it, but had forgotten about it - might be time to check it out again. At the moment I'm not suffering from being bored at work, but have totally overwhelmed myself with trying to go high speed on all fronts at once. Ahem, plans for this week were: learn new huge technical skill at work, start new habit for project managing, sew 2 dresses, go grain free (a huge change to my diet), spend 30 minutes a day studying a foreign language, work out everyday, and read 3 books. Shall I admit I got a bit frazzled? But all these things sound so FUN. The 4 focus areas really appeals to me, as done keeping a list of things to explore (or not). I think my brain needs reassurance that it will get the chance to explore the ideas that excite me, but also needs the calm that comes from limiting the focus area to 4.

    (This is the first time I've commented, so, I'll take the opportunity that I've really enjoyed your blog. As a 32 year old in a technical field, who hopes to have a family someday, and who has gradually gone from assuming I'd become a SAHM to realizing I might want to keep working, it's been really helpful for me to see glimpses of what your life is like,and see topics discussed with thought and grace and subtlety. Thanks.)

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    1. Hi, Anonymous! Welcome to my blog. Thanks for the comment and the nice words. I'm glad you found the post helpful, and that you're liking the blog in general. That is always nice to hear.

      You might find some of the ideas in Sher's book really helpful for how to convince your brain that it will get a chance to explore everything that interests it- just not right this minute!

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  14. Cindy4:50 AM

    I can't tell you how excited I feel to read this and now know that enough people are like me so as to have a name for it! I get weird looks sometimes when I talk about how life is too short to do just one thing for too long.
    I am a math teacher at a community college, and I have been feeling bored/trapped for quite some time. After 10 years of teaching the same classes to students who don't appreciate the subject and likely never will, I am feeling burned out.
    I have so many things that I want to do in life, that I shudder to imagine being at the same school doing the same thing for 30 years like some recent retirees. I keep thinking that teaching is supposed to be an ever-changing adventure, but it really isn't. The roster changes, but the same sorts of students always come through the doors.
    Yet, how do I move past the fact that I have invested so much time into my education and have the student loans still looming? I also keep feeling guilty because I feel like I should appreciate my stable job more. I just do not see how it allows me to set meaningful, personal goals and then work towards meeting them. Student success is really not so much my success as it is their success. At the same time, student failure is in their hands as well.
    Right now, I don't see how I can pursue much else. The stability of tenure and the health insurance are valuable, especially because we have a son who has had/is having multiple, expensive surgeries.
    Maybe reading the book will help. I already make lists for seemingly everything. Not only does it help to organize my mind, but I get pleasure from crossing things off. I have not tried spending time each day doing it, though. My journal writing has fallen by the wayside and really should get resurrected.

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  15. <3 your post !! I am a scanner too and I was so glad to know you are a scanner and a scientist !! :) I am proud of being a scanner but, always had this self doubt coz i want to a scientist..and being a scientist is the specialist's work. Thanx. U made my day :)

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  16. DH is buying a notebook. :)

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    1. I'm having lots of fun with mine! Might even have some good, actionable ideas in it, although that isn't really the point.

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