Thursday, October 29, 2009

How to be an eclectic and quit fooling around

Well, yes, I said 'eclectics.'

You and I know we call them/us Scanners, not Eclectics, but Google still thinks that's a piece of equipment so I'm using that term, too, so the multi-talented people with lots of curiosity and a love of learning new things will find this and quit beating themselves up.

In case you're new to this subject, Scanners are people who are interested in so many things they can’t bear to limit themselves to just one. The rest of the world seems united in their opinion of this problem: it must be changed. Everyone knows that if you don’t focus on one thing you’ll never get anywhere. And most people seem pretty sure that if you’re interested in everything and lose interest in most things before you’ve completed them, that you are almost certainly lazy, shallow (ever been called a ‘dilettante?), self-indulgent and afraid of hard work. As a result you are un-deserving of respect unless you change your ways.

And Scanners try. They really do. Almost no Scanner tries to defend himself because they’re convinced that their critics are right. As a result they’re overcome with joy when they become unusually enthusiastic about something, because they’re hoping that this time they’ve finally found The One Right Thing and they’ll never again have to endure the despair of losing interest and inviting scorn again.

And it’s not only the opinions of others that make Scanners unhappy. They fear that they’ll never find what they want, that they’ll never use their abilities in any useful ways or make their contribution and the world will never know they were there. And one part of that is true: if Scanners don’t learn how to handle their unusual love of discovery and fascination with learning, they could waste their often prodigious talents.

But there’s no major in college called ‘Eclecticism’ and no advisors to direct them toward a respectable career so they’re left to float in their condition, unhappily unaware that many people are just like them – and that there isn’t anything at all wrong with any of them.

It’s all been a huge mistake, a temporary fad. There was a time, quite recently, when specialists were considered narrow, and the most admired person was ‘well-rounded.’ Since the days of classical Greece and later, the Renaissance, Liberal Arts, not specialization, were the signed of a learned person. From Aristotle, through Petrarch, Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe down to Ben Franklin, Isadora Duncan and George Plimpton, the love of learning and doing new things was admired, not scorned.

All of that changed very recently in the U.S., so recently that I was in college and remember it very clearly. To students of mating age, majors in philosophy, comparative literature or ‘science’ were admired and students who walked around with slide rules in their pockets were considered narrow, nerdy and otherwise socially undesirable, and the next day you couldn’t get a date unless you did have have a slide rule in your pocket. In fact, you looked like a fighter pilot and an astronaut while everyone else suddenly seemed effete and useless. The Space Race was upon us and everyone in the west was in a panic that the U.S.S.R. would get their satellite orbiting the earth before we did.

They did. Sputnik was visible in the night sky and we redoubled our efforts to become hard and single-minded.

And over night, people with eclectic interests lost status.

Most people don’t remember this. They think that specialists have always been valued over generalists or people with many interests and abilities. So now they criticize Scanners with a kind of certainty that’s based on an event in recent history, not fact.

I got a letter some time ago with this comment:

"My mother-in-law regularly tells me that it is not ability that counts, but stickability. I never know how to answer her."

Before I wrote Refuse To Choose (What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything?) I gathered some interesting stuff on this subject, and went back through my files to dig it up. Truth is, there have been many studies in the past ten years or so that vindicate Scanner behavior. The next few posts will be a brief guide to some very special people who would know exactly how to answer her. I'd like you to hear from three of them in this post.

If you feel foolish because you’re constantly magnetized by mystery instead of applying what you already know, listen to the first one:

"The most beautiful thing is to gaze at a mystery and say why is this here? How does it work? The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."

You'll know his name: Albert Einstein.

You might not know the second person, a scholar in a field most of us haven't studied. Like most Scanners, I always despaired that I would need an endless, laser-like focus and a huge tolerance for tedium to create work that would make me an authority in any field. Then, one day, after buying a book from a shelf an anthropology major had no business visiting, I found E.R. Curtius, a widely renowned scholar who dedicated his life to writing his masterpiece, 'European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages'.

He wrote something that lifts the heart of any Scanner, but unexpected from the pen of a 'dry as dust' scholar. It changed my opinion of scholars forever:

"Through loving and hating, all intuition and knowledge of value is built up…Applied to the method of scholarship, it means a flair for noticing that certain passages in a text are ‘important’—even if it is not yet clear why…The individual traits that matter cannot be sought out, they must flash upon the mind."

If you're a Scanner, you know what he means; you come upon something exciting, important, wonderful, and you run out and tell everyone and find that your listeners aren't nearly as delighted as you are. Until this year, I was only sympathetic, consoling to my fellow Scanners, and irritated at the ignorance and unkindness of people who refuse to be thrilled by their honest, childlike enthusiasm.

But I'm beginning to change my mind. That scolding, bromide-ridden mother in law above may just be mean, but even people who aren't mean often don't understand why you're so excited about your new discovery. I'm starting to see that this isn't really their fault. They don't see what you see, but no one saw what Curtius saw either, until it clicked in his head, and he understood it -- and then explained it to them.

In fact, even bright, curious people might not be enthused by what you find delightful in your travels because what you saw didn't leap off the page for them. But something else did; something that might make you scratch your head in confusion. I'm convinced that everyone has an inner magnet, different from anyone else's magnet, that pulls only relevant things to them like steel shavings, and those things come to form a pattern that not many people can see. Until, that is, you take the time to explain it to them.

Scanners don't have to keep their thrilling discoveries to themselves. No, they just have to grow up (in certain ways) and quit fooling around (in certain other ways). Here's how I believe you should do that.

First comes respect for what interests you. Curtius has given you permission. No more beating up on yourself. You can't explain anything to anyone unless you first respect, as Curtius did, the fact that if something seems 'important' to you, it is.

It is important whether or not you can justify that importance. You have to respect your own enthusiasm, and understand that it's really good, maybe unerring, in its ability to direct you to exactly the material you need to form your own best insights.

It's important that you don't get discouraged when you're not understood. It's not only important, it's irresponsible to allow yourself to feel demoralized when no one knows or cares what you're up to. Too many Scanners have a voice running in their head that belongs to critics, and that voice stops them from trusting their own enthusiasm. Too many Scanners have belittled themselves to me when there wasn't a critic in sight: "So here, again, I get all excited like some kind of 5 year old idiot, and what can I do with it? I wish I'd just grow up and stop fooling around."

You know what? If you've ever thought something like that I have to say that I, too, wish you'd grow up and stop fooling around, though I have a hunch that I mean something very different from what you think.

Scanners are vulnerable, and in the best ways, like kids: they're eager for new knowledge, they love to share, they're rarely competitive. My experience has shown me that most Scanners seem to be extremely kind, never belittling, often protective of other people's feelings. But they're as hurt by criticism and misunderstanding as a child, too.

But I'd like to make a plea that Scanners must grow up, at least enough to understand that people never understand anybody at the beginning of a new venture. If you're an original thinker, like an artist, you're always ahead of your time. But if you can 'grow up,' you'll develop the patience to forego approval at the beginning and honor the importance of what you're discovering.

And if you quit fooling around, you'll understand that you have to stick to your sleuthing as long as it fascinates you, until it yields the reason it was 'important' in the first place. And then you'll have something important to share with the world. And you must share it. You have to try to help the world understand it. That's your obligation.

See, if you're a true Scanner, when your mystery finally takes shape, you're obliged to try to explain it. And, if you're a true Scanner, you have to do it fast, almost the moment you have that Eureka! moment. Because you're not like an inventor or industrialist or gold miner who considers discovery nothing more than a path to success with all its rewards. To a Scanner, the discovery itself is the good part. But as soon as discovery becomes a commonplace to you, you'll move on to something else. And I say you have to wait a minute. You have unfinished work to do before you leave one scene and look for another.

You have to stop fooling around, and take up the challenge of pulling those important findings together and explaining it clearly and patiently to anyone who needs to know about it. (Don't talk to me about experts and credentials and publishers, either. Just start a blog and start writing, like I'm doing right now.)

And when the work of explaining your discovery is done, then you can get on to the next mystery.

If you do this, you'll be in the company of the best people there are, anywhere. Fortunately, some of them write books for us amateurs. They're usually called scientists or artists or mathematicians, but they're more than that because they're as enthusiastic as children about their interests and they want to tell the world what they've found.

Which brings me to the third very special person you should know about. Head over to and watch and listen to some amazing people go up on a stage in front of a thousand people and and enthusiastically talk about the NEATEST stuff they just found out!

I think one of the more delightful and wilder of the bunch, and the best for any Scanner to start with is Clifford Stoll.

He's had some exciting adventures; he's famous for finding KGB spies and stopping them from hacking classified information, but In his talk he explains that these days, things that used to interest him have become boring. "The first time you do something, it's science. The second time it's engineering. Third time you're just a technician. I'm a scientist. Once I do something I want to do something else."

He waves his arms and jumps around and changes the subject and reads notes he wrote on his hand, but he's totally wonderful. And he's not just a genius in a tower, enjoying himself, he's a genius who wants to talk to us.

He says, "If you want to know what the future will bring, don't ask me, don't ask a scientist, or someone who's writing code. Ask an experienced kindergarten teacher. She knows."

He says we should all volunteer to teach kids in school.

Stoll has fun and acts like a kid but he's a grownup and he really isn't fooling around anymore, and he'll tell you how to stop fooling around, too. Not only that, he'll show you how to remain a happy, childlike Scanner at the same time, one who has a delicious time just being conscious.

Check him out.

Be sure to stick around until the end because Stoll says important stuff. The finale is worth waiting for, especially for a Scanner who can't defend your delight with learning new things, and your lack of 'stickability.'

He closes by telling us something he read as a student (actually, it was engraved on a bell in his college campus tower, where he found himself after escaping from a campus riot). I'll write it here, but you really want to hear him say it.

"All truth is one in this light.
May science and religion endeavor here for the steady evolution of mankind,
from darkness to light,
from narrowness to broadmindedness,
from prejudice to tolerance.

It is the voice of Life
which calls us to come and learn."


  1. I am so glad I went to my twitter page today as at 1 PM still in my nightshirt! I am a scanner, for sure, and each and every day I make a promise to stick with something more than I have in the past only to find out that there is something ELSE I want to do, read about and discover! Even though I own, Refuse to Choose, I have stubbornly tried to change myself...only to find, this is who I am and I must come to accept myself. I am a 12 stepper, so I know all about acceptance...your post today has really hit it home (sometimes lightning strikes JUST at the right time!) and I will go about my day with a different attitude. "What will come my way that I want to know more about?" I will embrace it and be glad that I am open to all these new and wondrous experiences and not beat myself up over "not sticking with something!" Heck, I'm choosing to live and be a vibrant entity, aren't I? Thanks so much.
    And by the way, isn't it wonderful that I share your wonderful name? LOL
    All the best,
    Barbara in NJ

  2. Love this site. Your perspectives are right up my alley. Peeked at another one of your sites for a minute....found out you are also a realist, which I definitely am too. Plan on reading all your posts, I think there's a connection there. We even like the same music. I'd love for you to follow me on to see if I'm right about the connection.

  3. I SO remember what you said about how one day it all changed vis-a-vis people respecting liberal arts-type general knowledge and then switching to single-focus geekism. What a sad thing that the space race and our national panic caused that switch.

    But hurray that we don't have to give in to narrow-minded thinking! Thanks, Barbara, for showing us how to "grow up" and be proud of our limitless interests!

    Refuse to choose, indeed!!!

  4. So glad to find these comments. I must subscribe to my own blog -- and remember to peek into gmail!

    Barbara, your post made me very happy. I'm really glad you saw it at the right time. That's my only beef with Twitter (which I mostly love): people have to be looking at the right time. It's impossible to read everyone you're following.

    AKI, I'm heading right over to your blog to take a look. Sorry it took me so long. Yes I am a realist. That and a sense of humor will draw the most wonderful people to you.

    Eileen, you're a wonderful soul. I love hearing from you and thanks for the *great* review you left on! Made me feel like a million bucks.

  5. Just found this article as the result of a Tweet and it has opened my eyes - all my life I have been delighted in knowledge but easily bored - now it seems I am not alone - thank you for your insight. It seems that I too am a scanner.

    It is not only in the US that there was a change from it being seen that being well rounded was good to it being seen as something strange and bad. I have never understood why - it has got to the stage where I feel very much on the periphery of society. Your writings have come at the right time for me as well - thank you.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this Barbara - Clifford Stoll is AMAZING!! I am so glad to have watched that video, he really is an inspiration :)