In Barbara Sher’s book I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was, a chapter about “Divers and Scanners” made lightbulbs go off in my mind.
Some people are “Divers” – they have a dominant passion and love to learn more and more about it to deepen and sharpen their expertise. Divers might spend a lifetime in one field, becoming ever more expert in narrower areas (not just physician but surgeon; not just surgeon but heart surgeon; not just heart surgeon but aorta replacement surgeon).
If you’re happy being completely absorbed by one field, Barbara Sher would call you a Diver. Examples of Divers are professional musicians, scientists, mathematicians, athletes and accountants. Our North American culture tends to admire Divers – the specialized experts.
Other people are Scanners – interested in many things and reluctant to settle into one field. Scanners love to read and write, fix and invent things, play hockey and learn tai chi, design projects and businesses, meditate and sing. Did you notice the word “and” rather than “or”? Scanners don’t love to do one thing or the other; they love to do them all. Scanners might be fascinated to learn how to play bridge or paint a house but once they’re good at it, might never do it again.
Scanners often become experts in several fields. They study deeply and do total immersion – for a while. Then one day they’re bored and look for what else is out there. One famous Scanner was Leonardo da Vinci – artist, scientist and inventor of entire new fields. Our North American culture is often less impressed with Scanners. Shouldn’t they settle down to one career path or passion?
As I read, I realized I was a Scanner. I wanted to be a “generalist specialist” – knowledgeable about many things but not locked into any of them. I looked at my career(s): typist and layout artist; teacher; community social services manager; organizational consultant. Starting a project-based business was perfect because I could learn about different things and meet different kinds of people without having to change employers!
A few days ago I thought about Divers and Scanners as I watched a Tedx talk, “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling” by Emily Wapnick. What Barbara Sher called Scanners, Emily Wapnick called “Multi-potentialites” – people with many interests and creative pursuits. She pointed out that, from an early age, people ask us, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as if there would be just one thing. Sometimes people see “multi-potentiality” as a limitation or affliction to be overcome. She sees three strengths.
- Idea synthesis – because multi-potentialites dive into multiple fields, they can sometimes see connections and patterns that are less obvious to those who remain in one field or environment.
- Rapid learning – when multi-potentialites get interested in something they immerse themselves in it. They’re used to being beginners so willing to try new things. Many skills are transferable across disciplines and they bring everything they’ve learned to new areas, so they’re rarely starting from scratch.
- Adaptability – multi-potentialites are usually able to change into whatever is needed in a situation. Fast Company magazine says adaptability is the most important skill to develop in the 21st century as the world changes quickly and unpredictably.
Research suggests that “diver” or “scanner” is not something we learn; we are hard-wired with one or the other tendency. The world needs all of us – divers and scanners; deep specialists and broad generalists. Some of the best teams are made up of a diver and scanner pair. The diver can dive in deep and implement ideas while the scanner has a breadth of knowledge and perspective to see other possibilities.
The key point? Whichever we are, we will be happier if we do everything in our power to align our careers and our lives with our natural inner wiring. Whichever we are, we will also be happier if we seek out and learn to work with and appreciate those who are not like us. The world needs all of us, and we need each other.