5: Refuse to Choose

Refuse to Choose! : A Revolutionary Program for Doing All That You LoveRefuse to Choose! : A Revolutionary Program for Doing All That You Love by Barbara Sher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL.

Read in January 2013.

View all my reviews

I saw this mentioned The Clutter Museum:

One of my favorite career-finding books, and one I recommend regularly to my students, is Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose. In it, she describes ‘scanners,’ bright people who are simultaneously and/or serially interested in diverse and sometimes divergent subjects and careers.

and for obvious reasons was intrigued.

Sher’s opening anecdote is about reading university course descriptions, wanting to take everything—and her sadness on realizing she couldn’t:

The conventional wisdom was overwhelming and seemed indisputable: If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll always be a master of none. You’ll become a dilettante, a dabbler, a superficial person—and you’ll never have a decent career. Suddenly, a scanner who all through school might have been seen as an enthusiastic learner had now become a failure. (6)

She describes different types of scanners. I was skimming along, identifying with a characteristic here and there, when I reached the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type, which is so me, it’s ridiculous (right down to the detail that jacks don’t have the clutter problem that other scanners do). Some highlights:

  • do you have more certificates and degrees that most people—all in different disciplines? *cough*
  • are you good at just about everything you try? / have you ever thought your problem would be solved if you were good at only one thing?
  • many things come easily to you so you sometimes underestimate their value
  • you “have often complained that being good at almost everything isn’t the same as being great at one thing.” (202) !! I say this all the time.

Jacks have so much talent, but that’s not all they have—they are the ones who show up and deliver. They do the job. With all these qualities, they should be hugely successful in business or the arts or some profession. But they rarely are. (203)


Almost without exception, this type of scanner is gifted at something you don’t find on career lists: Catching the ball in a team situation. Bailing out the other players. Saving the day. (205)

She describes jacks as ‘rescuers.’

If you don’t have the needed skills, you’ll learn them fast, because you know how to learn. (206)

Yep. It’s always driven me nuts how job descriptions say stuff like ‘must be familiar with X’ or ‘must know how to use Y program’ b/c even if I’ve never done X or used Y, I can figure it out in like, a day. So no big deal.

She suggests scanners are best suited for an ‘umbrella career,’ i.e. one that allows you to do many of the things you enjoy—like freelance writer or researcher. heh 🙂 Indeed.

Throughout the book there are strategies for dealing with being a scanner. A lot of these are things I already do in my own way. The central one is keeping a ‘scanner daybook’—essentially a writer’s notebook—where you write all your random brilliant ideas 😉 down so you’re not overwhelmed/distracted by them.

While much of the book was a confirmation of stuff I already know, it’s always nice to get validation that you are not the only one, that you are a recognized type! Being a unique snowflake is overrated. Plus, now I have this post I can refer people to when they want to know what’s up with all those degrees. I can’t help it! I’m a jack-of-all-trades!

Immediately after finishing Refuse to Choose, I read this essay by Michael Dirda. Scanner alert!

When I talk to friends and editors about possible projects, especially about projects that might come with a significant cash advance, they usually suggest a biography. Sometimes I’m tempted, but the prospect of spending years researching and writing about someone else’s life offends my vanity. I don’t want to submerge myself in another man or woman’s existence, I want to write about me, about the books and writers that I like. And I want to be able to finish any commitment within a year at best, so that I can get on to something else. I have, it would seem, the temperament of a reporter—always intensely interested in a subject for a short while, but soon ready to move on to the next assignment.