Sam over at Taking on a World of Words recently revived the weekly WWW, and I love it. Of course, when you’re reading literally four or five books at any given time (no, really, check my Goodreads feed), it can be hard to pick which one to highlight. But I’ll do my best.
WWW works by readers either writing a response to the three questions on their blog and posting the link in Sam’s post comments or simply answering the questions in the comments. Either way, it’s fun and a great way to get book recommendations.
The three questions are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
I’m currently reading Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. I haven’t read a solid, informative nonfiction book in a while, and this one is fascinating. I’ve picked up and put down Pinker’s books in the past, never finding enough time to get through one, and we’ll see how long it takes me on this tome.
In a nutshell, Enlightenment Now considers the world from the point of view of the Enlightenment era values, such as reason, science, and humanism. It decries the popular modern myth of moral and environmental decline in detail, with plenty of charts and graphs to back up Pinker’s arguments.
It’s quite an uplifting book, even to a die-hard optimist like me, who sometimes felt that I was pushing the world uphill with no one to help. Obviously I haven’t finished yet, so I don’t know if he issues any ultimatums while concluding his arguments, but so far it’s been a lot of “hang on, the world isn’t as bad as you, the news, and your parents fear it is.”
Recently, I’ve been on a long Hamish Macbeth spree. Although, not that long, seeing as most of the books are less than two hundred pages. But I’ve read the first twenty in less than a month, which is probably excessive. Ah, who am I kidding. It is definitely not.
I love these books. I started them for a couple reasons. Firstly, I’m writing a mystery (surprise, surprise) and wanted to get a feel for how clues and red herrings were handled. Also, being so short, the story is really just the mystery, which is great for research.
Secondly, I remember watching the TV show way back when, and though, to me, they aren’t anything like the books, they were still cozy and delightful and quirky. And anything set in the Highlands is going to interest me. And no, M.C. Beaton, you do not deter me from wanting to live there with your tales of dark winters and bitterness and strife.
Aside from finishing all the following Macbeth books, I think the next book I’m going to read will be Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I heard someone comment on reading both Harari and Pinker and comparing the two philosophies on life, because apparently Harari is less optimistic than Pinker and a hard determinist. I don’t know at all if that’s true or to what extent, so I’ll be interested to read what he has to say on the human race.
But, knowing me, I’ll probably be reading five more books after this five, so…who knows.
There’s my three! I would love to hear what you’re reading, so drop a comment here or reply to my comment over at Sam’s blog. I’ll be posting a link there as well.
Add Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend to your list of required reading. Do it. I don’t mean to be pushy (I do), but it will change your life.
Let me explain.
Boundaries are what makes us, us. My boundaries make me, me. Your boundaries make you, you.
Boundaries keep in what you want (values, ideals, tastes), and keep out what you don’t want (toxicity, shaming, harmful people/ideas). They do this because they define you.
If you don’t have boundaries, you’re likely exhausted, stressed out, angry, guilted, depressed, or anxious. How do I know? I’ve been all of those things because of my lack of boundaries.
Lack of Boundaries
The authors give many examples of people living with a lack of boundaries. Examples range from taking on projects for coworkers that aren’t your responsibility, keeping a friend who continually makes passive aggressive negative remarks about you, to letting your family guilt you into doing things you don’t want or staying with a partner who repeatedly breaks promises.
Having no boundaries mean you hold yourself responsible for other people’s feelings. You may refuse to spend Thanksgiving with your family and they react badly, either in anger, sadness, or disappointment. A person without boundaries would feel guilty and think that they had caused the emotion.
Now, if you agree with that statement (that you cause that emotion when you do something), you really need to read this book. If you didn’t agree, great! You’re already on your way to having healthy boundaries. Maybe you shook your head over anyone who would feel responsible for anyone else’s reaction.
Well, I did for years. YEARS. Every time someone got upset with my actions, I thought it was MY fault. As though I had the power to control the moods of everyone around me. I became terrified of conflict, a subordinate people-pleaser, and a very secretive person, in that I rarely voiced any opinion that I knew my friends or family wouldn’t agree with.
You get used to it though. It’s not like I felt bad all the time, or I would have changed. One thing I’ve learned in therapy is that we do things for a good reason (or what our brains think is a good reason). Depression, anxiety, denial; these all do what they’re meant to and protect us from a painful emotion. The problem though isn’t the emotion. (Read more about that in my review of Emotional Agility.)
The problem is that you cannot control other people. You only control yourself. You make choices, and people will react. Now reverse this. Other people are not responsible for your emotions either. That customer yelled at you and you got furious? Justified? Probably. But did you have to? No. You have great power over yourself. You can choose to respond calmly. This does not mean becoming a doormat. Personally, in that instance, what I would ideally like to do is firmly tell the person that I won’t deal with them if they treat me in a rude manner, and either ask them to leave or seek a manager. I wouldn’t allow it, but I wouldn’t let myself get out of control either.
Let’s say your partner breaks their promise to stay on budget for the fifth time in a week. You’ve had it, and you get angry, hurt, and ready to leave them once and for all. They made you so angry. Justified? Probably. But again, you have power over yourself. You can get angry, cry, storm out and never see them again, or you can have that serious and painful conversation and let them know that until they get themselves straightened out, you won’t be seeing them, and until they can prove they’ve made lasting change, you two are over.
The above are all examples of relationships with poorly defined or absent boundaries. So what do good ones look like?
A healthy boundary is like a fence with a gate. First, let’s look at the fence. A fence defines property, and in this case, it’s defining what is our responsibility and what is not our responsibility. Our actions and values are ours – your actions, reactions, thoughts, opinions, and ideas are yours. It’s important to have that fence to make sure we know when someone is overstepping boundaries with us, as in the case of a coworker asking another coworker to do something for them even when they aren’t able to.
But a good boundary must have a gate. It must be able to let in good things and let bad things out. Many people have very good fences with no gates, and keep themselves locked up tightly, becoming stubborn, rude, abrasive and lonely as they struggle to let anyone or anything in.
Other people have no fence at all and allow every person to dictate what they need to do and what to believe and how to act, effectively taking over that person’s property and soul.
A healthy boundary is telling your mother she can’t keep spoiling your children by letting them do things they aren’t allowed to at home (and not feeling guilty when she gets hurt by this). A healthy boundary is not letting a date kiss you even if they’ve paid for dinner and you feel you “owe” them something (warning; you don’t owe anyone anything).
There are lots of examples of good boundaries, and the book gives very clear and practical guidelines on how to establish and maintain good boundaries.
I learned a lot of things over my year of building boundaries. One of the first things I learned was to say no. It was really hard. I’m a people pleaser, and also an INFJ/HSP, which means conflict, even among other people, is physically painful for me. I always said yes, let people have their own way, and did what other people wanted because I didn’t want to rock the boat into a potential dive.
I accepted requests from my boss to edit things or make things that were not in my job description even when I was overwhelmed because I didn’t know I could say no to my boss. I didn’t know I could have a calm conversation about priorities and my needs in the workplace.
I let men touch me when dating when I wasn’t comfortable with it and felt guilty when I did say something because I felt like I owed them something for taking me out.
I let friends influence me in negative ways because I was too afraid of losing them to point out how uncomfortable their choices and conversation made me.
Learning to say no has been hard. Another thing the book mentions is how often people swing to an extreme of defiance when they start building boundaries. For people who’ve continually denied themselves for other people, the backlash can cause a swing to the other extreme of always saying no, and this is okay. You need to go through this process of ridding yourself of the bad boundaries before you can learn to discriminate what should be coming through your gate.
I’m still in the defiant mode, saying no a lot just to practice. I’m okay with this, because I still often find myself feeling responsible for how people react to my decisions.
It’s an ongoing process, and I’m sure it is for most people, but this book was another one that really changed how I looked at my life. I came to realize that I had no healthy boundaries and that I needed to start on a path to making them.
I encourage you to read the book. This felt like a really short review simply because the book is so dense with good stuff, and there was no way I could cover everything, but I hope I’ve given you some motivation to evaluate your own boundaries.
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling responsible for other people’s emotions or feeling out of control of your own life, or like you aren’t allowed to make your own decisions, please read this book!
If you asked me what my favorite fictional world was, the world I’d most want to live in, the people I’d most want to show up at my door, the world I enjoy the most and spend the most time thinking about, it would be the Discworld, a fantasy series by Terry Pratchett.
It seems like it’s not as well-known as it should be. Maybe that’s because I live in America. Or maybe it’s because I don’t have friends who read like I do. Or maybe I just had my head in the ground and didn’t notice. Whatever the case, I had heard of the series very briefly once or twice, but only to get it confused with Ringworld, the novel by Larry Niven (also a brilliant book).
I started reading it in 2015. I remember because I’d just moved to Korea. A lot of things happened that year. I graduated. I moved to Korea. I won NaNoWriMo. I started reading Discworld, and my world altered forever.
Books can do that. Don’t tell me I’m overreacting or being dramatic. I have found more heroes and more ideas to live by in Pratchett’s works than in any other series.
That’s probably due in part to its length. The Discworld series comprises 41 novels. That’s A LOT. It also means that Pratchett had a lot of time and space to develop his world and his characters. I’ll admit that his first books aren’t as meaningful or as well-written. You can see his style develop. You can see his characters grow. That’s part of what makes it so incredible.
(It reminds me of the reboot of Doctor Who starting in 2005. The show went on to become powerful and touching and to explore great depths of humanity, but first, it had to get through mannequins coming to life and spinning Christmas trees of death.)
Pratchett was an atheist, and yet, somehow his books give me more faith, not less. He pokes fun at pantheons and pretty much every religion, showing the hypocrisy and contradictions, and yet…he still shows us that humans must have faith. We must. Otherwise we aren’t human. And despite our hypocrisy and contradictions and members of each religion who do awful, stupid things, there are still people in each place and faith that do amazing things. In the end, people are people, and that seems to be the point.
Pratchett’s characters are usually the non-hero types; Sam Vimes, jaded copper and alcoholic, Tiffany Aching, too young and too stubborn for her own good, Rincewind, professional coward and wizard, Moist von Lipwig, conman and scumbag, and a host of other memorable, larger-and-smaller-than-life characters.
They don’t believe in themselves. They have doubts. They’re up against things they’re not trained for, don’t have experience with, or are absolutely scared of, and time and again we see them overcome the odds. They aren’t incredible people. They are normal people who do amazing things. That’s what I love. I don’t like heroic types in books. Of course Hercules did amazing things, he’s Hercules. Give me your average Vimes who just does the job that’s in front of him and thereby saves the world from dragons. Give me your average Glenda who knows the ins and outs of a good pie and also shows the world how to love someone everyone hates. It’s in those times when people become noble. It’s in those times readers can be inspired to do great things, even in nongreat situations.
My Favorite Books and Why
Feet of Clay – I can’t pick a top favorite. I just can’t. But Feet of Clay might be it, gun to my head. I won’t give away the book because I think you should read it, but this book speaks to so many levels of human life and emotion; oppression, self-expression, creation, agony, love, duty…and yes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. But I also cry every time I read it. That’s the power of a really good book, and it’s why I keep coming back to it. I’ve read this book through three times. I got my favorite quote from it on a bracelet.
The Hogfather – Another contender for all-time favorite, this book is one I read every Christmas. Yes, there’s a TV miniseries, but its, uh…well, let’s avoid it like we avoid live-action anime moves, yeah? The Hogfather is my favorite book about Death. Not death, the thing, but Death, the character. Death is sad and poignant and funny and earnest and dutiful and not a very good grandfather. His heart would be in the right place if he had one. This is the book from whence comes the greatest quotation on faith I’ve ever heard (see below).
Unseen Academicals – Honestly, I skip some parts of this book, and yet, it’s still on my top favorites list. Why? Well, the parts I skip are about soccer. Let’s leave it at that. But the reason it’s one of my favorites is because of two characters; Nutt and Glenda Sugarbean. They are the bravest and best. One of them is definitely not average and one of them definitely is. This book is also one that pulls at my heartstrings while simultaneously making me groan at the amazing punnery. It deals with racism, repression, learning that you can be what you want, not what you’ve been dealt in life, and so, so much more. Honesty. Integrity. Beauty. And soccer. Um. The bucket of crabs scene still gets me every time.
The Wee Free Men – This is the first book of the Tiffany Aching series. I love it because Tiffany is a child, with childish selfishness and childish dreams and yet, she has the capacity and the tenacity to save her world. As she grows through the series, we see more of her character develop. Tiffany is not a soft character. She’s tough, she’s often mean, but she always does what’s right. She’s also accompanied by tiny blue Scotsmen, and you just can’t go wrong with that.
Where to Start Reading
Those are just my top four books. I wanted to include about twenty others, but that’s half the series, and I decided to stop while I was ahead.
When I first started reading, it took me a while to get into it. The first couple of books are pretty much your basic fantasy. I didn’t much like Rincewind, and was more reading it to understand where other references had come from, so I had to push through the first few books until I got to Guards! Guards!. That’s where I got really and truly hooked.
So if you’re looking to start reading, you have a few options.
You can start at the beginning and go chronologically. It does make a difference, because the books build on each other and what’s happened in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s a must, though. You could start in the middle and fall in love and go back to read the others as sorts of prequels.
Depending on your kind of book, you might start with a series. The City Watch series centers around the fantastic city of Ankh-Morpork and a member of the Watch, Sam Vimes, as he struggles to remain average in a city full of weirdos.
The Death Series obviously centers on the anthropomorphic personification Death and his adventures. Also amazing. Also touching and tearful in parts.
Then we have the Witch series (and I would put the Tiffany Aching series in there as well), which is more fantasy feeling, and the Industrial Revolution series, for anyone who loves that kind of time period, and the few standalone stories. In my opinion, you could start either at the beginning with the Wizards or at the beginning of one of the character series or go chronologically.
Really, there’s no wrong way to read the Discworld.
My Favorite Quotes
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
– Susan and Death, The Hogfather
Fear is a strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.
– Small Gods
There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: ‘What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carefully knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass), or who had no glass at all, because they were at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman’s eye.
– The Truth
“The secret is not to dream,” she whispered. “The secret is to wake up. Waking up is harder. I have woken up and I am real. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going. You cannot fool me anymore. Or touch me. Or anything that is mine.”
– Tiffany Aching, The Wee Free Men
I believe in freedom, Mr. Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will, of course, protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.
– Vetinari, Going Postal
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
― A Hat Full of Sky
And Tiffany knew that if a witch started thinking of anyone as “just” anything, that would be the first step on a well-worn path that could lead to, oh, to poisoned apples, spinning wheels, and a too-small stove… and to pain, and terror, and horror and the darkness.
― The Shepherd’s Crown
Esme Weatherwax hadn’t done nice. She’d done what was needed.
― The Shepherd’s Crown
HUMAN BEINGS MAKE LIFE SO INTERESTING. DO YOU KNOW, THAT IN A UNIVERSE SO FULL OF WONDERS, THEY HAVE MANAGED TO INVENT BOREDOM.
― Death, The Hogfather
“Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me saying things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs.’ You wouldn’t find me being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see. Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it . . . That’s religion. Anything else is . . . is just bein’ nice. And just a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors. Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil you have to wring you rhands and say ‘oh deary me, we must debate this.’ That my two penn’orth, Mister Oats.”
― Granny Weatherwax, Carpe Jugulum
There you have it. A review/open love letter to my favorite series. I keep trying to get people to read it. I haven’t met many who have, and I think most people hear 41 novels and turn a bit green thinking they have to read ALL of them or none.
I did a short summary of the TED Talk by Susan David, the author, but that was just about the Talk. I hadn’t read the book yet. Right after watching the video and writing about it I put the book on hold at the library and waited. It was worth the wait, but I wish I had read this book years ago. Again, required reading from birth.
If I were to boil the book down to one essential life lesson, it would be this:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor Frankl
It is in that space that emotional agility lies – in the ability to open up about your feelings; all your feelings.
David gives a lot of ways to do this; that’s what the book is about. She takes us through building emotional agility as opposed to rigidity and uses examples from her own life and her career in psychology.
A lot of this hit home with me. Which is obvious when you see how many markers I put in the book. If I’d owned it, it would have been highlighted until it was more yellow than white.
All Emotions Are Useful
Notice I said “useful,” not “pleasant.” Of course, anger and pain and grief and boredom are not pleasant emotions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.
David says that emotions are indicators; data. They tell us information about ourselves and our surroundings. You notice you are feeling sad, now ask yourself why. What made you sad, and why did it make you sad?
Rigidity in emotions comes when we use the same old techniques we’ve used all our lives, often from childhood, that served well enough to protect us, but have long since ceased to be useful or even true. David says this is true especially if you’ve been neglected or abused in marriage or in childhood. Thinking people can’t be trusted or you’re going to be hurt was true and possibly helpful in your situation, saving you from immediate pain and danger. But once out of that situation, that thinking, that everyone is going to hurt you, is no longer always true, and no longer serves you best.
I have experienced this. I had a rough first relationship, and ever since, I’ve assumed I’ll be hurt again if I open myself up to intimacy. It’s not true, and it’s not helpful. Sure, I could get hurt, but living while accepting that as my only fate has brought me no joy and lots of anxiety.
David warns though that emotional agility does not mean controlling your thoughts or forcing more positive emotions. “…research also shows that trying to get people to change their thoughts from [negative to positive] usually doesn’t work, and can actually be counterproductive” (David).
That’s where the space between the thought and action comes in.
The Storylines in Your Head
It’s amazing how often I’m hearing about this. I heard it first in my meditation practice, and now again, David talks about the narrative we make of our lives.
We take the vast amounts of information from our environments and coalesce them into something cohesive; This is me, Audra, waking up. (I’m paraphrasing her own narrative.) I am in a bed. I live in Texas. I have to get up today and do yoga because I chose to be healthier. Later I will write a blog post because that’s what I do. I’m a writer.
David says, “The narratives serve a purpose: We tell ourselves these stories to organize our experiences and keep ourselves sane.” The problem, she goes on to say, is that we get it wrong. We don’t have the whole truth of any situation. We can’t; there’s just too much going on and interconnecting every moment of every day. Stories help us navigate. Those who really go wrong we label psychotic or delusional (or anxious? hello), but in reality, none of us gets it exactly right. We invent our town truth about who we are, in other words.
David called the process of getting invested in our storylines being “hooked.” Getting hooked means getting caught by an emotion or behavior, whether good or bad. We get hooked and play out the storylines that have served us (well or not) in the past. That coworker snubbed me, she must hate me. I’ve never been popular, I must be so unlikeable. No, she’s unlikeable. What a bitch.
When, in fact, that coworker might not be thinking of you at all, and honest communication could get to the real issue. The point is, being hooked is dangerous.
One of the greatest things about this book for me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, was David’s idea of courage being fear walking. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. We hear that a lot, in movies and books, but not enough.
We have to lean into our bad emotions, not pull away from them. We need to feel the fear, or the sadness, or the grief, and accept it. Telling a child not to cry when they get their first shot isn’t helpful. Of course they can cry, it’s scary and painful and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them at the moment, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. It will be okay, and they will discover that.
Let your inner child cry when things aren’t okay. That’s okay.
Social Comparison and Self-Acceptance
We all know the comparison game. It’s rife now, maybe more than ever, but even if Instagram and Twitter have made it blow up, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone since forever has been trying to keep up with the Joneses.
David’s advice? Keep your eyes on your own work. That old adage from school (one that I, as an elementary teacher, said a lot) is worth keeping in mind as we grow up. Don’t look at other’s work. Don’t compare it. They are not you. And especially don’t compare with someone way out of your league. A beginning violinist should not compare themselves to Joshua Bell. A beginning track runner should not compare themselves to Usain Bolt.
It’s okay to look just above you, for that goal that is truly a challenge (just above your skill level – or the sweetspot). That can foster healthy drive. But if you have trouble with comparison and perfectionism, keep your eyes on your own work. (I actually wrote this out and stuck it to my wall.)
What the Func?
I touched on this briefly in my review of the TED Talk, but basically, this means asking what the func (function) is of your emotions and thoughts. Emotions are data to be used, not be controlled by.
And it’s important to be specific. What are you stressed about? What is making you feel guilty? What is the reason for the apathy you’re feeling?
One of the best ways to discover and distance yourself from an emotion is to say or think, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling/thinking…” This keeps us as bystanders and observers of ourselves. It’s not helpful to say, “I’m stressed,” because that invokes the idea that you are an emotion, which is not true. You are not stressed. You are feeling stressed. So ask yourself, why? What’s the func?
Another good way to get some distance and some clarity is to identify your values; for it’s often when our values are being stepped on that we feel those negative emotions in the first place. What value might you be sidestepping to make you feel stressed or sad?
Dead People’s Goals
The last idea I want to mention is the idea of trying to live a life free of worry, stress, grief, and pain. David calls that having dead people’s goals, because only dead people are free from those feelings.
To live and to be human is to be sad and happy, to be hurt and feel love, and experience grief and joy. (To everything there is a season.) We must not turn away from the emotions we don’t want, but lean into them and through them and come out stronger.
Don’t have dead people’s goals. Get up, find your courage, and walk in fear. But make sure you walk.
A multipotentialite (Sher calls them Scanners*) is someone who has multiple, often disconnected interests.
And that’s it. The definition is pretty straightforward. Probably a lot more people are multipods than they realize. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, which is why reading books about it is such a good idea.
One of the first things Sher discusses is what she calls the “Daybook,” a journal, notebook, or other kind of writing thing that you, as a Scanner, can keep track of all your ideas and projects in.
It’s a fantastic idea, and I nearly stopped reading right then and there to leap up and make one!
I did manage to finish the book first, but I have a Daybook section in my filofax now, and it’s been amazing.
Basically, whenever you, a Scanner, gets interested in something other than something you want to work on right then, you write and plan about it in your Daybook, using up at least two pages. You can draw, cut out pictures (who does that though, let’s be honest here), take notes, look up research, whatever it is. I have a page for my garden that’s waiting for Spring. Anytime I get the bug to garden but am currently unable to due to weather or other projects, I add a few more notes to my Daybook garden pages.
The point is not to clog up a notebook with things that will never be used. You may never get around to making that comedy podcast for kids. The point is to show that your ideas and interests have enough value to set down in writing – to pay attention to, even if it’s just for the space of two pages. And if you’re ever stuck with nothing to do, heaven help you, you can rediscover old interests through the Daybook.
I love this idea. I think most Scanners would. Part of my multipotentiality means I love planning and thinking about projects, but I hardly ever get around to following through with them. With the Daybook, I have more freedom and less guilt. I can write it out and leave it, if I want. I can come back to it later, if I want.
The Many Kinds of Scanners
In Sher’s book, she talks about the kinds of Scanners. She divides the major groups into Cyclical Scanners and Sequential Scanners. Each chapter details the struggles of the type, accounts of people who have owned their type, and instructions on how to best utilize your type in work and life.
Cyclical Scanners have a pretty set list of interests that they rotate through fairly regularly. There’s no time limit on cycles, but you know that if you’re a science and history nerd, you probably won’t suddenly be infected by the desire to embroider.
First up is the Double Agent, someone who has really only two major interests. This can lead them to feeling like they live a “double” life. These kinds of Scanners often have fairly fulfilling day jobs that they’ve been at for some time, but have a dream (spend a year learning to cook in Rome, work with refugees abroad), and can’t figure out how to do both. Sher gives a wonderful exercise to help overcome this thinking and find creative ways to do what you want.
Secondly, we have the Sybil, someone who often has a lot of trouble because of the conflicting pull of all their interests, “but [who is] more concerned about having nothing to show for their lives” (Sher). This type of person rarely finishes a project completely before being pulled into the next one, and so feels they haven’t accumulated worth or are in danger of leaving behind no legacy. (For the record, I’m a Sybil. When Sher mentioned being surrounded by “creative clutter” and I looked around my apartment – heyo, bingo.) The biggest takeaway for Sybils is to schedule. This can sound terrifyingly limiting, but it’s just what someone who is pulled in so many directions will benefit from.
Finally, we have the Plate Spinner, and as you can probably guess, this is a Scanner who is able to keep several interests or projects going at once. These people generally enjoy challenges and coming up with creative solutions, and tend to like learning for practicality’s sake, not just the joy of it. You work fast and can move between projects easily. Problems arise when they’re so invested in helping others that they don’t get to work on their own projects, which can physically and mentally draining.
A Sequential Scanner looks very different from a Cyclical Scanner at first glance. And indeed, many Sequential Scanners might not realize they are Scanners. These types do have varying interests, but they don’t return to them. “When they’re finished, they don’t look back” (Sher).
First up under this brand of Scanner is the Serial Specialist. Like the name implies, a Serial Specialist often spends several years at one job or with one project, deeply immersed to the exclusion of much else, and usually gains a lot of experience and expertise. These types can feel the same guilt as any other Scanner though; they might not stick with a job for more than a few years, and just when they’re getting up the corporate rung, they lose interest and jump to another job, causing plenty of people around them to scratch their heads and wonder. Sher has plenty of advice, not the least of which is finding an overarching theme to include the various interests as they come and go.
Next, we have the Serial Master, someone who, like the specialist, usually spends quite a while at one thing before moving on. The major difference is that the Master becomes, well, a master, going far in their field. It’s typically someone who enjoys being in the spotlight, making their company or brand better than they found it, and earning accolades or awards to show their hard work.
Sher makes a point of saying that every Scanner should try mastery of something, even those of us who aren’t Serial Masters or Specialists. For Sybils, Plate Spinners, and all the other Cyclical Scanners in between, it can be hard to have anything mastered on our lists. If you can’t find the time, Sher says to at least adopt the attitude of mastery, or giving something your all while you’re in it. I agree with that whole-heartedly.
Other Kinds of Scanners
Now we come to the Jack-of-All-Trades, a term many people have come to hate before they learn to embrace their multipotentiality. A Jack might have all manner of degrees and certificates, be adept at just about anything they try and feel they haven’t ever had a real passion for anything. A Jack may differ than other Scanners because they haven’t really pinpointed what they’re passionate about, where many other Scanners are concerned because there’s too much they’re passionate about! Sher’s advice for Jacks – keep doing what you’re doing. You may stumble across your passion or an amazing career, but straight-lacing yourself into one is definitely not the way to go.
Lastly, we have the Wanderer,someone who may appear on the surface much like a Jack, but rather than worrying about having a plan in life and failing to meet it, Wanderers are happy to drift between interests, wherever the winds may blow them. Sher really encourages the use of the Daybook here so Wanderers can understand the theme or overall direction of their wanderings.
These are just brief summations; if you recognized yourself at once, awesome! If not, read through each chapter to see what resonates with you. Sher often asks questions to help guide the reader to deeper understanding. There are a few more types I didn’t mention, mostly for brevity, so definitely check out the book for more information.
Careers and Life Models
One of the best things about this book is the sheer (ha, Sher) amount of information in it. The first section deals with the idea of Scanners as a whole subject, which is great if you’re still not sure you are one.
But the second section, where she talks about all the kinds of Scanners, gets really good. She gives an overview, shares stories of people who have struggled and overcome their own brand of Scanner-hood, and then gives models. There are various models like the Teacher Life Model, the Odysseus Life Model, the Umbrella Model, and more. Each type has a recommended list of life models they can choose from and specific instructions on how to apply their uniqueness to it.
It’s like a roadmap for your life! This is great for someone like me who has always worried about inserting my interests into my career or just doesn’t realize there all these options for how to live life.
For me, I had huge problems all my life about the idea of a career. I fought against the idea of an office job tooth-and-nail. I fought against being a teacher until the rest of my life looked me in the eyes and I had to pick something, and just then teaching didn’t look so bad.
But the worst thought of all was doing the same thing for the rest of my life…and it might not be the right thing! Searching for the “one” career that would suit me as passionately as many search for the lifelong, single soulmate, I went from interest to interest, getting increasingly fed up until I finally came to a place of despair over the rest of my life. I didn’t trust myself anymore. I thought I had no guts to find the right job and stick with it. I thought that everyone else must feel like me about their chosen profession, but had somehow muscled through the burnout and kept on doing something they hated while more interesting things flew by.
No, I’m just a Scanner. You’re a Scanner, if you’ve had this same problem. A career, as defined by tradition, probably won’t do. Your life won’t look like the traditional life. People will ask, coyly at first, then with more worry as you get older, when you’re going to settle down, stop moving about, stop changing jobs, get a real job, or any job. And each remark will be a chip in your self-worth, a small indictment that you aren’t as human, as hardworking, as ethical, as successful, as whatever as the idea of a worker is. You, and I, will have to fight this flaking of value every day, every time our interests change, and it will be very hard some days, when your friends are getting promotions and moving up and making a lot more money and seem really happy, and you are stuck wondering why you can’t just suck it up and do that.
I’m getting down just thinking like that. That view of life is not true. It’s not. We are not like that. We are not more valuable, or less. We are different. There are a lot of us, some hiding in those real jobs, and some not. We live differently. And that is not wrong. I tell myself this all the time. It is not wrong.
And Sher’s models for different career types was totally eye-opening. It’s like knowing someone invented a doorknob. I mean, hello, of course, that’s so obvious! But I never thought of it!
One thing that makes many Scanners uneasy about themselves is how often they fail to see through a hobby or project to the end.
I found this to be true in my own case. I got into woodworking hardcore for a couple of weeks, looking up videos and reading books, and was finally able to get the tools around Christmas. I was over the moon about the neat roll-up of carving tools, and the long bit of balsa to carve. Maybe it wasn’t balsa – that stuff is soft. Anyway. I had my stuff, I was all ready to go, and off I went. To carve…half a duck. Yeah, just half. Then I was done. Love affair over, and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I threw the wood away after a while and sold the tools in a garage sale, I think.
I was ashamed about that for a while, and I wondered as I was reading Sher’s book, what was my reward then? Did I psyche myself out by thinking too much of the finished project? Did I get my satisfaction from the videos, the books, the planned projects, and the brief bit of tactile play? What then, was the real reward? Perhaps just knowing that I had done it. The knowledge that I had turned a piece of wood in my hands and made those cuts at the right angle, according to the books.
If I had to say, I think my reward is often vision; planning things, imagining the possibilities, picturing a life with whatever in it. It might not always be vision; it could be beauty, experience, sensation, creation, expression…but whatever I get out of something, I don’t feel guilty anymore about not “finishing” according to someone else’s idea of what finishing looks like. I call my woodworking a success where most people wouldn’t. But I won’t let them judge.
Finally, Check Your Feelings
Sher makes a point to remind Scanners to check their feelings regularly. Since most of our interests stem from passion, and that passion and subsequent lack of passion often fuel guilt, she says it’s important to figure out how we feel about things and to validate those feelings.
I love this idea (I did a whole “how do I want to feel” course courtesy of Danielle LaPorte). I think for Scanners, we fluctuate between so many emotions, so many ups and downs, that we start to put aside our feelings for the sake of loyalty or duty or being grown-up; and that’s a recipe for disaster and heartache.
If you’re hurting, say “ouch.” If you’re in love with something, be in love with it. If the interest wanes, be grateful to it and let it go (this is for interests, mind; Sher does point out that some things in our lives require commitment through tough times – family, health, etc.).
A feeling many Scanners deal with regularly is guilt. Guilty because they can’t settle. Guilty because they can’t stick something out or hold down one job. Guilty because they spent so much money on a new hobby only to lose all interest after a couple of weeks (hello). Guilty because they didn’t see a new hobby through to the end (didn’t carve anything to keep).
Guilt is terrible. Guilt is the feeling that we have failed in some way; against someone’s expectations, against our morals, against the image we have of ourselves. It’s also wrong, in most of the above cases. It’s the same class of guilt we get when we choose a job or loved one our family doesn’t approve of. It hurts, but ultimately it’s our choice, and to go with others’ desires would make us miserable. Objectively, we know that to be the case. Subjectively, it can be devastatingly hard to go against the flow.
Many creative people struggle with this. It’s a classic stereotype that artists must rail against parents to fulfill their dreams, or bankers must rail against artistic parents to work on Wall Street.
Watch out for guilt. Watch out for feeling that there is a “correct” and “best” way to live your life, as funneled to you by parents, friends, society, or your ideas. Go in the direction of your interests without guilt.
Refuse to Choose has a lot more to offer. It’s a dense book packed with practical advice on following up on dreams. She talks about backward flow charts and team meetings to brainstorm ideas, how to find the common theme of seemingly disparate ideas, and way, way more. I can’t recommend it enough. I mean, I just wrote a three-thousand-word review of it.
Sher’s book is like a big hug for Scanners. It’s a huge affirmation of what you are, how you live your life, and it has a lot of practical advice too. I highly recommend it to anyone who suspects they might be a multipotentialite or needs clarification or just wants some really fun ideas on what to do next!
*Multipotentialite is the word I first heard to understand the term, so that’s what I use when I feel like I need to be official about it. Different people use different words. I’ve heard multipod as well, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, and as Sher uses in her book, Scanner.
**I talk more about what Multipotentialiates are, the stigma around them, and how awful it can be living life thinking there’s something wrong with you here.