Barbara Sher, the author of the single most influential book I’ve ever read, died last month. She wrote Refuse to Choose! A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love. My copy is heavily underlined, flagged, and dog-eared. It has also survived a rainstorm.
Refuse to Choose is so important to me that If our house were on fire I would seriously consider running back in to fetch it!
Why is this so? Because it was Barbara Sher who identified people like me as scanners.
What is a scanner? Barbara first used this term in her book I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was:
Scanners want to taste everything. They love to learn about the structure of a flower, and they love to learn about the theory of music. And the adventures of travel. And the tangle of politics. To scanners, the universe is a treasure house full of a million works of art, and life is hardly long enough to see them all…
We’re trained to believe that we only get one choice in our lives. But to scanners, one choice sounds like someone’s saying, ‘You can have a coloring book or you can have crayons, but you can’t have both,’ and they’re onto something. Scanners know that life is not stingy. If anything, life is too generous. The choices are dizzying. But there’s a way to manage the riches. (p. 102)
Two big problems for scanners, Barbara went on to say, were finding ways to do all the things they wanted to do and be all the things they wanted to be, and finding work that matched their abilities and interests.
But the biggest problem for scanners was thinking that the way they naturally were was a problem. Barbara emphatically disagreed.
If you’re a scanner, don’t do a thing to change yourself. Instead of designing yourself to fit the world, you can design a life to fit your abundant gifts. (I Could Do Anything…, p. 107)
Yes, but how? Barbara went on to recommend practical ways scanners could structure their lives to realize their dreams, whether in short or long stretches of time, whether simultaneously or sequentially.
In just a few pages of I Could Do Anything, published in 1994, Barbara introduced the concept of scanners, but clearly it needed a full-length book of its own. Refuse to Choose was that book and was published in 2006. At the time I was a book and audiobook selector in my library system. Publishers’ catalogues and Publishers Weekly were routed to me and I learned about the publication of this title months in advance, which filled me with anticipation. I remember relishing receiving my copy and wanting both to devour every word and pace myself so I wouldn’t finish it too soon.
In Refuse to Choose Barbara not only defined scanners in general, she defined ten types, with practical advice for project and time management tailored to each type. True to form, I couldn’t decide which type I was and saw a bit of myself in each one. Was I a Serial Specialist? Or could I be a Sybil? Or a Plate Spinner? In any case, it was exhilarating to read about how many practical ways I could leverage and navigate opportunities to custom-build, over time, a life expansive enough to encompass my abilities and interests.
[N]o one can do everything…But everyone can do many, many things. (Refuse to Choose, p. 78)
I’d had a very scannerly kind of work and learning background that included a college co-op job in Washington, DC; teaching English with Jack in Wuhan, China; training as a baker in Vermont and San Francisco; earning my master’s in library science; and eventually becoming the only librarian in the Minneapolis system trained on every branch and central library reference desk. In the pages of Refuse to Choose I enjoyed the rare experience of being considered ordinary rather than an oddity who couldn’t settle down and choose only one thing to do or be.
But more than that, I learned so many practical (I know–that word again) steps for organizing my time, priorities, and surroundings to make dreams into goals, into plans, into projects, into project steps. Fine training, I would say, for running the three-ring circus known as a sewing blog!
Something else Barbara Sher profoundly believed in was community. Dreams can be powerful, but without support, they can wither and die. In I Could Do Everything If Only I Knew What It Was she wrote,
I’m going to make a suggestion now that could change your view of what’s possible in this world for the rest of your life. I’m going to suggest that you get yourself the one thing that can surely help you surmount obstacles, the one thing that is the secret to all success.
Your own Success Team.
Isolation is the dream killer.
In 1976 Barbara started her own success team with a group of friends:
“…[I] said to them, ‘You’ll tell me your wishes, and I’ll tell you mine. And I’ll help you and nag you until you’ve gotten your wish, and you’ll help me and nag me until I’ve got mine.’ A Success Team is just a buddy system in which everyone helps each other go after their dream.” (I Could Do Everything…, p. 208)
If reading Barbara Sher’s books was heartening and encouraging, what would it be like to be in a big room filled with enthusiastic scanners, all yearning to fulfill their dreams and eager to help each other? I didn’t have to imagine how wonderful it would be, because I experienced it for myself.
In June 2010, entirely by chance, I learned Barbara would be leading one last event in New York, which she was calling the Big Cheap Weekend–in just a couple of weeks! No two ways about it, I wanted to be there. We had a nephew I could stay with, and the trip was doable. And so in July 2010 I flew from Minneapolis to New York, to sit in a big ballroom in the Hotel Pennsylvania, and clutch my well-thumbed copy of Refuse to Choose along with hundreds of other scanners to get–and give–encouragement and practical advice.
Barbara was just like her books–down-to-earth, plain-spoken, funny, a little grumpy (she told us what she thought of motivational speakers like Tony Robbins), and a little nagging the way a friend can be who wants the best for you. She had us imagine an “ideal moment,” because, I quoted her in my notes, “A moment is the only way anything ever happens to you. We experience everything moment to moment.”
Barbara asked us to break into small groups and describe a wish and an obstacle to the rest of the group. What is something you want, and what’s in the way? Some people explained their wishes and obstacles to the whole audience. One woman said her obstacle was she wasn’t “qualified” to do what she wanted to do. Aha–the old “I don’t have the right credentials” maneuver! In my notes I scribbled Barbara’s shooting down that rationalization: “Don’t be so fast to go to school. Find out the parts you love, then get training for the parts you love (as opposed to signing up for a whole graduate program). I think you have to start doing what you want to do before putting a name on it too soon.”
In the small groups I found my training as a reference librarian was handy helping other participants clarify and define what they were going after and some ways they could make progress.
Like many other attendees I waited in line to meet Barbara and get my book signed. When it was my turn I came up to the table and showed her my heavily used copy of Refuse to Choose. Speaking of moments, what a nice moment it was to express my thanks to Barbara Sher in person.
The day after the Big, Cheap Weekend it was time to fly home. I caught a bus to LaGuardia Airport in a downpour that left me wringing wet. As I hopped off the bus at my destination I couldn’t avoid stepping into a giant puddle that inundated my shoes. I remember taking off my shoes in the ladies’ room and holding them under the stream of hot air from the hand dryer. LaGuardia was noisy and extra crowded due to cancellations of flights during the rainstorms. My flight had been cancelled, and I think the next two I was assigned to were also cancelled. Sitting at a noisy gate in wet clothes waiting to get on a plane home, I was curiously unbothered. A song was running through my mind and I was too busy thinking up lyrics to be annoyed.
The song was “Cheek to Cheek” which Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.* I became utterly engrossed in writing lyrics about being a scanner. I had never written lyrics before, but here I was, doing it. What a scannerly thing to do!
Scanner, I’m a scanner,
And I have so many interests I could shriek,
And I used to think my discipline was weak,
Till I read what Barbara said that I’m unique.
Scanner, I’m a scanner,
And I often thought that I was up a creek,
And that all my possibilites were bleak,
Scattered, half-done projects made me utter “Eek!”
“Oh, I’d love to pen a novel!
And to study ancient Greek!
And apprentice to a tailor, so
To clothe my sleek physique!”
I was overwhelmed and anxious,
I was in a fit of pique,
Till the day I read Refuse to Choose
And then I cried “Eureke!”
“Yes, that’s me!” I hollered,
“I don’t have to choose!
I’m over my blues
And ready to cruise to heaven.”
Thanks to Barbara,
I averted a disaster très tragique.
Now I live a life that’s simply magnifique
As I schedule all my projects week to week.
I always knew I wanted to write a tribute in my blog to Barbara Sher. I thought that July, on the tenth anniversary of the Big Cheap Weekend, would be a good time to publish it. I’m sorry Barbara won’t be reading this, but the real tribute to her work is the millions of people whose lives she touched. Thank you, Barbara Sher!
*Here is the song Cheek to Cheek, sung first by Fred Astaire and then by Ginger Rogers: