Of Scanners and Polymaths

I've always found that cycling through activities, often a wide variety of different kinds of things, to be me at my most productive. As a professor it was the rotation of writing, research, teaching, meetings— each has a time of day when it works best and the act of switching between them, when it goes right, provides a catalyst for new thought and energy. Now it's a different set of things — project management, writing, coding, data work — but the principle is the same. Taking breaks for a small bit of music or exercise is peak efficiency. It is me at my most me and an hour spent on an activity that way outproduces a day spent grinding away on the same task in other circumstances.

And yet...

... this mode of work is incredibly difficult for many people to understand or allow for or tolerate, particularly if they are the checklist people. They see everything as a straight line to an end and this seems like circling and deviation and taking on too many things at once. And I look at them and think how boring, how impoverished, how rigidly set against the intrusion of creativity, is that straight line you want to force on everyone around you. Surely there is room (and benefit) for both types?

It was a revelation a number of years ago to read Barbara Sher's Refuse to Choose, where she beknights a class of “scanners” and, compassionately, gives permission to harness one's strengths rather than the conversion therapy of conforming to other's disapproval. It does indeed feel like a left-handed child no longer being forced to write with the right hand. I had long been slandered as a polymath or jack of all trades, with emphasis laid firmly on the master of none. I wonder now where this fear came from, particularly in my parents, since I was and remain in fact master of many more so than of none. The dilemma tends not to be that you can't do a thing so much as that capability turns to obligation or assumption that one must do that thing rather than have someone else do it.

And the resentment at being forced to choose that one thing which everyone else says you must have leads often to simmering hostility, even contempt.

“Behold yon miserable creature. That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality, for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn this lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy.” Flatland (Abbott)

I find myself there too often, dangerously haughty. You think what you see is a straight line to an end. But you've missed the fact that the course itself wanders. It is particularly true of writing and software, but true as well of businesses and teaching. Why should I make myself conform to your world when it is, so far as I can see, based on blindness to the true nature of things?

But I'm probably too nice to say all that. At least without turning the idea back on itself and taking it all back, a snake swallowing its tale and erasing any trace of the thought and the hubris, and choking on the resentment that lingers.