Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Will anyone know I was here?"

Well, it turns out that I am a Scanner. At least that’s the name self-help book author Barbara Sher coined for people like me, in her book Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love.

I don’t usually put too much stock in the ideas presented by self-help books, since I think most of the information they provide is stuff most of us could probably figure out for ourselves if we had a chance to sit down in a quiet place and think about things long enough, but every once in a while I do read something in one that gives me an “aha moment.”

(The unfortunately-named John Hildenbiddle, Senior Vice President of Mutual of Omaha [which, incidentally, is now calling itself “the official sponsor of the aha moment”—what’s up with that? Isn’t that kind of like calling yourself “the official sponsor of fun” or “the official sponsor of enlightenment” or “the official sponsor of peace” or the official sponsor of anything else that means something completely different to everyone? But they probably paid someone big bucks to come up with the idea of sponsoring the aha moment and to get people interested in voting on the ten best aha moments, which they’ll then make into commercials to sell insurance…go figure. {One of my personal aha moments recently was figuring out that if I had all the money back that I’ve spent all my life so far on insurance I haven’t needed, I’d have…well…maybe enough money to buy insurance for the rest of my life.}] calls the aha moment “a moment of clarity, a deeply personal defining moment where you gain real wisdom.”)

This is Sher’s description of Scanners, the thing I read this morning that gave me an aha moment: “Intense curiosity about numerous unrelated subjects is one of the most basic characteristics of a Scanner. Scanners are endlessly inquisitive. In fact, Scanners often describe themselves as being hopelessly interested in everything….A Scanner doesn’t want to specialize in any of the things she loves, because that means giving up all the rest.”


I’ll be starting a new job tomorrow, for the eighteenth time in my adult life. Is that a lot? I think maybe it is. To be fair, it’s only my sixteenth different job, since I did two jobs (substitute teaching and working at the Sunday River Inn) for two separate stints. Still, I suppose that’s quite a few jobs over the past 30 years or so, especially when you consider that I did manage to stay at one of them for nine years. (I actually worked at Bob’s Corner Store for twelve years, but most of that time it was very part-time, and I did other things—lots of other things—at the same time.)

Barbara Sher begins her book with a quote from a woman she calls “Charlotte, a Scanner,” a quote that could have come from me: “I wish someone would just shake me and tell me exactly what to do with my life. I hate getting excited over something and being reminded by a well-meaning friend of all the other things I’ve tried and failed. Will I ever actually get to use what’s inside me? Will anyone know I was here?

I’ve been a painter, a baker, and a reporter (both regular and freelance). I’ve worked in offices as a receptionist, a bookkeeper, a secretary, and a PR director. I’ve done home daycare and kept the books for Tony’s business. I’ve been a seasonal call center employee for L.L. Bean. (I had five nights of training to work about six nights on the phones, and during those three weeks or so I made four trips to the Magical Employee Store in Freeport, where I bought, among many other treasures, a dozen pairs of shoes, a room-sized braided rug, and two couches for about 90% off retail. It was so worth it.) I’ve been a bank teller, a substitute teacher, a convenience store clerk, and an Elderhostel coordinator.

And I’m not even counting stay-at-home mom, which I did pretty much full-time for about nine years. (It’s not because I don’t think it counts! It’s just that I’m only counting my paid jobs at the moment.)

I’ve loved some of my jobs and hated others. Some were really, really fun, but offered none of those pesky essential benefits, like health insurance or paid vacation. Or decent pay. Some made me feel as if the soul was being slowly sucked out of me. Some made my feet hurt. Not one of them ever made me think, here’s a job I could happily do for the rest of my life!

Now, if I had been born a generation earlier, it might not have even occurred to me that being happy—or at least, not miserable—in one’s job was a valid expectation, because security would have come so far ahead of satisfaction. For instance, Donna’s father worked his entire career for the telephone company. Luckily for him, he really liked his job. But Donna once asked her mother, “If Dad had hated his job, would you still have wanted him to stick with it for almost 40 years?” and her mother answered with an unqualified “Yes!”

I guess things were simpler a generation ago. Frequently miserable, maybe, but simpler.

I also blame my place in my family’s birth order for my inability to settle in, and my expectation that my work should make me happy and fulfilled. (I don’t like that word blame, and I’m not trying to imply any sense of “victimhood” here. I was going to use “attribute” instead, but then I’d have to rewrite the whole sentence.)

Apparently last-borns are supposed to be “spoiled, manipulative, immature, self-centered, and capricious,” “do not like to be tied down to commitment,” and “just want to do their own thing at their own pace.”

Yep, that’s me.

What is it that I really want to do? What do I think would make me (relatively) happy for a (relatively) long time? I want to write the Great American Novel, of course. Or the Great American Memoir, or the Great American Book of Essays. Or how about the occasional, middling-good, free-lance magazine article, or middle-grade novel, or even picture book? Isn’t that the secret (or not-so-secret) ambition of just about everyone hanging around here in the blogosphere?

But since I also need to provide health insurance for my family and, ideally, some sort of income besides, just deciding to stay home and sit at the computer all day, as appealing as it sounds, isn’t an option, so I have to have some kind of “real” job. I want my real job to be something I can genuinely like, or at least not mind, doing—something I love may be asking a bit much—and, at this point in my life, it seems like it would be a big plus if it were something I could also feel good about doing, something that, perhaps, makes a positive difference in people’s lives. I’d like a fair amount of variety from day to day, and even within each day, because from my track record it appears that I may, just possibly, be someone who is easily bored with routine. And it would be really, really, really nice if it didn’t take up all my time, dammit!

Barbara Sher calls this kind of job "the Good Enough Job," and says it's "the best friend of almost every type of Scanner" (after they've accepted, as one person she interviewed put it, that "no one is going to pay me to...sit under a tree and read 19th century novels").

Up until this past Friday, I had a job I liked most of the time, and sometimes almost loved. I was working about 1,920 hours per year, which is pretty much what you do if you have a full-time job. I was also getting paid to write, although small-town newspaper reporting isn’t exactly the kind of writing that either challenges one’s creativity or gets a lot of notice.

Tomorrow, I will start a job I don’t know if I will like, love, or…? I do think it has potential for the “making a difference” requirement; it’s in the social services field, and the agency’s motto is “Helping people, changing lives.” It provides health insurance, and it sounds like my days will be quite interesting and varied…and shorter: the job is only 30 hours a week. Best of all, it’s 37 weeks per year, with summers off. That’s 1,110 hours per year. That means I’ll have an extra 810 hours a year to do something Really Important with my life.

I figure that, unless that Great American Novel thing pans out, I'm going to be working for at least another 15 years. So I’m really, really going to try to make this work for me for the long term.

Look for me at camp next summer…I’ll be holed up in the treehouse with my laptop.