Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Scanning" (Dabbling) is a Career Killer

Self-help guru Barbara Sher encourages people to be proud of being a dabbler, what she calls a scanner: a person with the uncontrollable urge to dabble at many things rather than focus on becoming expert at anything.

From my 25 years as a career counselor as well as from talking with countless people about their career, there are few things I'm surer of than that being a scanner/dabbler will likely hurt your career, your self-esteem, and ability to make a contribution.

Of course, being a scanner rather than a specialist may help your career if you're exceptionally intelligent and work long hours and thus can master many things, or if you're in one of the few careers in which dabbling is tolerated--for example, journalism--if you can beat the long odds of actually making a living at journalism.

But for the vast majority of people, including advanced degree holders, the common denominator of success is relentless focus. Most people who are highly successful or make a significant contribution, pursue their career (and usually their avocations) with relentless focus until they've truly become a master. That, in fact, was the upshot of Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book, Outliers, which contends that top achievers combine both high ability and a decade or more of relentless focus.

So I wasn't surprised when I received this email from a reader of this blog.

Hi Marty,

I'm sure you are deluged with email all the time but I thought I'd give this a shot. I've been out of work for 1 1/2 years and have lost all of my confidence and focus. I tend to be a scanner (I love everything) and can't seem to decide on what to do. I'm now a receptionist for $12 an hour and have lost my home and car. I've never thought I'd be unemployable but I fear I might be at this point. I can't seem to get a grip on what to do. I'm out of cash, living with friends and basically, a wreck. I'm sinking fast.

(name deleted to preserve anonymity)

Here's how I responded to her: Most scanners' career suffers immensely from their dabbling. Focus, relentless focus, becoming expert at something you care about is key--something you care about that has a reasonable chance of being remunerative.

I believe that the previous sentence may be the most helpful career advice I can give to anyone.


Cornhusker said...


I agree with you.

The trick is finding something you care about that has a reasonable chance of being remunerative.

My advice is that all parents should take their teenagers to see Marty Nemko to receive proper guidance early in life.

Justin Wehr said...

Just to be clear, how (if at all) is this different from the advice of being a specialist instead of a generalist?

The specialist versus generalist question is one that has long troubled me. Of course the decision is not either/or -- so how do I know where on the spectrum to be?

Marty Nemko said...


I believe it is wise to care about becoming expert in nearly ANY productive and ethical area--even something as mundane as pricing widgets. One's value on the earth is heavily a function of his productivity. If a person recognizes that, he will find himself able to be passionate about nearly any productive activity.

And thanks for the compliment. Indeed, I believe all young people would be wise to seek career-wise mentors.

Marty Nemko said...

Good question, Justin. A generalist is someone who, for example, knows a good amount about all aspects of ONE line of work. For example, an art director has good if not superlative hand drawing skills, graphic design skills, management skills, and knowledge of principles of effective art communication and of aesthetics. That's a valuable person.

But even a generalist in many ways is less contributory to the world and feels less good about himself than a real expert say, in used CAD to draw anatomical illustrations in 3D.

Similarly, I have more respect for a career counselor who specializes in a certain type of client, for example, midcareer disenchanted internists than a generalist career counselor.

A scanner/dabbler is far worse. That person wouldn't take the time to become that good at that interrelated constellation of skills and knowledge areas. He'd be playing around briefly and superficially in very disparate areas, for example, art, music, fashion, current events and gadgets and, etc., etc., etc.

Justin Wehr said...

Great, thanks for the clarification Marty.

If I may dig just a little deeper, would you say that while dabbling in different career-related skills is a bad idea, dabbling in different fields of thought is not? For example, career advisors should place their focus and energy on becoming a better career advisor -- not on becoming, say, a better cook -- but as part of doing that, they should dabble in the various knowledge domains of economics, writing, persuasion, history, etc.

I am just trying to understand the boundaries of this advice -- this is a really important topic!

Thanks again!

Marty Nemko said...


Per my earlier response to you, the best career advisors would attempt to become preeminent in a niche, and would learn (from whatever disciplines are important) what's needed to be a superlative advisor to people in that niche.

After your work day is done, dabbling is fine. That's recreation.

James said...

My grandfather was 23 when the stock market crashed in 1929 and faced a job market much worse than the current one current Gen Y people (and, of course, many others) face today.

One lesson that he passed on to me was that being a Jack of All Trades isn't the way to make a career. You must specialize in your chosen field and develop a good skill set in that field to make yourself marketable. You'll get hired for the skills you bring to the table and not much else. So, your skills better be marketable.

He had a FEW main passions and different business pursuits in different phases of his life. But for his career? He was a printer. This is a pretty mundane choice if you ask me, but it was his specialty and it served him well.

Even though skills needed for today's business and technology are different today, I don't see this advice changing much.

Anonymous said...

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Kinda sucks being a fox in a hedgehog's world. I keep having to dye my fur and glue bristles to my back....

Ben Casnocha said...

My piece for AEI on side projects and Google's 80/20 policy for engineers:

Focus is important, but dabbling on the side can stimulate your brain and allow you to see new connections.

Does writing plays make you a better career advisor? Maybe not directly, but it probably makes you a more interesting person, and that can be helpful career-wise, too.

Ronsonic said...

I'm a dabbler and concur. American culture is wonderful and will allow you to launch however many new careers you desire. Unfortunately, that won't necessarily take you past mid-level at any of them. And, who wants to be mid-level at mid-life.

The world rewards expertise and that requires specialization.

About the time a job becomes boring you are ready to start becoming good at it. You are an adult and responsible for your enthusiasms and work ethic. Find a thing you care about that has a reasonable chance of being remunerative and dig in.

Marty Nemko said...


I don't dabble in theatre. I treat is as seriously as a professional. For example, before writing my first play, I read a half dozen excellent books on playwriting. Then I immediately wrote two full-length plays.

If I simply dabbled at a bunch of little things, I don't believe I'd be a more interesting person. I believe I'm a more interesting person because I've done deep in a number of areas.

geekcoach said...

I agree that focus in one area can benefit people. Deep expertise in a relevant area can help you stay gainfully employed. However, I coach people who have the opposite problem. They are deep technical experts (geeks) who find they need other knowledge and skills (management, leadership, organizational savvy) to move ahead in their career. I'd rather start with expertise and then learn the other pieces, but a balanced person should find success.

Geek Coach at

Grace said...

Some people think that by focusing on only one area, they are closing the doors to other possibilities.
Like my friend who compared monogamy to only being allowed to eat at one restaurant.

I don't think of it that way. In a monogamous relationship, it's more like only being allowed to shop at one chain of supermarkets. When you are open to exploring all the possibilities, you realize the enormous amount of choice within that "limitation".

And any one field of work still has more options and variety than you will ever exhaust.

Marty Nemko said...

Grace, analogy rarely holds.

In the real world, I've found that unless you're exceptional, being a generalist is VERY risky. Yes, if you're brilliant, developed serious expertise in a couple of areas, you can move up and eventually be a generalist, e.g., as a CEO. But those are the vast exceptions, at least in my experience.

allears said...

I am in Marty's camp on the issue of dabblers. While a healthy curiosity and an eagerness to be broadly informed, even widely engaged, can shape a charming, empathetic conversationalist (and even an enthusiastic supporter for causes about which others are truly impassioned), I have rarely met the individual who has spread herself or himself that thin and still makes significant contributions without being self-centered and annoying. It is exciting to be in the company of an exception to the rule. Unfortunately, too many people who think of themselves as well-informed have also concluded that they do not need to listen, must have the last word and are compelled to pass on misinformation where expert knowledge is needed. Useful dialogue struggles to survive when conversation involves too many people who are sure of too many things.

ST said...

I have to defend Barbara Sher a little here (there are others ... e.g. being a Renaissance Soul, Margaret Lobenstine). Yes, her current thing is supporting "scannerism", but her main deal with that is to defend it in and of itself and say that it is OK to feel that way and there's nothing wrong with wanting to "dabble". I know she also tries to help people think of careers that would fit it, but the stigma of being a scanner/dabbler may be more of a mismatch to society (and of course a reality), than being something that many people truly feel the need to express. She's seen a lot of people in her life too, and knowing her, she's onto something.

However, I've been a fan of hers for many years and I feel her main talent and strength and the main theme in her long career has been recognizing someone's main gift(s) and the resistances that are stopping them from following through on them and expressing them. (Also, I think she'd rather be called the "resistance whisperer" which someone coined for her fairly recently, versus be known as a "self help guru" :) ). Along with her main theme, would be to do whatever it is that you love whether you make money in it or not and get a "good enough" job, at least, if not one you like or even love. Maybe a job much like you talk about in your articles that you genuinely like and even love, yet it doesn't necessarily encompass all ones' passions. I think her next book is going to be about resistance again, not scanners.

But, I'm also a (more recent) fan of yours and the reality you bring to career counseling, speaking your truth on things and the truth it really is sometimes out there in the working world.

I agree with you that many times it's OK to be a dabbler if exceptionally intelligent and can master many things. But one can't probably master too many things. There is the law of diminishing returns and a continuum. You can probably get away with mastering one thing in our society and it pays off (except maybe if it was a buggy whip maker), but with too many things, where do you stop? How can you do anything useful with paying attention to a different thing every minute? (if you're into calculus, it might be changing attention every second, or less, or it could be ADHD :) ).

For me, I've sort of resisted, yet liked, the idea that I might be a scanner/dabbler. I have talent in the visual arts (mostly drawing), computer programming, higher mathematics, music (violin), running (37 years), karate, and magic tricks, just to name ones I can think of, and I've loved to learn throughout my life. I've also studied on my own with more than a few books/tapes/videos each of psychology, philosophy/critical thinking, economics, investing, architectural drafting, French, astronomy/the universe, quantum physics, and evolution just to name some subjects that come to mind.

And yes, I've spent over 30 years studying careers & jobs, and the personality types (Myers Briggs, et. al.), strengths (Strengthfinders/Gallup), talents and skills that it takes to do those jobs. I used to think there was an ideal job out there that could encompass all (well, several) of my talents. Now I think more along the lines of what you say of having a job with decent income, environment, coworkers/boss and meaningful work.

So, my job just happens to involve computers and technology and manipulating data for a marketing group. I couldn't enjoy all the dabbling as much as I do, if I didn't have the steady income and relatively good amount of free time.

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you ST, for the excellent, nuanced comment.

Jeff Y. said...

I write in defense of the scanner.

Specialization is barbarous. For example, consider the typical business manager. He violently eschews technical knowledge of the very system he is supposed to manage. But not really. He hires other "specialists" to run their part of the system. The specialist manager sees other specialists as mere components in a machine. This component view of human beings is the hallmark of the specialist.

Now consider the typical entrepreneur. What does he do? He seeks out imbalances in supply and demand. By rebalancing them, he thereby profits. Once he has rebalanced them, all his profit disappears. He must then seek out other opportunities.

Is the entrepreneur better off as a specialist? No. If he were a mere component, a specialist, he could only locate profit in the narrow chasms of the economic landscape. He will miss the fertile plains and search among the rocks.

The specialist outlander cannot adapt to changes in the economic environment. He like a cheetah. Highly specialized and destined for extinction.

Mr. Nemko wrote, becoming expert at something you care about is key--something you care about that has a reasonable chance of being remunerative.

True. Yet, how to determine what has a reasonable change of being remunerative? That determination will require general knowledge.

And what is this focus? The generalist focuses on universal patterns, the most widespread and important causal matters, the larger movement of history, the colors instead of the lines. Mr. Nemko uses the word 'focus' as a synonym for 'market niche.' To exploit a market niche, you will need a comparative advantage. That is, you will have to achieve a price advantage in the niche.

You can become a high quality supplier, and gain a profit advantage. That is Nemko's focus. Or you can become a low cost provider and gain a volume advantage. Most labor markets in the US are looking for low cost providers with comparative advantage.

In today's labor market, excessive focus in uneconomical. It drastically raises your absolute costs, while exposing you to enormous risk from an utterly unpredictable and continually outsourced workplace. It raises your opportunity costs, because 10,000 hours of practice takes you away from other opportunities.

Worse, the US government hates US workers. At every chance, the US government tries to actively give away American jobs. Even licensed professions like accounting and architecture suffer from these policies. Wherever US workers gain the high-quality, high-wage jobs of the focused specialists - government and industry collude to take away their advantage.

Generalists make a wise economic decision to avoid expensive focus in a time of unpredictable fluidity and hateful regulation.

I will make a concession. Businesses, infected with the social disease called Human Resources, prefer to hire specialists. The reason for this is much more about the limitations of specialized HR barbarians than the aspirations of generalists.

HR cannot evaluate experience, but only qualifications. A diploma counts more than years of successful experience. That's nuts. And if you want to get a job from a nutter - you have to focus.

Marty Nemko said...

Jeff Y,

Thank you for your eloquently stated, reasoned comment. My problem with it is that it doesn't differentiate between brilliant minds and lesser lights.

I stipulated to the fact that brilliant people can do fine as generalists. You made that case more strongly than I did. Thank for you that.

But the vast majority of non-brilliant people who try to sell themselves as generalists rather than specialists are likely to remain un- or underemployed compared with specialists.

And I think it's incorrect to put the blame on HR. HR people in the hiring process are usually mere paper processors. It is the hiring managers who decide whether the job would best be done be a specialist or generalist. And, except for the small fraction of top positions, hiring managers usually choose--wisely in my view--specialists most of the time, except in very small companies, in which they're looking for someone to wear multiple hats.

E said...

Hi Dr. Nemko,
Hopefully this question isn't too dumb :):
What do you consider your test for whether someone is "exceptionally intelligent" and "work long hours".
I remember you posted an article advising gifted people that they could excel in multiple fields.
Best wishes,

Marty Nemko said...

There's no perfect definitions but these ain't bad:

Exceptionally intelligent is someone who learns--especially non-rote things--much more quickly than most people, is much more able to think abstractly, and reason rigorously.

I define "work long hours" as more than 50 hours a week--in other words, more than 90% of people work.

PM said...

Hello Marty,

Being a career counselor you must have an idea about 'addiction'. My take on any addiction is that it creeps up on you and your addicted before you
know it. Well...I had an 'addiction' to dabbling and didn't even know it...for a while. I took aptitude tests (Johnson O'Connor) because I got lost after not wanting to continue in the medical industry and got caught up on being called a 'generalist' because of one test that I was misjudged on called the word association test, which I took over. It said that I was an objective person and more of a generalist so I ran with that for a while with numb dabbling and ended up sobering up after taking the test again, slapping myself a few times, finding the nuclear industry, a mentor and decided to 'stay the course'. I'm on my way to finishing a nuclear power
technology course with 'A's and working hard to get hired on at a nuke plant as an entry level non-licensed operator and going from there.

Thanks for the blog info.