Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Search for the One Thing, or How Barbara Sher Changed My Life for the Third Time

Since I was little, I knew that I was put on this earth to Do Something. My mission, my gift to the world. (Okay, I was a little grandiose as a child.)

My favorite books about the childhood of famous people (ohmygod, I loved those books!) confirmed this belief for me. (I remember going to the library and being told “No, you can’t check out twenty Childhood of Famous Americans books.”) Those people just knew what great thing they were meant to do. They knew. And then they grew up and did it. I especially remember Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin. I was especially fond of Benjamin because he was a Quaker like me. Even though his family didn’t approve of art, he got to do it because he was So Good at it, and because it was obviously what he was Meant to Do.

For a long time I wanted to be a writer, like Harriet the Spy. I held onto that all the way into my first year of college. I was great with words, but I just didn’t seem to really have stories in me. And I think that my vision of being a writer was more about being Something creative than about a specific drive.

I got to college (which I did on the six-year plan with two leaves of absence in the middle). I couldn’t settle on a major. At first, of course, it was going to be English—I wanted to be a writer, after all, and I loved reading. But I really didn’t like lit crit. Eww. So I just kept taking courses from every professor that sounded good, in lots of different subjects. Anthropology! Sociology! Religious studies! Philosophy! Three different beginning languages! And history. My love and interest was most consistent in the history courses, so I decided to major in history. (I still love it!) But even then, I couldn’t really focus. At my college, with a New Curriculum invented in the 60s, you had a lot of scope in your major. I just had to take a bunch of history courses and tell how they were related. Well, let’s see. The American Revolution, Foreign Relations of the European Great Powers, early Chinese history, Social and Religious History of the United States, the English Revolution…surely they’re part of a learning plan! I made up a very creative one, but I don’t remember what it was.

All of a sudden I was about to graduate, and I didn’t have a plan. I took the Strong Interest Inventory, a career test that tells you which professions you are similar to the members of.

I wasn’t similar to anything. That should have been a clue.

Cut forward a few years. I found my freelance career as a book indexer. My scattered college career was the ideal preparation. Indexing is perfect for me because I never get bored! I get to read a different book every couple of weeks, on subjects like behavioral psychology, teaching English as a Second Language, the effect of globalization on social programs, human prehistory, and what it’s like to be deaf in Japan. This career has supported my family and brought me intellectual challenge and opportunities for the last twenty-five years. But something was still missing.

Indexing was (and is) a wonderful job, but it’s not what I was Put on This Earth To Do. It didn't tap something big in me that I knew was there. I started thinking about what that might be, which led me to Barbara Sher’s books (and the first two times she changed my life, which I’ll come back to in future posts). I got excited about quilting, gardening, composing, and several other things. But I ended up focusing on colored pencil art (while feeling guilty about all the tools for other interests that I’d left lying around).

And in 2005, at a place in my art career where, although I wasn’t making money, I was getting national attention and awards and was teaching successfully, I decided that this was it. I was an Artist. I knew that I liked to do lots of different kinds of work, but figured that all the different pieces of an art career would be interesting enough. I got a career coach. I started marketing seriously.

And then….guess what happened? I rediscovered the guitar. Riches of music started to pour through me in a whole new way. I found a new home in my folksinging group. Friendship, music theory, new songs—the learning was crackling through my body and mind.

And my first response? I said to myself, “Why are you wanting to play guitar? You’re not a musician! You’re supposed to be an artist! An artist!! Stop with all this music stuff!”

My visionary all-encompassing art life started to feel constricting. Even though I continued to create and teach art, I was panicky with guilt, feeling as if I was abandoning my commitment.

I had found my One Thing, and it wasn’t enough.

And that’s when Barbara Sher changed my life again. Just as I was feeling like a failure, a flake, a dilettante, I found her book Refuse to Choose.

She told me I was normal. That my bounding from interest to interest like a giant puppy was my strength, not my weakness. That One Thing would never be enough for me. That I wasn’t a failure.

Oh my gosh. I felt as if my brain was exploding. Wonderful things to learn flooded in. I could write songs! I could learn to cook on the campfire! I could read about early English Christianity! I could learn German again!

In the last few years I have made less art, immersing myself in music and now my new teaching business. I have allowed myself to let the art be, knowing that everything is connected and it will come back when it wants to.

And you know what? That flood of riches is still flowing. I am an artist, yes. I am a musician, chorus singer, songwriter. I am a really good indexer. I am a writer and a teacher. And who knows what I’ll be next? I’m a scanner. There is room in my life for everything I love.

And writing this post is making my pieces in process, "The Holiness of the North Wind" and "Questioning the Air" wake up again inside my mind. My colored pencils are already out as I design the header for my new teaching website. I can feel my fingers itching for the feel of the paper under the pigment.


  1. I too am a scanner and learning that changed my life - I felt free! I was 69 years old and had often been told to "stick with one thing" but now I just say 'what a sad idea."


  2. Hi Lynn! Yes indeed, it would be sad.

  3. Do Mi,

    I'm so glad you found Barbara. She's changed my life, too. One of those changes brought you into my life. What a gift!

    Hugs and love,


  4. Thanks so much for this post! I've not known too many other people like me in this regard, so this is great to hear. I'll get Barbara Sher's book right away. I have a feeling it will be a relief to read.

  5. Love this!! Especially the line "my vision of being a writer was more about being Something creative than about a specific drive". I've been seeing this more and more as well... as scanners, we don't actually HAVE one medium. It's more an internal drive, like a love for creativity, or teaching or collaborating. And those inner drives show themselves in different forms throughout your life.

    And yeah, isn't Barbara the greatest? :)

    Great post Do Mi!! Always love swinging by here.

  6. Welcome to the scanner world, Denise! There are lots of us out here. You might like Emilie's blog,, too.

    Yes, Emilie, I think that's true. I have to be learning, creating, and teaching, but the exact media doesn't seem to be as important. Always good to let new ones flow in!

  7. You know, I should've thanked you weeks ago - it's because of you that I heard about that book, and it's sitting on the table at home, waiting for me to stop stalling and read it already.

    I like reading posts like these. I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE. :D

  8. Ty! You're not the only one! Go read the book and tell me what you think!!

    I'll be writing more about how I navigate my life as a scanner.

  9. Thanks for this wonderful post. I'm a scanner also and Barbara Sher has changed my life in a profoundly positive ways! Thanks so much for sharing this with us...

  10. You're welcome, Bob! Glad you stopped by!

  11. Great post...scanners, UNITE! Or untie, as the case may be. ;)

    But really, you said it well: THERE IS ROOM IN MY LIFE FOR EVERYTHING I LOVE. It's just a matter of managing resources. I am learning to master this, and I've grown proud to call myself a scanner. Thanks to Barbara Sher for giving us permission to be who we are!

  12. Hi Jennie! Yes, untie is really more like it. Untie the bonds that force us into looking for One Thing.

    I'll be writing more about managing resources! I hope you'll stop back in and share your journey!

  13. Your post makes me want to read other scanner's biography - I'd just love it. Even nicer if we knew all along that it is OK to want to do everything.
    Thanks for sharing your story!

  14. Thanks for coming by, dreamfalcon! I hope other scanners will share their stories.

  15. Do Mi, I really needed to read this right now. Thanks for giving me hope as I am feeling especially scrambled right now!

  16. From Barbara I learned this by doing her exercise to reveal what she called: 'touch-stones.'
    Got the brain-expanding insight that - no matter what the medium - the "big purposes" of meaning can be expressed. In fact, certain messages are more appropriately expressed by certain mediums, i.e: multiple interests. Switching or sharpening ones art of a medium is merely being flexible with the ways meanings can be expressed. A favored (emotion-POV-attitude-value) can become the content Message in ANY medium. This content-value-message can be deliberately shaped to be delivered in any medium, especially once you get better about spotting the common denominators of what the content-value-message is for you personally. It's the REAL original meaning of "multimedia" when you put your talents together in interesting packages, sort of as a "one man band" thing. Of course, meaning gets received, shaped & re-purposed by each listener or audience in so many ways, but good art is open to reinterpretation and sometimes gets its value from continuing to shape-shift as the culture moves forward in time.

  17. I am distracted by the indexing. It sounds so fun! I love to read, and have always liked editing, but this sounds fun too. Hmmm.

    I am a scanner too. I try to remember that there is room in my life for everything, but it's rather easy to forget. :)

  18. Hi Elizabeth! Indexing is fascinating, and a good umbrella career for a scanner.

    There's room for everything! I'll keep reminding you!

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