How to be a scanner and still be a success

The Scanner BrainRecently I received an email from someone who had just read my book and had been hit by the realisation that they are a ‘scanner’.

This is a transformational moment for a lot of scanners – to finally have a label for themselves. If you are a scanner you might remember the moment yourself.

If you’re not sure if you’re scanner (or don’t know what it is) read on…

Are you a scanner?

If you’re not familiar with the scanner personality type, first identified and named by Barbara Sher, here’s how to spot if you are one:

  • You have creative ideas all the time, whether it’s for a book, a TV show, an art project, a website, a business, starting a movement, creating a brand, or writing a bestseller
  • You love to learn about new subjects and ideas and then quickly move on to something else
  • You have loads of seemingly unrelated interests
  • Trying to choose between all your ideas, interests and projects stresses you out
  • The thought of concentrating on one single topic for the rest of your life horrifies you
  • You start lots of projects but don’t always finish them before you get into something else

If you can say yes to two or more of these qualities, then you are a scanner!

The good news is that scanners are some of the most creative people in the world. Our focus on breadth rather than depth allows us to make connections between disparate worlds that others can’t see. We’re open minded, we’re fast to learn, and we’re keen to share.

The bad news is that the world doesn’t always approve of scanners. We get labelled a Jack of all trades (and master of none), a dilettante, or worse. The modern world approves of the deep diver – someone who specialises in one subject – forgetting that some of the most remarkable people who ever lived were renaissance men or women.

Bad scanner or good scanner?

Realising that you’re a scanner and that’s OK is an important moment. You can finally stop trying to change into something else and embrace your scanner nature. And as a result I get regular emails from scanners who discovered this important part of their makeup while reading my book and are bubbling over with excitement about it.

And to be absolutely honest, I sometimes feel a little nervous about it.

You see, I love scanners – they’re interesting and interested, open-minded, and friendly. I am a scanner myself. And not many people know that my book was at an early stage going to be a book about scanners – before it became something much broader.

However a lot of people misunderstand what being a scanner means. Embracing your scanner nature, your love of ideas and your variety of interests in great but it is NOT an excuse to dabble at a million different things, have endless fascinating ideas and put NONE of them into action.

I’m going to be really blunt here: That’s not being a scanner, that’s being a loser.

And I know because I spent many years of my life reading books and learning new things and having ideas but not making anything happen.

I learned that the bottom line is this:

If you want to have any kind of success,
if you want to make money as a scanner,
if you want to have some meaning in your life,
you HAVE to create something of value to other people.

And that means you have to take at least some of your ideas and follow through on them to produce something useful or interesting to others.

If all you have is ideas, you don’t actually have anything at all.

The successful scanner

Decide today to follow the path of the successful scanner: Choose projects that use your scanner brain, your talent for idea generation, your love of learning, and then follow through long enough to create something you can share with the world.

Billionaire scanner, Steve Jobs, revolutionised computing, mobile phones, the music industry and more during his lifetime. And he put all his diverse interests from typography to shop design into his core business. One day he would be designing the glass staircase in Apple Stores and the next he was creating his vision for a new way to distribute music online.

Richard Branson is another famous scanner. The Virgin group contains over 300 companies but he doesn’t run any of them himself. I bet Richard doesn’t find himself bored by a lack of variety in his life.

Both of them started small, completing one project. Steve Jobs created a home computer kit with Steve Wozniak. Richard Branson started with a student newspaper.

Which of your ideas are you willing to follow through on to produce something tangible? You don’t have to do it for life, but you do have to produce something.


Leave a comment and let me know what you think about this – and what you are going to choose to do first.

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  • Anon

    This is totally me. It is not the fear of failure that deters me from starting a project because once I am passionate about something I am relentless at making it happen. It is more that I worry about picking the wrong idea to start. Maybe it will be sideline me into a specialist area. Maybe it will be something I do but won’t actually help me realise my potential. Maybe it will just get bored of it and all that time and effort would be wasted.

    I find it hard to get passionate about any of my ideas. I tend to get passionate about something once I have delved deeper into so I find it difficult to pick a project first off. However, I am a doer and this procrastination from starting a project needs to stop as it is driving me and those around me nuts.

    How would you advise someone to take the leap and choose what to start first?

  • johnsw

    Good question. Firstly realise that making any idea happen is good – it builds the muscle you need to finish projects and when you do one idea, you get more ideas for other things.
    And the only way to tell if you really like something is to do it.
    Be willing to start something and do it long enough to produce a result but know you can change project afterwards and keep doing that until you find something you love.


    It is about time ‘scanners’ were recognised and it is great that people like you John are promoting their talents and supporting them to make a tangible difference through identifying their talents. I am learning that perserverence is the key and that accepting that ‘keep trying’ also means it can be ‘trying’ for family and friends who then lose interest in listening/following projects that don’t always come to fruition. So it can be lonely being a scanner and trying and trying but maybe with your help John it is easier to see the wood for the trees. Last year I had a project that worked and this year after 4 months of experimenting another project seems to be there for the taking, just as I was about to give up. `Bon Courage’ as they say in French (I live in Paris). Sally

  • johnsw

    That’s great Sally. Sounds like you’re scanning well!

  • Anon

    I think successful scanners tend to work within a wider yet related realm, such as design in the case of Jobs or business startups as with Branson. For me and I’m sure many it is the creative field and I have continually made the mistake of chasing one creative outlet and trying to make a go of that, but then getting so far only to chase after another – it’s actually very distressing…you get labeled with negative associations. I have always admired the artists who can do more than one thing very well, such as the writer who also paints or a film director who plays in a band.So, it is nice to hear the term scanner, especially as we are still stuck in a period of, “pick one career and pursue it or give up and just stick with your day job and make being creative a hobby”…!

  • johnsw

    Yes I think it’s probably easier to when you’ve made it one field first. Eg Brian Eno as successful producer and musician can also get recognised for his art, his apps, his writing etc. Ditto David Byrne from Talking Heads – now filmmaker and other things

  • PAM

    I don’t work so I can’t screw it but certainly do want to play! i have downloaded the first chapter f your book and listened to your talk. I am definitely a scanner and have been all my life. I feel now I maybe too old for all the ideas that still come gushing into my head and I stilll have the desire to do things. At present have so many ideas and do not know how to go about it.

  • johnsw

    Hi Pam! The key is to turn them into small doable projects – play projects. If you don’t need to work you can choose projects purely for what you *want* to do which is nice.

  • There are many different definitions of “success”, what constitutes as “successful” to one person isn’t going to be the same for everyone. This whole “contribute to society or you’re a failure” mentality bugs me.
    I have dozens and dozens of ideas for projects in loads of different fields all the time, but my business focusses in just one area. Before I started my business I did what this article mentions: dabbling in loads of different ideas and projects, learning a whole bunch of things for the sake of it… But I was happy, I was in my element and, by my definition, I was successful. By this definition I was a loser.

    I needed to choose a subject area I wanted to focus on in order to start my business, which means following this advice, but there are plenty of people who are fulfilled, satisfied and have meaning in their lives without this advice.

  • johnsw

    It’s fine to play around with lots of ideas but if you don’t produce anything you can share I know it wouldn’t be satisfying for me. And psychological research seems to support that a key part of happiness and meaning is creating value for others. That doesn’t mean you have to spend your life in some dry service – you could be Paul McCartney making music for people to listen to

  • saulofhearts

    I agree with Sarah — it’s fine to suggest that direction and purpose are beneficial to a scanner’s life, but it’s offensive to suggest that the alternative is being a “loser”. Many scanners struggle as it is with judgment from specialists, and if someone has the financial and/or social means to spend some time being aimless, they shouldn’t be shamed for it. Just as some people go to college without a clear major, or backpack around the world without an itinerary, some scanners find value in the exploration process, and it’s only later that they desire to synthesize (or monetize) the experience.

  • johnsw

    Hi Saul. I didn’t say there is anything wrong with exploration. I said if you *never* follow through to produce anything of value to others your life will lack meaning and success and money. I stand by that.

  • saulofhearts

    I don’t disagree with that, just with your characterization of people who don’t fit that mold as “losers”. I would hate for anyone to read this post and walk away thinking of themselves as a “loser” for not yet having a clear focus or path to success.

  • johnsw

    I think you’re still missing the point. I never mentioned direction, purpose, or lack of a clear path. I certainly did not suggest you’re a loser if you don’t have any of these things.

    I’m talking about failing to create anything to share with others.

  • Margaret

    In other words, be a scanner as much as you want, but if you want to achieve anything, focus on one thing, so become more like a dweller. Yeah, what else is new.

  • johnsw

    I don’t think I ever suggested that Margaret!

  • ChangeAcademy

    Great stuff John.
    I was at a Brendon Burchard event a few years ago and everyone left the awesome event pumping their chests, pumped up on adrenaline saying “I’m a creator!” (his version of scanner)
    …and more than a year down the line most of the people I met there still haven’t produced anything much because they can’t focus on one thing. Instead they are digging small holes all over the place, complaining they’ve never found gold.
    I’m with you when you said “that’s not being a scanner, that’s being a loser”. Because at the end of the day, if you know something that can help someone else, and you don’t get off your arse to share it or put it in front of those who need it, it’s also pretty selfish.
    Great post x

  • johnsw

    Love it Amy!

  • Victoria

    Some very good points, but also very frustrating for a scanner. I am a highly educated scanner that has come to loathe the industry that I have chosen. With my degree, I have been an auditor, professor at a university, local controller, tax accountant, bookkeeper and now have no interest in continuing with this profession. So for now I am a mom, a wife, a future homeschooler that is terrified of letting her kids down…No matter how much I prayed about homeschooling and am confident that I should do this for a period, my scanner personality has kicked in and is yelling, “Don’t do this! What were you thinking?! You are already bored with the idea and you haven’t even started!”

    I can be successful at many things…I have the ambition, I have the dedication once I find something to be committed to. But within 2 years, I am done! Not only is this hard on me, but my poor husband!

  • johnsw

    Often Victoria, there is some commonality behind our interests even if the subjects are very different. For instance, a love of learning how things work- whether it’s accounts or home-schooling. Perhaps there is something like that for you?

  • spamdeath

    Since this is one of the few websites promoting scanner personality that also allows user comments AND where the author responds, allow me to ask a couple questions to you or anyone who like to comment:

    Don’t you think that the definition of meeting at least two of the aforementioned criteria is overly broad?

    Summarized the criteria are: having ideas, learning new subjects, having unrelated interests, choosing feels stressful, horrified by idea of dedicating entire life to single subject, starting lots of new projects.

    I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t meet at least two of these criteria. Moreover, such a short list can’t prove that one is a certain personality type without any doubts whatsoever. It’s not so different from Facebook quizzes like “Which Star Wars character are you?” if you think about it.

    Now I’m sure you and others here know of other “scanner personality” websites, all of which feature similar checklists, which are similarly broad and generic.

    I do wonder, why the broad definition? What’s the point in defining scanner personalities as broadly as in this article and why do all other websites define scanner personality just as broadly?

    Honestly, to me it sounds, feels and smells like dupery. Get the people who like to believe that they’re special to buy books, sign up for courses and self-help groups.

    I do have to applaud you for one thing, and especially for being blunt about it: putting none of one’s ideas into action is being a loser, no doubt about it. I would go one step further: if one puts his/her ideas into action but only in superficial ways (ie only reading about sports, only buying equipment but not using it) or one gives up the moment one runs into the first major roadblock, in my book that also makes one a loser.

  • spamdeath

    One more question: what would be the qualities of a personality type that’s a complete opposite of a scanner personality?

    It would have to be one hell of a relatively uncreative and extremely focused person who does one thing, and one thing only. That person doesn’t like to learn new things, let alone spend free time exploring subjects unrelated to that person’s life subject. That person also finishes or at least brings to conclusion everything he/she started.

    I have to say I don’t know a single person of that type either. We all think we may know someone like that, but they’re rare and usually once you get to know them, you find out that person also has a creative side, a hard time making activity choices, pursues unrelated interests, and so on. Given the above checklist he/she would probably agree on being a scanner, too.

  • Owen Merkel

    I’m a newly awakened scanner and have had trouble with my university studies as of late because of it- First year stuff, interesting, but easy to understand so I’ve grasped it and got bored with it. Anxiety overload because of my brain doing this.

    My resolve has been to get a degree in psychology for sometime, this is still my resolve as psychology is super broad, I just have to push through the grind that is academia.

  • food for happiness

    Hi John, my wife and I are both scanners and as well as our own jobs do books and projects together… we enjoy the variety except people always point out that really successful authors in our field (cookery) focus on one thing and the all their social media is around that thing, while we have about ten things we do and so find it hard. Someone we trust did say to keep being ourselves and that will be the theme, but it then seems to be a very slow route to building our platform. Do you have blog posts or tips for scanners and social media/building an audience? Thanks!

  • johnsw

    If everything you’re doing is around food I think it could still work. The question is what’s behind it all? Think of Jamie Oliver; there is one mission to popularise cooking for all. That leads to a massive empire of restaurants, TV, books and equipment.

    Food for happiness sounds like it could be a theme!

    What’s your website?

  • food for happiness

    Hi John, thanks for replying, and your reply is helpful because our joint website is so that’s good! Sometimes it takes someone to point out the obvious, i.e. our theme is the name we chose. If you get a chance to look at the website much appreciate any thoughts on what stands out, or if we’re being wooly about purpose!

  • Hey Was I Just Called Loser

    You lost me at “being a loser.” For a moment I thought you understood. Maybe Because you’re not one. I think you may have missed that scanners usually lose interest once they have explored an area making it impossible to just stay. Is Bill Gates like that? Next time don’t write articles you know nothing about

  • johnsw

    Well gee, thanks.
    If you reread what I actually wrote I wasn’t calling scanners losers, I called anyone who never follows through on anything to make something happen a loser. I stand by that.

    And if you feel strongly about something try not hiding behind anonymity. It’s kind of loserish 🙂

  • Mihail Iliev

    Well, I know a lot of people who, while not exactly that, are very close to what you describe.

  • Cara Randall

    My husband is a “diver”, and he loves to learn new things. They are just always in a similar vein. His gift is electronics and radios. He’s a genius with anything like that, so he is a network architect. When he comes home, what he does for fun is watch youtube videos about radios and the newest electronic items. He goes to radio and electronic shows and gets things to tinker with. It’s all in a similar vein, but he’s always learning and not really boring at all. He doesn’t always finish what he starts, either. HEHE. He has worked at the same place for 22 years, which is horrifying to me. But then, the way I do things in life is strange to him. I do, however, need to learn to be more disciplined and PRODUCE something, instead of just planning, dabbling, and half-doing things before I head on to the next thing. That doesn’t help my credibility. But I wanted to say that the opposite to a scanner isn’t necessarily what you describe.

  • Cara Randall

    I don’t feel like I’m special. I have spent my life feeling like I’m defective because of this trait. I agree, the definition may be a bit broad. Maybe having people agree to more than two? It’s just a generalization, of course no one can be pegged solely because of an online quiz. Usually if you are looking for sites like this, because you have been told most of your life that you need to “apply yourself” or “specialize” or “cut down on the number of things you are involved in” or “stop flitting from thing to thing.” Etc. Or you just feel there is something wrong and you don’t understand why you are approaching things so differently from others. There is not a lot of support for people who feel/think this way, and it’s refreshing to have someone say, “Hey, you’re not screwed up, you are just different. Now let’s see how we can make this trait of yours work.” My own interest in being here is to realize that I just need to apply a few skills in order to make my natural tendencies work better. I personally get tired of my jumping from one thing to another, because I realize I leave a trail of undone things down the path I’ve come down, and it’s kind of upsetting. But I tend to lack the focus and interest to change it. But let me say, feeling SPECIAL is about the last thing I have felt because of this.

    My husband is the opposite of me, and having been married 19 years, I have heard a lot about how I needed to just “stick with one thing”, which is about the more abhorrent idea I have ever had suggested to me! But more than one time, I have wondered, “How come other people can just do one general thing and be happy, and I can’t? How come they can think of something they enjoy, and find a job in it, and be pretty much happy with that? And even if they do switch things up, it’s usually in the same vein as before? How do they not go crazy?”

    I just know that when you feel this way and have done things this way, the world isn’t exactly enthused with you, and you are often not enthused with yourself. I appreciate someone looking at the traits and offering suggestions on how to help make things more functional, while still being true to our basic makeup.

    So that’s how I see it.

  • Cara Randall

    I understand what you are saying. And I have felt this way about myself many times. What good does it do me to keep planning for things, jumping from idea to idea, and never completing ANYTHING? It’s just like grinding around in the same spot until you are in a hole. But I confess, when I hit the word “loser”, it kind of stung. I knew what you meant, but it’s harsh. Still, in some ways, I feel a little harshness is needed to point out that there has to be a little focus put on making our multitudes of ideas amount to something other than just bouncing us around all the time. So I do get that, absolutely. I also think people are being offended by the word, and missing out on the point you were making.

  • Thanks, Cara. I don’t mind causing a little offence if it challenges some people to use their talents more effectively!

  • Wonder when Universities and learning platforms will embrace scanners. I never went to Uni I attended the information days many years ago and was told I had picked a mix of 4 Disciplines and would have to settle on one. “And put up with the boring filler…”

    I wish I could put up with the filler, I am amazed at how people Deep Dive you can learn the 20% that drives the 80% in a short time, spending the rest of your life learning the other 80% just for a 20% boost seems madness really. I mean that’s 4 other 20% of 80% value you could have mastered.

    PS I am trying to produce but have really struggled with the niche concept of online business and that’s how I discovered scanners.

  • skiptracing

    The trouble I have, is that yes, there are some very successful ‘scanners’, and it’s important to point these out. But I’d be more interested in how the average person of this mindset fares. I don’t know if this is a characteristic of other scanners, but I go through transitions of thinking my ideas are amazing, to thinking they’re completely worthless. It would be good to know how those who don’t find success deal with these issues.

  • That’s quite normal – to think your ideas are good one day and worthless the next. The test is in making them happen!

  • Jarno

    So you are saying that succesful scanners should choose. Why then is there a book about scanners that is called refuse to choose.

  • Jarno

    That seems just modern day blabla. The original homo sapiens didn t have to create a new product. They just lived. Scanning for fun stuff.

  • Jarno

    I agree. I think you are just a conformist when you join the rat race. Staying out of it is being more true to your nature. If you happen to make a product, fine, if not, fine too.

  • Emily Jeffers

    This is brilliant and I am impressed with your ability to put into words an aspect of my personality that I attributed to being simply lazy or weak willed (with regard to finishing projects).

  • TinaMusicFairy

    Well that’s the point, scanners lose interest before they produce anything and before they finish any project and you called those who don’t produce a “loser” that’s what Hey was I just called loser was talking about.

  • Shaunalei Boyer Andersen

    I’m going to create and publish a photo book of my best wedding ceremony quotes (from weddings I’ve written and officiated).

    Thanks for the inspiration–a healing breath of courage and commitment come my way today!

  • Redz Zanx

    I agree on this
    “If all you have is ideas, you don’t actually have anything at all.”

    This doesn’t reflect on how people see you, but on how you feel about your self. If you think an idea an it is great, and you make it. Self Accomplishment feeling and how you see yourself is very satisfying.

    Or you can share the idea to the people who cannot think it but can do it..