Are you a Scanner or Deep Diver?

The modern professional world seems set up, by and large, to favour people with specific training and qualifications who have focused on and gained practical skills in a particular professional area and who stay in that area for an extended period of time demonstrating and deepening that skills base.

This is the case for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is that some work simply requires that background of training and applied experience: one might not, for example, be as confident with someone who walked in off the street and said ‘Hi, I’m Jim, I’ll be your neurosurgeon today.’ We typically look for individuals with specific training and a structured path of career development and mentoring to fill professional roles such as medical doctors, lawyers, and so on.

However, there are also other factors at play. Most people can cut up vegetables and stack a dishwasher. But these days, if you wanted to apply for a job as a kitchenhand, you’d just as likely get asked what hospitality training you had, what your commercial experience is, etc. Granted, some basic hospitality training might acquaint an individual with some of the laws bearing on food handling that they might not otherwise be aware of, but this is not the main thing – an employer could pass this information on in a few minutes. The real reason that employers are demanding qualifications and experience for even the most basic roles is because by demanding qualifications and experience employers have a low-cost filter for the hundreds of applicants they get for any given role (reducing the costs of assessing and interviewing candidates) and there is a reasonable level of expectation that with training and experience the candidates will do well in the role initially with little further input from the employer (reducing the training and induction costs and reducing the risks of a poor hire leading to someone who does not perform well in the role).

Consequently, there may be a division in the labor market, where in many industries (such as Information Technology) there may be a high demand for qualified, skilled workers with qualifications and experience related to specific capabilities, and simultaneously a large number of candidates who do not demonstrate the specific qualifications and experience that employers are looking for. Employers may be flooded with candidates but find few meeting their desired candidate profile.

Employer willingness to take a risk may vary across labour markets. For example, in Australia employers in Melbourne are more conservative and less likely to take a risk and hire on talent rather than track record compared to employers in, for example, Sydney.

Now, this is all well and good. If you made your career decision early on in University to be a doctor or lawyer or accountant and continued on down that path with steadily progressing experience and depth of specialisation, chances are the job market is looking after you quite well (not so, of course, if you are a teacher or social worker or other important role that is simply not geared towards commercial outcomes and not remunerated on an equivalent basis, but that’s another story).

But there are some of us who just can’t seem to fit in to this pattern – which for us appears not so much as security, but as as a straitjacket. These are the people who want to do more than one thing, who can and do love training and practising deeply as a doctor or engineer or accountant or whatever – but cannot bring themselves to define themselves by this one activity. Sure, they say, I love law, but as well as practising family law, I’m interested in commercial law and intellectual property law and even constitutional law. But that’s not all! I’d quite like being a real estate developer and I would really like to be an inventor and I love art and . . . That is, there are people who, for whatever reason, just can’t seem to fit all of themselves deeply and securely into one specialised and focused career. And Barbara Sher writes about them, in her books I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was and Refuse to Choose! What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything.

Barbara calls these two types of people Scanners and Deep Divers. Deep Divers can by temperament and disposition fit happily and deeply into one career focus. Scanners can’t, or at least not easily and happily. Scanners by temperament need to do different things, follow different ideas, fulfil different parts of themselves, and in many cases have a series of careers or be involved in parallel fulfilling activities. As Barbara puts it:

Scanners want to taste everything. They love to learn about the structure of a flower, and they love to learn about the theory of music. And the adventures of travel. And the tangle of politics. To scanners, the universe is a treasure house full of a million works of art, and life is hardly long enough to see them all.

Scanners, it should be noted, are not necessarily superficial. Scanners can be highly accomplished in their fields of activity. For example, historically one famous ‘Scanner’ was Leonardo da Vinci. da Vinci was across pretty much every discipline of his times, from art to science to inventing whole new fields. But da Vinci did not and perhaps could not settle in one are of specialisation. The love of learning and discovery and creating led him to wander across and between fields. Indeed, in his life, da Vinci completed only a small proportion of his works (I believe it was around 15%).

What makes a Scanner a Scanner is not the quality of attention they are capable of giving, or their level of capability or commitment. Consider for example Jill:

Jill: I took up karate and was obsessed until I got my brown belt. And then I just stopped trying to get better. It was kind of embarrassing. Everyone said I had “so much promise.” And then I got passionate about Russian. But when I felt I could speak it and read it comfortably, I stopped. While I still enjoy Russian and Karate too, I don’t feel any drive to focus on them . . . But something did go away. It was the challenge to go from ignorance to competence, that steep climb to master something that demands every bit of focus I have. I love that kind of challenge. When it’s over, I want to leave.

Thinking about what makes a Scanner a Scanner, Barbara’s core observation is that people find different rewards in their activities, and people stick at those activities for a long enough duration to realise that reward. The difference between scanners and deep divers is that scanners and deep divers are motivated by different rewards. The motivation and rewards for deep divers might for example be mastery, financial security, depth of knowledge, and the professional remuneration and recognition – and these rewards may be maximised by staying with one professional speciality and deepening skills and experience. Not so for the Scanner – the Scanner may pursue rewards that are not necessarily well aligned with deep professional specialisation over the long term, such as rewards arising from learning skills, or having new experiences.

Barbara suggests that the rewards that make someone a Scanner or Deep Diver are hard-wired at a reasonably deep psychological level. They are not something you can change overnight and, indeed, they are probably not something we should change overnight or at all. They are part of who we are, and if we happen to be a scanner, our best approach is to recognise who and what we are and to design a life around that.

Being interested in so many things, of course, can be a major issue for a Scanner, and lead to a crisis deciding what to do – and dissatisfaction when doing it because they are missing out on something else they could be doing. Indeed, Scanners can be so overwhelmed by the possibilities and how exciting they all are to the extent that they never end up choosing anything.

Barabara also identifies some people who are not Scanners, but simply frustrated deep divers. These include people who would really by temperament prefer to be deep divers but are not, due to some actual or perceived obstacle. Such obstacles might include fear of success, social conditioning preventing them from pursuing their dream, some emotional or psychological blockage, other people’s expectations, and so on. Another example is people with a medical condition such as Attention Deficit Disorder where people cannot focus on the one thing. Barbara herself happens to have ADD, and comments that “nothing is clearer” than the difference between having an ADD attack and “being stuck for the typical Scanner reasons of being attracted to so many things that I can’t figure out which project to do next.”

One of the premises on Think Differently!! is that having a diversity of thought in your organisation and the ability to think differently to your competitors is valuable in and of itself (if managed correctly), and the premise in the notion of Scanners vs. Deep Divers is that Scanners are by nature and temperament different to your normal resource profile. If most people in the organisation are Deep Divers, and Scanners think differently, have different intrinsic motivations and offer different sets of skills and capabilities to Deep Divers, then Scanners may offer value in a number of ways within an organisation. For example Scanners, being interested in many things, can bridging divisions between different teams and bringing different groups of people together to create something new and important. Scanners may be particularly good at scanning the external and internal environment and identifying opportunities or threats. As part of a team, putting a Scanner in the mix may facilitate conversations and working patterns that lead to greater innovation and new opportunities.

Similarly, identifying Scanners vs. Deep Divers may be important as part of the recruitment screening process. There is no point in placing a Scanner in a role designed for a Deep Diver, as they won’t be happy in the long term in that role. Identify Scanners during your recruitment process, and design custom roles designed to take and offer full advantage of their specific expertise. The unique skills and capabilities of Scanners are potentially considerable assets to your organisation – if you identify Scanners at the outset and tailor roles to maximise those particular skills.

Barbara is a self-declared Scanner, and I also fit the description of a Scanner – with a twist!

For example, I studied Electronic Engineering as an Undergraduate student in Australia, and pushed through in a disciplined fashion to graduate with First Class Honours in a class that had a drop-out rate of around 40% per year. However, I felt that Engineering felt like more of a straightjacket than a comfortable home, and I felt there were other parts of me and other interests being stifled (at least 25% of the class felt that way, probably more, which is why a fair proportion of did not become Engineers after graduation). Consequently, I pursued interests in Pure Mathematics (graduating with a First Class Honours degree in that as well) and Mathematical Physics (taking subjects such as Quantum Mechanics, General Relativity, and Relativistic Quantum Field Theory – because I was interested in how the universe works, or we understand it to work). Feeling that a change was as good as a holiday, I completed my Engineering degree on exchange to the University of California at Berkeley, where I also studied French, Mayan Hieroglyphics, and African Drumming in addition to completing my Engineering Studies. On my return to Australia, I worked doing contract Statistical Analysis before heading off to travel around India for 6 months as a solo backpacker on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery before coming back to Australia and working in a small Medical Computer Software company for several years initially as a project manager and later as an account manager and marketing director. I felt that it was time to do either a Ph.D or an MBA, and having some ideas I wanted to pursue, I headed off to Queensland to do a Ph.D in the philosophy department. I was looking at the kind of thinking that underlies economic rationality, and in the process I took a terrific Honours level course in Evolutionary Economics with Professor John Foster in the Economics department. John invited me over to the Economics department and I became a joint Economics/Philosophy student, and as my Ph.D developed and I followed the threads, it involved sociology (especially structure/agency theorists such as Bourdieu, Giddens, Bhaskar and Berger and Luckmann), the psychology of creativity, political science (especially political institutional thought on the spread of economic ideas) in addition to the history of economics, the sociology of economics, the philosophy of economics, and the philosophy of science.

So, while I was focused and studied deeply for my Ph.D, my thesis studies involved me at a deep level in 5 disciplines – economics, psychology, sociology, political science and philosophy – none of which I had had any undergraduate training in. Later, I decided that this was perhaps as much an asset as a liability, as work in fields such as economics and psychology is fundamentally different at a postgraduate level compared to the undergraduate level, and by coming in to the topics I was interested in directly at the postgraduate level I managed to avoid much of the indoctrination prevalent in first and second year economics microeconomics and macroeconomics texts and think for myself, and avoid the excessive emphasis on subjects such as behaviourism in undergraduate psychology.

What I did instead was picked these subjects up on the fly as a disciplined, motivated, researcher – I read what I need and worked hard, because it wasn’t really work it was what I was interested in. While the thesis involved 5 different disciplines, it integrated them together. I was doing interdisciplinary work, which is important and, within the modern academic system and at the Ph.D level hard because it requires you to demonstrate more so than normal expertise in all the disciplines addressed

While completing my thesis, I supported myself doing contract IT development for a network of hospitals. After graduation from my Ph.D, I started work for an IT consultancy, with an interest in the business side of IT (aligning IT work with strategic objectives to deliver business value). My interests in organisational culture, change management, knowledge management and organisational learning, creativity, innovation, scenario planning etc are a continuation and extension of themes I was interested in for my thesis. I am interested in all of these areas and I pursue them in some depth, but I would not be happy focusing on just any single one of them indefinitely. They are all interesting, and furthermore the inter-relationships between them and the inter-relationships between the individuals and the organisations are all interesting. I am fully aware of, and subscribe to Seth Godin’s aphorism of “do less, achieve more” – but as far as the topics on this blog are concerned, it’s just not me. I’m interested in all of them, and the inter-relationships between them.

So in my case there are ongoing related themes of interest. The net result is that I have a unique set of skills and capabilities and ability to forge useful interconnections between diverse fields to move any one of them forward or offer unique value for a client. I look for roles that allow me to express and deliver that value for clients, employers while expressing and developing that value for myself. And that is as it should be for a Scanner.

So yes, I was a scanner. But here’s the twist. My scanning also involved a deep dive in to all the areas I worked in. So in a sense I am a ‘deep scanner’. I need the breadth and variety. But I also need the depth of mastery.

The key for a Scanner is to know your unique strengths and capabilities and design roles and engagements that put those unique strengths in the forefront of your commercial life.

9 Responses to Are you a Scanner or Deep Diver?
  1. James Todhunter
    June 4, 2007 | 5:53 PM

    This is an interesting way of looking at people and their behavior. I am left wondering which group I fall into though.

    For hiring managers, your advice to consider the role fit is very good. However, making such an assessment (scanner vs. deep diver) on the fly can be challenging. In order to help make the fit assessment, it is a good practice to prepare a detailed breakdown of job requirements–both hard skills and soft skills. This will give you a framework with which to make a sound evaluation.

    Also, don't fall into the trap of thinking that experiential qualifications are all that are important. A quick guide for hiring managers is to consider the three As: Attitude, aptitude, and accomplishment. If you think about it, experience (i.e. accomplishment) is only one piece of the puzzle — and in many cases may not be the most important.

    There is a home for both scanners and deep divers in the corporate environment. It is not difficult to see that the parameters of the job will favor the type of person who will fit it best.

    Now, if I can only figure out which type I am–can one be a deep scanner?

  2. Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon
    June 4, 2007 | 9:21 PM

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think of myself as a 'deep scanner' as well.

    Barbara talks about various kinds of scanners – 'serial scanners' (who get into a series of things deeply), 'cyclic scanners' (people who rotate between a few core interests) etc, and provides some criteria to help you work out if you are a scanner and if so what type. I may talk about these in a future post, but if you want to chase it up beforehand it's in the Refuse to Choose book.

    I think that Scanners typically learn to become effective in the world, and as such many become both deep and broad. Perhaps there is a class of scanners that should be called the 'renaissance man' (or these days the 'renaissance person') – people with a huge range of interests who are competent and deep in many many of them but do not stay exclusively in any one of them – and perhaps you and I are in this class.

    In any case, I am still kicking around the concept. I think it's interesting, but I'm not sure exactly how well I fit it. There are certainly elements of a match but perhaps elements of a deep diver in me as well.

  3. Cody McKibben
    June 7, 2007 | 6:25 PM

    Lauchlan, great article! I find this evaluation of personality types so interesting.

    I'm definitely more of a scanner. That is why I chose to do my university studies in humanities, history, and interdisciplinary studies, taking a broad look at human ideas and endeavors. Now I feel like I didn't learn any specific, applicable skills to the "work world." I am interested in web companies, green business, languages, writing, travel, life/career coaching, and more! I am passionate about many topics, and I LOVE learning and implementing innovative new ideas. I want to be an influencer and an innovator, to change minds and trends and make a positive impact on the world, but I don't know if I want to aim for executive of a big company, entrepreneur, author, or the Peace Corps!

    What sorts of positions are good experience for "scanners" who are just venturing out into the professional world? Where do I start??

    Thanks =)
    -Cody McKibben

  4. Doerfler
    January 14, 2009 | 10:00 PM

    I am a scanner. I flipped when I read this desccription of what a scanner is by barbara sher. I feel like crying because the description was so spot on. I would love to learn more and read more. can anybody give me some books to read…

  5. Anonymous
    August 27, 2010 | 7:50 PM

    Just found out that I'm a scanner through a friend. She suggested I read that book, but being such a scanner/ADD I could never read a book completely.
    But you very well summarized it for me.

    Thanks you sir, very interesting read.

  6. Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon
    August 28, 2010 | 12:21 AM

    Thanks for dropping by and letting me know!

    In addition to Barbara Sher's Refuse To Choose, I'd also recommend the book The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstein @

  7. [...] Deep Divers can by temperament and disposition fit happily and deeply into one career focus. Scanners can’t, or at least not easily and happily. Scanners by temperament need to do different things, follow different ideas, fulfill different parts of themselves, and in many cases have a series of careers or be involved in parallel fulfilling activities. (Think Differently) [...]

  8. Marcelo Chagas
    November 24, 2012 | 5:53 AM

    Sorry about an eventually poor english!
    I just figure out last week that I’m a scanner – actually I’ve been reading a book called “Screw work let’s play, by John Williams and I felling so renewed after discover it.
    I do like technology stuff, art, business, develping brand design, invent products e much more… Please Dr. can you help me with that?

  9. Administrator
    November 24, 2012 | 7:53 AM

    Hi Marcelo,

    I’m glad to hear this helped!

    Yes, I can help you. Feel free to contact me through the contact page :)

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