Suddenly the self-help world has awakened to a shocking discovery: Careers don't move in a straight line. Some people cannot make a single choice for a lifetime. Some people can't follow traditional career guidance to choose the "right" career. So we have Margaret Lobenstine's Renaissance Soul and now Barbara Sher's Refuse to Choose.
These insights are not new. As I said elsewhere, Rick Jarow anticipated the trend in Creating the Work You Love. He encouraged readers to choose up to 5 goals for a six-month horizon. And in Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra reports research suggesting that career change never did follow a straight line. We just hoped it would.
Sher's major contribution lies in the exercises she has designed. As a career consultant, I'm totally impressed. I particularly like the "Everything I Don't Want List" (p. 216). Unfortunately, as Herminia Ibarra noted in Working Identity, self-analysis is the easy, fun part of career change. Implementing your new direction is tough, and that's where most career changers give up.
And I have to add that I'm generally suspicious of typologies. Most readers will recognize themselves in more than one of Sher's Scanner types.
That said, I believe many readers will feel relieved as they read this book, simply because they feel Sher understands them. She does a great service to readers by debunking career myths, including variations of, "You have one passion and it must be connected with your job."
My concerns come when we're asked to translate these insights into reality. Sher's time management suggestions are creative and (I suspect) practical. For instance, some people can organize their days as if they were still in school, with hour-long "periods" for their different interests. Others can use chunks as small as a commercial break.
But, as a career consultant and career changer, I believe we need to recognize trade-offs more explicitly. Those who dig deeply into a career will almost always gain greater external rewards (i.e., money, status, approval) than those who try to do many different things.
We don't need to be judgmental. We can recognize that certain personality types will be more successful, in general. Research (which Sher does not use) shows that people who are tall and attractive can obtain unique rewards. Life isn't fair.
The book's two greatest weaknesses: Sher tries to match specific careers to scanner types and she shares success stories that range from unique to unbelievable.
For example, certain Scanners will be suited to teaching. But teaching at elementary and high school levels requires sitting through dreary, mind-numbing education courses. College teaching offers more scope for creativity. As she says, a research professor can have fun reading from sociology, psychology, anthropology and English literature, turning these new ideas into research papers.
However, to have freedom for research, you need to find a sufficiently high-quality university. And once on board, there's enormous pressure to specialize. The top researchers in any field tend to have fairly narrow focuses. They learn one technique and one field in great depth. As time goes on, they may add a second of a third. Those who "refuse to choose" pay a price in reputation, translating to marketability and ultimately dollars.
Worse, this book does not address the difficulty of entering certain Scanner-friendly fields, such as motivational speaking, National Park Service jobs, and more. Starting one's own business does offer freedom -- but the vast majority of business owners spend up to 90% of their time on marketing. Read The E-Myth by Michael Gerber.
Finally, some examples seem unrealistic and even dangerous for some career changers. For example, on page 136, Sher describes "Huey," who chose to become a secretary to gain time for reading nineteenth century novels.
"Huey" claims he has 3.5 hours every evening, plus 12 hours weekends and holidays, to fulfill his literary passions. Clearly, Huey isn't married, and for sure he doesn't have children, dogs or a health club membership.
My question: What happens to Huey when he turns thirty, forty or fifty? I'm reminded of Tama Kieves, who wrote This Time I Dance. Kieves, a disgruntled lawyer, took a waitress job "serving curly fries" to her former colleagues. These jobs are fine when you're young -- but as you reach forty and fifty, with no other options, they stop being a Good Enough Job, let alone a lark, and start feeling like a trap.
Once I read a sad posting on a career forum. "Elise" had taken a series of secretarial jobs to fill her passion for self-improvement courses, such as est and esalen. But now, in her 40's, she had little savings and fewer options.
There's something wonderfully satisfying about a sense of mastery, particularly for those in forties, fifties and sixties. Saying "I know how to do this" and "I'm on top of my field" carries a confidence that can be transferred to the pursuit of new dreams.
And sacrificing income doesn't mean just giving up a few restaurant meals or even wearing last season's clothes. Money can't buy happiness but it can avoid a lot of misery. As one of my friends likes to say, "Serving your passion is fine but eventually your passion gets tired of eating mac and cheese."
Bottom Line: I'd recommend this book to my clients as the first step in "finding your dream career." But I'd suggest following inspiration with action, recognizing the tradeoffs and being open to serendipitous twists and turns along the journey.