How to Avoid Identity Crises When You’re a Scanner
Photo courtesy of Jason Rogers.

How to Avoid Identity Crises When You’re a Scanner

Written by Emilie

Topics: Scanners

I just finished outlining the A, B and C storylines of my Bored to Death spec. (I always feel such relief once I’ve figured out my plot. Before that point, it’s scary. You worry that a great story idea will never arrive. But once a good story flies into your head and you work through the act break, climax and resolution, then you can relax. Then it’s just a matter of fleshing it out.)

My morning was spent sipping mint tea and pumping out a few hundred words of my (soon to be released) book at the Albina Press. I’m rounding the end of part four, which is all about communicating the overarching theme of your site through a title, tagline and design (basically branding for multipotentialites).

After that, I spent some time on a Skype call with my writing partner about the pitch strategy for our pilot.

Now I’m writing this post. But not because I have to (I actually have an inbox full of guest post submissions to read, so I really don’t have to be writing this), but because I was feeling inspired and wanted to blog.

Am I a “Writer”?

It’s tempting to think of myself as a “writer” these days (as opposed to say, a musician, or web designer, or lawyer) since most of my current priority projects center around writing.

That’s certainly what it looks like to the outside world. If someone were to observe how I spend my days, they would think, “that girl’s a writer.” Without a doubt.

In the past, I probably would have fully adopted the label. I would have embraced the romantic notion of what it means to be a writer. I probably would have surrounded myself with writing culture and told myself that I had found my true calling: This is it. I know what I am. I am a writer! Sound the trumpets.

And then months later, when my projects were done and I was ready to try out a new medium, I’d probably have an identity crisis.

This sort of thing used to happen to me repeatedly. But that was before I knew I was a multipotentialite…

Does What You Do Equal Who You Are?

Herein lies the problem for multipotentialites: in our society, we are defined, not by our ideas, but by the form those ideas take.

Today it’s writing, but tomorrow it could be dance, or public speaking, or teaching, or juggling (though it probably won’t be juggling…)

Writing isn’t “who I am”, it’s simply the form my creativity takes at the moment. It’s how my ideas happen to be clothed.

This isn’t a problem for specialists, who are happy expressing their ideas in one form. But for us shape-shifters, understanding “what you do” and explaining it to other people can be a little tricky.

The Importance of Umbrella Titles

Living in a new city and meeting new people, means that I get asked “what I do” a LOT. I’ve struggled long and hard, trying to come up with an appropriate answer to that question. The best solution I’ve found is to have one or two umbrella titles.

Lately “writer” has been my umbrella title of choice. I like it because it covers blogging, book-writing and screenwriting: three activities I engage in regularly.

Sometimes I’ll add “and web designer,” if I think whoever’s asking might be a little less open-minded about new models for self-publishing, the potential of blogging as tool for community building and business, etc. Tacking on “web designer” results in fewer followup questions (even though I’m not doing any design work at the moment).

The Pigeonhole Dilemma

Even with an umbrella title like “writer” – a title I’m fairly comfortable with – I know deep down that I’m not a writer.

Or I’m not only a writer anyway.

In fact, when I’m asked outright if I’m a writer, my immediate reaction is to reply with “among other things…” A simple “yes” feels dishonest because I know that my prime activities could change radically in a matter of weeks.

Writer” also neglects other things that I do, like coaching (but I rarely introduce myself as a coach, since “what do you coach?” is an even harder question to answer).

How to Avoid Identity Crises

As long as society insists on defining us by our medium, scanners will struggle. There’s no way around it. However, just because society defines things this way, it doesn’t mean you have to.

There’s no need to have an identity crisis every time your creativity takes a new form or you veer down a new path. Nothing’s changed. You’re still you.

Know that “what you are” is a multipotentialite. And sure, go ahead and adopt medium-based umbrella titles to make it easier for other people. But be careful not to intertwine your identity with those labels to where they become all you are. That’s when the identity crises happen.

And when it is time to move on, don’t be devastated or feel lost. Be excited and pumped for your next adventure. Despite what it looks like to the outside world, your identity hasn’t changed– at all.


How do you explain to others “what you do”? Do you ever feel like your answer is misleading or incomplete? Any tips on getting around this?


  1. Shanna Mann says:

    Gah! I know. I feel like I spend all my time writing. But I started as a fiction writer. I still think of writing in terms of creating. Now that I’m just trying to capture ideas and concepts and convey to people different ways of thinking, I spend ALL my time trying to words things in a clear and digestible manner. But I’m not a writer. To me, the designation is just weird. If I’m forced to state my occupation, I usually say ‘healer.’ Possibly the terms ‘thinker’ or ‘teacher’ would be more literally correct, but I’ve found that ‘healer’ is a suitably fluid term that encompasses whatever I happen to be doing at the time.

    New to Puttylike, and I love it here!

    • Emilie says:

      Right on, I like it! I wish people were more open to labels like ‘healer’ though. You must get a lot of followup questions, no? It seems like people WANT to put us in box-like compartments like ‘writer’. So frustrating. Good for you though for introducing yourself in terms that feel comfortable to you.

      In Scott Berkun’s book on public speaking he talks about how the most accurate term for what he does isn’t writer or speaker, but ‘freelance thinker’. I love that. He says he can’t really use it though, because people are like “whaa?!”

      • Shanna Mann says:

        I do get a lot of follow-up questions, but at least I get a chance to explain rather than being put in a box. To me, telling someone you’re a writer is like saying “I work with computers.” It’s so vague as to be meaningless. Everyone is a writer these days!

  2. Amy Putkonen says:

    Hi Emile,

    Before reading this article, I had not known what a scanner was. I actually had to look it up (online of course, using my Google dictionary). This is great. Feels like I’ve come home to a definition of myself I didn’t know I didn’t know. Thanks! Good luck with that new book!

  3. M. A. Tohami says:

    When you discover your purpose in life, you can easily avoid this identity crisis. Your purpose will always give a meaning to what you do and also it doesn’t limit your potential to one single form. It can embrace the unlimited number of ways you can use to express it! Thanks for a very nice and cool post.

  4. Emilie says:

    Hi M.A.,

    I’m always a little weary of using the singular- “purpose”. I actually believe that we can have many “purposes” in life. I have a problem with the way society tells us our life needs to be about one thing.

    Sure, you can always view the many activities you do as adding up to one ultimate purpose- if that’s how you want to see it. It’s absolutely a story you can tell yourself. But I think a lot of people do this simply in order to feel as though their life has meaning. And I don’t think that’s necessary. In fact, I think it’s potentially restricting.

    You can absolutely have more than one purpose in life and they can be unrelated and still be meaningful.

    Thank you for your comment. :)

    • M. A. Tohami says:

      Hi Emilie,

      Having a unique purpose in life is not limiting at all. In fact, it is important to give your life meaning and direction.

      You should also consider that having many purposes may distract your potential and you can lose focus easily.

      To leave a mark, you need to find your calling and then give it all what you’ve got.

      You may have a different view, but bottom line I am sure we agree that following your heart is the key to happiness and fulfillment.


      • Emilie says:

        No offense, but I find it a little condescending that you presume a life with multiple purposes to be lacking in “meaning, direction and focus”. That’s a stereotype.

        Some people are best suited following one path, while others are wired to follow many. Please don’t assume that what’s best for you is best for everyone.

        • Emma says:

          Maybe the subconscious assumption that people will have one singular identity “I am a _____er” is a holdover of the expectation of specialization.

          Remember the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” exercise in grade 3? They didn’t mention to you that you could choose MORE THAN ONE thing!!

          I don’t know when the expectation of specialization started, the Industrial Revolution? Would make sense because everybody along an assembly line has a discrete role.

          There is an anecdote, think it might be in “Refuse to Choose” but i wouldn’t know because I lent it to someone and didn’t get it back, about a man who in his small town was the fire chief, postmaster, and a whole host of other roles. :)

          Corporate employers certainly do not give people the trust and stability of livelihood they used to, so why would we think we need to stay within the limited identities inherent in that system?

          P.S. High five for lawschoolers

  5. Jeff Goins says:

    Love that idea of not ONLY being an X (writer, photographer, etc.) I find that this is particularly common amongst creative people — their creativity tends to spill into other disciplines. I’m a writer, but I’m also a musician, leader, marketer, consultant, advice-giver, ideator, rule-breaker, friend, husband, follower, sushi-lover, amateur photographer, and a number of other “titles.” Love the heart behind your blog, Emilie. Truly revolutionary.

  6. Esther says:

    Ahh, labels. I love them! Maybe if you’re not *just* a writer, you need to take it up one level, like “I’m a creative”. Or accept that you might be a writer now, but change into a web designer or musician next month. We all wear so many hats and one doesn’t have to block out the other. For many people, the current “I’m a writer” may be clearer than “I’m a multipotentialite” (I doubt most can even spell that!). But hey, in the end it’s not about the label, it’s about your actions and intentions. Good on you :-)

    • Emilie says:

      Right, and that’s exactly why I tell people “I’m a writer” and not “I’m a multipotentialite”. You need to speak in terms people understand, unless you’re in the mood for a more in-depth convo. Heh.

      Thanks for the comment, Esther. It’s nice to hear from you. I know you’re big into the label stuff. :)

  7. My “elevator pitch” these days has been “I conspire with individuals and organizations to change the world through web and media.” That’s able to capture folks I conspire with virtually through social media and blogging, clients, filmmaking, writing, public speaking, and activism. It covers web design and economic empowerment. It includes founding a non-profit and creating a t-shirt line.

    It also leaves people asking, again, “So what do you DO?”

  8. Lainey says:

    Another great post! I’ve often found myself lost and confused at the end of a journey, which I was SURE was my one and only passion. Over the last few years I even got bitter and angry with myself every time I got excited about something because I would anticipate the end. And then I discovered I was a scanner. Then the clouds parted, the sun came out, and life was perfect! Okay that last part didn’t really happen. But it happens for moments, sometimes for a day or two at a time.

    I need to work on the elevator pitch though. As a ‘stay-at-home’ mom (a phrase that ends conversations even faster than ‘I’m a chemist’ used to), I am very frustrated with a term that does nothing to describe who I am or how I spend my days.

    • Emilie says:

      Haha yeah, it’s amazing how the clouds do seem to part when you realize that you’re a scanner. Pretty awesome indeed.

      Gah.. I wish there were no need for an elevator pitch. Seriously. :)

      Thanks for sharing, Lainey.

  9. shanimarissa says:

    Hi Emilie

    I can totally identify with feeling like you’re having an identity crisis … I feel that all the time!!

    I particularly feel it every time I take on some new interest – I have the “Oh! That’s what I am!” moment and feel pressure to latch on to the identity until it feels yucky and then I toss it aside and search for another definition.

    I am learning however that clarity can be achieved in, like you said, focusing on why I do things rather than how. For instance, I pick up a new art-form every two years not because I am an “artist” but because I like the challenge of learning something new from scratch and it just *happens* to take the form of art. That aspect of *me* is consistent across everything I do and helps define who I am.

    I appreciate hearing from so many other scanners that there is anxiety around this issue for them too – not that I am wishing anyone anxiety – it’s just nice to know I’m not alone ;)

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Shani,

      You’re spot on with the asking ‘why’ instead of ‘what’. Something I realized recently is that a lot of my projects involve problem solving. Web design, coaching, scriptwriting. They all involve hitting blocks and figuring out a creative way around those blocks. Really interesting..

      Thanks for the comment. :)

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