Is a “Portfolio Career” Right For You?

Is a “Portfolio Career” Right For You?

“Variety is the spice of life.”

-William Cowper

“A tapestry of a variety of eclectic employment experiences.”          

That’s how rather poetically defines a portfolio career.  At least that’s part of it.  Their definition continues: “employment in a series of short-contract or part-time positions.”  I’ve also seen it defined as a “career of multiple part-time jobs.”

In fact, the more poetic definition is closer to the truth.  Not everything in a portfolio needs to be a traditional job.

So, what is a portfolio career? 

It can take many unique and individual forms (which is part of the beauty), but the businesses around us demonstrate the concept on a larger scale.

Take Apple, for instance.  They started as a computer company, moved into the music business, then added phones, and now watches.

In other words, they started with a single focus, and then diversified. 

Taking this down to the individual level, consider Alastair Humphreys, adventurer, motivational speaker, author, photographer, documentary filmmaker, and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. 

He started with his love and pursuit of adventure and then diversified into multiple outlets, or “multiple profit centers,” as author Barbara Winter calls them.

For both Humphreys and Apple, diversification has enabled them to pursue multiple interests and passions and use a variety of talents.  

And, importantly, having income from a number of different pursuits often means that when one thing slows down (or doesn’t work out to begin with), there’s still income from others.

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While these two examples revolve around themes – electronics and adventure – a portfolio career can mix and match any number of interests and income-generating opportunities. 

In my case, many of my pursuits have a work/career theme: recruiting, coaching aspiring “solopreneurs” and new job seekers, blogging about creating and finding work we love.  But I’ve also mixed multiple photography projects in with all that, and have been working on a book.

For someone else, doing accounting work for small businesses, indulging their love of the outdoors doing landscaping, blogging about environmental issues, and coaching high school soccer may be the ideal combination.  

Another portfolio fan may create and sell artwork on consignment, teach night classes on watercolor painting, and manage a doctor’s office.

The possible combinations are endless.

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So, how could this apply to you?

Do you crave variety in your work, have multiple interests you’d like to pursue and talents you’d like to put to work? 

Are you comfortable stepping into new territory and dealing with uncertainty?

Do you want more control over when and where you work?

Do you want to not be financially dependent on one income stream (i.e. a full-time job)?

If so, a portfolio career may be worth exploring.

As a portfolio careerist myself, and coach to others pursuing this path, I can tell you it’s both endlessly fascinating and often quite challenging.  Not everything has evolved in quite the way I anticipated when I set off on this path, but that has provided some amazing learning opportunities.

But it’s not for everyone.  Everyone has different needs, priorities, and preferences when it comes to work.

Some prefer completely focusing on one type of work.  Many prefer the structure of working for one employer.  Still others simply want to leave their work behind at the end of the day and not worry about pursuing new work or opportunities on a regular basis.   

Self-awareness is key to making the best decision.

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Intrigued, but not sure if this could be right for you?

Good news!  If you’re curious and want to check it out, you can start by thinking of your job as your first income stream, and then experiment from there.

Take a part-time job in a new field of interest.  Try teaching a class at night or on Saturdays, or do some one-on-one tutoring in an area of expertise (photography, car care, writing, networking, etc.).  Volunteer at a museum or another non-profit doing work that resonates with you. 

Try one new thing at a time. Test and decide.

You won’t fall in love with each new thing you try, and some just won’t work out.  But as Barbara Winter says: “Isn’t it terrific to have a lot of ideas? If one doesn’t come together, you just go on to the next one.”

If you find you want to keep going after a few test runs, use the plate-spinning approach moving forward.  Get one thing up and running before you start the next.

And remember this: No matter how tempting it may be, unless you have significant cash reserves set aside for this, it’s best not leave your current job until you know you can support yourself through your new ventures.  Adjust your work situation gradually, one step at a time. 

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As you consider whether a portfolio career is right for you, remember: none of this needs to be permanent

You can experiment with a portfolio career or pursue it during a time when you need more flexibility for one reason or another, and then return to more traditional full-time employment if and when you choose.

Charles Handy – author, professor, and highly influential management thinker – has been called the “father of portfolio careers.” 

“If you groan about your job” Handy has said, “or find it has become monotonous and boring, you need to ask yourself – what do you secretly want to do? Do it. You can have a breakpoint and reinvent yourself. Sensible people reinvent themselves every 10 years. You can have a mixed portfolio of paid work, gift work or voluntary work, study work, where you continue to learn, and then homework, running the home.”

So what is it that you secretly want to do?  Are you ready to try it? 



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Peggy Fall has been helping match talented people and great companies for years, and is a strong believer in blazing your own trail, creating meaningful work, and living life on your own terms. “There’s a whole range of possibilities out there if we leave old paradigms of ‘how life is’ behind.”

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