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Portrait of a Portfolio Career: An Answer to the “Perfect Job”?

At lunch the other day Christine described her new career venture to me. While outlining the impressive array of services she provided, she included some details of the career journey that brought her here. Starting out doing debt consolidation from home for friends and acquaintances when her children were small, she was catapulted into full-time work in Human Resources following a divorce. Moving from one corporate HR division to another, she specialized in employee benefits and severance packages. In recent years, finding herself tiring of demanding hours and wanting more independence, she has moved into financial planning as an affiliate of a large financial network. While she is thriving in this new challenge, she did admit, with a smile somewhere between embarrassed and shy, that she had a “side business” as a personal color consultant. “I have too many interests to expect one job to make me happy. I’ve always had something going on the side!”

Her allusion to non-monogamy wasn’t lost on me. I guessed that was what accounted for her moment of slight embarrassment. Many of us are still laboring under the outmoded belief that we should make a career choice early in life and follow it faithfully in a more or less straight line. Wanting to applaud Christine’s adventurous and self-knowing spirit, I surprised her by responding, “Congratulations! You’ve put together a portfolio career!”

She was startled. “What’s a portfolio career?” she asked.

“It’s a way to design your work life for people like yourself who have many interests, a hunger for variety, and a love of learning.”

“Oh”, she said with a pleased smile. I could almost see her feathers fluff up with this new perspective.

A portfolio career can be a particularly good solution now during economic uncertainty and as we witness vast changes in the way work is conducted. It’s a model for being pro-active in designing our careers, permitting flexibility in responding to changes in market conditions and global shifts. And it’s a model particularly well-suited to women’s lives. Women have always been good at doing many things at once. During a time when companies’ family-friendly policies are diminishing, putting together a portfolio career often can better accommodate a spouse’s job requirements or a family’s changing needs. Designing your personal “career portfolio” gives women a way of working that fits our lives, instead of working our lives around our jobs.

More specifically, what is a portfolio career? It’s a career that has several parts, bound together by a common thread (you), that’s adaptable to many different circumstances. It can be a combination of traditional employment, contract work, and work for yourself (e.g. a home-based business). You can work on various projects or with several clients concurrently or sequentially. Sometimes the parts of your portfolio even rotate seasonally: a garden design business in the summer, and technical writing in the winter.

In addition to building in variety and flexibility, the portfolio career paradigm gives a place of value to those endeavors - service or pro bono work, for instance, or creative projects – that don’t (or don’t yet) generate income. Most importantly, the term “portfolio career” elevates, in their own eyes and perhaps in the eyes of others, those enterprising folks who have diverse interests and talents and insist on expressing them, in spite of having to buck reputations as “jack of all trades, master of none”. People have embraced the “portfolio career” label with emotional relief, finally having a name that reflects the unifying and meaningful guiding force behind all their activities.

So how do you go about creating a portfolio career? Here are some guidelines.

And, like any good idea, there are some cautions. Portfolio careers probably aren’t for everyone. How do you know if it might work for you? Here are some questions to think about.

Like the man who looks under the lamppost for his keys, rather than looking where he dropped them, maybe the perfect job has eluded you because you haven’t known where to look. Try on the idea of a portfolio career and see if it frees you to consider new possibilities, a new approach to creating work that fits you and fits your life.

- Nina Ham, CPCC, LCSW

Nina Ham is a certified business and career coach and a licensed psychotherapist. Her company, Success from the Inside Out, helps midlife women redirect their careers or transition from salaried to solo. Find out about her Career Quest program or subscribe to her free monthly ezine,