Portfolio careers are becoming more and more popular. Instead of your professional life comprising one role in one organisation, you activate different talents and interests across several roles.
[Image credit: Saulo Mohana]
Many people do of course still prefer the security and clarity of a single role, but for others this can feel horribly limiting—claustrophobic even. To be able to range from one context to another, without getting institutionalised or enmeshed in workplace politics—what a delicious freedom! The variety allows you to come to each separate thing fresh, motivated and sharply task-oriented. No one ‘owns’ you, and you can engage different aspects of your brain and personality. Design all this right, and you can live like a modern ‘Renaissance Person’. And that’s not all: you can also make a lot more money this way than by the one-job route.
Okay, so that’s the great attraction of the portfolio career. So… where can things go wrong?
I could write a book answering that question. But let me just point to three common errors I’ve seen people make.
Error One: Spreading Yourself Too Thin
Don’t take on too much. Don’t spread your bets too widely. That’s not freedom, just a recipe for stress, chaos and half-baked results. Don’t feel you have to say yes to every opportunity that presents itself. That’s Freelance Insecurity and scarcity thinking gone crazy. Instead select a small number of promising lines to develop, and give them your all. This will grow your reputation, open up doors, and allow you to refine your mix of roles as you go along.
Error Two: Neglecting Bread-and-Butter Work
Your ultimate goal of being free as a bird is a great one, but it may not be possible to take flight immediately. You must secure a living income in the meantime, and you must make this a priority. Taking on work that you find less than ideal, and less than congruent with your vision for your freelance career, is not selling out. It is just common-sense managing of risk. Having at least some regular, guaranteed income gives you a base from which to develop other, more congenial possibilities for building up your portfolio. So think carefully before you quit your current job. Might there be a part-time role to be negotiated that would enable you to shift gears without a collapse in income? A portfolio career does not need to be 100% freelance: a mixed economy of freelance-mode and employee-mode can work excellently.
Error Three: Jumping on Money
This is the equal but opposite error to Error Two. You take on bread-and-butter work, and it takes you over. Before you know it, your Master Career Plan is languishing on the back burner. You need to decide what percentage of your working time you’re willing to allocate to necessary but uncreative bread-and-butter work. If such work is currently taking up, say, 70% of your time, then that’s going to come with a heavy opportunity cost in terms of developing the more interesting areas. So explore ways of finding some flexibility and freeing yourself up: ‘Can I bring that 70% down to 25%?’ ‘Could I move to a 2-day week?’
You will have noticed that the great enemy in Errors Two and Three is all-or-nothing thinking. You can be too impatient; you can be too patient. Walk before you try to run; but don’t forget that running is the end-goal.
The portfolio career, in short, is fantastic when it comes together, but it is not for the faint-hearted. If you have a mortgage; if you prize pension entitlements; if you place a higher value on security over freedom—then it may not be for you. But if you do decide to go the portfolio route, then for goodness' sake be maximum smart in your approach.