A few months ago, in a conversation about careers, I heard a sentence that changed everything: “You have more of a portfolio approach.”
I’ve long felt a need to justify the many many many jobs I have: I run two companies, speak on panels and conferences, sit on a few boards, write books, write this column. It can be as hectic as it sounds. But the simple act of attaching a name to this strategy has helped me to step back and view all these roles as parts of a whole, allowing me to better budget my time, resources, and brain space.
The gig economy is growing up. In recent years, there’s been a surge in so-called portfolio careers due to a number of factors, from the growth of remote opportunities to the existentialism confronting workers during the pandemic. Stagnant wages and dissatisfaction with corporate jobs also play a part.
"There is some part of human nature that finds this more natural: being independent, being in control of your own destiny, if you will, and the work that you do on a daily basis,” Justin Tobin, the founder and president of the innovation consultancy Gather, said in a recent episode of the company’s podcast. “Then there’s the feasibility. It just wasn’t feasible five years ago. And then a third part, acceptability. Did Zoom exist two years ago? Yes, but the acceptance of doing Zoom meetings two to three years ago vs. today is night and day."
Independent workers have been a growing part of the US labor force for some time. Independent workers have been a growing part of the US labor force for some time. By one estimate, before the pandemic hit, 48% of workers had been involved in the gig economy at some point. By 2024, that number is projected to rise to 53%.
But can gigs alone piece together a career or livelihood?
Christina Wallace is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and author of the upcoming book The Portfolio Life. She is intentional about defining portfolios as an approach to life, not just careers. They must take into account three things, she says:
One: “Your identity is not defined by any one role or opportunity.”
Two: “Diversification of income streams and industries will help you navigate change and mitigate uncertainty.”
Three: “When (not if) your needs change, you can and should rebalance your portfolio.”
Money and stability matter a lot.
One of the most important (and least discussed) aspects of portfolio careers is finances. Two truths became clear in my conversations: that it is okay for one aspect of your portfolio to be a full-time job with benefits, and that some aspects of your portfolio might make no money at all.
“You could consider a significant hobby or the investment in learning a new skill to be part of your portfolio. Or perhaps you have caregiving work or significant volunteer commitments,” says Wallace. “Albert Einstein famously followed this model early on in his career, opting for a ‘dull’ job at the US Patent Office so he could support his burgeoning physics research.”
Some that might be conducive to holding others alongside: University appointments often not only allow but encourage consulting and professional practice. Wallace also mentions creatives who spend their day jobs as software developers or UX designers. And of course, entrepreneurs and members of the C-suite quite naturally find themselves juggling multiple roles and priorities.
The key is to build a life that sustainably centers you and your needs, versus those of everyone else. “That's why I prefer the term ‘portfolio life,’” Wallace says. “It is the acknowledgement that your work is in the context of your life, and the combination of activities, projects, and priorities will include more than just paid work.”
It’s worth also stating: A good accountant, tax lawyer, and bookkeeping systems are all musts for the portfolio life.
Your Twitter following is just one part.
The rise of social media has created a focus on personal branding, which is undoubtedly important to the success of a portfolio approach to one’s career—but is also a bit of the proverbial cart before horse.
“The substance for the brand (which can be talent, passion, mission, etc.) is first, and the brand is built on and around those,” says Cindy McGovern, CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting and author of the upcoming Sell Yourself: How to Create, Live, and Sell a Powerful Personal Brand. She mentions a three-step process when it comes to powerful personal brands: “Create the brand, live the brand, and sell the brand.”
“To do all three, you must be clear about your strongest aspects and craft those into your personal brand (which happens to be your company brand) in a portfolio career,” she says. “You must also live the brand day after day to build trust, and then sell the brand to continue to get more work.”
Navigating corporate America is a skill, but...
On Gather’s podcast, Tobin suggested that young workers in particular might see portfolio careers as the place they want to start, versus where they want to end up. “With any other part of your life that you're investing in, with the possible exception of relationships, [the idea] that you would take, for example, all of your money and put it into one stock—any financial adviser would tell you that you're insane. So why would you do that with your work?” he asked.
One of his fellow guests on the podcast, Ben Edwards, picked up on this thread of employees’ desire to maximize their market potential. Edwards is Gather’s managing director of organizational performance, where he consults with large financial services, healthcare, and insurance organizations. “Very few companies are good at developing skills for employees,” he said. “The real skill they develop is how to navigate the inside of a large company or even a medium-sized company, which is not a transferable skill.”
This matters as the economy begins to head south. While we are still in a tight labor market, layoffs are ongoing. “It's kind of heartbreaking to me when you get these layoffs,” Edwards said. “People are like, ‘Well, what are my skills?’ And the answer is the company has not taken care of that for them. They're not as developed as they are on the outside of companies, in the freelance market, where we live by our skills in every contract….[The corporate world] is a poor environment, on the whole, to be developing your skills, which is your real source of security.”
A portfolio approach at least offers a bit more control over skills, income, and identity.
A complicated picture for us women and people of color.
For many of us, portfolio life has been an accidental one more than an intentional choice. I was often asked to mentor young journalists of color, be a voice for diversity on a panel, or serve on nonprofit boards (all for free) before I realized I was learning valuable skills in these extracurricular activities that could be more lucrative.
But it takes a certain amount of privilege to deliberately quit a day job and leap into doing more, for potentially less. And then there’s the reality of underrepresented people of color having to prove themselves to be twice, even thrice, as good, even as many are asked to “give back” to their own communities (through aforementioned free labor, board seats, advice, and mentorship). A portfolio approach can mean having to prove yourself again and again, in each new context you take on.
“When you are open about your portfolio career, there's always a risk that folks will blame your errors on your divided attention rather than chalking it up to being human,” Wallace says. “These stumbles could be held against you as proof you aren't ‘all in.’ So while a portfolio career might be more valuable to these groups, the publicity of it (such as on social media) might be more problematic.”
How to explain yourself.
“Can’t you just do one thing?” That’s a refrain many people with portfolio careers often hear from their parents—and from Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, infamous for demanding single-minded focus.
“Silicon Valley does say to focus on one thing, but those are businesses. We are talking about careers,” reminds McGovern. “Even in Silicon Valley, people pivot. If a company is good at software development, then they concentrate on that. If they are developing software for gas-powered cars and the world shifts to electric, then they would pivot their personal brand to show that they can develop software for that too.”
Wages are stagnant. Housing and childcare costs are rising. We’re in a student-loan crisis. Wallace rattles off statistics. “When our parents or grandparents look at this approach to work, they often see ‘flighty,’ not ‘strategic,’” she says. But “the old career playbook doesn't work anymore. The rise of the portfolio career is a direct result of attempting to survive, or audaciously, thrive, in the midst of this incredibly challenging economic calculus.” In that calculation, many people are realizing that the only way they can propel their passions and careers forward is to do it themselves.