The Portfolio Career

Portfolio Career Defined

A person engaged in a portfolio career doesn’t work for a single company, but rather gathers a “portfolio” of jobs around a common theme or skill set, and balances that portfolio much like an investor manages a bundle of stocks.

—Charles Handy, organizational and management theorist

Charles sums this up nicely, however I might add that a portfolio career is often defined as a project based career.  For the purpose of this post, let’s assume that they can be interchangeable.

The portfolio career has been spoken about for well over a decade. At first, the prevailing thought was that the portfolio career was horizontal.  Institutions of higher learning weren’t (aren’t) preparing students for the 21st century economy, so companies would look for talent, hire them, and then spend six months to a year training them to be contributing members of the company they were enlisted to serve. Employees would enter said company, glean all they could from the work environment, stay a few years, and then move on, only to take on months of additional training before officially joining a new team.  By some accounts, millennials will have upwards of 10 jobs over the course of their careers.

In contrast, the vertical portfolio career focuses on pulling together many jobs to make a whole, allowing the individual to pursue a career that they are passionate about in a stable and sustainable way. Many who describe a portfolio career confuse the work with that of a freelancer.  However, being a freelancer means that you are primarily focused on utilizing the career path in which you are most passionate (entrepreneurship, music, dance, etc) as the sole means of sustaining your career.

The typical freelance career is discipline specific and it limits the amount of work you can take on because there are a finite number of positions in music, and, more importantly, you only have so many time-sensitive hours in the day to do this very meaningful work.

The portfolio career is a freelance career on steroids. Those seeking a portfolio career are balancing their passion driven career path (IE, music) with flexible jobs or passive income that make ends meet. Ultimately, the portfolio career is about lowering risk while providing the flexibility to do the things you love. This subtle, but important, difference allows 21st century workers to develop careers that are not completely reliant upon work they’re passionate about, essentially allowing them to continue to create without the stress of piecing together a career of gigs/exhibitions/new products that are not necessarily “in the bag” from month to month.  This type of career also allows those in typical 9 to 5 work the opportunity to explore and develop a career path rooted in passion while retaining the stability of their regular work.

Have you considered a portfolio career?  Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Published by Nate Zeisler

Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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