How to Design Your Portfolio Life

How to Design Your Portfolio Life

The American ethos is that we’re only as worthy as our output and we are replaceable in the blink of an eye. These dual convictions have led to an explosion of work-related stress causing significantly higher rates of depression, coronary heart disease, and chronic ill health in Americans who work long hours.”

This blog will discuss managing career risks by creating a portfolio life.

What Seems Safe May Be Risky

In managing career risks, sometimes what seems safe can be risky. For example, doing the same job at the same company for 30 years can seem the safest route to retirement. Is this idea valid?

Wallace writes, “The classic advice to secure a single full-time job with benefits at a stable company means putting your income, health care, and retirement savings all in the hands of a leader who may or may not know how to steer the company through the unpredictable future ahead. Employment can be riskier than self-employment.”

Wallace describes her professional life as being at the intersection of business, technology, and the arts. Her roles have included theater producer, entrepreneur, writer, and podcaster. She currently is a mother of two children while teaching entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School.

Your Professional Venn Diagram

Notice that Wallace describes herself as being at the intersection of business, technology, and the arts. This self-description allows her to take on a wide range of roles yet remain within a clearly defined space.

The author has created her professional Venn diagram.

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A Venn diagram shows the logical relationship between different sets of ideas or data. The concept, created by mathematician John Venn (1834-1923), uses circles to classify subjects. Where the circles overlap, one can easily see the relationship between different concepts.

Your Venn Diagram

As you reflect on your values and competencies, consider scheduling one-on-one meetings with people who have worked with you. Ask them the following questions:

1. When have you seen me happiest?

2. What do you come to me for?

3. Where do I differentiate relative to my peers?

Developing Orthogonal Networks

Once you have designed a Venn diagram, consider that each of the circles you have drawn contains a unique community. You want to be known in different communities so that you can seize opportunities when they arise. This is called orthogonal networking. For example:

You are the Director of Finance at an automobile distributorship. Your Venn diagram circles include Finance, Teaching Children, and Entrepreneurship.

You might want to spend time with a professional association geared to corporate finance. You want to be known within your local entrepreneurial community, so volunteer to help startups at your local college. You want to have connections to the world of children’s education by getting involved with your local elementary school.

If an opportunity in educational technology arises, you will have the necessary networks to help you move toward your goal.

When To Create Your Portfolio Life

Wallace’s book is called The Portfolio Life —not the Portfolio Career. There may be times in your life when the most pragmatic course of action is to focus on one job at a company. For example, you may have just graduated from college and are saddled with monthly rent and college debt repayment. You may need to save up for your child’s education.

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There are also times when you can take on more risks, for example, when your life partner has a stable job, or your children have left the nest.

Summary and Conclusion

In 2015, published our perspective on The Future of Careers. We argued that we manage our professional lives in an era that combines short job tenure with the elongation of middle age. Using your parents or grandparents as role models for how to manage your professional life may lead to frustration and depression. They worked in a different era.

You will be working for more years than your parents or grandparents. A portfolio life fits well within our model and adds practical steps to make your life interesting and less risky.


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