As an Internet industry executive, trend spotting is my business. Last year, I unwittingly became part of a new trend. I became a portfolio careerist.
I didn’t invent the term “portfolio career,” but I now understand it firsthand. Similar to the way investment portfolios are treated, more and more successful 30-somethings, on the rise in their Internet/digital-focused careers, are starting to treat those careers like portfolios of options. Diversification is key.
As 2012 came to a close, an amicable job departure allowed me to spend the first half of 2013 away from traditional work, corporate America, job hunting, and the like. I was able to travel extensively (eight countries, three continents, 20 cities) and to meet with a vast array of people.
Not having to stress about finding my next job gave me an opportunity to think deeply about my career path and my desires. I decided not to rush back into a traditional job and, in- stead, to join projects that I cared about. My mantra became, “Work with people I like on projects I care about.”
The new attitude focused my thinking, opened new horizons, and attracted like-minded people to want to work with me. In practice, this meant helping people I respected, offering advice to startups I admired, and generally trying to do good in the world by applying my skills more broadly than I had previously been able to do. Some of these relationships offered monetary remuneration and some didn’t. But all were interesting, fruitful, and worthwhile.
Over the course of some 100 meetings with an array of colleagues, mentors, friends, and peers, I heard a vast majority say that they had either already left their jobs or were about to leave their jobs. Almost all had already lined up one or more side-projects, side-startups, and side-social-good initiatives to pursue. Very few, if any, planned to return to a traditional, full-time position.
I realized I wanted my work to mirror the emerging trend of the “portfolio career”; I wanted to step off the career trajectory and redefine how I approach work and life. Here’s how I now organize my work: One gig pays most of the bills; one or another gig pays other bills; at night, I’m developing an early-stage startup and helping a friend with his or her startup (for some equity); and, in between, I’m volunteering at one or more nonprofits that I’m passionate about. Of course, this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and I’m grateful to have a supportive wife and no school debt to burden me. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I don’t need to worry about employers handling my health care.
This trend is possible, and it is fueled by several other trends: The economy is slowly recovering and creating more opportunity; younger entrepreneurs understand that the promises awarded to earlier generations won’t come to fruition without hard, unconventional work patterns (such as rejecting the idea of staying in one place for decades); the fear of being laid off prevents many people from depending on one job; companies don’t “do favors” (one needs to fight for and negotiate raises and cannot assume to be rewarded for routine work), and the old quip “the employer I know is better than the one I don’t” no longer resonates. In the fast-paced and ever-changing Internet space, most people change jobs every 12 to 24 months anyway, preventing or eliminating most of the benefits of traditional work (options vesting, retirement programs accumulating, climbing the ladder, etc.).
The digital revolution has democratized a myriad of tools, allowing for better collaboration, quicker turnaround, and easier access to resources, education, and talent. Those of us comfortable with this revolution live and share more and more of our lives online, often blending our personal, professional, and private lives. We’ve seen enough scandals to know that “secrets” are anachronistic, and we understand the importance of authenticity, personal branding, and marketing savvy. All of this makes the old paradigm of holding one job over the course of one’s career — separate from the rest of one’s life — a model heading toward extinction.
My friends and colleagues are learning to diversify, stay engaged on multiple fronts, and nimbly jump from endeavor to endeavor as needed. Now, we can work on what we love even if it’s not our primary source of revenue in the short term. This isn’t just a monetary strategy, but one that promises a greater degree of satisfaction.
This trend has its downsides, of course. It calls for a certain flexibility and personal discipline that isn’t meant for everyone. And, whether working as in-house or as outsourced talent, portfolio careerists can often still find themselves facing the same problems they hoped to avoid — such as out of touch, risk-averse decision makers, annoying corporate processes, and more.
This basic tension can cause deep unsettlement, which is why many people stick to traditional career trajectories. I hope that as company executives warm to this trend, they will be able to harness the talents of their workers without driving them away. For example, some companies are supporting the concept of sidepreneurship (employees having side projects) instead of seeing such projects as distractions.
Over the next several years, I expect the portfolio career trend to drive new tools, services, and policies to support this fundamental shift in career and life planning.email print