What To Do When You Want To Do Everything: Could A Portfolio Career Be Right For You?

Three doors

Some call them Slashers, or Scanners. Others call them Renaissance souls. But whatever you call them, there are more and more of them every day – and if you hate the thought of doing just one thing for the rest of your life, you might consider joining their ranks soon, too. Natasha gives us an insight into the life of a portfolio careerist.

Travel writer. Horse trainer. Copywriter. Coach. Florist. Dancer. PR executive. Yoga teacher. Event manager. 

The list was endless, and it was driving me crazy. 

I was overflowing with ideas, and I had no idea which one to choose. 

One day, I’d have my heart set on writing. I’d get excited about it, start researching ways to make money from it, and then the following morning I’d have changed my mind. I couldn’t seem to settle on one decision. 

Making a choice between my different ideas felt like I was walking away from an entire lifetime of potential happiness. 

And knowing how easily excited I was by so many different possibilities, I wondered if I could ever be happy with just one career. Doing just one thing, for years and years…would that ever be enough for me? Choosing just one path, no matter how much it excited me, felt like a jail sentence. 

I didn’t know what a portfolio career was at the time. I had no idea that it was one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the world of work. I didn’t know that at the time, in 2012, more than a million people in the UK alone were combining their different passions and interests and making a living from them all.

If you feel anything like I did, this concept could revolutionise your career change. It certainly did mine.

What if you didn’t have to choose just one career?

Do you often have multiple projects (or ideas for projects) buzzing around your mind?

Are you more interested in being a "wide achiever" than a "high achiever"?

Do you love diving into one subject or career idea for a while, and then find yourself quickly distracted by something else?

Maybe you’re torn between two (or three, or four) ideas for your future career and can’t bring yourself to make a decision.

If the thought of settling on one industry and climbing the career ladder for the rest of your working life feels stifling and dull, a portfolio career could be for you.

Zaira is a classic example of someone for whom a portfolio career was a good option. She left university with a Joint Honours degree in French and Law, and began working as a property solicitor for a major legal firm in London.

I enjoyed my work, and my colleagues were fantastic, but still I started feeling this creeping exhaustion and boredom. It was like my life had suddenly shrunk; turned into a narrow corridor where before it had been wide open and full of different things. 

I had started a French language club for kids while I was at university, which I loved, but now I was too tired and busy with work in the evenings to continue it. I’d stopped going to dance classes, and I began to feel like my brain was slowing down. The inside of my head felt cramped and I was constantly wishing I was somewhere else, doing something else.

I’d read articles or hear stories about people in other careers, or starting exciting projects and just feel like my life had already ended. There was no time for me to do anything but my job. I kept waking up and wondering: isn’t there supposed to be more to life than this? But when I considered a career change into a new field, I knew I’d miss the law. I knew that whatever I went into, I’d always feel like I was missing out on everything else I could have been doing.

Sound familiar? 

With a portfolio career, you can combine your passions in a way that works for you

A portfolio career, simply put, is a working style where you have several strings to your career bow, often creating a mix of employment, freelancing, and / or consultancy .

You might be a teacher AND an artist. A business management consultant, AND a graphic designer, AND a ski instructor. You might work in a marketing office three days per week, and run an online coaching business from a café for the other two. 

The beauty of a portfolio career is that you can design and structure it in a way that works for you; and people do this in a variety of ways.

Some split their time on a weekly basis, working a few days per week on one career path, and a few days per week on another.

Others focus most of their time on one career, and indulge in another passion (still on a paid basis) for a few days per month, or in their evenings and weekends.

And some even split their time seasonally, spending their winters doing one thing and their summers another.

Most people build their portfolio around one primary source of income; the “anchor” of their career.

Then around this core piece of work, they juggle one or more “satellite” careers; often consultancy, freelance projects, or the possibilities that feel more risky. 

For Zaira, this meant continuing her work as a solicitor, but reducing her hours to three days per week. Now, she works Monday to Wednesday in the office, and spends the rest of her time running French language classes and studying for a diploma in Child Development.

I’m so much happier now. I still have the security of my legal career, but I also get to do the other things I love. I’m learning how to run my own business, my brain is engaged in a new interest, I’m back in the dance studio, and I finally feel like my life is my own.

My own career is now a happy blend of freelance writing, coaching, training horses and running our Career Change Launch Pad. It's a combination I never dreamed was possible when I first started out on my career change, and what's even more exciting is that I'm sure it's going to continue to develop and evolve in the future, just as I will.

Isn’t this just for people who are still making a decision about what they really want to do?

It can be. A number of career changers do begin working in a new industry before leaving their old career, in order to experiment and learn more about their new career idea. And during the recession, many people were forced to take on multiple part-time jobs in order to maintain their income.

But for a much larger group of people, this is the perfect end goal. They’ve recognised that they’re never going to be happy settling down with just one option, and have chosen to create a working style that reflects the way their mind works: following their multiple passions, rather than abandoning all but one.

What are the benefits of a portfolio career?

  1. It allows you to express yourself fully. If you’re a Scanner, the kind of person who has always been interested in a range of different things, this kind of working style is a beautiful way to keep you engaged and energised at work. For some people, jumping between different subjects is exhausting. But for others, it’s a joy. A portfolio career can be the perfect manifestation of who you are as a whole person, and give you the freedom to explore whatever new avenues appear in your life.

    For me, switching between tasks and projects is exactly what makes me most productive. My brain just seems to kick in better when it's stimulated by a range of different ideas, and I feel better about life in general when I have a lot going on. When people ask me what I do for a living and I answer with four different things, I feel at my most authentic. I'm easily distracted, inspired by everything, and I love to learn; and my career reflects that perfectly.
  2. It can be a more secure approach to work. This one often causes some eyebrows to be raised: surely full-time employment is a more secure option than a juggling act? Well, as anyone who’s ever been fired or made redundant will tell you, full-time employment can be a lot like being a freelancer with only one client. If anything goes wrong, you have to start from scratch.

    But as a portfolio careerist, you have multiple streams of income to support you. If one dries up or slows down, you can lean on the others to get you through. If there’s an expensive month on the horizon, you have the flexibility and autonomy to increase your workflow accordingly. For many people, that knowledge is far more reassuring than a regular payslip.

    For the first half of this year, I've given myself a break from freelance writing in order to focus on another project that felt more engaging to me. But I'm still earning. How many people do you know that can 'quit their job' and not worry about cashflow?
  3. You’re free to do what you want, when you want. Not everybody wants to be in full control of their career. But if autonomy is important to you, and the idea of working the same hours every week for a salary that someone else gets to decide upon feels odd, a portfolio career can put you back in the driver’s seat. 

    I could never get my head around the fact that I was essentially being paid to sit in the same chair from 9am until 6pm every day. If I wake up at 6am and work hard all morning, I can spend my afternoon at the beach. If I want to spend extra time on a project, I can rearrange the rest of my week to accomodate it. It's a level of control over my own life that I now can't imagine giving up. You spend your prime years at work – why would you hand the reins of those years over to someone else?
  4. If you play your cards right, you could end up richer. Barrie Hopson, co-author of “10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career” closely studied 46 portfolio careerists in his research for his book, and discovered that the vast majority of them earned more within two years of starting out as a slasher than they ever did as a full-time employee. It's certainly true for me: I get to negotiate my own fees, adjust the proportions of my workload according to my financial needs, and my income is based on the quality of my work, not on the salary band that someone else decided upon. 

What are the potential down sides of a portfolio career?

  1. It can take a lot of energy. Indulging in multiple passions can be fun and exciting – and, like juggling, it requires a certain mentality and level of diligence to keep all your balls in the air. You need to be organised, able to mentally compartmentalise, and flexible to truly thrive in this approach to work. It took me a while to learn to manage my time appropriately, and there was a point where one strand of my portfolio felt like it was taking over my life. If you've never worked in this way before, there's probably a steep learning curve ahead of you.
  2. Nobody will send you home if you’ve been at the office too long. Because you’re operating outside of the 9-5, some portfolio careerists experience “work creep”; where they end up working longer hours and tiring themselves out. I've found myself on a Skype call at 2am, and then on another at 6am. I've found myself working 80-hour weeks in the past (as well as 2-hour weeks). If you’re considering this style of career, it’s important to keep track of how much time you’re spending at work and ensure you’re not running yourself into the ground. 
  3. You have primary responsibility for your finances and your career. Portfolio careerists rarely have access to a company pension, sick pay, or benefits. If these are important to you and you don’t believe you’ll be able to create your own financial security, a portfolio career is probably not the best choice for you. Plus, if something goes wrong, there’s nobody else to point the finger at.

    Last year, I contracted an eye infection that left me not just unable to see, but unable to poke my head out from a pitch-black room. I couldn't work, so I couldn't earn, and at one point I was seriously worried that I wouldn't be able to work for a long, long time. This is the case whether you're a portfolio careerist or a freelancer, but there's something particularly unsettling about knowing there are THREE jobs you can't do, rather than just one!
  4. Answering the question: “so what do you do?” can be challenging. Even though they’re rapidly increasing in popularity, it’s not always easy for people to understand a portfolio career. And if you’re trying to market yourself, you may find you have to create several different work ‘personas’ in order to attract the clients or employers you’re looking for.

    Re-writing my LinkedIn profile for the first time as a portfolio careerist was tough. And standing in front of a stranger at a party and trying to explain that you’re a zookeeper who also consults on major blue-chip mergers can be difficult (but it can also be a lot of fun!)

Getting started in a portfolio career

Portfolio careers clearly don’t come pre-packaged and ready to go. They can take time to build up, and may require several experimental iterations before you hit upon the combination that’s right for you.

But conveniently, they’re not too risky to get started with. There are three main ways people launch their portfolios (and you can begin two of them without even handing in your notice).

  1. Moonlighting. As the name suggests, this means starting a new project or business in your evenings and weekends, over and above your current job. If you’re considering a freelance career as part of your portfolio, you can work on landing your first client without even telling your employer that you’re thinking of branching out. Once the second strand of your portfolio becomes better-established, it might be time to experiment with the second strategy for launching your portfolio career...
  2. Re-jigging. This is where you rearrange your working hours to make room for a second source of income. If you’re currently working for an employer, this will probably require a conversation with your manager. You might ask to go part-time, or perhaps you can convince your boss that you’re able to get five days’ worth of work done in four, by working longer hours. If you’re self-employed, you might need to look at ways you can condense your working hours in order to make space in your schedule for something new.
  3. Jumping. Usually the riskiest approach to shifting careers, jumping can provide you with the motivation and momentum to get up and running with your new career path. Essentially, what we’re looking at here is handing in your notice at your day job and living off savings or an alternative source of income until you have your ducks in a row. 

For some people, the mere idea of a portfolio career leaves them feeling stressed out and confused. If you’re a deep-diver who wants to climb to the top of a career path and become a master of one subject, this clearly isn’t the right path for you. 

But if you’ve spent a long time struggling with which career idea to pursue, and the idea of switching between activities and subjects is inspiring and exciting, it could be exactly the right path for you.

Are you considering a portfolio career? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.