The American workforce now boasts more than 15 million self-employed workers, and that number is swelling fast: One projection puts it near 60 million by 2040. It’s clear that the freelance economy is on the upswing, and for the vast majority of us, this is good news.
Or at least it can be. People aren’t robots, programmed to do one thing over and over. We’re creatures with many interests and abilities. And though we may have been raised to believe that we’d grow up to do one thing for the rest of our lives, the evolution of the modern economy doesn’t seem likely to let us.
To adapt, we’ll need to change our ideas about our career paths and even our day-to-day working lives. The management expert Charles Handy, in his book The Age of Unreason, calls this new model the “portfolio career.”
As Handy sees it, we all won’t do just one type of work–indeed, many of us already don’t, having changed careers more than once or acquired new skills to meet changing business needs. More and more in the years ahead, modern workers will have a series of careers and will constantly have to find new ways to stay relevant in the job market.
The basic idea of a “portfolio” approach to your professional life is to think of your work not as a single, stable activity, with a name like “marketing manager” or “web developer,” but as the set of interests, passions, and activities that underlies and animates your role. What if instead of identifying with a job description, you began to see this whole mass of things you do as a portfolio of skills and abilities?
This way, when your job description changes (or becomes obsolete), you’ll still have that foundation to draw on in order to do something different. Here’s what a portfolio career might look like in practice, plus three tips for embracing it.
Long gone are the days of graduating high school or college, joining up with a company, and working there for 40 years before retiring and collecting a pension.
That much you already know. What’s emerging in place of that stable career path is something that’s a little more heterogeneous and harder to plan for. The first step–as with any big changes–is to accept it. Don’t be surprised when layoffs arrive or your industry experiences a major shift. Instead, look for the opportunity that those changes–and the new ways of working and doing business–afford you professionally.
In many cases, the organizations where we make our vocational homes won’t be here five or 10 or 15 years from now. They’ll be acquired, go bankrupt, or morph into something new. That’s the way the world works now. Having a portfolio mind-set toward work will make you a more well-rounded person and set you up for success when things change fast.
Think of every new experience as contributing to the portfolio of work you’re building–not for a single employer or client, but for your own base of knowledge and skills. And each job is a chance to grow and diversify this investment in your own professional profile.
We all have things we do for the love of it, regardless of whether they provide an income or not. Psychologists call this “play,” and recently researchers have concluded how essential such activities are to our overall growth as human beings. In other words, leisure can make us better at what we do.
Here’s how Hara Marano, editor-at-large for Psychology Today, put it in an article from 2013:
We would all agree that play lifts stress from us. It refreshes us and recharges us. It restores our optimism. It changes our perspective, stimulating creativity . . . But there is also evidence that play does much more . . . Play appears to allow our brains to exercise their very flexibility, to maintain and even perhaps renew the neural connections that embody our human potential to adapt, to meet any possible set of environmental conditions.
Big claims to be sure, but the point is that those creative, perspective-shifting activities aren’t just recreational side hobbies. Your job is no longer the main event. Instead, play can help fuel the mental shift required to embrace a more “portfolio” approach to your work.
It also has more practical benefits. As the nature of work changes and the traditional 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek vanishes, we’ll all need to take greater personal responsibility for managing both the work that we do and the rest that we need. Recharging isn’t just a diversion. It’s now a part of the job. Without a regular schedule that your employer sets for you, you’ll need to decide for yourself where play fits in–and how to deploy it in order to sustain and strengthen the work you do.
I recently met a man in his late fifties who had been out of work for years. Though he occasionally works odd jobs here and there, he hasn’t been able to find anything steady. It’s a frustrating situation, because the job he had for most of his career no longer exists. What’s he to do?
The answer, as uncomfortable as it may be for him, is to stop searching for ways to recycle his old skills. He needs to learn something new. This is now more essential than ever, not only for surviving but thriving in the new economy. Technology is changing so quickly that it’s easy to get left behind. But the truth is we all have opportunities to diversify the portfolio we’re building with each new experience.
Think of your own core skill set. Chances are there are one or two (or more) of them that you could still get better at. Chances are, too, that there are at least a few more skills you don’t have that are related the the ones you do. And you can use your existing knowledge base as a jumping-off point for building new capabilities. To take one basic example, a writer may learn other skills besides writing, like research, copy editing, storytelling, teaching, and so on. Repurposing those skills in another opportunity would be one way she could continue to stay relevant and in-demand.
As Handy once said in an interview, “If you groan about your job or find it has become monotonous and boring, you need to ask yourself—what do you secretly want to do? Do it. You can have a break point and reinvent yourself. Sensible people reinvent themselves every 10 years.”
When in doubt, reinvent yourself. Your portfolio is never complete. The world is always changing, and so are you. Stay flexible and open to new opportunities while continuing to hone your existing skills. Do that, and there will always be a place for you in this new world of work.
Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family. He is the author of the national best seller The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffGoins.