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Instead of One Career, Try Having a Few Careers at Once

Part-time projects can add up to a career that offers flexibility and excitement

By Julie Shifman | May 25, 2012
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Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create The Life You Want. Her website is actthree.com

To give you an idea of my typical work day, let me tell you about a recent Thursday. In the morning I handled a plumbing crisis in one of the New York City apartments I manage as part of my real estate business. Then I delivered a seminar on resumés for women returning to work. After lunch, I edited a chapter of my upcoming book, Act Three, coached a client about her career, and ran a two-hour meeting of the United Way committee that I chair as a volunteer.

That might sound like a totally schizoid day, overloaded with disparate projects and a lot of starting and stopping. But to me, a day like that is a stimulating challenge — and exactly the way I like to work. This conglomerate of activities and projects is what I call my “portfolio career.” Think of it as the work equivalent of having a diversified portfolio of financial investments.
 
Who Should Consider a Portfolio Career
 
A portfolio career can be ideal if you answer "true" to one or more of the following statements:
  • You get bored easily doing the same kind of job over and over.
  • You either need or prefer a flexible work schedule.
  • You’d like to have or need the multiple income streams that a portfolio career can provide.
I fall into the first category, since I thrive on variety. So my portfolio career includes a wide range of activities: running my career advisory business, Act Three, and coaching its clients; writing my book and articles for NextAvenue.org; managing real estate; teaching at Xavier University; delivering speeches to women’s groups; serving on the boards of several nonprofits; and creating inspirational events for women, which I call Imagine…Then Do It. Oh, and teaching ballet.
 
But that's just me. Here's more on portfolio careers, from each of the three categories:
 
People Who Thrive on Change
 
Dayna Steele of Houston is a prime example of someone who has a portfolio career because she loves variety in her life. Known as Houston’s First Lady of Radio in the 1980s, Steele worked for two decades as a DJ and interviewed countless rock stars with names like Bono, Ozzy, Bowie and Jagger. 

When she lost her job in 2006, Steele didn’t know what to do next. Instead of ramping up for a re-entry into radio, she decided to go the mix-and-match route.
 
“When people ask what I do, I say, ‘everything,’” she says. “I do things that pull from my many talents and strengths.” Her portfolio includes crisis management for a public relations firm and its clients; hosting an in-house radio show and providing social media consulting for a corporation; marketing and communication consulting for a private space exploration company; doing voiceovers and behind-the-scenes interview sessions for corporate DVDs; and giving speeches.
 
“When you put it all together, it makes for a remarkable life,” Steele says. “A lot of people think they have to find one job, but you really don’t.”
 
People Who Crave a Flexible Schedule
 
Maybe you can’t be tied down to a single 9-to-5 (or these days, more like 8 to 6) job. Or maybe an intriguing part-time job has come up. A portfolio career lets you manage your time as you take on new projects. You figure out how to squeeze them in, sometimes temporarily pushing others to the side.
 
I love having the flexibility to do what I want, when I want to do it. For example, I’ve spent the past six months writing my book. Since I couldn’t add writing three hours a day to my already packed schedule, I dropped teaching for a semester, freeing up the hours I needed. Now that the book is done, I can start teaching again.
 
Such flexibility is often very important to people who’ve retired from their first career but don’t want to stop working altogether. An “encore career” with a balanced portfolio can let you take on fulfilling work while carving out more time for family or leisure activities.
 
But the reasons for seeking flexibility vary. In her book One Person/Multiple Careers, Marci Alboher writes about what she calls her “slash career” as a lawyer/writer/consultant. “Sometimes people hold onto a prior identity while volunteering or getting experience in something new,” says Alboher, who is vice president of Civic Ventures, the think tank driving the encore career movement. “In other cases, they choose this lifestyle because it allows them to pursue multiple interests and passions concurrently.”
 
Flexibility is also enticing to former stay-at-home moms who are now empty nesters looking for career opportunities. Although many are excited about having time for a full-time job, others prefer not to lose control of their schedule. In fact, when I’ve surveyed empty nesters who had been stay-at-home mothers, the No. 1 reason they’ve given for not pursuing a full-time job was the desire to keep their schedules flexible.
 
People Who Need Multiple Sources of Income
 
In today’s harsh economy, more and more people prefer to bring in several sources of income, rather than betting all their chips on one job at one employer. Downsizing has led some to replace a full-time salary with income from a number of part-time positions, like consulting jobs and project work. These may not entirely make up for the lost income, but they may equal or even exceed the pay from a single full-time job.

Given that employers are still reluctant to hire full-time employees in this uncertain economy, I suspect that a growing number of people will turn to portfolio careers. 
 
Who Shouldn’t Have a Portfolio Career
 
Still, a portfolio career isn’t right for everyone. It takes a certain kind of personality to enjoy this level of variety. If you’re uncomfortable juggling tasks and prefer a smooth routine, a portfolio career will probably stress you out. 
 
Even if the idea appeals to you in the abstract, you need to be highly organized to pull off this kind of career. Otherwise, one of your assignments is bound to fall through the cracks. (My secret to staying organized is sending myself email reminders several times a day.)
 
Relying on part-time projects could also be problematic if you want a steady stream of guaranteed income. With a portfolio career, you may make a bundle one month and not much the next.
 
Finally, if you need a job that provides health insurance benefits, because you’re not covered by anyone else’s plan, working part-time jobs may not be right for you. In most cases, only full-time employees qualify for health insurance, although a few employers offer health coverage to some part-timers. They include, for example, Costco, Home Depot, Starbucks, Target, UPS and Whole Foods. 
 
How to Create a Portfolio Career 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                If you want to pursue a portfolio career, what's the best way to proceed?

First, list your chief skills. Then brainstorm ways you can use these skills to generate income. Don’t ignore volunteer activities, since they can often lead to paying jobs, as I’ve explained in another Next Avenue article. Finally, start taking on projects that use your skills to best advantage.

 
Before I started developing my portfolio career, I decided that my chief skill was communication. So I looked for a variety of ways I could put that talent to work. Today, most of my portfolio revolves around this skill. But not all: I do certain jobs, like managing real estate, just to earn extra income.