Creating a portfolio career

Jul 27, 2023
Creating a portfolio career

Find Your Superpower newsletter 020

Read time: 5 minutes

Topics covered: portfolio career, diversification, finding your ikigai, gig economy


In Dec 2022, my amazing art director Shelly* dropped a bombshell on me. She told me that she wanted to leave the company to launch an entrepreneurial business around her beloved black cat, Salipuma

Shelly has won many illustration awards for her work on Asian Scientist Magazine, and had been with my company for nearly four years. All of us had grown to love and adopt Salipuma as our own. Salipuma was our cat, our company’s virtual black cat!

In these situations, my typical response is always, “I wish you well, please let us know how we can help in the transition.” I then send chocolates or cake to their home on the last day for good luck.

But this was not what I did in Shelly’s case.

Instead, I said, “Shelly, have you heard of a portfolio career?”

(*story shared with Shelly’s permission)


What is a portfolio career anyway?

When we think of a portfolio, we typically think of an investment portfolio which we create to diversify our investments and reduce our risk of exposure to any one investment type (property, equities, bonds).

Legendary investor Warren Buffett recommends that most retail investors would be better off investing in a low-cost index fund that tracks the S&P 500, an index of 500 leading publicly traded US companies based on market capitalization.

According to Wikipedia, a portfolio career comprises a variety of roles rather than one job at a single organization. It may combine multiple paid and/or voluntary roles, and these roles are unrelated with each other. 

Harvard Business Review describes a portfolio career as “a new way to think about, talk about, and—most importantlycraft your professional future in order to navigate our ever-changing world of work with purpose, clarity, and flexibility.”


A strategic move in a sluggish economy

I am by no means a macroeconomist, but I think it is quite obvious to any professional executive who reads the news that this is not the best economy to risk a stable salary on, at least not all of it. Not only has inflation crept up and mortgage loan rates doubled (or in some cases, tripled), there has also been a pullback in VC investments and other sources of liquidity.

And without getting into the nitty-gritty of whether we are in a “technical recession” or not, I think it is fair to say that it would be risky to start a business focusing entirely on non-essential items like stationery, accessories and collectibles in this economic climate.

Therefore, I suggested to Shelly that she retain her (permanent) position with the company as our art director, but reduce the number of days working here to two days a week. Given that two days is a smaller fraction of the week, she could use the remainder of the time to focus on marketing and sales, design and manufacturing, and operations of the Salipuma brand, such as renting a booth at an exhibition.

Shelly agreed, saying that she enjoys her work with us designing cover artwork that has won her many creative international awards to date. We decided we would try this out for six months to see if it was working. Six months later, during our performance review, we both agreed that it was!

Today, I not only get to continue my happy partnership with Shelly, she is also able to enjoy the stability of a steady part-time income and retain her professional relationship with our design team, all while venturing into the choppy waters of small business ownership.


My own portfolio career

It used to be seen as risky to have a bunch of “gigs” compared to stable employment, but we are entering the era of the “gig worker” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about the sudden transition to remote work.

With the widespread adoption of remote work, it is now possible for someone to work for a company based in a completely different continent without even having travelled to that country before.

My own career resembles a portfolio, and it includes roles like LinkedIn coach and corporate trainer, ghostwriter to VIPs and brand strategist, podcaster, professional moderator, CEO, angel investor, community organizer, and in the past, biomedical researcher and assistant professor.

Some of these are traditional roles, while others aren’t. There’s also one other portfolio role that I particularly likemom.

These days, GenZs are normalizing shorter and shorter tenures at each job. When asked, one of the reasons they will provide is, “I am trying to find my ikigai, my meaning in life, and my current job isn’t able to provide that.”

But what if one job, one employer, and one company simply cannot provide all of the things that we need from a happy and rewarding career?

Cue the portfolio career: one that caters to our financial, creative and emotional needs all in one. With a portfolio career, you don’t need to know exactly what you want to do in your 20s or 30s, because everything is figure-out-able. As our needs evolve, we can recalibrate our portfolio to find the right balance for ourselves.

We get to design our life the way it suits us best. In my case, a non-negotiable is being there for my kids when they come home after school.


For those of you who are new to my weekly newsletter, Find Your Superpower, it is subscribed to by 23,000+ people and discusses the following three topics: (1) Making a career transition, (2) Professional branding on LinkedIn, and (3) Reinventing ourselves for the future of work.

Thanks for reading issue 020 of my weekly Find Your Superpower newsletter.

See you next week. 


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