Why You Should Build a “Career Portfolio”

(Not a “Career Path”)

Every four years, something inside me shifts. I get restless and want to learn something new or apply my skills in a new way. It’s as though I shed a professional skin and start over, fresh.

In my 20s, I got all kinds of flak for this. When I decided to guide hiking trips rather than join a consulting firm, my peers said that my resume made no sense. When I opted to defer graduate school to travel in India, my mentors questioned my seriousness and said my professional future could crash.

I felt like something was wrong with me because I was interested in so many things while my friends were laser-focused on climbing the corporate ladder. It’s not that I wasn’t disciplined or willing to work hard. There was just too much worth learning and doing. To settle on one pursuit seemed like a mistake.

Today, the world has changed in some amazing and profound ways. Broadening your career focus and professional identity is no longer seen as abnormal. It’s celebrated. The macro forces driving the future of work demand independent and adaptable thinkers. When we add in the potential for automation to transform jobs en masse, the Great Resignation, and the growing number of hybrid offices around the world, it’s clear that the time is ripe to rethink what a successful career path looks like.

Up until this point, we have lacked the language necessary to design our careers in ways that veer from the traditional script. But now there is hope. A new vocabulary is emerging. At the heart of it is a shift from pursuing a “career path” to creating your “career portfolio.” This term was originally coined by philosopher and organizational behavior expert Charles Handy in the 1990s, and is poised to finally enter its prime today.

What is a career portfolio?

The term portfolio comes from the Italian words portare (to carry) + folio (sheet of paper). People often think of a portfolio in terms of finance, business, or art. For example:
  • Investors build investment portfolios to diversify their holdings and mitigate risk.
  • Financial advisors recommend a portfolio that includes equities, bonds, and cash.
  • Executives often use portfolio theory (pioneered by BCG’s product-portfolio matrix in the 1970s) to analyze their business units, strategy, and foresight. The purpose of their portfolio is to manage risk and return into the future.
  • Office managers and HR leaders use portfolios to stay organized.
  • Artists throw open their portfolio to show works they’re really proud of — the canvas of their lives.
A career portfolio is different in that it is not a physical entity or system. It’s a new way to think about, talk about, and — most importantly – craft your professional future in order to navigate our ever-changing world of work with purpose, clarity, and flexibility.
Whereas a career path tends to be a singular pursuit (climb the ladder in one direction and focus on what is straight ahead), a career portfolio is a never-ending source of discovery and fulfillment. It represents your vast and diverse professional journey, including the various twists and turns, whether made by choice or by circumstance.

My portfolio, as an example, includes author, speaker, futurist, advisor, lawyer, hiking guide, global development executive, investor, and yoga practitioner. Each of these identities took time to develop. Some of them included traditional jobs, while others meant self-employment, pro bono work, and sweat equity investments. Many are roles I’ve been in simultaneously and longer than my usual four-year stint, though my periodic urge to add another to the list continues unabated.

Especially for those just starting their careers, it’s important to know that you’re not going to have everything “figured out.” You shouldn’t have to and it’s probably better if you don’t. That’s the beauty of a portfolio. Because it’s not focused on a singular end, it gives you more space — and frankly, more wisdom — to test out different things and find your way.

The ability to navigate ambiguity and “not knowing” are in fact among the most valuable skills. Curating your career portfolio is more than professional development: It’s how you design your life.

How do I build a career portfolio?

The first thing to remember is: You already have one — even if you don’t realize it, even if you’ve never had a paid job. The place to start is to identify what’s in it.
While your portfolio can include traditional paid jobs, don’t limit it to that. Think bigger. Your portfolio is created by you, rather than determined for you by someone else (like a bunch of hiring managers). It reflects your professional identity and potential. It includes your unique combination of skills, experiences, and talents that can be mixed, matched, and blended in different ways.

If you’ve helped care for your siblings, or led a team of online gamers, or done community outreach — include these in your portfolio. In fact, include any role or activity in which you’ve created value and served others: freelance roles, volunteering, community service, side hustles, passion projects, hobbies, exchanges, parenting, supporting your family and friends, and so on.

Your portfolio should also include experiences and capabilities that are customarily left off your resume, yet fundamentally make you, you. For example, my status as an orphan, globetrotter, insatiable hand-stander, and mental-health advocate are all essential components of my portfolio. They power the work that I do.

How you keep track of your portfolio is a matter of personal preference. I suggest creating a simple list to start. But because the real value of your portfolio is in its diversity, you’ll want to make connections between the things that are in it.
Personally, I draw my portfolio: It looks like a network with many different nodes. As I add new skills, roles, or experiences, I add those to my drawing. A couple times a year, I refresh my drawing to make sure it still aligns with my broader professional and life journey. Read more

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