I was 30 years old, had just quit my job, had more money in the bank account than I’d ever made in a single year, and I was bored. I had no idea that the solution to my boredom was not some new thing but recognizing all the things I had taken for granted.
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So there I was: with everything I had worked so hard for and already bored with it. It seems this is a theme in my life: I get everything I think I want and it disappoints me — or at very least underwhelms me. What’s my damage? It may be that I am perpetually dissatisfied, but I also think something deeper is going on here.
Fulfillment is not found in the acquisition of things, nor in the collection of accomplishments. Fulfillment is more of a journey than a destination, I think, a process more than a product. And so, when I found myself at the end of a very long two-year streak of hustling, it made sense that once I slowed down to enjoy it all, I didn’t find it that exciting.
I was bored. Well, confused might be more accurate. So I did the thing I always do when I hit one of these milestones and it’s not what I thought it would be: I phoned a friend. In this case, it was my friend, Keith.
Keith is a poet, marketer, and wanderer. He works during the day in the medical industry, doing all kinds of things I don’t understand; he is really a quite brilliant marketer and a serious entrepreneur. But he also loves poetry and hiking and eastern culture.
When I told Keith my dilemma, he was not surprised.
“Keith,” I said. “I need your help. I’m confused. Part of me feels like a marketer since I’ve been doing that for the past seven years. Part of me feels like I could be a really great writer if I’d just give it a shot. And part of feels the need to do what my friends are doing and go all-in on growing a business. I’m not sure who I am: Am I the marketer, the writer, or the entrepreneur?”
“Maybe,” he said with a chuckle, “you can be all the three. Maybe you can live a true portfolio life. That’s what I do.”
Keith began to describe the term to me, which he had heard from another friend of mine, Ian Cron (although I had never heard Ian mention this). A portfolio life was a life in which you did not have to pick one vocation, where what you did was not confined to or constrained by a solitary interest. With a portfolio life, you could treat your career like a series of investments of time and energy that, over the decades, accumulated in value.
Over the years, I’ve grown to love this idea of the portfolio life. It resonates with me and what I do at a deep level. Moreover, I believe this is the future of work for most of us, especially those living in westernized and industrialized societies. The future of work belongs to the portfolio person, and the future is here.
With a portfolio life, you treat your career like a series of investments of time and energy that accumulate in value.
Whether you’re bored, out of work, or simply wanting a more fulfilling career, I believe that by embracing a portfolio life, you will finally have the peace and contentment you seek in your work. This new kind of mastery, as I called it in my book The Art of Work, is the best way to organize your work in the 21st century. Here’s why:
A portfolio life represents the nuance of you.
Very few people have a single interest or hobby. Most of us like more than one thing, even if we went to school for a particular area of study. Thinking of your work, and your life, as a portfolio gives you permission to explore the diversity of interests you have and integrate them all into a single body of work you call your own.
A portfolio life is more marketable.
Would you rather hire a copywriter who is really good at writing or really good at writing and knows a thing or two about SEO? What about a wedding planner who understands the catering business, as well? Certainly, I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for a specialist, but more and more these days, most industries need people who are well versed in a few key, complementary skills. As Robert Greene wrote in his book Mastery, the future belongs to individuals who take unique skills and combine them in new ways. Embracing a portfolio life allows you to create a new category for yourself that you are now the best at, making you immediately attractive to those seeking to hire you.
A portfolio life is less risky.
I once knew a writer here in Nashville who was out of work. He’d been working directly with publishers for over twenty-five years and after the financial crisis of 2008 and the changing shape of the publishing industry, he found himself out of work for two straight years. I was just getting started as a writer and having great luck, so he asked my advice. I didn’t know much at the time but asked him if he had been to any local meetups to try to reconnect with local business owners and even publishers who might need to hire a writer. He said he wasn’t very good with people and didn’t know about that. I countered with suggesting he try LinkedIn or any number of other online networking sites. He said he didn’t care for those sites and preferred to work with people in person. I then asked if he had started a blog, and he explained how didn’t “get” technology. I told him that I was sorry he was having so much trouble finding business and left it at that. This was a man who had built his career on a single skill and when the world changed, he refused to adapt. A portfolio life ensures that when things change, you’ll be ready because you won’t have put all your eggs in just one basket.
What would life look like if you gave yourself permission to be all the things you ever dreamed of being, to do all the things you’ve ever thought of doing?
Perhaps the most important reason to embrace the portfolio life is that it’s a more interesting way to live and work; at least, it is for me. I finally feel free to enjoy all the various interests I have — business, writing, art, music, creativity, marketing, blogging, and more — without guilt or fear. All of these areas that I find fascinating add some unique flavor or color to my work that make me irreplaceable because nobody can do what I do quite the same way as me. And to be yourself, as Emerson once said, is the greatest accomplishment.
A portfolio life makes such self-actualization possible. What would life look like if you gave yourself permission to be all the things you ever dreamed of being, to do all the things you’ve ever thought of doing? Well, you might feel a lot of things, but I doubt you’d feel bored.