Editor's note: Polywork's new Book Report series breaks down literature around multihyphenate topics such as the future of work, side income, and personal branding. Read our previous article in the series here.
I have long felt that I’m not meant to do just one thing in my career. But there’s a leap between knowing and doing, especially in a world that still prioritizes picking a singular life path. So, I’ve dabbled in multihyphenate work in some ways—freelancing so I can have some variety while still mostly sticking within one industry, prioritizing hobbies more than many people I know—while always feeling like there’s more I could be doing to tap into my full sense of self.
After reading The Portfolio Life: How to Future-Proof Your Career, Avoid Burnout, and Build a Life Bigger than Your Business Card by serial entrepreneur, Harvard Business School lecturer, and “human Venn diagram” Christina Wallace, I have a wealth of new tools to help me imagine and build possible futures for myself. For any multipassionate person trying to figure out how to balance all the things they want to do in work and life, here are a few of my biggest takeaways.
1. Seeing yourself beyond job titles will help you understand just how much you have to offer
Whether you’re trying to describe your work to other people or are dreaming up ideas for what you want to be in life, it can be difficult to move beyond the job titles we’re all familiar with. “It’s cognitively efficient to reduce a complex human being down to a single label like ‘engineer’ or ‘therapist’ or ‘librarian,’” says Wallace. But, not only is that a limiting way of approaching work, it can make you forget the variety of what you bring to the table. “If you’ve been in the workforce for a few years (or a few decades), it’s likely that you may have carved off, hidden away, or shut down aspects of yourself that didn’t fit the mold of the path you were setting out on,” she adds.
A more expansive approach is to think about your transferable skills that could benefit any industry, or how your unique background could lend a fresh perspective when entering a new discipline. Throughout the book, Wallace shares many stories of how multihyphenates who jump from one job to a very different one are able to connect dots nobody else sees.
If you’re struggling to envision more creative possibilities for your background and skills, Wallace suggests reaching out to a variety of friends and colleagues and asking them to reflect on your strengths. “Notably, they didn’t mention specific industry expertise, but instead identified the mindsets, skills, and settings where they had seen me thrive,” she shared. “More importantly, I could see myself beyond my current job title and realized how many opportunities I had to make my contribution to the world.”
2. You have to be willing to let some of your portfolio fail (and build safety nets so those failures don’t feel as dire)
One of the hardest things for me about fostering a multihyphenate career is taking the leap into something new: Marketing skills that I have less experience in, launching a side business in an unfamiliar industry, etc. I’ve always known I need to improve my failure tolerance, but Wallace’s discussion on the subject gave me a new perspective.
Just like in an investment portfolio, Wallace argues that you should plan for failure in a portfolio life—that it’s not really a failure, but just part of the process. “The very premise of a portfolio is that some things won’t work out but those that do will offset the losses,” she explains. For instance, you may keep a steadier part-time job while launching a riskier startup. “By definition, some of the activities in your portfolio will fail, because you aren’t filling it up with safe bets. You have to add risk in order to have a shot at higher returns.”
"Just like in an investment portfolio, Wallace argues that you should plan for failure in a portfolio life—that it’s not really a failure, but just part of the process."
Plus, even with the promise of some failure, Wallace argues that a polymathic career is still the safer path than just climbing one career ladder your whole life. “Doing just one thing is the riskiest career move you can make,” she says, especially given the rapid pace of change and disruption in our current world. “The best way to future-proof your career is to diversify. This isn’t just about building multiple income streams (though that’s always helpful), it’s also about diversifying your network, skill sets, even industry experiences.”
3. A successful portfolio life requires flexibility and should prioritize joy
One of my favorite discussions in the book was how to contend with wanting to do a lot in your career while also wanting to have a healthy work-life balance. As someone who is decidedly not a hustler, those two desires always felt at odds.
Thankfully, Wallace shares that “this isn’t about glorifying nonstop work. A successful Portfolio Life means making time for your priorities and putting everything that doesn’t make the cut on the back burner, knowing you can always reprioritize when your needs or resources change.”
In fact, she argues that managing your time as a polymath requires flexibility. Borrowing a tool from operations management, she suggests calculating your personal “utilization rate”—the amount of time you’re working in any given week divided by the amount of time you truly have to devote to work. You should be aiming for about 85%, because 100% “doesn’t give you any wiggle room for the crunch periods—the moments where the commitment surges beyond the average. Nor does it allow for mishaps, sick days, unforeseen complications, or any of the curveballs that life throws at you.”
Through all of this, Wallace encourages readers to center joy. “For a business, the bottom line is profit; for our lives, the bottom line is our happiness,” she says, adding that you may ask yourself, “What combination of work, relationships, personal time, hobbies, volunteering, and community activities will you choose to meet your needs, make progress toward your wishes, and give you the stability and sustainability you desire?”
“For a business, the bottom line is profit; for our lives, the bottom line is our happiness.”
“This is the power of a portfolio: It is as dynamic as you are, ensuring you have what you need for each season of life without taking your eyes off your goals.” That sounds like a pretty inspiring career path to me.