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Undergrads: Build a Portfolio, Not a Career

“Chances

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

—dialogue from The Graduate (1967)

This famous exchange from a film of a bygone era reminds us of the often useless “advice” given to those finishing their undergraduate degrees. Despite the trend in universities to push for “practical” majors at the cost of the more enduring ones, any thinking undergraduate has to realize that, as the university adapts, so too must the undergrad. Just as “plastics” were considered the trending industry to get into in the 1960s, so too might “apps,” “crypto,” “coding,” or “startups” in the 20-teens.

But your goal as you prepare to leave the green world of undergraduate studies should not be simply to update a field of pursuit from that popular in the 1960s but to realize that you can and should cultivate multiple options in your personal and professional lives in the internet-powered world of today.

You probably know that not only are the days of working for a single company an entire working life long gone—even working in a single field for an entire career is increasingly unlikely. Depending on what study you read, many of those graduating college in the next ten years will work in three to seven entirely different fields during the span of their working lives. This calls for both flexibility in pursuit of a main job or career and a willingness to develop other opportunities in a portfolio of your work. As you pursue a living—be it a regular job, an apprenticeship, or even starting a business—keeping your portfolio stocked with possibilities (some of which are active, others in development) will create a richer and more fulfilling life and also lead to more economic freedom and possibilities.

This portfolio mindset has often been tied to the “gig economy,” or the “you economy.” The avenues available to monetize hobbies and passions owing to the internet are truly dazzling. The English major can sell poems on Fiverr or essay assistance on Upwork. The educator can create and sell a course on sites like Udemy or Creative Live. The musician or artist can create an “experience” that can be sold on Airbnb. The business student can create a product or service that can be funded on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The casual entrepreneur can flip products on Amazon or eBay. This is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of opportunities built on top of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram. Chris Guillebeau has chronicled many of these “side hustles” in a podcast and book of the same name. By recognizing the changing landscape now, and allowing yourself to pursue activities with an eye to the long term, you may find that your short- and medium-term prospects are notably enriched.

This idea of a “portfolio life” was most recently popularized by Jeff Goins in The Art of Work, but he attributes the idea to Charles Handy’s The Age of Unreason. Handy notes that there are five types of work: fee work, salary work, homework, study work, and gift work.

  • Fee work: work done for a product or service delivered
  • Salary work: work done in exchange for a certain time commitment
  • Homework: work done for yourself or your family in and around the home
  • Study work: work done in preparation for something that may or may not lead to fee, salary, or gift work
  • Gift work: work done pro bono or other types of volunteer work for the family or community

Such parsing reminds us that work is not always paid (nor does it need to be), and that if we exclude work that is personally meaningful to us we will not be true to ourselves and to what we hold most dear. Further, as Goins notes, a portfolio life is much less about “what you do” and much more about “who you are.” 

Both Cal Newport, in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Angela Duckworth, in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, implicitly discuss the portfolio life by tracing the paths of those who are engaged in truly meaningful work. Newport sets out to disprove the notion that you should “just follow your passion,” while Duckworth points out the power of following several paths simultaneously. Both are convinced that undergraduate students should be disabused not only of the idea that they will know precisely what career they will pursue before or upon graduation but also the idea of “one career” period. Dr. Barrie Hobson sums it up simply: “To have a portfolio life you need to think beyond simply having or not having a job.”

In relation to the work you keep in your portfolio, there’s much discussion these days about “flow” when it comes to work itself, and this is often achieved by those who have the “trinity of work,” which is:

  • Something you love
  • Something you do well
  • Something that pays well

The reality is that in previous eras most who entered the job world were very pleased to get two out of these three within their career. Most often it was something done well that also paid well. Sometimes it’s possible to add that third element, something we love, that makes work truly fulfilling and aligned with our natural and supernatural destinies. But other times it isn’t, and by cultivating a portfolio life, in which you pursue what fulfills you instead of solely relying on a job to deliver fulfillment, you can experience what it feels like to pursue and work in something you love, that you do well, and that can possibly be cultivated into something that pays well. What’s more important is that today’s technology allows you to pursue those interests at your own pace, time, and comfort level.

Malcolm X once said that the future belongs to those who prepare for it today. As you approach graduation, take the time to sketch out the outlines of a portfolio life of your own.

You’ll find that the exercise will excite you, but more importantly, it will help orient you toward a more holistic approach to finding meaningful, soul-fulfilling work. The kind of work that brings you joy. The kind of work robots are unlikely to take from you.


Stephen Heiner is a writer and entrepreneur living in Paris, France. He has written for Inc., Entrepreneur, Chronicles, Front Porch Republic, and The Art of Charm, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenheiner


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