My Bipolar Career – Top Three Tips to Managing a Portfolio Work Life

While being interviewed on a podcast recently, I was asked how I manage to effectively juggle multiple career paths. The truth is that there have been many times when I haven’t. The interviewer started to talk about dividing time and segmenting focus but, for me, the key to thriving as someone with a portfolio of roles came when I stopped thinking of segmentation and started embracing fusion.

For those of you who don’t know, I wear multiple hats to make a living. Like so many of us now. I run two businesses that on the surface deal with the very different offerings. One is a learning and coaching business and the other is a creative consultancy that builds story content. For some time I kept these two worlds separate. I would divide my days in accordance with the need and focus for the coming weeks. I did what all good time management advice tells you to do: one thing at a time, don’t do two things at once. Now that’s still true, but what I’ve changed is the mindset that sits around that divided focus. I see it all as one role.

Despite the fact that I help others with their communication, I used to dread the question, “so what do you do (for a living)?” That networking nightmare. I’d freeze. I’d fluff my lines. I’d provide some round ‘the houses explanation’ about storytelling, communicating, consulting and coaching. The questioner would look at me with a face that told me they were unconvinced and if they needed communications advice they’d find it elsewhere. Who could blame them? Not exactly great for my brand! But that all stopped when I changed the way I thought of myself and my role. When I started to fuse my paths into one.

When working with clients and coaching them on how to develop and share their content with an audience I’ll often talk about permission. “Give yourself permission to be in the room,” I’ll advise. “Know your worth and own that space for the time you need to.” It’s advice I had forgotten to take myself. Not anymore. Now I give myself permission to share the whole of my ‘career self’ with the people I talk to. I’ve reframed the strands of my work into a coherent role, where each path informs and helps to develop the other. If I have to give it a title I’ll say something generic like Creative Consultant. It’s not clear what that means, but it leads to the next inevitable question, “oh, what’s that?”

The thing that really made the difference was finding the subject that sits at the centre of all the work I do. What’s at the heart of the Venn diagram of your working life? For me it’s story. That’s my deep subject matter interest and expertise. It’s where my 10,000 hours have been earned. I just happen to apply that depth of knowledge across a broad range of applications.

Finding the identity that suited my purpose gave me permission to stop viewing my career as bi-polar. It’s made me more productive and much happier. But it’s also benefited my clients. By thinking less rigidly about the roles and embracing the skills across all my working practices, I’ve found my place. For example, if I’m pitching for work about developing a team’s presentation skills I’ll naturally bring in the work I do in theatre. But now I’ll also talk specifically about my work in sound design and music composition. I’ll talk about how they inform the development of a speaker’s storytelling skills and an audience’s emotional response.

So what are my top tips to help you manage a portfolio work life:

  1. Permission – give yourself permission to embrace the roles you have and not worry too much about the separate labels others want to place on you
  2. Specialism – find the centre point in the Venn diagram of your roles and accentuate that skill or quality as your unifying specialism
  3. Fusion – bring your roles together into a fused identity and keep the segmentation for the tasks/actions you undertake.

We’re not the title or titles of the roles we perform. We’re people engaged in activities. People with skills both broad and deep. Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about a single identity and time to start embracing the many and varied strands that we fuse together. Time to celebrate diversity within ourselves. I’ve still got work to do. My LinkedIn profile for one could be clearer. But, like all of us, I’m an evolving story still in progress.