THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Muti-masking: Don different hats for success

Recently, Aaron Karo performed stand-up comedy in sold-out shows in Boston. He also bills himself as an author, a public speaker, and a sitcom actor. Karo has always juggled a few careers. After college, he went to work for an investment bank. But he was also writing a weekly newsletter with thousands of subscribers. And he wrote a book.

About 10 years ago, management guru Charles Handy predicted that people would replace the idea of one full-time job with several different part-time occupations, which he called the "portfolio career."

A portfolio career is not the same thing as holding down three bad jobs and wishing you could figure out what to do with yourself. Rather, it's a scheme you pursue purposefully and positively to achieve financial or personal goals. 

While there has been scattered adoption of the portfolio career among baby boomers, the idea is gaining a lot of traction among younger workers. For people in their twenties and early thirties, a portfolio career is a means of self-discovery, hedging bets and protecting quality of life.

Most people's skills cross into more than one profession, so the idea of having to chose a single profession is frequently unappealing. Young people are particularly drawn to the idea of a career as a vehicle to fulfillment and self-actualization, so they are less apt than Handy's generation to settle into one narrow career.

The arguments for a portfolio career at the beginning of one's adult life are clear. The best way to figure out what will make you happy is to try it. A portfolio career gives you the opportunity to try three or four types of work at the same time, and to keep switching choices until you come up with one you like.

The trick in all career decisions is to figure out the intersection of your skills and your passions. This is an ongoing process, not a final destination, so a portfolio of part-time careers is more conducive to this path of discovery than a single, eight-hours-every-day career. Babson College prof Andrew says, "Passion is something you have to look for every day of your life. Your passion is likely to change over time but finding your passion is good practice. Part of the search for your passion should be a search to know what your skill set is."

The problem with a portfolio career is that you run the risk being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none-– a problem in terms of both money and fulfillment.

"The most secure portfolio careers are with people who have a fairly solid skill base that people will pay for," says career coach Ian Christie. "You have to hang your hat on something. Either a functional skill, like accounting and you can be, say, a personal trainer at home. Or you need to find a market niche and provide a lot of services, such as training, development, outsource contracting, etcetera.

And you probably need a creative outlet in your portfolio. Any work can include creative thinking, but if you want to be creative, you must learn to do something well. To excel at something requires you to challenge yourself continually. Achieving high skill level at something is an important step toward fulfillment because most people want to think they have explored the limits of their potential.

Karo says he receives a lot of email from people asking how they can follow their creative dreams. And his advice is, appropriately, the Instant-message-length version of Handy's book-length theory: "You've gotta do it on the side. Diversify your revenue streams. Do what you're passionate about."