When Stable Isn’t

So perhaps you’ve noticed that my posting rate has dropped off. There are several reasons for that. First, I’m preparing to head back to Atlanta to visit friends and family for almost two weeks; planning for that has taken quite a bit of time. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve spent most of my free time writing my physics book. My goal is to have it written, edited, and published by mid-August, which is a very aggressive schedule! I’m almost done with the first two chapters, however, and I have a timeline for the rest, so I think (hope!) I can do it. Of course, if it does slip then things near the end of the year will start piling up as well. Finally, I’ve investigated several leads for work (and money), which have up eaten up any time I’ve had left. However, it’s looking very likely that I’ll be back teaching (albeit online) over the summer at the very least, and I am currently negotiating employment with two schools on a more permanent basis.

However, I’ve been pondering the implications of returning to teaching in light of what I’ve learned since I left two years ago to follow my wife back into the heart of her homeland. In that time I’ve done my own thing, trying to piece together whatever I could. Our finances have been tight, but we’ve pulled through, and for the most part we’ve been ok. In addition, I’ve had control over my schedule, and more importantly, over my evaluation process. Sometimes that’s been good (I haven’t had to deal with anyone else’s agenda), sometimes it’s been bad (Without feedback from others it’s harder to figure out exactly what needs to change and how), and sometimes its been downright ugly (Bittersweet Symphony was the positive product of one particular not-so-positive self-assessment session). The hardest part, however, has been answering the inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”

At first, it was an easy question to answer. “Oh, I used to be a physics professor.” Then, it became more complicated. “Well, I’m consulting with a textbook manufacturer to clarify and improve their online labs, and things like that.” Now, I don’t even try. “Well, I’m writing a book, and blogging some, and occasionally doing taxes… Oh, and I produce digital artwork by taking virtual photos of things that don’t exist, and…” I’ve noticed that around this point the person’s eyes are glazed like Krispy Kreme originals. It seemed that the more things I added to my plate, the less people knew how to categorize me, and that inability made our interactions uncomfortable. It’s like they didn’t quite know how to relate to me. (I would add “anymore”, but that would assume that they had felt comfortable relating to me in the first place… but that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.)

Imagine my surprise then when, during a group discussion at church, someone started talking about her experience of giving up “the title” — a Stable Job, and All That Entails. I immediately knew exactly what she was talking about — feelings of loss, feelings of disconnectedness, feelings of freedom, feelings of control. She stuck with it for three years, before going back, and the thing she remarked upon most was the relief she felt — not for having stable income, mind you, but because she could summarize herself in a soundbite again. “Oh, I’m a __(title)__.” It feels good to know where you belong, I guess; I’d been struggling with that since I arrived in Pennsylvania, and I said so. A friend of mine, Jason, came to the rescue. Like the woman who had started the conversation, he had given up his “title”; like me, the assortment of stuff he’s now doing doesn’t fit into a neat and tidy little box. He introduced me to the idea of the “portfolio life”, an idea that has since changed completely changed how I think about employment, stability, and self-definition.

What is the “Portfolio Life”?

“If somebody asks what you do, and you can reply in one sentence, you’re a failure. You should need half an hour.”
-Charles Handy

I’ll be honest: what will follow is what I’ve understood about this, and what it means to me. You can find quite a few websites about it by simply searching for “portfolio life” in Google. (The Global Ideas Bank had a quote I found so empowering I decided to emphasize it here, to the right.) Basically, the base idea is like that of a financial portfolio, like you might have for your retirement. In a financial portfolio diversification is incredibly important to reduce the risk of a catastrophic loss. In other words, “don’t put your eggs all in one basket”. By spreading out your assets (eggs, or money, or what have you) in various unrelated vehicles (baskets, or stocks/mutual funds/bonds/etc), you lower the risk that any one failure (basket breaks, or stock market crashes) completely wipes you out. If you apply that same idea to your income, you come up with the idea of the portfolio life. Instead of putting all of my time into one Stable Job (and All That Entails), I split it among a series of smaller jobs and work opportunities.

Now, to be honest, that conversation wasn’t the first time I’d been introduced to this idea. I was familiar with the concept of working multiple jobs (which, quite frankly, sounds awful), and I’d spoken with folks who firmly believed that establishing multiple independent revenue streams was the path to a charmed life (which reminds me of that saying “if wishes were horses then beggars would ride”). Neither seemed plausible or particularly desirable. However, Jason’s description sounded awesome, and not just because it described what I’d already been doing favorably. Basically, his point was that portfolio life was less about maximizing income, and more about maximizing the intrinsic reward for working. Another quote from Charles Handy at Global Ideas Bank link supported this idea: “If, rather than think of life as work and leisure, we think of it as a portfolio of activities – some of which we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause – that way, we do not have to look for the occupation that miraculously combines job satisfaction, financial reward and pleasant friends all in one package.” Wow, what a concept!

Suddenly I found myself wondering what I might enjoy spending my time doing, instead of what I might be able to do to collect a paycheck. What miracles might occur if I focused more energy on activities that sound interesting and engaging instead of on how much money they might produce? It was like being given permission to be myself again. Since internalizing that view, I’ve found ideas for new projects simply jumping up in front of me. I’ve been more open to taking risks and trying new things, just because I might learn something useful from it. In short, I’ve been looking forward to using my talents and engaging with people and ideas. Suddenly, instead of feeling like there’s something wrong with me, it feels like I’ve found something very, very right.

Is the Portfolio Life for Everyone?

Obviously, the answer to that is “no”. If I had any doubts about that, they were quickly dispersed by conversations with friends and family about these ideas. As I said, my wife and I have been ok financially, but the specter of retirement (or lack thereof) looms in the shadows before us, and I am acutely aware of how close the calls sometimes are. On the other hand, jobs haven’t been exactly plentiful, either. *cough*9%+unemployment*cough* When I consider the number of people I know who have lost jobs over the past few years, it makes me wonder: is that Stable Job (and All That Entails) actually so stable? When I worked as a professor there was the constant fear of faculty layoffs and staff reductions; I’ve learned that the University System of Georgia has since decided to merge four institutions right out of existence. I’ve looked at the edX initiative at Harvard and MIT, all of which is completely free, and have wondered what effect that will have on the future of higher education. I’ve read about Amazon.com’s business practices, and how they impact traditional publishing houses, and I wonder how long those people will have Stable Jobs. Phrases like “world economy” and “global marketplace” are quickly followed by others like “reactive restructuring”, “workforce relocation”, “down-sizing”, “right-sizing”, and “Chapter 11” *cough*AmericanAirlines*cough*. Suddenly, tying myself down to an organization that maywill kick me to the curb as soon as it becomes economically advantageous doesn’t seem like such a good idea. And yet, the lure of a predictable, secure — Stable — paycheck still beckons. Except…

This table is set up as a reminder for me of the pros and cons of both the portfolio life and the Stable Job (and All That Entails); if it helps you, please feel free to use it as well.

Portfolio Life Steady Job
(All That Entails)
Work involves a selection (or portfolio) of activities that may or may not be related Work involves one primary activity with possibly closely associated secondary activities
If the sector supporting one of your activities crashes, you can shift to others to make up the difference If the sector supporting your job crashes, you lose everything
You control what you do, when you do it, and how you do it Someone else tells you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it
Sick of this activity? Switch to something else! Sick of this activity? Too bad!
Self-driven activity; Stuff that interests you Organization-driven activity; Stuff that needs doing
You choose when you no longer wish to perform an activity. You can be fired, regardless of whether or not you want to be.
Motivation must be intrinsic/you report to yourself Motivation can be external/you report to someone else
You have to make your own opportunities Your opportunities are provided to you by your organization
Income can be sporadic or irregular Paycheck comes at predictable times in predictable amounts
Complicated Taxes Simple (relatively) Taxes
Can be difficult to answer the question “what do you do?” Usually easy to answer the question “what do you do?”

To be honest, I don’t know which way is best. I haven’t been offered any Steady Jobs (and All They Entail) yet, so for the time being it’s all academic — I have a portfolio life. But if I have the opportunity to switch, would it be the wise course of action?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Your Thoughts