The Portfolio Mindset

A publisher sent me a book on resume writing the other day. As I was paging through it, I realized something: it’s been years since I’ve sent anyone a resume. During that time, a dozen clients have come and gone, but no one asks for a chronological list of my work history. Which is good, because I don’t really have a work history, per se. Instead, people generally read stuff I’ve written, decide if they like it, and we work together based on that.

This makes sense in many creative fields, but I think it’s an idea that could work for jobs more broadly. Even if you did get your last job in part because of your resume, if you had to put together a portfolio of your work, what would it include? What work shows you at your best? Teachers can show lesson plans and children’s evolving work output. A consultant could show an example of an implemented program and the concrete results, or a video of a particularly effective workshop. A software engineer can show a personal project (one of the reasons people like Google’s 20% time… you are expected to do stuff like this). One of my editors at USA Today years ago pulled together an op-ed page full of poetry submitted by various poet laureates of the US in response to 9/11 — an excellent case of pushing the envelope a bit, which of course went in her portfolio.

The reason I think a portfolio mindset is important is that it keeps you focused on what, concretely, you’ve done. Results matter. Too often, we get caught up in other markers which are less important: how many hours we worked, how quickly we emptied our in-boxes, how many meetings we attended. Most of these things are not our work. They are tools for doing our work, whereas the work itself usually involves changing something in the world.

This is an important distinction. Last year, I read a book called Professor Mommy on how women combine motherhood and earning tenure in academia. It has a lot of interesting insights, but one of the most useful is what, exactly, should go in your tenure dossier. I suspect many people start graduate school thinking how awesome it is to have a career where you get to read and think deep thoughts. Keeping focused on your portfolio, though, reminds you that you need to actually generate output: a book, a certain number of articles in peer-reviewed journals, a few other concrete items. Getting those involves having a higher number of irons in the fire, so that when a few fall through (as they will) it’s still a numbers game. Focus on producing an excellent portfolio, and your chances of success are good.

What would you put in a portfolio of your best work?



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