Aphorisms are double-edged swords that help rip apart ideas they themselves carved. Mark Twain upended a popular aphorism and made its opposite equally riveting. He wrote scornfully, as one can imagine from the tone: “Put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket.”
The Twainism here is that balancing many egg-laden baskets diffuses the focus, and may even cause a part of the disaster the arrangement is meant to avert. It may be tempting to imagine millennials booing Mr. Twain for this remark. But portfolio careers cannot be painted with a generational brush.
Is it not obvious that the desire to indulge multiple interests would have always existed? However, conditions that make for a portfolio career are greater now than ever before. One, the advance of technology. And two, with greater connectivity, geographical limitations dwindle. And three, the march of the gig economy — there are reasons to believe the pandemic is quickening those steps.
Two diverse pursuits
A half-Swiss half-Indian living and working in London, Serena Kern-Libera is a lawyer, a pop-musician and a social worker rolled into one. She speaks about portfolio careers with a conviction associated with any card-carrying loyalist in any sphere. In September 2020, she received the Asian Women of Achievement Award in the business category, particularly for successfully navigating the demands of a portfolio career.
Serena’s day job is with the Bank of England, where she is Deputy Head of Global Trade Strategy. When her weekends are not consumed by her regular job, she meets the demands of a parallel career — that of a pop musician. She operates with the assumed name Segiri, where ‘Se’ stands for Serena and ‘giri’ for the Nilgiri Mountains. A singer-songwriter, Serena partly remembers her growing-up years in Coonoor by the milestones she crossed as a singer. Having graduated in law from the London School of Economics would not signal an end to her aspirations as a singer. On an almost parallel course, she has pursued a singing career. During the pandemic, she has released two groovy synthpop singles — Tastes Like Anarchy and the more-recent Parallel — which reportedly have enjoyed good air time on BBC Asian Network, the British-Asian radio station operated by the British Broadcasting Council; and also Kiss FM.
“My new song Parallel is about all the parallels we find in life — including having parallel careers,” notes Serena.
She also finds time for a social outreach for girl students. She explains: “A couple of years ago, I co-founded an initiative in the United Kingdom called Discover2Dream, which aims to put students in touch with female role models — to encourage them to challenge themselves about notions they have regarding working in the city and hopefully to also challenge stereotypes when they grow up.”
Serena’s talks with students pivot around her personal journey as a portfolio careerist. Besides students in the United Kingdom, she has connected with those in Coonoor (where she has her roots) and Chennai, and plans to connect with more Indian students.
On what can be usually expected at these talks, she says:
“I often start my talks by showing students an image of a famous pop-singer (for example, Lady Gaga) and then of a very serious-looking lawyer in a suit. I ask them whether they think the same person could do both jobs and usually I only have one or two who raise their hands. By the end of my talk, I get a lot more raised hands to the same question!”
Viewing oneself holistically
As an idea, pursuing different but still essentially related specialisations within an industry is easy to process. How do specialisations in two diverse fields, business law and pop music work? What does it take to surmount the conflict inherent in this situation?
Serena: “I think we need to view ourselves holistically — we all have different passions and skills. I am a huge advocate of embracing these. Rather than creating a “conflict”, I think that nurturing your different passions can have huge benefits. It allows for a real cross-pollination of ideas and diversity of thought. For me personally, giving myself the freedom to be creative in my music brings a different dimension to my professional career. Now, I am not saying that everyone should have a portfolio career. What I am saying is that you should give yourself the freedom to embrace and pursue whatever it is you are passionate about.”
While talking to students about the benefits of having a portfolio career, what is the crux of your message?
Serena: “I want to challenge young people to rethink some of the ideas they have grown up with. Especially young women who come from countries where pursuing a “serious” career like law, medicine is hard enough let alone trying to pursue that alongside some other career you are passionate about. How many times do we hear parents saying to children they need to concentrate on one thing and not pursue a passion (usually art, dance or music) because it is “distracting”? I firmly believe that ignoring your passions and creativity does more harm than good and will hold you back in a career. Equally, I come across a lot of young people who want to pursue a career in art or music and think that school and academics is not relevant to them. I have met many artists who have suffered in the long term, because they did not challenge themselves to understand the business side of their profession and only focussed on the creative aspects.”
Going past the stereotypes
Now, the popular notion of the ultimate professional is still that of one who pursues excellence in just one field with a blinkered devotion to it. Can having a portfolio career interfere with developing a strong professional identity?
Serena: “Definitely, if you allow it to. Especially as a woman, I think making it in a job in the city is tough. People regularly underestimate your abilities and being a pop-singer does not help my case! But, I have always believed that I will let my work speak for itself. I am very good at my job — I know that. Anyone who doubts that, once they get to know me, realises that. Part of the reason I am so passionate about speaking with young people about just being themselves is because I want them to realise that you do not need to change yourself to fit a stereotype. You need to be yourself — you of course need to work hard and be good at your job. I really think you also need to surround yourself with like-minded, positive people. I have been lucky enough to have people in my life who have supported and encouraged me in my pursuits. Pinky Lilani (author-motivational speaker and women’s advocate) in particular, whom I met a couple of years ago is a huge advocate of women who think differently and who are trying to make a difference in society.”
(“New Work Order” presents the experienced realities of professionals that do not fit into stereotypical career frameworks)