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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Haith

Portfolio Careers, or: Why I Have A Lot Going On All The Time

A few months ago I launched a new project: The Sound of Contagion. It's an awesome testing ground for using AI and creativity to mutually benefit each other, integrating pandemic literature, algorithms, and music composition. When I shared the website on my socials (yes, I use the term "socials," but I don't drink Flat Whites, let me have this one), a few friends commented, asking: 'When do you sleep?!' It's mostly rhetorical, implying that I seem so productive to the point that I presumably don't sleep. When I was at school, kids used to not-so-nicely call me a machine, because I have always been hyper-productive.

It's not that I want to be like this: I have high-functioning anxiety. I HAVE TO be like this. I mean, I do also enjoy the perks of being like this, which include being able to be involved in lots of cool projects, attend awesome universities, and work with lots of different people. But, I have to be careful about where the motivation for those activities comes from.

When I was younger it came from feeling that 'I am not enough.' These days I have to introspect to make sure I do things because I WANT to and not because I am mortally afraid of missing an opportunity or failing in some way to prove my worth. Self-worth is a noun that I have WORKED to untie from my professional or academic achievements. Man, oh man, when you are an over-achiever, believing that you're okay just because you ARE, is tough. There has been some real growth and introspection in the last two years, and I am a better, more chill person for it.

Witness how chill I am now. Image credit: Emma Laubscher, the best person ever.

However, I still have a lot going on and I struggle to say "No," because EVERYTHING IS INTERESTING. Everything. A frequaintance (someone I like and could be mates with but for the pandemic) used the term 'portfolio career' recently and I thought: YES. I want one. And then I looked at my diary and income streams and discovered that I kind of have one, accidentally.

Last week, I wrapped up a full draft of the last chapter of my thesis, so now the whole thing exists, all 91 032 words of it. I'm aiming to submit in early October, so it's a massive editing job for the next five months, then a week or two off (while I move countries, LOLOLOL) and then more editing. Then I will throw my hands in the air, hit 'Submit,' and immediately find at least ten typos and have a good cry.

While I've been frantically writing about reproductive justice and apocalypse narratives (spoiler: there isn't any of the former in the latter), I've also picked up a part-time consultancy job and been developing learning materials for young readers. And that's just in April. Last month I was teaching gender politics in the Cold War to teenagers and judging a short story competition. Next month: who knows. I might interview a successful poet, I might do a little journalism, I might build a website. Anything could happen.

The way this works practically with my DPhil is that I block mornings to write and edit and hate myself, conveniently labelled 'Thesis Time' in my diary. Then, around 2pm when my brain turns to mash, I sometimes go for a swim, or, if I know things are happening in my email because I've accidentally left my phone on, I take the rest of the day for admin and 'portfolio' tasks. Most of the time this is successful, and despite having three part-time jobs and running a TORCH network for two years, and starting a new research project and and and, I will actually finish my DPhil in three years (because I cannot afford not to).

Also, for the record, I sleep on weekends. When I was a teen (the Machine Years), I could sleep 12-14 hours on the weekends, and my folks thought that was just adolescence. Well, it turns out that I can still sleep for 14 hours on a Saturday or Sunday, even when I'm not depressed. This is because I gun it during the week. I have a routine. I sometimes work evenings. I do a fair bit of exercise (for pain management, I'm not a sociopath). I CRASH on weekends. But I also TAKE weekends. I rarely work more than two or three hours over a whole weekend, and I think that helps. It means that when I'm working, I'm WORKING. None of this messing about on social media... oh wait, no, I do loads of that.

Type type type type type. This gif courtesy of the internet.

Having a portfolio career means that you've got multiple income streams which opens you up to the strains and exploitation of the gig economy, but it also gives you flexibility, and the ability to say yes and no to potential projects with more control over your day-to-day. Unfortunately it sounds like you're making a career out of having an investment portfolio which is NOT how it works, no indeed. The gigs and part-time positions and being a little bit self-employed go in the portfolio and then you close it and hope you make enough money to cover the rent. There is no investing involved.

Except, maybe there is. It's taken me a long time to overcome the pressure that my own daft brain puts on me to over-achieve, and that's been an investment of time and energy and a lot of tears. I have invested in being chill, and I am still Machine Girl. Sigh.

It's an investment in your lifestyle and well-being to determine whether you want to be the Big Dog Professor of All Things Cool, or if you want to live wherever you want and have long-lasting romantic and platonic relationships. (Don't get me started on the academic job market debate, just know that I have feelings). I make no value judgement on people's choices either way, and I have not yet had to make such a call myself. But I might, and soon. So, I'm investing right now in my portfolio career of gig work, part-time jobs, and the self-employment hustle because: I like to do things and learn new skills; I love the flexibility; and I want to know what it is that I want, and to be sure that I'm making the right career choice and I have options to choose from.

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