Do you want a rich, textured, and meaningful work life? In a future obscured by uncertainty — there is a beam of light. And the path it illuminates is that of a modular career*.
Proponents of serial careerism can be traced back decades (at least as far as) Charles Handy and Peter Drucker. Match your values, skills, experience, education, interests, relationships, aptitude, and attitude to something professional — and voila you have a new career. If only it were so simple.
Handy envisioned a future where we would sell bits of our time as highly specialized portfolio workers. Drucker predicted a future where many of us would have many careers. He saw the end of jobs for life and was himself a teacher, writer, and management consultant. His little secret: several careers provide for a total life where you can, “Live in more than one world.” Small wonder Drucker later bloomed into a leading authority in Japanese art.
I spoke with Victoria Stoyanova, Simon Mhanna, and Marcus Collins — all who epitomize today’s modular careerist. In their own unique way, each is deliberate in cultivating a colorful and fluid working life.
Here they share secrets on how to make your career answer to your curiosity:
Victoria Stoyanova is not a traditionalist. She’s the one who clued me up to modular careers. She’s crafted herself a 21st-century-badass-kinda career. “I magnify the impact companies and individuals can have by designing new ways for them to interact and collaborate,” Stoyanova explains.
The Bulgarian born, London anchored globetrotter flexes her community building muscles as if she were making recipes on the fly. In practice, however, the work she does through her company Hito Labs requires an amalgamation of her skills, practices, experiences, and networks. She’s deliberately trained herself to see the world through a pair of multidimensional glasses. And it’s this kaleidoscopic worldview coupled with a fluency for linking together her different modalities — that afford a radiant professional life.
Stoyanova sees us entering a new world of modular work. “Our careers have become systems where our interests and expertise — as modules — are constantly combined and recombined in new ways.”
Her ‘modules’ involve helping nourish the largest creative community on the planet, producing her podcast The Work We Do, hosting impromptu poetry jams, and bridging industries and borders as an agent of change. Although she might classify these as side hustles, it’s evident they are much more. With thoughtful sensibility feeding these communities, they coalesce in ways that enable her to easily move between serving and being served by the network.
The beauty of a modular career is that it, “Evolves over time, as you evolve over time — and you just don’t know where that will take you,” declares Stoyanova with a twinkle.
Victoria’s Tip: Take a day out. No, this is not a day for gorging on pizza and Netflixing — it’s for reflection. Make dedicated time and space every week for reading, writing, listening to podcasts, and more. “Follow your curiosity…it leads to unexpected places — just be sure you’re really listening.”
Simon Mhanna moves fluidly between his careers as Innovation Designer at The Moment and Programme Lead at the Toronto Design Offsite Festival. “I find my work fulfilling and meaningful,” he reports. He’s recently taken up yet another post as a faculty member at the Institute Without Boundaries.
Originally from Lebanon, Mhanna emigrated to Canada just four years ago and has swiftly become a national design leader. “I worked hard to find opportunities that align with my passion and that allow me to fulfill my purpose. I show up true to myself, my feelings, and my beliefs — which makes it hard for me to separate the self from the work.” It’s this whole-hearted intention that enables Minnha to connect all his work together.
If following your curiosity in work sounds all too dreamy, rest assured it’s much more common than you think. Financial Times columnist Helen Barrett, a second careerist herself, explains that doing multiple things like starting up a business and having a side hustle or two is perhaps the safest bet today.
In a parallel universe, Mhanna says he would be studying philosophy and psychology. He’d be making art, meditating, and working as a life coach. It’s an idyllic existence with a grander sense of time and an opportunity to be even more himself. On reflection, he confides it’s not a far cry from who is today.
Simon’s Tip: Set your intention. By knowing what you value and how you are valued — you can blend yourself into your work. The distinction between work and life is moot because they become one.
He was the mastermind that helped sell 72,000 units of Beyonce’s Heat perfume in an hour and get one of her videos 1.5 million views in a day. The man working his digital magic behind the scenes was Marcus Collins. But that was nearly a decade ago.
Today Collins is a marketing professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business where he teaches a new generation about systems thinking and social engagement. He’s also an advertising executive that puts his theories into practice. “All I want is dopeness,” is what Collins said when I pressed him on what he yearns for. Whether gracing the stage of TEDx or scooping up advertising awards — striving for dopeness is the bedrock of his modular career.
Collins is a better academic because he’s a practitioner and vice versa. The thread that ties his careers together is understanding people. His fascination with human behavior, helps him thrive in the university hall as well as it does in the digital network. And given his boundless curiosity — it’s a small wonder that his vision for the future of work is, “A classroom where we’re always growing to be better.”
Marcus’ Tip: Run on wake hours. Collins does not view his professional life consisting of working hours, he thinks of it as his ‘wake hours’. He constantly asks himself, “How am I going to leverage this time to produce what I’m going to produce?” And this approach applies as much to working with his students or clients, as it does raising his kid or helping out his church.
Modular careerists possess a distinct ability: the skill of learning how to learn. They have abandoned the notion that there a stable set of tools by which to navigate the world of work. Instead of looking for safety and predictability, they seek out new possibilities that are safe to try.
They mingle and move with folks from a wide range of fields, who have fresh ways of thinking, and novel ways of collaborating. This provides the modular careerist with a lens to see where disciplines overlap, and better yet, where they should interact. It makes them interdisciplinary thinkers — deliberate in connecting the seemingly unconnected, and continually releasing value to the world.
Living in more than one world can be both exhausting and exhilarating. Indeed it’s in this liminal space where workers of the future will flourish. And if our workplaces evolve into classrooms, perpetual self-improvement will simply be par for the course.
Over the years we’ve gotten a bit crazed about careerism. It seems every day there is a new term making the rounds. Here’s a little cheat sheet with some distinctive characteristics of career speak. Most of these terms apply particularly to knowledge workers (also coined by Drucker). And I’ll admit some are just different lingo for pretty much the same thing.
Modular Career: Different modes of working that you deliberately stack together to fuse a multidimensional career.
Portfolio Career: Having multiple income streams, employers, or ‘assignments.’ May occur within one profession or through many.
Kaleidoscope Career: Created dynamically on your own terms, not defined by a company but by your own values, life choices, and parameters.
Parallel Career: Different careers performed one after the other (and in some instances actually at the same time —aka ‘simultaneously careers’ or ‘slash careers’).
Encore Career: The final hurrah, your last professional endeavor before you call it quits.
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