What shall I do with my life?

Who hasn't asked themselves 'What shall I do with my life?' As far as I can tell it's not a one off question but one repeatedly asked by individuals at various stages in their lives as they continue a search for identity, purpose, or meaning. The people I talk with are usually asking the question in relation to choices around making or earning enough to be financially self-sufficient because, as we're all well aware a 'job for life' is not half as common as it once was, fewer of us are engaged in the jobs that we do, and the job that we are doing may be different in the next few years anyway. Because the work that we do shapes and defines us it is important to make good choices – 'we are what we do'.

Po Bronson wrote a book 'What shall I do with my life?'. He interviewed people who'd made radical career/job changes in their search for meaning. I remember reading with delight about Don Linn who'd given up a career in investment banking with First Boston (he was a Harvard MBA and VP) to become a cat fish farmer. I almost did something similar. I decided to become a bee keeper. I took bee-keeping courses, one at Roots and Shoots in London and developed a business plan to open a bee keeping farm and honey production facility, and found a place that would be perfect for keeping multiple hives.

But something happened at that point and so I continued my path in organization design and development but changed it somewhat by taking up writing about it as well as just doing it. However, I retain echoes of the bee-keeper within when I see references to 'hivemind organizations' or hear people use the rather twee terms of 'worker bees' – when they mean front line staff. And sometimes when again I ask myself 'What shall I do with my life?' I give the bee-keeper answer so it may not be off to cards yet. (I also give heavy goods vehicle driver, and community activist/organizer).

The question sprang up again in conversations with several people I met during the week of vacation I've just had. I was asking them about their careers and how they decided what to do with their lives as I'm still thinking about the sentence I wrote last week that 'there does seem to be a trend towards freelancing, self-employment and what Charles Handy years ago, in The Age of Unreason (1991) called 'portfolio careers' that is, people having several different types of work simultaneously(not to be confused with low paid workers who are employed by two or more employers in order to make a living wage).' I don't want to get into wage, education, and opportunity differentials at this point but I wonder if the trend is across all or some demographics, occupations, and national geographies, and I don't have the detailed research on this. If you do please let me know.

For some reason most of the people I met during the week were types who'd consciously made portfolios the answer to their question 'what shall I do with my life?'. One man, now 40, was furious when his father decided to change from being a police dog-handler (he'd been doing it for 30 years) to being a pub keeper in West Wales. Aged 15 this man found himself behind a bar on New Year's Eve and decided that to pay back his father for moving him to West Wales, he wouldn't do what his parents wanted him to do and go to university. Instead he has been – and this is only a smattering of the list – a real estate agent, a recruiter of engineers, a Territorial Army reservist, a teacher of English as a Foreign Language (3 years in a refugee camp in Thailand), a 4 x 4 vehicle tour guide and operator in Spain, a dive master, a website designer, a hospital porter, and a commissioned officer in the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Since the age of 15 he has never lived in one country more than 3 years and has always been financially self-sufficient. His current aspiration is to open a diving school in Myanmar. (But he's just gone to Tanzania intending to spend two years there and is hoping to be a safari park/wildlife volunteer while he's there).

I asked him if he thought that his cv was a liability or an asset in applying for corporate style jobs if he wanted to move into a more traditional career. He said it was a liability as people in corporate HR functions weren't interested in the sorts of qualities he has developed and experiences he has had in order to develop them. They were looking to 'check boxes' against key words. As we know it isn't even people who do that now in the initial sift of candidates. It is algorithms operated via software programs. (Or maybe number of skills 'endorsements' you get on LinkedIn). He said he'd opted for 'portfolio experiences' rather than 'portfolio career' so he'd never get his boxes checked. I wondered whether sometimes people with his profile are seen as aimless drifters rather than hungry seekers.

But if, as the trends suggest there will be many more of us who are wondering whether what we want to do with our lives is to be freelance, be self-employed, contract, or otherwise untether as an organizational employee is it a better decision to:

a) To give up the idea and take a more conventional path which would get boxes checked against conventional job descriptions, competence models, performance management systems and corporate hierarchy progression criteria. (I just got an intriguing 'Employee Advancement Manual' that lists these from one organization), and enable some of us to get through the hoops to the C suite and other of us to rest gracefully a bit lower down the ranks. See the piece in the Economist this week on MBA programs which states that: 'An increasing number of MBA courses are tailored to particular industries, such as health care, luxury goods or, in one case, wine and spirits management. This is partly because students now have to have a clear career plan before they apply to business school.'

b) To go for 'portfolio experiences' which, if successful, will make us resilient, resourceful, innovative, calculated risk-takers able to handle ambiguity and change and live easily in a culturally diverse world? As the example above suggests. See my book on Corporate Culture for more on this topic.

c) To encourage organizations to think again about the value of their current methods of selecting people for jobs, and to be alert to the possibility that the sifting methods they use neatly filter out people who would be of high value to the organization even if they have an unorthodox history?

d) To help advocate for and/or develop organizational retention and career models that accommodate the unorthodox portfolio experiences person alongside the orthodox 'career' person in a way that optimizes the value that both can bring? See my blog piece Career paths – not worth designing? And also the Manifesto for the New Agile Workplace from Career Innovation which has wonderful ideas and challenges on this.

e) Stop looking for identity, meaning and purpose via our paid work instead look for it in other ways. Perhaps, for example, via our Facebook page, Tweets or Pinterests. Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times, suggests that 'these sites have taken off partly because our other identities have weakened – or as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it, have become 'liquid'.'

These are not mutually exclusive choices and being ready to take all five paths may be the best decision. It may also be a consequence of answering the question 'what shall I do with my life?' One woman I met told me 'A couple of years ago I made the choice to try to become a single mum. I always knew that I wanted to have kids but I didn't have a fella and I wasn't getting any younger… So, I started looking at my options.

First thing I really had to get straight was whether single motherhood would be right for me. Life's pretty perfect – I do what I want to do, when I want to do it wherever in the world that may be. Did I really want to turn that on its head? Did I feel I had the capacity to be a good parent and could I support a child? How would I cope? Could I rely on my family and friends for emotional and hands on support? Did I believe in bringing a child into this world and raising it without a father? So many things to consider… And then there are the challenges – ones that will definitely eventuate … not least of which is what hits my career will take and how will I continue to generate enough income for us perhaps in a different way.'

She went on to say that she is now thinking about how to develop a portfolio of work that puts her in charge of her time and availability and allows her flexibility to raise her twins. (Yes – she wasn't anticipating that bit!)

The two examples of people I met during the week have both made choices around life experiences that challenge organizational convention around the design of work. I think that organizations must be alert and responsive to these increasingly common challenges and design appropriately for them. What do you think? Let me know.