Review – Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50

Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50
by David Corbett (Jossey-Bass, 2006. Available in hardcover and Kindle editions from

Portfolio Life offers a refreshing, positive view and an action-oriented framework for creating a meaningful life in what we typically think of (or perhaps used to think of) as the “retirement years.” David Corbett is founder of New Directions Inc. in Boston, which offers “planning in career and post-career fulfillment to accomplished individuals.”

The central point of the book is that time is a universal resource that all of us possess. The question is how should we invest our time, particularly in the post-career years? Corbett offers a framework, which he calls a “life portfolio, as a way of viewing and managing how we allocate and invest our time.

In his construct, the life portfolio has five elements:

  • Vocation/Profession – Vocational and professional pursuits; income production
  • Avocation/Recreation – Play
  • Self-Development/Spirituality – Ongoing learning; self-development; spiritual growth
  • Family/Friends – Relationships with family and friends
  • Giving Back – Community and humanitarian work

There are both internal drivers and external realities that shape the allocation:

  • Internal drivers include passion, energy, purpose, calling, skills, experience, credentials, wisdom, values, motivations, and legacy.
  • External realities include financial, health and well-being, caregiving, spouse/partner preferences, and location.

If the above construct is the “what,” then what is the “why”? What is the value or purpose of the life portfolio framework? According to Corbett, it provides “…a strategic plan of actionand an orientation to life, a perspective that spans today’s goals and tomorrow’s legacies. woven into one’s life as early as one’s 20s… as careers are pursued” and “…lasting 30 or 40 more years afterwarda portfolio is positioned to have more impact in shaping adulthood.” He points out, “Careers… have a shelf life; portfolios can be timeless.”

Taking a step back, there are various themes embedded in the book: planning that leads to satisfaction and fulfillment in the post-career years, increasing longevity and health in our society that is expanding the number of potential post-career years, and the need to replace legacy thinking and the retirement mindset with new ways of thinking about post-career lives.

“For lack of forethought and creativity, our social institutions and corporate culture remain oriented – by default – towards a style of retirement in which people feel useless and adrift.” “The ‘golden years’ style retirement was predicated on the assumption that age equals decline. Research has shown this assumption to be self-fulfilling.”

Much as Marc Freedman (see forthcoming Encore review) has so ably done, Corbett also points to the challenge of thinking about post-career in new ways, and the current lack of social support for new approaches– we’re just now forming the new social mindsets and terminology for “the third age,” “the second act,” or whatever we will call that lengthening middle-age, that 20 to 25 years after age 60 that many of us will have the opportunity to enjoy.

My Take

Praise: I found Portfolio Life to be an extremely empowering, enormously positive book. As a 60-something recent empty-nester who’s fairly deep into his own exploration of rebalancing, I found that Corbett offers a valuable framework for what seems to be a very natural human process of balancing those areas of our lives that sometimes compete, but ultimately give joy and meaning to life. He also provides useful tools to deepen that exploration and construct meaningful lives in the face of powerful, traditional messages about retirement, aging, and our social wiring that equates aging with decline.

Critique: My concerns are minor: Corbett does a reasonably good job of striking a balance between the linearity of planning and the often nonlinearity of real life transitions, but his framework is, indeed, very linear.  I also think he does a good job urging one into action. However, I found myself wanting a little more focus on experimentation and reflection, and how to incorporate the planning into a new way of thinking about myself. As a former business planner, the left side of my brain was grooving on the framework and the step-by-step processes, while the right side of my brain was saying “What about the narrative? How do you incorporate this into that internal narrative that shapes your identity, your outlook?”

Conclusion: No one book can cover it all. At various points while reading Portfolio Life, two quotes came to mind. The first from Richard Pascale: “Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into the new way of acting.” The second from planning guru Arie de Geus: “Planning means changing minds, not making plans.” To complement the recommendations in Portfolio Life, I would recommend also reading Working Identity for a deeper exploration on the topics of experimentation and the time investment required to shape a new identity. I also recommend Exits and The Third Chapter, both by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, for her treatment of the post-retirement narrative.

Audiences: This book was written for folks facing retirement and trying to figure out how to begin planning. But I also think the portfolio-balancing exercise and related tools may be of value those seeking more life balance.