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

Portfolio LifePortfolio 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 62-year-old 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: In the face of the enormous value that I think this book provides, 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.


Content Notes:

Chapters 1 through 7 provide important information about the social backdrop, including some headwinds that all who are planning for retirement currently face. It also lays out the framework for the portfolio life and some of the critical transition issues.

Chapters 8 through 15 cover the process of creating a portfolio: assessment, acquiring a new frame of mind, planning, putting your plan into action, and avoiding known pitfalls.

Chapter 1 – Trailblazing:  Introduces the concept of “life portfolio” and the need for a new way of thinking about “late middle-age,” and illustrates a strategy for reclaiming ourselves through assessment.

Chapter 2 – A New Beginning: Offers a brief historical outline of our notions about retirement and how that outlook is changing.

Chapter 3 – New Realities: Provides a more detailed look at projected longevity, and examines the impact of longer lifespans on the workplace and careers. This chapter further explores the cultural aspects behind our changing thinking about aging.

Chapter 4 – Portfolio Life: Detailed exploration of the concept of life portfolio and a discussion of its five elements.

Chapter 5 – Steps Toward Portfolio: Opens with a discussion about planning and barriers, and strategies to overcome those barriers. Discusses the notion of “weaning” and the addictive, consuming effect of a career and difficulty of scaling back that portion of our life portfolio. Introduces the idea of a personal board of advisors to help create some support and accountability.

Chapter 6 – Time to Give Back: Discussion about the purpose and benefits of the “giving back” portion of the portfolio.

Chapter 7 – Closing the Gap: Discusses the larger social terrain of large numbers of Americans moving into late middle-age – “30 million over the next 15 years” – and the implications of that transition. Also discusses the opportunities for business, policy obstacles, community initiatives to address this changing demographic, and a brief discussion of the implications for academia.

Chapter 8 – Listen to Your Life: Covers the assessment process leading up to rebalancing your portfolio and the questions and clues for the exploration. Highlights what he calls “PEPC,” which stands for passionenergypurpose and calling. Not to be confused with specific skills, talents, or even personality styles, which are clues to career choices that tend to remain constant over time,. PEPC are our personal drives and motivations that do change as we age. “You can’t retire from a passion.”

Chapter 9 – Steps and Tools in Assessment: Deeper discussion of the assessment process. Shifting into neutral to give ourselves the space to assess. Focusing on verbs, not nouns. “Nouns close doors. They peg people.” Brief discussion of personal mission statements, standard/written assessments, personal board of advisors and examining your life story.

Chapter 10 – The Portfolio Frame of Mind: Discussion of letting go of the traditional expectations about retirement and the negative connotations embedded in our retirement notions and life, optimism and embracing change shaking things up and taking things slow. Also introduces the notion that “you’re the boss now” as you move into this stage of life, and it’s up to you to take responsibility for it.

Chapter 11 – Five Paths to a New Mind-Set: Discusses magnifying your strengths, thinking for yourself, the importance of going with your gut, trying/failing/trying again, and connecting with others.

Chapter 12 – Anchors in a Sea of Change: Discusses the importance of planning, regardless of how those plans might change, as a way of keeping ourselves focused. Outlines an exercise for the actual process of rebalancing your portfolio.

Chapter 13 – Planning for Success: Building on the written portfolio developed in the previous chapter, this chapter outlines four remaining steps in the planning process: (1) identifying working goals, (2) exploring and generating opportunities, (3) analyzing and countering gaps, and (4) revisiting, reflecting, and rebalancing. Provides useful questions and a framework for each of these four areas as well as examples.

Chapter 14 – Moving into Portfolio: Discusses the importance of getting started, investing in yourself, networking, selling your plan to others and finalizing your portfolio.

Chapter 15 – Pockets of Turbulence: Discusses the psychological challenges of retirement, potential marital distress and isolation.

Chapter 16 – The Goal Beyond: This concluding chapter focuses on the notions of happiness and fulfillment, which is the ultimate goal behind rebalancing your life portfolio.