There’s disconcerting news in CareerJournal today. They list the top ten professions, using generally the same criteria that used to come up with its list of the ten best professions. And the only professions that are (only sort of) on both lists are: “analyst” and “social worker/psychologist”.

Analyst is such a broad term that it is almost useless, but it is conveniently something that requires almost the complete opposite skills as social worker/psychologist. So at least most personality types have an opportunity here.

Maybe the only really actionable advice on this topic comes from what has become one of my favorite sources for career advice, New York Magazine. Here’s a quote from a funny and informed lecture on happiness by Ben Mathis-Lilley:

“Don’t go to law school. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).”

That advice is not just for lawyers, it’s for everyone. Even if you can’t be an analyst or psychologist, at least get a job where you have control over your work.

What is control? For some people, it’ll mean working for yourself. But you can have control working for other people, too.

I asked David Blanchflower, professor at Dartmouth College who is known for slicing data to create happiness equations, “What does having control over one’s work really mean?”

He said that control goes beyond just workload and pace. “People don’t like to feel there’s a risk of being fired. They like control over what they wear, they want access to the heat control.”

Surprisingly, in study after study, women report more job satisfaction than men do. So maybe the biggest factor in whether or not you feel like you have control over your work is not whether you’re in a “best profession” but whether or not you’re a woman.

Recently, Aaron Karo performed stand-up comedy in a string of sold-out shows. He also bills himself as an author, a public speaker, and a sitcom actor. Karo has always juggled a few careers. After college, he went to work for an investment bank. But he was also writing a weekly newsletter that had tens of thousands of subscribers. And he wrote a book.

About ten years ago, British management guru Charles Handy predicted that people would replace the idea of one, full-time job, with several different part-time occupations. He called this the “portfolio career,” and Karo provides a good example of how this trend is taking shape.

A portfolio career is not the same thing as holding down three bad jobs and wishing you could figure out what to do with yourself. Rather, it is a scheme you pursue purposefully and positively, as a way to achieve financial or personal goals or a mixture of both. This new type of career choice can include several highly skilled, professional posts, often mixing employment with self-employment, and volunteer work or learning work with fee-based work.

While there has been scattered adoption of the portfolio career among baby boomers, the idea is gaining a lot of traction among younger workers, even though they never use the term. As members of Generation X entered the workforce; two-thirds of them were looking for an alternative to full-time employment as a more efficient path to self-discovery and finding the right career. For people in their twenties and early thirties, a portfolio career is a means of getting to know oneself, hedging one’s bets, and protecting their quality of life.

Most people have skills that cross into more than one profession. And if you take any one of the popular personality tests offered by web sites and career counselors you will find that peoples’ personalities do not fit neatly into one type of profession either.

So the idea of having to choose one single profession is frequently unappealing. Ezra Zuckerman, associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told me, “A lot of people feel alienated when thy feel there is more to themselves that they have not shown [in their work].” Young people are particularly drawn to the idea of a career as a vehicle to fulfillment and self-actualization, so they are less apt than Handy’s generation to settle into one, narrow career.

The arguments for a portfolio career at the beginning of one’s adult life are clear. Professor of psychology at Harvard, Daniel Gilbert, told me that the best way to figure out what will make you happy is to try it. A portfolio career gives you the opportunity to try three or four types of work at the same time, and to keep switching out choices until you come up with a portfolio that you like.

Karo, for example, dropped the banking career when he stopped liking the daily suit-and-tie routine. And when I ask him when his next book is coming out, he hems and haws and it’s clear that the career as an author is not so appealing — at least right now.

The trick in all career decisions is to figure out the intersection of your skills and your passions. This is an ongoing process, not a final destination, so a portfolio of part-time careers is more conducive to this path of discovery than a single, eight-hours-every-day career. Andrew Zacharakis, professor at Babson College told me, “Passion is something you have to look for every day of your life. Your passion is likely to change over time but finding your passion is good practice. Part of the search for you passion should be a search to know what your skill set is. Ask parents, mentors, and friends. Try to mach skills you have with your passion.”

The problem with a portfolio career is that you run the risk being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none — a problem in terms of both money and fulfillment.

“The most secure portfolio careers are with people who have a fairly solid skill base that people will pay for,” says Ian Christie, career coach and author of the Bold Career blog. “You have to hang your hat on something. Either a functional skill, like accounting and you can be, say, a personal trainer at home. Or you need to find a market niche and provide a lot of services, such as training, development, outsource contracting, etcetera.

And you probably need a creative outlet in your portfolio. “When we are involved in creativity we feel that we are living more fully than in the rest of life,” says, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Any work can include creative thinking, but, he told me, “if you want to be creative then you must learn to do something well,” To excel at something requires you to challenge yourself continually. Achieving high skill level at something is an important step toward fulfillment because, “most people want to think they have explored the limits of their potential.”

Karo says he receives a lot of email from people asking how they can follow their creative dreams. And his advice is, appropriately, the Instant-message-length version of Handy’s book-length theory: “You’ve gotta do it on the side. Diversify your revenue streams. Do what you’re passionate about.”

Can we all just stop talking about promotions like they matter? A promotion has meaning when someone is moving up the corporate ladder at such a slow pace that every small step is grounds for celebration.

But there are no more ladders because no one stays long enough at a company to get up the whole ladder. And even if someone did try to climb, they’d probably be laid-off outsourced or off-shored before they got to the top.

So what is the point of a promotion? Titles do not matter because they are accoutrements of hierarchy in a nonhierarchical workforce. And no one cares about getting MORE responsibly that implicitly comes with a promotion, they want the RIGHT kind of responsibility — which means interesting work and a chance to expand one’s skills set.

So all that’s left to justify continuing to talk about promotions is getting a raise, which is hardly a notable event. Here is a headline from “Raise Outlook Better than Employees Expected”. The article goes on to say that the average raise was something just above three percent. Let’s say four percent. This means if you were making $100,000 a year, you’ll get $4,000 a year more. SO WHAT? After cost of living and tax adjustments you are looking at a little over a thousand dollars. That will not change your life in any significant way, that’s for sure.

When someone tries to give you a promotion or insult you with a $1000 a year raise, tell them you want someone that really matters. Here are some suggestions:

1. Growth opportunities

Learning new skills is worth a lot more to you than some ridiculous 4% raise. Ask to get on a team that will teach you how to do something you think is important. Ask to work with the clients who are doing the most innovative projects. Request a training budget and send yourself to a bunch of seminars. The best way to learn is to role-play, which everyone hates to do, so go to a seminar where someone is forces you to do it.

2. Mentor opportunities

Ask to be matched with a mentor in the company. This is not a revolutionary request. Human resource executives have been studying this process for more than a decade and they know how to pick someone good for you. They just need to spend a little time doing it.

3. Flex-time opportunities

If you are so great at your job that you have earned a promotion, suggest that you keep your current job but do it from home or do it four days a week. After all, you’ve already shown you perform well. Heck, ask to work from Tahiti; you should be able to do the job however you want as long as you maintain that stellar level of performance.

4. Entrepreneurial opportunities

Just say no. To the promotion, that is. Now that you have a sense of how much time and energy your current job requires, now that you’ve mastered the scope, you can try something on the side. The safest way to experiment with running your own business is to do it while you still have a regular paycheck. Who cares if it doesn’t include that 4% raise? Think of that paycheck as a research grant for your ideas for a side business.

Instead of letting last century’s carrots dictate your workplace rewards, think about what is right for you, right now. What do you really need? You don’t need a promotion. It’s something else. Think about what would really make a difference in your life and then make it happen. While the rest of your organization is focusing on titles and money you can slip under the radar and get something truly meaningful.

It might shock you to hear that it’s easier to find money to fund your business idea than it is to find an idea. A good idea, that is. There are two kinds of good ideas. The first one is for a small business that will not grow but will sustain the lifestyle you want for yourself: Opening a gift shop on a Hawaiian beach, for example. The second kind of idea is one that will be big. Big in that you can grow into a big player or you can sell to a big player.

A lot of people have ideas, but they don’t dwell on them because people assume startup money is hard to come by. But it’s not. So don’t be shy about moving forward with an idea.

The fastest source for money when you have no money is, of course, your credit card. Almost forty percent of small businesses owners started their company with credit cards. If you can get one of those 0% interest offers, the credit card option starts looking particularly good. But if you lose the money, it’s your money. So don't use credit if you can’t afford to pay it back.

Angel investors are constantly looking to invest in companies that will grow big. If you have this kind of idea there are plenty of angels to choose from. A good place to start is online, looking for people who invest in early stage companies in your market.

The important issues will be finding someone smart and experienced who can help you grow the company to the next stage. In exchange for giving up a percentage of the ownership of your company, you should get solid mentoring as well as money. The network and advice that an angel offers is what separates the amazing ones from the mediocre.

If your business will not be big, then your pool of angels is pretty much limited to people who know you well and want to do you a favor. But there are ways you can structure a deal so that your friends and family feel like it's a decent investment. First, offer to pay an interest rate a little higher than a bank would pay. If that doesn’t work, offer to give equity in the company. Paying a percentage of profits is very cumbersome since you’ll likely have to produce detailed financial statements. So make that an offer of last resort.

By all means, put together a professional presentation for the angels. But keep in mind that on some level, these people come to the table based on their trust and respect for you. And that’s what you are trading on when it comes to early-stage funding. This is especially true if you’ve never started a company before and can’t sell yourself based on your track record.

This is not such bad news, though, because most of you can come up with a list of fifty people who trust you. The list of people who trust you and have money to invest is probably shorter. So divide the list into As, Bs and Cs. The As are people who have a lot of money and a lot of investments. The Bs are financially stable people who would think very, very hard before forking over $25,000. The Cs are people who don't really have the financial resources to invest in your operation, but they might vouch for you to someone they know who does have money. Practice your pitch on your Cs and Bs so that by the time you get to your As you really know what you’re doing.

The most important thing, no matter what kind of business you are pitching, is to not give up early. If there are no investors, you might have a clunker of an idea on your hands. But a little rejection happens to a lot of good ideas. So brace yourself as you look for funding and keep going right past the rejections. You might be a star as an entrepreneur and you’ll never know until you try.

Many twentysomethings talk about feeling undervalued by corporate America. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman are doing what many others are doing to solve this problem: starting their own company. At universities like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon 30-40% of graduates end up starting their own business after five years, and the trend is poised to go up.

The entry-level job inherently undervalues someone who is bright and driven, according to Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, a Cambridge-based venture capital firm that funds startups almost exclusively from very young people. He sees entrepreneurship as the great escape.

“For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete,” says Graham. For the last hundred years everyone started out at the bottom. Even if the candidate held extreme promise, corporations put the candidate as a trainee on the bottom rung so he didn’t get a big head. Graham writes, “The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations, because the young have no performance to measure yet, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean.”

So, if you are smart and energetic, you might be better off working for yourself. Ohanian and Huffman started their own company before they even graduated from University of Virginia. Today they are twenty-two, and running their company, Reddit, out of their Cambridge apartment. Huffman turned down a job offer at a software company in Virginia so that he could write the software for Reddit, which is a little like social book marking and a little like RSS feed: Think “the five most emailed Boston Globe stories” only not just the newspaper but the whole wide web.

The value of people in their twenties is touted fervently at Google, a company always on the lookout to buy companies from young entrepreneurs. On a blog entry about a conference for entrepreneurs in their early twenties, Chris Sacca, principal for new business development at Google wrote, “I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd. No one was running off to check in with their assistant or jump onto a mindless conference call with sales finance.”

Graham estimates that a top programmer can work for $80,000 a year in a large company, but he can be 36 more times productive without corporate trappings (e.g. a boss, killed projects, interruptions) and will generate something worth three million dollars in that same year if he is working on his own. Before you balk at those figures, consider that Ohanian and Huffman started their company in June 2005 and by November 2005 they received a buyout offer from Google, (which they declined in favor of continuing to build the company on their own.)

But not everyone is sitting on a great idea for a company. For those who eventually want to start your own business — once your find an idea — use the time beforehand to learn the right skills. Jennifer Floren, CEO of Experience and an entrepreneur herself, recommends going to a small company “where you will usually be able to see first hand what each part of the company does. At a big company you won’t get such wide exposure.” Also, “look for opportunities to be creative or take a leadership role, two good types of experience for an entrepreneur to have.”

If you have spent some time in the workforce, consider becoming a consultant, which essentially is making a business out of yourself. “You should have at least five years of workplace experience before you go on your own,” says Laurie Young, co-principle of Flexible Resources, “because you are offering your experience.” Also, you need marketing skills to sell yourself.” It takes a certain kind of talent “to show people you have skills they can use.”

Alexandra Levit worked in public relations for Computer Associates and then struck out on her own, as a consultant in publicity and marketing communications. In terms of making the transition, Levit advises that you “try lining up a few jobs that you can have before you take the leap,” and be prepared to spend “about 30% of your time marketing yourself.”

Levit provides a snapshot of reality for all entrepreneurs when she says, “Don’t expect the drawbacks to be only financial. You need a lot of self-discipline to sit down in your home office and work without any external pressure. Working for yourself means you’re responsible for every aspect of the business,” and this means, ironically, even the boring, entry-level job that you would have done in a big company.

Ohanim can attest to this, too: “I am spending a lot of time right now doing our taxes. We merged with a company and they kept terrible records.” But, he says, “I really like the notion of not having to look to a superior, to have independence and be doing the entrepreneurial thing.”

Entrepreneurship used to be an inclination that festered until a midlife crisis. But the entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age, so why wait that long? Today, the people who start most new businesses are under 34 — and if they’re doing it, so can you. Don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. And don’t be put off by the bad advice people spew when you mention entrepreneurship.

Bad advice #1: You won’t make enough money.
Insane. Who is making enough money at the anything new? No one. The few who pull down six figures at the beginning probably spent six figures on grad school and are paying it back, with interest. So the fatalists who say you won’t make enough money are really telling you to never switch careers, never risk being a beginner, never bet on yourself. This way of thinking will put your career in a coma.

What many people mean when they say you won’t make enough money is that you won’t *raise* enough money. After all, if you raised a ton of money to start your business, you could pay yourself a great salary. Most of you have ideas that do not require amazing fundraising efforts. And, let’s face it, if you are coming up with ideas that require a six-million-dollar investment, that’s not really a good idea.

Bad advice #2: You can be entrepreneurial in a large company.
Large corporations suck up fast-paced, fun, innovative small business and make them boring, and then tell you, in an interview, that the position you are considering is very entrepreneurial. It’s not. If it were entrepreneurial then it would be too big a wild card to fit into a corporate hierarchy. What the corporate maven really means is that the position you’re interviewing for could be entrepreneurial if it were not in a large company.

Bad advice #3: Starting your own business is too risky.
At this point in loyalty-free corporate life, it may be higher risk to work for someone else. You probably know someone who got laid off in the 90s. And you probably know someone who got off-shored in the 00s. It was risky of them to bet that a large company would keep them around.

And when you’re sifting through those ubiquitous statistics that say most new business fail, think about the perspective of those numbers: Seventy-six percent of new businesses make it off the ground. Sure, most do not last as long as say, General Motors. But are you looking to run a multinational company, or are you looking to get control over your time so you don’t get laid off or tapped to travel from home six weeks in a row?

Don’t listen to those people who tell you small businesses are risky. Listen to Matt Rivers, owner of Pump House surf shop in Massachusetts, who went into business when he was 17. To him, the biggest risk was that he’d have to grow up and get a job that wouldn’t allow him to surf. Matt redefined the meaning of risk, and you should, too. What is most important in your life? Can starting your own business get that for you better than a corporate job? Then entrepreneurship is pretty low-risk for you.

And here’s a piece of good advice: Don’t think of failure as black and white. Rivers was so successful with his first shop that he opened a second. But running between the two shops took too much time away from surfing, and the extra money wasn’t worth it. So he closed the second shop. Is that failure? To some, maybe. But to those of us who are enlightened, closing down a business is not so much failure as it is gaining self-knowledge to lead a more fulfilling life going forward.

Feeling stuck? Uninspired? As though your New Year's resolutions have no spark? Maybe it's time to start your own business. It’s likely you intuitively know if you're actually an entrepreneur stuffed in a corporate cubicle. The entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age. It’s something that's inside you from day one — a part of who you are. So don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. Just make sure you have the right personality for success and the right attitude toward failure.

Get a good idea
Starting a business is very high-risk. Most entrepreneurs fail. So minimize your risk by honestly evaluating if your concept is valid and marketable. Remember, just because you like your idea doesn't mean there’s a market full of buyers for it, so do your research. Tip: your mom’s opinion doesn’t count because she’s biased, so find a small business mentor and ask her.

Assess your personality
You also need the right personality to run your own business. You must like people and people must like you — so you can get them to do what you want. You need to be able to make fast, confident decisions, and you need to be organized so that you can give clear direction to others. If your product launch flops, you are the one who has to tell everyone why the company is still on the road to success. If you can’t rally the troops, you need a business partner.

You also need boundless energy. When you own the company, you set the pace and the standards. Remember the day at the office last month when you were upset and tired from worrying about your personal life the night before, so you surfed the Internet all day? Relaxing, wasn’t it? You can’t do this when you own the company. Most small business owners work 80-hour weeks and wish they needed less sleep.

I have these traits. And I started a business. I raised funds and hired employees, and, surprise, the company was successful and I eventually cashed out. But I paid a high price. I worked almost every waking minute. When cash flow was poor, I worried not only about my own paycheck, but about the paychecks of my employees. When cash flow was good, deal flow was heavy and my workload doubled even though I was already maxed out. While I was negotiating the sale of my shares, my hair started falling out. I didn't know this happened to women, but apparently it does, usually from intense stress.
Fortunately, most small business owners are optimistic. And I am, too. I bought some Nioxin to make my hair grow back. And once I regained my former full mane, I started another business.

It failed. And I lost a lot of the money I made from the first business. There were many reasons for the failure: Bad timing, bad economy, and maybe, in hindsight, bad idea. If you think you have the personality to succeed as a small business owner, make sure you have the right approach to failure as well.

Minimize risk to your checkbook and your career
I invested only the money I could afford to lose. I had no kids and no mortgage. I lost my loot from my first company, but I didn't lose my shirt: I kept enough to live on for a while longer.” Think of starting a business as gambling: When you go to Vegas, never bet your plane fare home. Once my company closed, I enlisted a resume-writing service to help me frame my business flop as a career hop to the next level of management.

Fail quickly and move on
Most business leaders fail once or twice before hitting it big. Think of failure as a necessary career step and move through it quickly and assuredly — recognize when things are going poorly, fail fast, learn, and get another idea.

To those of you with the right personality, I say bring it on! You will be pleased that you turned tough economic times into an opportunity for fulfillment. And even if you fail, remember that statistics indicate you are most likely to succeed when you are doing something you love.

More people and companies declare bankruptcy in January than in any other month, and certainly this year will be no exception. Many more people will not technically declare bankruptcy, but they will feel financially battered.

There is hope, though. There are tricks to being in a financial hole. I know because I've been there. In fact, you could say I fell off a financial cliff.

My stampede toward that cliff began when I got funding for an Internet company and cashed out of that company in the span of about five months. I started another company, and feeling like I was the most brilliant businessperson on earth, I invested my own money. I got a round of funding and paid myself (and my friends) extremely well.

Then the Internet bubble exploded, and my company was one at the epicenter. The first thing I did was tried to protect the people at my company. I gave as much notice as possible, so they could save money, and I helped everyone update their resumes as a last, hopeful act.

Then I was on my own. No more cushy, jet-set salary. No more juicy stack of stock options. I lost the pile of money I made, and I was lucky to get away with a portion of my savings intact.

I spent a lot of time getting out of financial commitments: the personal assistant, the BMW, the trips to Europe. And no more investing in friends' companies.

But financial ruin is like death, and I spent a good amount of time in the denial stage. So I didn't cut all the obvious expenses right away. It was gradual. As in, I gradually ruined myself even more, and then I cut down my expenses to a sustainable level.

I spent a lot of time with lawyers, which was a stupid idea because they did nothing for me except listen to me bitch about bankruptcy law. One lawyer could see that, more than legal advice, I needed life advice. He said, “Almost all business owners fail once or twice. The people who make it big are the people who can bounce back and do something new.”

But I was not in a position to be a good listener. I was thinking about if he would charge me for the time he was giving unsolicited advice.

I spent a lot of time with friends — eating cheap sandwiches. Some of my friends dumped me when my company went bankrupt. Okay, they weren't really my friends if they dumped me for that, but still, I felt embarrassed and isolated. My remaining friends were sympathetic for a while, but soon they said, “Okay, it's over. You failed. But you can start something new.”

This is when the lawyer's advice came back to me — suddenly sounding like it was worth $200 an hour. I thought a lot about what sort of life I wanted to lead. How much money I really needed. And it turned out that I didn't need as much as I had thought. So I cut down my expenses drastically while I thought about what I really wanted to do.

I took swing-dancing lessons. I danced every night for a year while I thought about what to do next. Friends would call and I'd say, “Sorry, I can't talk. The band goes on in a half-hour.” My friends thought I was crazy, but you need to do something a little crazy in order to gain distance from your failure. If you go right back to the life you were leading, it's hard to find perspective.

When I went back to corporate life, I tried a few things at once: I accepted a job in a new industry, I investigated starting a new company, and I did freelance writing. As it turns out, the freelance writing is what was best for my next step. But this is a step I would never have taken if my company had not gone belly-up.

The saying that failure breeds opportunity is true. First you have to sulk. Then you have to explore. But you will find something that excites you, and you will try again. And maybe you will fall off a financial cliff again in your life. But the next time, you'll be an expert.