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Value Propositions for Taking a Left Turn

After a recent search for some wisdom on finding the right professional destination when your career path is full of left turns, I came up a little short of anything recent, so I decided to put my own thoughts down and do my share towards filling the vacuum. 

I am at the start of my second (or third?) career, depending on what you count. I never fit with the traditional model of working your way up from entry level to management. In my twenties, I had so many different work experiences, moved so many times, and thought I’d never acheive anything of import because I still believed in that traditional model, even if I couldn’t wear the shoes. Later, I started following the philosophy that it is pointless to limit your potential to one role or one industry, or one career trajectory, just because it’s what you’ve been doing so you feel you must continue. In fact, life is too short for those kind of metrics. So I always took the job that seemed like the challenge with the biggest payoff, even if it was a sharp left turn from what I had been doing up to that point. I did so with the rationale that as long as I was always building on my skills and experience, increasing my responsibility, professionalism, and credibility, I couldn’t go too far wrong. 

This is how I ended up working as a Senior Project Manager and Business Analyst, with a BA in Japanese Art History. And this is also how, after 6 years of managing the design and implementation of digital workflows, I was drawn to seek an MFA in New Media and interactive art. 

Now, at 44, with a newly minted Master’s, I have followed my challenges from Maine to Spain, and I’m seeking work in a new country and culture for the first time. This has been a disorienting transition to say the least. One of the biggest questions I have needed to answer is, What is my Job? Am I a Generalist? A Consultant? A Strategist? An Artist? A Researcher?

The job market today has completely transformed since I first joined the workforce. Every. Thing. Is. Digital. Everyone is a social media influencer. And kids on Instagram have a natively intuitive grasp on navigating these waters, unlike us over-the-hill GenX-ers who nonetheless invented these platforms. I used to be confident that the breadth and depth of professional experience usually won out over the blank slate of a twenty-something recent graduate, but this is not necessarily the case anymore. Companies are hiring SMEs with extremely narrow focus, who can state their value propositions in a single page resume, and the millennial crunch means that it’s truly an employer’s market, especially if they are willing to overlook older, more experienced (more expensive) candidates. What’s more, many of these narrow silos of expertise did not even exist as standalone distinctions from Project Managers, Designers and Programmers, little more than 5-10 years ago. Customer Success Managers, SEO gurus, Community Managers, AB Testers and Conversion Analysts, welcome to the stage. 

This is why I’ve come to the recognition that those of us in the middle age of our professional lives, especially those of us who have pursued multiple career directions, and whose CVs reflect multiple left turns, have to focus more than anything else on defining our own value propositions. We have to be able to articulate with confidence and authority that our wildly diverse experiences actually knit together into a compelling narrative that tells a story about who we are, and why This is my Job. 

At 44, I have to be crystal clear that I am steeped in the digital domain as much as your next YouTube content marketer. That while I remember when we used to fly cross-country to visit our clients in person, instead of zooming or slack chatting, I also know the benefits of both relationship models and how they affect communication across different domains. I need to be able to articulate that despite the plain-jane job titles on my CV, I was doing UX research as a vital part of project management, before there was a dedicated role for it, or Data Evangelists or Centers of Excellence to support it.

This is also my reflection on getting an advanced degree late in one’s career. I may have gone back to school because I was burnt out from a toxic work environment and needed a change, or because I wanted to ‘follow my bliss,’ or any number of reasons, but starting over again after taking a 3+ year break to earn a Master’s in your 40s means that everything that came before has still got to prove out as the foundation for this new direction. There is a reason why I ended up working as a PM in process analysis and solution design to begin with, and it’s the same reason why I pursued systems-based interactive art and Human Computer Interaction as a creative researcher. The reason is that my brain is wired to figure out how things work, and how to optimize them. I am better than most people at grasping the big picture AND how all its tiny parts affect the whole. And I am driven to connect with people by telling these stories in meaningful ways. 

So while formatting my value proposition to fit on a single page CV may still be a work in progress (How long is this essay?), these fundamentals are shaping up as my landmarks while I’m scanning the horizon of this job search. I may not know exactly what my next job title will be, but I know it will be a challenge with the biggest payoff yet.