What do you do if your career is built on what others feel your value is?

I am posting this to hear thoughts, ideas, feedback, advice, just anything other than the spinning circular thoughts stuck in my head. Tried to keep this short ... failed ... apologies in advance for how long it is :)

I am in my mid-forties (so full on mid-life crisis!) and I have been struggling with the deciding on what direction to take my career for over a year now.

Since I was a child, I wanted to be an Astronomer and work at an Observatory near my home. I took physics in uni, but my profs did everything they could to dissuade me from going onto astrophysics, because it was just so hard to get a job as an astronomer… eventually it worked, and I lost my passion.

Still, when the opportunity came up to work at that Observatory I jumped on it…even though it was a 4-month coop job and half of the time was spent in the Visitors’ Centre being the public liaison. Because I was a hard worker and so organized, I was able to turn this into a telescope operations job for the next few years. And then, because I did so well at that, I was offered the position of Engineering Project Coordinator building a ‘correlator’ (the supercomputer brain) for the EVLA telescope for the next 7 years.

It was great to work in Astronomy for all of those years, but project management was never what I wanted to do, it was where others saw my value and what they wanted me to do.

After that, I moved onto the field of software, still as a project manager. I worked for several small startups and for some local software agencies. As anyone can tell you, being a project manager in companies like this involves much more than just your PM duties… add to that insecurities, people pleasing, and imposter syndrome … and I began to describe myself as ‘everything but dev’.

As I continued throughout the years, taking on all of these additional roles, I was able to build significant skills on the Product Owner side, gained a lot of UX experience, and operationally I have setup Jira, Confluence, standard software processes, and all sorts of other company standards a multitude of times.

It has been a difficult journey. Being a project manager is a thankless job. You put yourself in front of your team and do your best to shield them from all the negativity that comes from the business and client sides. But there is no end to the amount they expect from you, and the harder you try, the more they expect. Your team appreciates you, but their voices get drowned out by the negativity coming at you from all other sides. And with all of the responsibilities involved, the resulting burnout has probably damaged me permanently.

When 2020 hit, I decided this was my chance to make a change. At the Observatory, I did a lot of ‘graphic art’ tasks for a yearly public open house event. I loved it. And reflecting back on all of my software experience, it was the UX design that I enjoyed the most. So I decided to take a year long UX/UI bootcamp to shore up my UX skills and give me some much needed UI design training and practice.

Amazingly, right away I got a job as UX Designer! … but also 50% project manager, because that’s what they really wanted.

Then ‘poof’, it was all gone. They ran out of money and 95% of the company was laid off… this was March 2023, and everyone knows how tough the UX/UI design (and all of tech) has been for jobs since then.

I applied for many many designer positions, I tried sending in proposals for projects with a developer colleague, and I have been trying my hand at freelance… but it has been just as much of a struggle for me as it has been for everyone else.

I love design, in so many forms. I love solving problems and creating amazing solutions… but throughout my career it has felt like everyone values everything else I can do so much more. So much so that I was recently told that if I pursued more design, it would devalue my personal brand as a Product Owner.

And here is where my struggle is. Do I keep trying to pursue a design career, knowing that all of my other software experience should enhance my desireability, but also knowing that the market is just flooded and it is so difficult to even be seen nowadays? Or do I conform? Do I just do the roles it just seems like everyone wants me to do (Product Owner/Manager, Project Manager, Operations) because pragmatism should always trump everything else?

If you made it here, thanks for taking the journey with me. I sure would like to hear other’s stories as well :)

Amy, thank you for sharing your story and being so brave.I totally hear where you're coming from. It's frustrating to be at a thankless job. And conforming sounds awful, too. In my personal experience, I acted on a lot of my early career based on what other people's perception of me would be. Then I started imagining what my life would be like if I wasn't afraid, if I didn't care what other people thought, if the "market" didn't matter, and if I could be authentically me. Wow, what fun that was!! Just in my imagination!! I used to be an engineer. And let me tell you, it's quite an impressive title for a woman to have. I loved people's reactions when they learned about me. I just hated the job. I even hated studying engineering. It was 4 years of tears and torture, all to prove to someone that I was smart and worthy. I was very good at my job, too. Just like you. If you're that good at something you don't like doing, imagine how AMAZING you'd be at something you DO love doing!Your most AUTHENTIC SELF will attract your most authentic connections, relationships, jobs, and opportunities. Some advice I recommend for you at this stage is to assess your values. Use this list ( to choose 3-5 that deeply resonate with you, and can answer the following guiding questions:- does this define me?- is this who I am at my best?- is this a filter I can use to make hard decisions?- are these values true to me or just something someone told me "should" be true?- how does a person with these values behave in this situation?- what's my "why"? Why do these values matter to me?When we get thrown off our game, it's usually because our values are being violated. Reconnect to your values and I'll bet you'll gain a lot more clarity and hindsight.Happy to chat with you more, Amy!!All the best, Vic
Thanks for this @victoriakhaimov. I am definitely going to do that values assessment and look forward to seeing what insights it might bring.
I've been in your shoes and it's definitely a tough place to be. There's so much out there about how work wouldn't feel like work if we loved what we do, and how we should spend our days fulfilling our passions. In theory, this is the ideal for every person. I'm just not sure how feasible it is in reality...I worked for the same company for 20 years in a field I loved initially and then grew to loathe...but it was a stable job with a lot of flexibility so it afforded me the time to take on a lot of side projects where I could play and do things I enjoyed. It wasn't until my mid 40s that I switched gears and finally started doing what I really enjoyed for work, but even that has changed in the last few years. I think a lot of the answer to your question will depend on your personal situation - can you take the time to find the perfect role? Do you have to work to support your family, or need benefits? The UX field right now as you know is tough...and the way things are going, I don't see it getting any better any time soon. If you have to find something sooner rather than later, do you have the time outside of your day job to work on things that light you up?I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here, and I also want to add I think it's really really amazing how you overcame all the negativity in your younger years to work at the observatory and make something out of nothing. Learning the product side and being good at it is an accomplishment in itself, so please make sure you give yourself some grace and be proud as you work though this!
Thank you @LucyN. You have hit the nail on the head here. I am finding just enough work to cover the bills, but barely. So the financial stress is high. I know taking less desirable role will ease the financial stress, but will increase all other work much do that mentally and emotionally I will be so drained there will be room for nothing else.
The market is flooded, but Product Managers and Product Designers remain in-demand. You will need to have excellent taste, demonstrated skills, and the right relationships to find opportunities.With companies running leaner, there may actually be fewer orgs hiring for SCRUM-style Product Owners or Project Managers. I'm not sure it's necessarily more "pragmatic" to try and land one of those roles vs. something in Product.If you're passionate about Product and Design, I'd say: continue to pursue that. Don't let how other people perceive you limit you from pursuing what you really love. (Easier advice to dish out than to take.) However, you may need to adjust the way you're positioning yourself and reshape the story you're telling to be more focused.Something as simple as switching the words around: "I'm a Product Designer with a background in graphics design, project management, and physics" or "I'm a Product Manager with a background in design and UX" vs. "I'm a physics grad and certified project manager who recently discovered they love UI/UX" Instead of telling your story in a linear way, start with the work you want to do for hire and then fill in the background details that make you unique compared to other candidates.
Thank you @melaniecrissey, this is a great perspective that I hadn't thought of. I quite like the notion of using my past to support what I want to be rather than defining what I can be.
Hello fellow bootcamper! (I went to an engineering one in Chicago)Ok the TL;DR in response to this question is: "Do I just do the roles it just seems like everyone wants me to do?"No! Please don't. Think about why you posted this! I'm guessing, there's a feeling deep inside of you (or right at the surface) that doesn't want to do that.Especially because you got a job as a UX designer and then ended up having to do project management as well, because it's what others wanted. It's pretty clear, even from 2D writing what lights you up."I love design, in so many forms. I love solving problems and creating amazing solution."My offering is to start asking yourselves questions. Without getting other people's opinions! It sounds like it's more distracting, than anything, to bring in other people's viewpoints and hesitations.* What excites you?* What's holding you back?* Why?* How can you make a small step forward that doesn't need to be perfect? In fact, I encourage it to be messy!Rooting for you,Sarah
Thank you @sarahing I needed to hear this!
Two things really stand out after reading what you so vulnerably shared. So, first, thank you for being so transparent. And secondly, good for you for getting out of your head with it! Navigating life, even the professional aspect of it, on someone else's terms hardly ever results in fulfillment, joy, or satisfaction (which I can tell you already know). You mentioned that you're in full-on in midlife crisis - but I beg to differ. Brené Brown flipped the script on that and coined it "midlife unraveling" (you can read the quote about it, here, in big font once you scroll down a bit: And I think unraveling is so much more accurate because at that general time in life I think we start to REALLY understand and recognize who we are at our core, then disentangle ourselves (our authentic selves) from the trauma, coping mechanisms, "shoulds", and misplaced priorities we've learned to adopt early on. Even your recognizing that your professional path was molded by others nods to how much you recognize it's misaligned with what YOU want. As I was reading, there was something else that really jumped out at me (mostly because it's an epiphany I had recently, and I've been rumbling with it myself) - You said your team appreciates you. And I believe that. But did they value you? And.... to take it a (scary) step further - Do YOU value you?You shared how many responsibilities you shouldered, how much you took on to prove your worth. There's a book called "The Secrets of Six Figure Women" that talks about the difference between being valued/compensated professionally, and always seeming to "miss the boat" on that - and the biggest difference was knowing your worth AND asking for it. I experienced something recently where I realized I was appreciated (acknowledged for the value I brought to the table), but wasn't actually valued (that value wasn't backed with some type of INVESTMENT - Btw, this is a new concept to me, and I get it in my head, but the language isn't great yet).I'm curious about a couple of things:1) What does your heart tell you? (Do you pursue the design career?)2) Can you leverage all your achievements, responsibilities, training, etc. to create a PLAN to fully transition from anything PM related to focusing entirely on design? 3) Are you great at handling tough conversations, doing the hard things, spearheading responsibilities, and they're leaning on you FOR that because they're actively avoiding those things (which is why they keep pigeon-holing you into those roles)? I have no doubt you'll figure out the next best step for yourself. You are capable beyond your wildest imagination! And, you deserve to feel fulfilled as well!
Wow, this is amazing! Thank you @marieofvenus. So many good insights and poignant questions.
You are SO welcome! It's interesting how much power and clarity we find when we're brave enough to ask the questions rattling around in our heads. I'm so glad you did just that! And, I'm happy to support and cheer-lead you on. 😊