Every nurse and healthcare professional has the opportunity to define career success in their own way. However, how many of us allow our nursing careers to be defined by someone else? How can we seize control of our careers and define success on our terms?

Beyond a Cookie-Cutter Career

At this time, your definition of success may mean earning your MSN by age 35 and your PhD or DNP by age 45. On the other hand, for one of your nurse colleagues, success may mean getting a BSN, finding a job to pay the bills, and putting a child through college. For another, it’s taking a year off and traveling the globe on an around-the-world ticket. And why not?

There are many prescriptions for a successful nursing career, but cookie-cutter solutions are just approximations of what’s possible for you. What works for Jane, the nurse, doesn’t necessarily add up for Bill, the nurse. Jane and Bill have different life histories, goals, professional experiences, family circumstances, and responsibilities, so they must forge an individualized path.

Just because “they” say you need two years of med/surg before pursuing other opportunities doesn’t make that true for you. As a new grad, I skipped med/surg and acute care altogether and never looked back as I created a career focused on community health and home health nursing – did I miss out on some experiences? Sure. Do I care? Not really. It was my choice, and the consequences of that decision are mine to bear, whatever they may be.

Your Own Compass

When a hiker strikes off into the woods, they often use a compass (an old-fashioned version or an app) to keep from getting lost. All compasses universally point out where north, south, east, and west are. So the hiker can use those cardinal directions with a detailed topographic map to make good decisions about where they’re heading.

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Not so with a nursing or healthcare career – true north for one nurse is dead wrong for another. For most new grads, that first professional expedition out of school means marching right into an acute care position – that’s true north in many cases. But for us nurse iconoclasts, rebels, and black sheep, we may very well turn around and march in the opposite direction than our peers, and that’s OK.

Wherever you are in your nursing career, you must find your own compass and solicit the drummer who will play the beat that moves your feet toward your own definition of success.

Defining Your Success

You need to know your thoughts and feelings to take the bull by the horns and define success on your terms. This may seem rudimentary, but many of us are buffeted by the winds of opinion that others force on us. We may also be influenced by our peers’ choices, even if they don’t tell us what to choose or do.

Knowing what you truly think and feel necessitates exploring your motivations, goals, and desires and identifying the preconceived notions you brought to your professional nursing career. Unfortunately, we all have career baggage and self-judgments that hold us back and keep us from making choices that are truest to our nature.

These questions (and others, of course) may hopefully lead to further exploration and the uncovering of what you want:

  • What are my greatest strengths? What do I bring to the table as a nurse and healthcare professional?
  • What are my “weaknesses”? Where do I need to bolster my knowledge, expertise, and/or experience?
  • What are the things that are potential threats to my success and happiness? (e.g., Do I lack motivation? Am I going through a difficult divorce? Do I have medical or mental health conditions that negatively impact me at home or work? Is a lot of my energy taken up by caring for an elderly parent or disabled loved one?)
  • What opportunities are out there just waiting for me to seize them?
  • Who might be a good networking connection?
  • What are past experiences that can lead to new opportunities in the future?
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Staying Focused

Many factors will influence what we do in our nursing careers over time. If your circumstances change (e.g., divorce, marriage, birth of a child, etc.), you may need to adjust your work schedule. If a big corporation buys your hospital and heads roll left and right, you may need to abandon ship before things get terrible.

Threats, opportunities, and stuff that happen may cause you to lose focus and deviate from a clear career plan. These abrupt turns can be advantageous happy accidents but can also lead you unhappily astray.

Staying focused means you consciously choose to keep your eyes on the prize, maintain the integrity of your plans, and simultaneously be open to serendipity and the unknown. An open mind will serve you best in just about all situations.

Know Thyself

Creating a nursing career on your terms calls on you to know yourself as well as possible. The advice mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg: find coaches, mentors, counselors, therapists, colleagues, and/or accountability partners who can listen well, hold your feet to the fire, question your motivations, and otherwise be there when you’re at your strongest or your weakest.

Dig deep and get to know yourself. If you do nothing else, self-reflection and increased self-knowledge will benefit every aspect of your life, not to mention your relationships with those around you.

Defining your nursing career on your terms isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not as simple as it seems. Do the work, put in the sweat equity, and you’ll be rewarded with self-knowledge, self-confidence, and an understanding of what makes you tick in your personal and professional lives. The rest is the icing on the cake.

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Minority Nurse is thrilled to feature Keith Carlson, “Nurse Keith,” a well-known nurse career coach and podcaster of The Nurse Keith Show as a guest columnist. Check back every other Thursday for Keith’s column.

Keith Carlson
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