Has your nursing career drifted off course? Do you need to align your career path with your personal or professional mission? You’re not alone, and there’s something you can do about it.

Going Adrift

We all choose nursing as a career for a variety of reasons. For some, nursing is the prudent career choice to put food on the table for our families. For others, it’s a lifelong dream. And for still others, the mission and vision of being a nurse develop over time, no matter the original reason for pursuing this particular professional path.

It’s a given that various factors impact our career choices. It’s also apparent that foreseen and unforeseen circumstances govern our personal and professional lives. To be fair to ourselves, we can choose to see ourselves and our careers with compassion when our professional life goes off course, our work loses meaning, and we feel at sea on an ocean of self-doubt and mission drift.

Identifying Where Your Career Went Off Course

Once you acknowledge that your career is off course, the next step is identifying where things went awry. This isn’t always easy, but it can be done — with or without professional help in unpacking the state of your nursing career.

First, look back at why you chose to pursue nursing in the first place. Was it for the money? Did a family legacy influence you? Did you choose nursing because of a personal experience that inspired you? Did you see nursing as a solid career offering flexibility, a decent living, and a varied career?

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Once you remember why nursing seemed right then, consider the course of your career from the beginning until now. What choices did you make? Did you find work environments that suited your personality and interests? If you managed to change specialties at some point during your nursing career, what prompted the change, and did it bring you increased satisfaction?

After enumerating these various aspects of your career, it’s time to dig deeper and begin to wrestle with why you’re unhappy or feel off-kilter. Be brutally honest, and assess what it is about your current career trajectory that isn’t sitting well with you. We all change over time, and what may have seemed exciting or fulfilling ten years ago may now seem loathsome, dull, or overly stressful.

Aside from your career and job choices, you must also evaluate your personal life. For example, did you have a child or two since becoming a nurse? Did you get married or divorced? Has a loved one become disabled or died since you became a nurse? What age-related changes do you perceive in your life and health?

The circumstances of your personal life are impacting your work more than you thought. Several babies born in a few short years can change your feelings about work. A divorce can throw you off your game. A little self-compassion can go a long way here.

No matter how or what went off course, you can get back on target when you’re ready to do the work to get there.

Creating Your Future

When you’ve identified what brought you to the game in the first place, you’ve taken the first step. And once you’ve been honest enough to name what’s gone wrong or isn’t working, you’ve taken another leap forward into a new and exciting future.

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Now you need to conceptualize — and verbalize — your new career vision and mission. Career drift can’t really be overcome until you can catch a glimpse of what you truly want. A mission and vision come from clearly understanding your motivations and desires. These can be identified in various ways, and you don’t always need a career or life coach to do it (but that can sometimes help).

Do you want to work with children and heal some deeper part of yourself that wasn’t loved as a child? Is working with underserved populations close to your heart? Have you realized that providing nursing care to injured combat veterans in honor of your father’s service is where your heart lies?

Sometimes what drove us to nursing isn’t what continues to light our fire.

When I was first in nursing school, I was sure I’d graduate and serve the dying with dignity and compassion by opening an inpatient hospice. Although I did a fair amount of hospice care over the years, I would never have known that fifteen years later, I’d be focused with the laser-like intention of helping nurses create more satisfying and inspiring careers. I also wouldn’t have guessed that freelance writing, blogging, speaking at conferences, consulting, and podcasting would further support that vision.

My future crept up on me over time — it didn’t hit me over the head. My career was certainly focused on community health and outpatient care for a long time. Still, the other pieces that got me up in the morning were nowhere in sight in 1996 when I graduated from community college with an ADN. My journey was circuitous and unexpected at times.

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Creating your future involves assessing the present and seeing what is and isn’t working. This can be subtle, take time, or happen overnight in a grand epiphany of self-awareness and clarity. No matter what, it generally doesn’t all come together without some concerted effort on your part.

Mission Back on Course

Career mission drift can happen for personal and professional reasons. And how you can get back on the course are also varied and based on your needs, motivations, desires, and personal drive.

A nursing career that feels adrift is no fun, and it can sap your satisfaction and inspiration to get out of bed and report to work. Staying focused on what you want out of your career is essential, and since this is a moving target throughout your life, it takes ongoing assessment and reassessment to figure it out along the way.

Be real, honest, and willing to do the work to unearth why your career is off base and how dedicated you are to getting back to a place of inspiration and feeling great about being a nurse.

No one said this is easy, but it’s worth it. If you spend a third of your life working, why not do work that brings you joy and satisfaction? Those are two of the most powerful engines for your personal life and career success. So get back on track and experience more joy in your nursing career — you’ll never regret doing what you love.

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.

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Keith Carlson
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