We all choose nursing as a career for a variety of reasons. For some, nursing is simply the prudent career choice in order 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 what being a nurse truly means develops over time, no matter the original reason for pursuing this particular professional path.
It's a given that our career choices are impacted by a wide variety of factors. It's also apparent that our personal and professional lives are governed by both foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. 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 You Went Off Course
Once you acknowledge that your career is off course, the next step is to identify 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? Were you influenced by a family legacy? Did you choose nursing because of a personal experience that inspired you? Did you see nursing as a solid career choice that would offer flexibility, a decent living, and a varied career?
Once you remember why nursing seemed right at the time, 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, boring, or overly stressful.
Aside from your career and job choices, you also need to evaluate your personal life. Did you have a child or two since becoming a nurse? Did you get married or divorced? Did a loved one become disabled or die since you became a nurse? What age-related changes are you perceiving in your life and health?
You may find that the circumstances of your personal life are impacting your work more than you thought. Several babies born in a few short years can definitely change how you feel about work. A divorce can totally 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.
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 a clear understanding of your motivations and desires. These can be identified in a variety of 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 really lies?
Sometimes the thing that drove us to nursing isn't what continues to light our fire. When I was first in nursing school, I was certain that 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 laser-like intention on helping nurses create more satisfying and inspiring careers. I also wouldn't have guessed that that vision would be further supported by freelance writing, blogging, speaking at conferences, consulting, and podcasting.
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, but the other pieces that presently get 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.
Creating your future comes with being able to assess the present and see what is and isn't working. This can be subtle and take a great deal of time, or it may 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 many reasons, be they personal and/or professional. And the ways in which you can get back on course are also varied and based on your needs, motivations, desires, and personal drive.
Having a nursing career that feels adrift is no fun, and it can totally 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, be honest, and be 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 totally 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 your career success. Get back on track and experience more joy in your nursing career -- you'll never regret doing what you love.
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind NurseKeith.com and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway. Please visit his online platforms and reach out for his support when you need it most.
Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.
A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession. Keith has written for Nurse.com, Nurse.org,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AUSMed, American Sentinel University, Black Doctor, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog, American Nurse Today, NursingCE.com, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.
Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives, and their adorable and remarkably intelligent cat, George. (You can find George on Instagram by using the hashtag #georgethecatsantafe.)