Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Genius is Relative, Nurses!

Are you a nurse who sometimes beats herself up because you've focused so much on your specialty practice area that you've lost touch with other aspects of nursing? Are you highly skilled at reading ECGs but couldn't interpret an ABG (arterial blood gas) if your life depended on it? Are you a nurse business owner completely removed from the clinical world? There are all kinds of nurses out there, and you really can't know everything, even if you're a real life nurse polymath. Genius is relative, and we all have our own unique brilliance and gifts to bring to the table.

So, here are some questions for those nurses who berate themselves for not knowing certain things or not having certain skills:
  • Does an electrician feel less worthy because she doesn't know how to pour a concrete foundation or install a hot water heater? 
  • Is deep low self-esteem experienced by a pastry chef who doesn't know how to make a perfect paella? 
  • Did Albert Einstein hate himself because he didn't know how to tune up his own car?
I think you know what the answers to these questions are; in case you're not sure, the answer is an unequivocal no. So, if the electrician doesn't hate himself for not being able to pour concrete, why should you have low self-esteem because you've been a school nurse for 30 years and you'd be lost in the ICU? (And if, perchance, Einstein actually could do a tune up, I bet there were plenty of things he didn't know how to do---and he paid others to do those things for him.)

Learn What You Want (Or Need) To Know

If there happen to be certain aspects of nursing that you lament not understanding, there are many ways to remedy that situation. If your venipuncture skills are rusty and you'd like to get them up to speed, guess what? You can take a refresher course. If you've been in the ER for years but you want to understand how to compassionately sit at the side of a dying person without intervening, you can find a hospice position and learn the ropes of that nursing specialty. You may not be able to find a prn job as a flight nurse on a helicopter (that's a specialty that demands a great deal of mandatory experiences and certifications), but there are plenty of critical care skills you can bone up on if you're so moved.

If you listen to my podcast episode about nurse polymaths, I don't want you to walk away thinking that you need to know everything about everything. Au contraire! You just need to know what you need and want to know, and if that includes making a paella and tuning up your car, so be it. The point is, for those nurses who have low self esteem because they don't know what other nurses know and can't do what other nurses do, please just let it go!

Impostor Syndrome Lurks In Many Nurses' Hearts

We can all feel like impostors at times, and other nurses can cause us to question our own value and skill when they invalidate what we do. We hear things like, "Oh, you're a school nurse? When was the last time you had a real nursing job?" Or, "Your skills must feel so rusty after twelve years in home health."

When the public doesn't understand what nurses are capable of, and our fellow nursing colleagues question if what we do is really nursing at all, we can indeed feel like the math genius who castigates himself for not being able to bake a birthday cake. Such feelings of low nursing self-esteem are understandable, but they are, in the end, misguided and self-injurious. Others' opinions can undermine our confidence, but we have to fight back by celebrating our own unique genius and internalizing our own value and worth.

What's Real To You? 

Your nursing career doesn't have to be about second-guessing your decisions and feeling bad that you don't have this or that skill. No matter what area of nursing you chose in the past or will choose in the future, there will be skills you don't develop or old skills that fall by the wayside because you don't use them anymore. This is just the reality, and it's totally normal.

An infusion nurse who takes five years off to work as a school nurse may not be able to keep her venipuncture skills sharp, but is that truly important to her? Does she simply acknowledge that she'll get those skills back when and if she needs them, or does her self-esteem plummet and send her into a professional existential crisis?

If a nurse decides that, after 42 years at the bedside, she's ready to teach and do research, is she any less of a nurse when she makes that career shift?

Nursing Identity

Nurses, you need to do what is relevant, inspiring, life-giving, and meaningful to you. When a seismic shift hits your nursing career and you're ready to make a change (or if you're forced to change by virtue of an injury or other factor), there is an understandable impact on your professional nursing identity.

Thirty years in ICU or CCU will get into your blood, and your nursing identity will be bound up with your chosen specialty. However, when changes come down the pike and you switch to a new area of focus, your identity will need to adjust to the new reality as your ego struggles to remain intact.

Accept what you don't know, learn what you need and want to learn, and internalize the value of who you are and what you do in every moment.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a Board Certified Nurse Coach offering holistic career development for nurses and healthcare professionals. All things Nurse Keith can be found at NurseKeith.com.

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. written for Nurse.com, Nurse.org, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University, BlackDoctor.org, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog, NursingCE.com, American Nurse Today, 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. 

Living in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, Keith shares a magical life with his partner, Shada McKenzie, a gifted, empathic, and highly skilled traditional astrologer and reader of the tarot.

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