Monday, January 09, 2017

Finding Meaning In Your Nursing Career

We all seek meaning in various aspects of our lives, and when we work in nursing and healthcare, we often look for meaning and value in our lives as professional nurses. Finding that meaning can be central to our identity and relative happiness, both personally and professionally. 

In his beautiful book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, author and poet David Whyte makes the following statement:
At its simplest, good work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it.
Whyte's book is brimming with nuggets related to work and career; my personal copy is underlined, dog-eared, highlighted, and otherwise thumbed through with great interest, curiosity, and appreciation.

Identity and Nursing

If our identity as nurses is central to our personal identity, nursing takes on a meaning that can carry us through even the most difficult days, or leave us weeping in confusion and defeat. Our work as nurses can lead us to witness great suffering, moments of triumph against all odds, as well as a sense that life, illness, and health are sometimes gravely unfair.

When a child suffers or dies despite our best efforts, we can falter in our steps and go so far as to question why God would allow such a horrendous thing to happen to one so innocent. On the other end of the life spectrum, watching a destitute, isolated, chronically ill elder struggle in the final throes of life can also underscore the relative lack of equity in human life and mortality.

Meaning can emerge from suffering, and it can also emerge from the beauty of a life well-lived; nurses can find themselves witness to all aspects of the human condition.

The Calloused Heart

We've likely all known cynical nurses who were hard as nails, steely, and with hearts apparently calloused over as a form of resistance against pain and loss. These nurses might use gallows humor and other behaviors to avoid their feelings and separate themselves from the pain occurring all around them; in doing so, how much are they actually cutting themselves off from finding true meaning in their work?

In his aforementioned book, David Whyte shares this thought:
If I can reduce my image of work to just a job I do, then I keep myself safely away from the losses to be endured in putting my heart's desire at stake.
Whyte struck a chord with me in this sentence; the nurse who cuts herself off from her heart's desire and the deeper meaning of her work stands to lose so much in the process, perhaps even the very soul of what she does and why she does it. Yes, part of why we work is to put food on the table, yet most of the nurses I've known entered the profession seeking much more than simply a means to a financial end; after all, there are many other professions offering much greater monetary reward.

We willfully allow our hearts to callous over at our peril; nursing devoid of meaning or feeling is, in my view, a sure-fire recipe for burnout and compassion fatigue.

Whyte summed it up this way:
All good work should have an edge of life and death to it, if not immediately apparent, then to be found by ardently exploring its greater context. Absent the edge, we drown in numbness. 
Seeking the Edge

Taking David Whyte at his word, we may agree that some of us seek the edge in our work as nurses; rather than callous our hearts against loss and suffering, we embrace it with eyes wide open.

Now, some nurses may open themselves up so readily that burnout may take hold when their boundaries have collapsed and they find themselves wrapped up so deeply in their patients' suffering that they lose touch with any sense of clinical distance or objectivity; I've been down this road, myself. This is not something to condone or promote; however, we may also agree that going to that edge (without falling off) can lend itself to finding meaning and a more expansive view of one's nursing career.

Sense and Meaning

Repeating the first quote above, Mr. Whyte wrote:
At its simplest, good work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it.
Yes, our work as nurses can -- and dare I say must -- make sense, and it can also carry greater meaning in the context of our lives as nurses and members of our communities. Our patients can feel when we're connected and present; on the other hand, they can also easily sense when we're feeling burned out and resentful.

Meaning can come from teaching a nursing student to give an immunization, holding a child's hand during chemotherapy, filling a pill box, or educating a dialysis patient as she enters an advanced phase of end-stage renal disease.

Meaning can also emerge from what we learn about ourselves within the world of our work. How do we treat our colleagues?  What thoughts do we experience as we respond to yet another call bell? Can we approach that surgeon with slightly more patience? Would we treat our own mother the way we're treating the woman in room 207?

Nursing can consistently provide a platform for personal growth if we allow it to do so; this can truly help us find the meaning behind and beneath what we do as nurses.

In the weeks and months to come, I challenge you to seek deeper meaning in your work, no matter the clinical or non-clinical nature of what you do. Make meaning by seeking meaning; you'll find it's often hidden within plain sight.

Your work as a nurse will take on the meaning you find, and that which you consciously give it. Consider what nursing means to you in the deepest sense, and embody that meaning as you continue your career as a member of our powerful, consequential profession.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway.

Keith is co-host of, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses.

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of "Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century," and has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession. Keith has written for,,  MultiViews News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University, the ANA blog, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online publications.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives.

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