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7 Ways I've Advanced My Nursing Career

November 2, 2020
7 Ways I've Advanced My Nursing Career - featured image

One of my favorite quotes is from Muriel Strode, a writer known as the "female Walt Whitman of her day." She said:

"I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path and leave a trail."

As an FNP working for a tech startup, Strode’s quote runs through my head daily. Often I search for established policies and processes or the path through the forest with signs and benches I can take breaks on. I have to remind myself that, in the startup world, these don't exist. So many days, I ask myself, "What am I doing?" And the answer is simple: I want to be part of something bigger than myself, and I want to make a difference in the healthcare world. Cliche? Maybe. Honest? Absolutely. I believe health care needs innovation. So, with that in mind, these are my two career goals: leaving healthcare better than when I entered the workforce and forging a new path for other nurses. Career advancement is hard for nurses, and staying honest with one’s core values is even more challenging. Compounded by working outside the typical duties and path of a nurse leader, advancement at times can seem unattainable. Yet, I have advanced and am proof that it is attainable. 

Here are seven ways that I've moved up, sideways, and down as a nurse leader, all while staying true to who I am and keeping my husband and son my number one priorities.

1. Define Your Dream Job:

Simple right. With the skills and expertise you bring to the proverbial table, what is your dream job? Start with a list. Bullet out what that dream job looks like for you. What can you uniquely bring to the job? Identifying your strengths is challenging and takes time. Ask a trusted friend or mentor if you are struggling with making your list. We all have something unique to offer. When I was challenged with this question by a mentor, it took a couple of drafts, but I figured out my dream job components.

Here is my list: 

  1. My husband and son come first. 
  2. I want to be home when my son gets up for school and comes home from school.
  3. I want to be creative, make clinical content and write blogs (this one I thought was a long shot).
  4. I love being a nurse and want to use those skills.
  5. I want  to be a part of something different and significant. 
  6. Reasonable salary.

Once you identify your dream job, select what you're willing to compromise. Is it a title? Is it a work-life balance or a salary? What is it that you are not ready to give up for a job?

Can I be honest with you? I checked off every box except blogging and creating clinical content when I left my career at a large hospital. But serendipitously, here I am writing my ninth  blog article, and I've made and presented educational content to nurses and nurse leaders within the last six months. The two things from my dream job list that I am not willing to compromise are my relationship with my husband and being physically present for my son. I left job security, a vast group of nurse friends and mentors, and entered the unknown. Who knew that my dream job wasn't actually in the hospital setting? It was a world I never thought I would get to be a part of: a tech startup.

2. Be Confident: 

I have a friend and mentor who always says, "Your inner voice is an asshole." Every day I battle whispers of, "You can't do this," "You are an imposter," and "Soon they will figure out you're not capable." I recently had the honor to attend a women in leadership event called The Moxie Awards. One of the panelists, Elizabeth Dixon, talked about her negative inner voice. She said that when her inner-voice starts whispering doubts in her ear, she asks herself four questions: 

  1. Does this fall within my values? 
  2. Am I capable? 
  3. Do I have the experience? 
  4. Did I prepare? 

If she answers 3 out of 4 as yes, she tells that “asshole” (my word, not hers) to shut up! Many times as women, we confuse confidence with arrogance. Don't do this. Confidence is when you know what your unique abilities, skills, and contributions are. You share them for the greater good of those around you, whether it's for the benefit of the company or an internal team. Confidence is when you appreciate your abilities. Arrogance occurs when you have an inflated view of your skills, and you use them for selfish reasons like putting others down or getting ahead at all costs. A good test for arrogance is to ask yourself the same four questions, and if you say no to all of them but have no fear whatsoever of failure or doubt in your abilities, you've likely stepped into arrogance.

3. Advance with Integrity:

Now that we've talked about confidence let's look at integrity. For the longest time, I confused integrity with perfection. Perfection is an illusion, and honestly a waste of time. Imperfection is where you grow. So, own your mistakes and take the time to earn your status. Vivek Murty states, "Perfection is an illusion that technology and modern culture cultivate at the expense of humanity." We see perfection all around us due to social media, and it's poisoning us. Once you let go of the illusion of perfection, you can start moving towards integrity. 

There is nothing that replaces time, practice, and experience. Here’s a personal example: I love yoga and barre. For many years, I would only practice within the confines of my home. I found the instructors and class attendees intimidating. However, both practices have taught me that it is the movement’s accuracy and poses that matter. So it doesn't matter how high I can kick my leg; I have to be ok with where I am today. As I practice each day, my leg gets higher.  It's not so much about the height but the integrity of the movement. If my toes are not pointed and my leg isn't straight, it doesn't matter if I have the height; the move is incorrect.  What is the risk if I kick my leg too high before I'm ready? While I might look cool in the moment, I will suffer later. And honestly, I don't look cool most of the time, I look like an idiot, and then I'm injured. Be yourself. A job or promotion shouldn't cause you to compromise who you are at your core. Be truthful about your abilities, so you don’t get that promotion and then look like an idiot when you swing your leg too high. 

Another aspect of integrity is moving away from competitiveness. Be honest about your work and the inspiration behind it. If your great idea was the great idea of someone else, own that. In my experience, taking credit for the opinions and work of others always catches up with you. At some point, all eyes will be on you to make the decision, and if you've leaned on others without giving credit, you will flounder as you advance in your career. There is enough room for advancement for all of us. Let go of the sense of competition. 

Lastly, stop comparing. Stop looking at what others are doing. Be your authentic self. Tell your original story. Everyone's path is different, and rarely is anyone's path a direct one. Most tracks look like a chevron pattern. For those who don’t sew, a chevron is a zigzag pattern and all the rave for nurseries. Advancement is a chevron pattern. Thankfully we are not always moving up because the fun occurs when you veer off to the right or left. Enjoy the journey. And don't avoid the valleys. That's where the lessons are learned and the experience is gained. This is how you advance your career with integrity. 

4. Say Yes:  

Most paths are never a straight line but a zigzag, but to get on the course, it starts with saying yes. Say what? Say yes to opportunities. Say yes to failure. Say yes to being wrong. Inaction will destroy you. I'm a perfectionist by nature, which sometimes serves me well. I see the same trait in my son, and it's heartbreaking. He won't draw because it's not perfect. I explain to him that you will never be able to improve your skills if you don’t say yes to trying and say no to perfection. Perfection often cripples us. I won't even attempt something if I don't think I can pull it off entirely (the reason why it took me years to attend an actual yoga class). Don't be afraid to say yes. Often, I write out the worst-case scenario if I say yes to an opportunity, and it doesn't work out. If the worst-case scenario does not end in death or the loss of my home, I think, "Really, I don't have much to lose, but I have everything to gain." Two things that successful people have in common is they “say yes,” and they make mistakes. I am reading a book by Angela Duckworth called Grit. She says, "Some people are great when things are going well but fall apart when things are not." Saying yes requires grit and accepting things are not always going to go smoothly. Remember, real leaders shine in the moments of  uncertainty. 

5. Redefine Success: 

Define success for yourself and know that your definition is fluid. It is also essential to not look at the ways others around you define success. When you do that, you start to compare yourself with others' successes, which sets you up for failure. Remember, part of advancing with integrity is letting go of comparing.  For me, success meant not missing a single piece of my son's childhood. My husband and I tried for six years to have a baby. After losses and invitro, we didn't think of parenthood as part of our unique path. So when I found out the first round of in-vitro worked, my perspective changed. Success was no longer about a job title or accolades at work. I didn't want to miss any part of my son's first year because I knew how close I came to not being a mom. I also knew that he would be the only child my husband and I would likely have.I knew there would not be second chances, and I wanted to  be there for everything. I turned down two job promotions and drastically cut my hours from forty 40 hours a week to twelve 12 hours a week. I remember friends cautioning me that turning down promotions to stay at home with my son could stunt my career growth. My boss began to assign big projects, usually entrusted to me, to someone with less experience . Ouch. On the days I did work, I struggled to get up to date. The most challenging part was seeing colleagues outgrow me not because they were more talented, but because they worked full time. They were advancing, and I was stagnant. I had to remind myself that my definition of success had evolved. Success for me, at the time, was being home for my child while also  getting to dip my proverbial toe in the clinical water. It was hard but it’s a choice I never doubted, nor do I regret. 

6. Community:

Surround yourself with people that inspire you. One of my favorite expressions today is “Empowered Women Empower Women.” No, all your friendships don’t have to be with women. The point is that you want to attach yourselves to people you want to be like. Identify someone who is where you want to be or has qualities that you don’t have. Spend time with them and emulate their behavior. Find a mentor and build strong connections: with real people. Social media is a great way to build a network and have a forum to talk with other nurses, but your real friendships and relationships shouldn't be your only community. Humans are designed for authentic connection. Though we are in a pandemic, I make every effort to Facetime with my friends instead of texting. One study found that nurses who have deeper connections with other nurses are more likely to stay in the profession. When you consider the nursing shortage and that 17% of nurses leave in the first year and 35% leave in the second year because of low team environments, we can’t afford to lose our connection and we must support one another. 

Join your state association. Early in my career, I didn’t realize the value of state associations. Then I learned that compared to 800K doctors, there are 2.8 million nurses in the US. Collectively our voices are powerful. We can be change- makers and thought- leaders. The problem is we lack organization and strategy. Joining a state association allows you to learn from experts about the issues affecting you as a nurse and about ways to lobby for nurses. In fact, my state aAssociation in Georgia is launching GANALI, which is a six6 month program that trains nurses how to actively engage and advocate.  My state association has also provided me with numerous nurse leaders with similar paths to mine and nurses close to the end of their career who are helping to groom me and the next generation of leaders. Networking is key to career advancement, and your state association can provide you access to so many nurses who want to go where you are going and who have been where you are going. Grab onto their coattails and enjoy the ride. 

7. Be a lifetime learner: 

My very first preceptor out of nursing school is this amazing woman! There were hundreds of nurses in our department, and she likely precepted 25% of them at some point. As a new graduate, I was nervous, insecure, and doubted every decision I made. I remember asking my preceptor, “Does this mean I am a bad nurse?” She gave me the best advice that applies across all phases of life and all jobs. She said, “Bree if you ever get to a point in nursing where you think you know everything, you’ve become a dangerous nurse.” You can imagine how big my eyes were and the sinking feeling in my stomach.  As you learn more, and you become more comfortable making decisions, and often that confidence is the result of mistakes. I was liberated when I realized that I didn’t have to know everything. , nNor should I ever know everything. Being open to learning provides opportunity for growth. For example, I knew very little about the tech industry, and my time with Matchwell has allowed me to learn so much more than I would ever learn in a classroom setting. I am learning to think critically, innovatively, and independently. 

Conclusion

We all have a path to take. What will yours be? The cool thing about this question is that you get to choose. Define your dream job, be confident, advance with integrity, say yes, redefine success and commit to being a lifetime learner. Incorporating these tips not only allows you to succeed but it will likely take you somewhere you never dreamed you would be.