Career Success Without a Perfect Fit

She knew she wanted to be a nurse since the age of 6 when she served as the primary caregiver for her ill mother. She considers herself a born nurse but struggled to achieve her career goal and would have abandoned the journey long before if she had listened to the advice of others. The dean at the University of Toronto shook her head in frustration as Tilda Shalof walked across the podium to receive her nursing degree. She was undoubtedly born to be a nurse but that did not mean that her career was one uninterrupted series of remarkably successful steps. It took hard work and an unrelenting commitment but 25 years later Tilda has written 4 books about her experiences as a nurse and speaks regularly about serious problems in healthcare that we otherwise would never hear about.

My first acquaintance with Tilda’s story was when Carolyn Weaver interviewed her on Bio Library. She had completed The Making of A Nurse, the second of her four books, following The Nurse’s Story. She told Carolyn about her realization one day that there were many skills and qualities that she would need to acquire if she was to become an excellent ICU nurse. She was the only university-trained nurse in the unit, surrounded by experienced, competent nurses whose training was hands-on, not theories from a textbook. Additionally, her supervisors and colleagues doubted that she had the right temperament for success as an ICU nurse. Tilda could have transferred to a less demanding unit in the hospital. There was a severe shortage of nurses, it would have been easy, but she stuck it out. She was determined to become that excellent nurse and she certainly did.

I had never before that day heard anyone articulate that simple idea so clearly. Tilda’s statement confronted my preconceptions that if you identified your calling, you could achieve excellence in that area with easy-to-moderate struggle. It wasn’t so much that she refused to accept that she didn’t fit. We all know people who aren’t particularly good at what they do. The Peter Principle said that was actually normal. It was that Tilda took personal responsibility for addressing her deficiencies. In her mind, staying with ICU nursing implicitly meant a commitment to becoming an excellent nurse, because that was the only way she could provide excellent patient care. Read her books and then tell me that you are not grateful that she stuck with ICU nursing!

I am reminded of Tilda Shalof every time I meet someone with a dream who is surrounded by others who want them to be more “realistic” and choose an easier path. Maybe when we ask whether we are a fit for the career of our dreams we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the better question is whether we are willing to do what is needed to become fit for that career! A number of writers now tell us that we can achieve above average competence in most skills with deliberate practice. As to our temperaments, we can learn to moderate our natural tendencies. More about that later.

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