3 writing lessons from nursing

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

M. Scott Peck

In 1997, about a year into my career as a registered nurse it was clear that nursing was absolutely not my career calling. If I’d been more honest with myself I’d probably have realized this when I was still a student nurse back at the University of Rhode Island. But I was far too busy for self awareness then, working my tail off day and night to earn my Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing.

The good news is, I’ve been able to carry over to writing many of the lessons I learned from my comprehensive science education and brief experience as an RN.

Here are 3 lessons I learned in nursing, for writers:

#1 – Use a System that Works for YOU

As a med-surg nurse on the orthopedic/neurological floor I typically dealt with a daunting workload of patient details, scheduled tasks, and of course, the requisite “surprises” that come when working on the unpredictable front lines of patient care. 

In an attempt to get ahead of this organized chaos, at the beginning of my shifts I would grab a blank piece of paper and a ruler, and sketch out a detailed grid, organizing the next 12 hours (surprises aside). There were sections for scheduled tasks like medication and treatments, patient assessments, doctor contact info, pre and post operative patient comings and goings, and more. 

In addition to my shift planning “grid” (a precursor to the “work grid” I’ve used since becoming self-employed about 20 years ago), I also learned as a nurse about triaging tasks by order of priority. Granted, in healthcare, the entrepreneurial lesson about not letting the “urgent” take over, is the complete opposite. But having to care for up to 10 patients for 12 hours every night, inspired valuable thinking about project management, organization, and “herding cats” that I use regularly in my career today. 

Biggest Lesson: An organizational system that works for YOU and the work you’re doing (versus systems that work for others or the ones people say you “should” use) is most likely to get the things done that you need to get done, and in a set period of time.

#2 – Accept Overwhelm

Another lesson gained from nursing, especially as a young newbie learning the dramatic differences between being a student nurse and a registered one, is how to manage overwhelm. I learned that overwhelm happens, it’s not some sort of outlier or sign of weakness, and once you realize that, you can work to manage it.

Here’s how my overwhelm plotline went as a “new grad”: 

a) Got stuck in the idea that one is supposed to come out of school completely prepared to be a totally knowledgeable, calm, and in-control RN.

b) Got smacked in the face with the actual reality of being a new nurse, which is the exact opposite of those things.

c) Got completely overwhelmed and buried under a terrifying avalanche of responsibilities (aka “a typical work shift”) and ended up hysterically crying alone in the medication room.

d) Learned from nurse mentor that most new grads experience this type of emotional breakdown at some point, and to please for the love of everything ask for help!

Entrepreneurs, business owners, ambitious creative visionaries – any of this sounding familiar? Just because we’re inundated with all the strategies, hacks, and even science that we need to avoid overwhelm and other forms of anxiety, doesn’t mean we’re failures if we’re not perfectly consistent in the implementation. Life happens and we’re all human.

Biggest Lesson: It’s okay to have emotions, to show those emotions, and to need help. Believe me, nobody’s nailing any of this. If they were, we wouldn’t need this constant flow of mindset and high performance knowledge and resources coming from gurus everywhere. We’re all figuring it out together, so let’s remember to lean on each other. And a postlude to my nursing story – a few months later working my shift, I rounded the hallway corner and saw another new grad crying in the arms of the same nurse mentor (who was a saint, by the way). 

#3 – An Art and Science

Generally to the delight of my clients, for years, I have aimed to elevate the idea that “writing is an art and a science” to nerdy new levels. It began with my natural inclination to view the art of writing a book through the lens of scientific method. It has since progressed to enthusiastically inventing processes for all areas of creative projects. 

The goal through all of this has been to help break down the process of writing a book. My “scientific inventions” for authors, like my Book Blueprint and Author Brand Bank, are designed to make writing, producing, and promoting a book more doable (and less painful) for authors, particularly those who have never written a book before and aren’t entirely confident that they can do it. Thank you science!

Biggest Lesson: A big project with many moving parts, like writing a book, needs process to be successful. Combining art and science doesn’t constrain the author, but rather frees them up to be more creative without constantly worrying about what happens next and how they’ll ever reach the finish line. 

A Special Note: Even though I only walked in a nurse’s shoes for a brief period of time, during that time I developed an enormous amount of respect for those who walk in them every day. Now more than ever, nurses and other healthcare workers are frontline heroes that deserve our absolute admiration, respect, and whenever possible, our support. Thank you to every one of them now, risking their lives to care for others!

“When I think about all the patients and their loved ones I have worked with over the years, I know most of them don’t remember me, nor I them. But I do know that I gave a little piece of myself to each of them, and they to me, and those threads make up the tapestry that is my career in nursing.”

Donna Wilk Cardillo