Here on the Nurse Keith Show, I’ve frequently discussed how nurses can buck the system, color outside the lines, and totally ignore the boxes in which they’re so frequently put by others. From family members and friends to the media and the general public, there’s so much misunderstanding of what nursing is and isn’t. Nurse iconoclasts, rebels, and black sheep are a small yet powerful group of nurses moving outside of the normal scope of what we see as mainstream nursing practice. They’re also the people who do things their own way and refuse to accept old ways of thinking just because they’re told to.

black sheep nurses

Photo by Jose Francisco Morales on Unsplash.com

Acute Care? No Thanks!

Many listeners of the Nurse Keith Show know that I bucked the system right out of school and chose to pursue work in the community health and home health spheres rather then jump right into acute care and med-surg. I said, “Acute care? No thanks,” even though I was told it was professional suicide. I’ve been a nurse iconoclast, rebel, and black sheep since the beginning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Holistic Nursing

Barbara Dossey is a nurse legend who has worked in the field of holistic nursing before it even had a name. As a radical nurse leader, she’s been ahead of the curve for more than 50 years of nursing practice. Her appearance on the Mastering Nursing podcast demonstrates her commitment to thinking outside the box and pursuing her own special brand of nursing. Linda Bark, Susan Luck, and so many others have contributed to the elevation of holistic nursing from the fringe to the mainstream.

Nurse Entrepreneurship

Walk into any annual meeting of the National Nurses in Business Association (NNBA), and you’ll find NNBA President Michelle Podlesni waxing poetic about the power of nurse entrepreneurship and innovation. That room will be filled with hundreds of nurses who are already on the entrepreneurial path, as well as those seeking to expand their notion of being a nurse beyond the bedside.

Nurses like Renee Thompson forge a path in the worlds of consulting and speaking. Meanwhile, others create nature-based coaching programs, pursue yoga teacher certification, or teach classes in herbalism and health.

Nurse Innovation

Nurses are always innovating. We see how processes can be more efficient. Some of us even invent products that help to maximize productivity or otherwise make a nurse’s work easier. Tim Raderstorf of the Ohio State University Innovation Studio helps clinicians and non-clinicians learn the process of bringing innovative products to market.

Black Sheep

Nurse black sheep don’t like doing things like everyone else just because someone said they should. Such individuals can face criticism (and much worse) from those who are invested in the status quo.

A nurse black sheep or rebel might question authority, refuse to accept no for an answer, or otherwise poke holes in the “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” mentality.

Nurse rebels don’t drink the nursing Kool-Aid (like we discussed on episode 166), and they certainly know how to make the case for their own brand of expertise, like I discussed on episode 169.

Find Your Own Path

I recently wrote the following in a recent blog post:

When a hiker strikes off into the woods, they often use a compass (whether an old-fashioned version or an app) to keep from getting lost. All compasses universally point out where north, south, east, and west are, and the hiker can use those cardinal directions in concert with a detailed topographic map in order to make good decisions about where they’re heading.

Not so with a nursing or healthcare career — true north for one nurse is dead wrong for another. For most new grads, that first professional expedition out of school means marching right into an acute care position — that’s true north in many cases. But for us nurse iconoclasts, rebels, and black sheep, we may very well turn around and march in a completely opposite direction than our peers, and that’s OK.

Wherever you happen to be in your nursing career, it’s your responsibility to find your own compass and solicit the drummer who will play the beat that moves your feet towards your own definition of success.

Know Thyself

Here’s another excerpt from the aforementioned blog post:

Creating a nursing career on your own terms calls on you to know yourself as well as possible. The aforementioned advice is just the tip of the iceberg: find coaches, mentors, counselors, therapists, colleagues, and/or accountability partners who can listen well, hold your feet to the fire, question your motivations, and otherwise be there when you’re at your strongest or your weakest.

Dig deep and get to know yourself. If you do nothing else, self-reflection and increased self-knowledge will benefit every aspect of your life, not to mention your relationships with those around you.

Defining your nursing career on your own terms isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not as simple as it seems. Do the work, put in the sweat equity, and you’ll be rewarded with self-knowledge, self-confidence, and an understanding of what makes you tick in both your personal and professional lives. The rest is icing on the cake.

Rebel With a Cause

You’re not a nurse rebel without a cause — in fact, your cause is the creation of your very own career built on your own terms and your own timing.

I don’t recommend being a nurse rebel just for the sake of rebellion, but whatever you find that rubs you the wrong way or makes you feel unsafe as a clinician is definitely something to raise your voice about. None of us should work in sub-optimal conditions, and if you’re labeled as a black sheep and a rebel because you bucked the system and wouldn’t accept the status quo, good for you.

Your cause may be nurse bullying, poor patient care, sloppy sterile technique, nurse-doctor communication, or something else entirely. Standing up for what you believe is worth being labeled as a black sheep or rebel, and if a colleague or administrator chooses to pin it on your chest, wear it proudly.


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Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BCIn case you didn’t already know, Nurse Keith is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, keynote and motivational speaker, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses.

From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

As of May of 2018, Keith is the host of Mastering Nursing, an interview-style podcast showcasing inspiring, forward-thinking nurse thought leaders and innovators.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—as well as at NurseKeith.com.