I’m not perfect and never will be. I still screw up royally sometimes. But this journey of growth is invigorating, liberating, and forever challenging. I’ll grow until I die, and hopefully, through my own growth, I can impact others in ways that make my little corner of the world just a little bit better.
I’m willing to admit now that just a few years in to my nursing career, I was pretty cocky. As an emergency department (ED) nurse, it’s not unheard of to come up against nurses with egos. It was no shortage of confidence that helped me sail through new experiences, jump feet first into new situations, and actively seek out new information, skills, and techniques. Coasting through my early career on cloud nine, I looked forward to going to work. Work was still novel and exciting. I built awesome relationships and was eager to prove myself to others in new ways every day. In management terms, these characteristics are called initiative, self-motivation, enthusiasm. This adulting work thing was easy!
Sure, I noticed some people who didn’t really hang around me a lot. But when I talked to them, they were friendly enough. We all worked together as an effective, cordial team. I never thought twice about the people who were a bit more timid or less confident than me. Or the ones who were put off by me. I was there for me — nobody else.
Somewhere in the mid-2000s, the time of year that every employee (and manager) looks forward to rolled around. It was time for annual evaluations. The Director the ED (we’ll call him Axl) at that point had been there for awhile so he got to know me pretty well. I was looking forward to my evaluation — they were always good!
I trotted my confident self right into Axl’s office and prepared myself to humbly receive his praises. And praises I got! I can almost remember Axl’s words verbatim:
“Sarah, you are considered an expert in your field. People look to you for advice, and they respect your opinions. Doctors trust your judgment and assessment skills…blah blah…You’ve excelled in this specialty in just a few years…blah….” (Is it just me, or does everything sound even more complimentary in a British accent?)
So far, so good. Just as I humbly expected.
(British accent continued) “…but…”
Um, what was this foreign word “but”? Surely it was just Axl’s accent. I’d never heard “but” in my evaluations before.
“…but your peers find you intimidating and difficult to approach.” There it was.
What?! Me?! That couldn’t be. After listening to this appalling “but” feedback that allegedly came from my peers, Axl asked me what my thoughts were. Avoiding any accountability or responsibility whatsoever, I responded with an air of arrogance and very little contemplation, “Well…that’s their problem, not mine. If they’re intimidated, then they need to deal with it.” I didn’t care.
…At least not then.
Like a strong, independent female, I let that feedback roll right off my ego-strong shoulders and pushed forward with a bit of pride that I was intimidating. For about two more years, I persisted with the cocky attitude and what I thought was nursing excellence. But isn’t being a nurse — hell, just a decent human being — about more than just excelling at knowledge and skills or working hard and keeping up a house and family?
I started paying more attention as I was reaching professional peaks and searching for new and different roles within nursing. In retrospect, it wasn’t just professional peaks I was reaching; I was climbing to reach personal peaks too but I was too caught up in ego to recognize the personal side of the ascent. Not totally sure of what I was looking for, I knew there had to be something more than what I was doing at work and in life.
After I first met Dusty, I remember one evening when I was pridefully, egotistically telling him about that old evaluation and Axl’s comments. It was obvious I was still proud of my intimidation factor. But other comments Axl had made made crept into the conversation too. What started as a humble-brag to my new boyfriend became a tipping point for me. Clearly my ego was stuck on the content of that single evaluation from a couple years before.
I guess Axl’s comments had entered one ear and never really discovered their way out the other. What a blessing. Axl had also told me that he thought I would make a good leader in nursing someday and that in order to be a good leader I had to concern myself with how people perceived me. He encouraged me to continue being a unique individual, not lose sight of myself while changing roles throughout my career, and to stay aware of how I affect other people because influence is a powerful thing. He recognized my potential and was asking me to see it in myself.
So I started making a few changes — subtle ones that weren’t even necessarily conscious. I just finally started recognizing that my body language, tone of voice, word choice, and attitude really did make a difference in how people approached and talked to me. And more importantly…that I was beginning to care. Eckkk, weirrrrd. ED nurses don’t care, do they? The can’t afford to! Intangible things started to positively evolve…all because I started caring enough to change my behaviors and actions for a greater good that is much bigger than myself. Care about what? Just stuff, like people, causes, politics, the universe.
That “bad” evaluation was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. In fact, that’s the only bad evaluation I’ve ever had — and the most valuable. Many times managers just blow smoke up their employees’ asses and aren’t really all that invested in making great leaders in their employees. Axl was. Some people weren’t satisfied with his leadership and management style (what leader can always make everyone happy?), but this one seemingly mundane task in his day compelled me to make changes in my professional life that spilled over into my personal life. I will forever be indebted to Axl for his tactful honesty and investment in my well-being as a nurse and as a human being.
Perception really does matter…if we want it to. Indeed, there are people in the world whose perceptions of me I care less about. Perhaps they are in a farther orbit than those who are my closest friends and family and co-workers. Perhaps my own time and energy investments are better placed in different people or situations at that given moment. Regardless, even the perceptions others hold of me will make or break any influence I may or may not have on them in the future when they enter a closer orbit or it when becomes well worth my investment to put time and energy into them or their cause.
The “I don’t care; it’s their problem” attitude is the problem. When I started caring about myself enough to realize my effect on others, my life started changing in ways that supported my own self-growth instead of the paralysis and apathy I see people get stuck in. I do have an impact on people. The question became, What do I want that impact to be?
We all have an impact. What do you want your impact to be?
The more moments I gain in my existence, the smaller my ego gets. And the more gratifying my life becomes. I no longer go to work to prove myself to others through initiative, self-motivation, and enthusiasm. I may still have these characteristics, but I manifest them for my own well-being, not for anyone else.
Ego really is the enemy. Many circumstances and people contributed to my self-growth, but I often wonder where I would be now if Axl missed the opportunity to display the courage and heart to be honest with me in my 20s. Would anyone have ever given me that feedback? Would I ever be forced to think about my impact on the world, even in my own little corner of it? If I was only receiving “area of growth” feedback now that I’ve turned 40, would I just now be starting — 15 years too late — on the real stuff of life?
Now I’ve come to believe that strong, independent people lift others up. This is done by caring, not through ego or apathy or cruelty or chest-puffing. It’s refreshing to start seeing CEO activism and well-targeted corporate social responsibility that display large-scale caring in what has historically been a cold-hearted, competitive arena. It’s exhilarating to see more of a focus on true leadership of humanity than just management of systems. The paradigm shift in leadership is evident. Every one us is a leader, no matter our circumstances. Imagine what it would be like if we all realized that about ourselves and others.
Think about how you can give people the “but” in a respectful, thought-provoking way. It may not make a difference right away, but you never know…it may make them reflect on your statements later. It may just be the small stone that starts the ripple effect that eventually makes a huge difference in their lives.
“The greatest contribution of a leader is to make other leaders.” -Simon Sinek