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When I initially started to write this piece, I was on a career vacation. I was on long service leave for the first time in my life. When I first wrote those words, I was stunned I had been around long enough for that, and as I look in the mirror today, I have had to face facts, I am a little greyer (okay a lot), a little wrinklier (just a little) but hopefully a little bit smarter than I was all those years ago when I first put on the uniform. 

The truth is, my long service leave couldn’t have come at a better time, both personally and professionally, as we packed up our caravan, took the kids out of school for a term and headed north for the winter with the family. While it was a period of great relaxation for me, it was also a time of significant reflection and contemplation.

But it did get me thinking about career vacations, and not just in the literal sense, but more so about those moments when you take an opportunity within your career to do something a little bit different to what you’ve been doing. To move off on a different tangent; to break up the routine; to say yes to an opportunity; to find yourself slightly off course only to realize that’s it’s been a good thing. These career vacations can come in many shapes and forms, but for me I’ve got them down to four significant ones to date.

I studied something completely different to nursing, while still nursing.

For a while, quite early on in my career, I contemplated a complete career change. I questioned how I had found myself as a nurse, when my lifelong dream had always been writing. There was a little battle between left brained (practical) me: it’s a dream and you need a job to pay the bills, and right-brained (creative) me: well some people become JK Rowling.

I complemented my nursing work with part-time work in the local writers’ centre, I volunteered as an editor for a magazine, I started a certificate in editing and proof-reading, and then switched to a Masters in creative writing. I even applied (unsuccessfully) for an entry level editorial position with an emerging publishing house. For a while, the fact that this didn’t pan out sat as a great failure for me.

Yet this career vacation proved not to be so fruitless. I changed workplaces, fell into critical care study, and within some years found myself in the role of clinical nurse educator (which by this point had become my dream job). One of the most valuable things in setting me up for success in this role has been the skills I learned during this early career vacation; the capacity to communicate and deliver content using the written medium. And as you can see by the fact that I find myself blogging for NurseBreak, that this interest in writing is still simmering away in the background…

I took a casual job in the vocational education setting:

About two and a half years into my nursing career I was offered an opportunity to pick up some casual work in the vocational education setting, teaching enrolled nurses, and I was able to obtain my certificate four in training and assessment. This was really the beginning of my love affair with education.

And while some people may (and did) argue that I didn’t have enough nursing experience to become a teacher at that point, the skills you require to be a good teacher aren’t actually about experience at all, and whenever you transition to something different in your career, (whether it’s after two years or ten), there is a degree of learning new skills involved.

What I learned was that as long as you are committed to learning and growing in your role, you can be successful. I got to teach practical workshops on wound dressings and medication administration, give lectures on pharmacokinetics, pathophysiology and reflective practice; and conduct practical assessments to ensure people were ready for practice. I loved it. I loved helping people learn and succeed and it helped me to continue to grow as a clinician. Consequently, taking this job was where I found my real passion for nursing.

I got involved in event planning 

I remember getting a phone call one day from someone quite well known in the nursing and critical care sector asking me if I’d like to sit on an organising committee for an upcoming conference, as they needed a rural representative. After inquiring that they did know I was based in the nation’s capital – yes they did, and for their current purposes anything outside of Sydney constituted rural – I reluctantly agreed.

This was perhaps one of the greatest moments of imposter syndrome I ever suffered in my career. I significantly doubted what I could offer this committee of amazing people, who already had a pretty fantastic looking program. It turned out to be more about what they could offer me. I learned how much time, energy and money goes into producing great conferences and other education events, and why we should value them.

This segway into event planning has ended up being one of the great career vacation highlights for me as an educator. Not only has it offered opportunity for professional growth for myself, there has been a great sense of satisfaction in providing events that facilitate professional growth for others. Getting involved in education event planning allowed me to bring a number of education events to my home state, gave me the opportunity to co-convene a national conference and, now finally I can participate in an events committee without feeling like an imposter.

I took a backfill role in management

When my boss took maternity leave at the end of 2022, I found myself applying to do her backfill. I told myself even if I wasn’t successful in obtaining the role, the act of applying and interviewing was a good thing to practice. Luckily, (although maybe that’s not the right choice of word in hindsight), I was successful and have spent much of the last 14 months acting in an Assistant Director of Nursing Role for Critical Care.

Initially, I had to set aside the fact I was leaving behind a job I loved and own the niggling question inside that said, ‘what if you hate this’? I told myself the answer was ‘then at least you’ll know, and you’ll do your best to make it work. It’s okay to get uncomfortable – you tell your learners that all the time’. I had to accept the fact that my role in education would be different.

I can tell you now, I didn’t hate it (many parts of it I even kind of loved), and my experience in strategic education planning was incredibly helpful in navigating this new role. I even got to do some cool things in the education space from a management perspective; so, to some degree, any job is what you make of it.

Taking on a new role is something I would encourage everyone to do at least once, even just in the short term, because it creates understanding and compassion, dare I say appreciation, and it teaches you new and different skills that are never wasted moving forward. I’ve been humbled by the people I’ve managed. I have immense respect for the work they do. I’ve sought to advocate for them, protect them, hold them accountable, and keep them and our patients safe. I haven’t always succeeded in the way I wanted to – and that’s been hardest part.

On the spectrum of leadership and management, I always saw myself more as a leader than a manager. I’ve learned that I actually did more managing as part of my previously role than I realised, but beyond that, I think I’ve learned to respect the concept of management as much as I respect the concept of leadership. And that has been a valuable lesson for me.

There is a Chinese proverb that says ‘learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere’, and perhaps that is the thing that I love most as an educator, a leader, a manager, a person. We can learn from any experience; we just have to be open to it. So, take those career vacations; and take your long service leave too. Learning what we don’t like, where we don’t want to be, is just as valuable as learning what we love and where we are happiest being. It might even generate wisdom.

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