Keith Carlson on Beginning in Art School and Winding Up as a Nurse

Noodle Expert Keith Carlson discusses the path he took from art school to a nursing career.

Noodle Expert Keith Carlson discusses the path he took from art school to a nursing career.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

At this point in my career, if I could pick anyone to be my teacher for a year, I would choose Donna Wilk Cardillo. She is the foremost expert on nursing careers and leads the pack in terms of her down-to-earth wisdom, business savvy, and ability to read the writing on the wall vis-à-vis changes in health care and the nursing profession. Donna provides both clinical nurses and nurse entrepreneurs a great deal of inspiration, information, and nuts-and-bolts advice that enables them to make informed choices for their professional lives. Having Donna as my teacher for a year would catapult my nursing and coaching career into the stratosphere; my respect for her contributions to the nursing profession is immense.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I’ve been given many great pieces of advice in my life, and one of the most important is to focus on the positive as much as possible. Gratitude works wonders in life, though I’m as guilty as anyone of allowing myself to sink into moments of negativity and cynicism from time to time. Gratitude and a positive attitude attract more of the same to your life and demonstrate to the world that you're a person who focuses on the good rather than the bad. Like attracts like, and if you’re a positive, grateful person, you’ll find that you’re a magnet for the same type of people and experiences. I practice this constantly, and while I do occasionally slip into cynicism, worry, and negativity, I remind myself to hop back onto the train of positivity and gratitude.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

This is a challenging question because it doesn’t define whether the student is studying nursing, medicine, literature, language, economics, law — or something else altogether. Having said that, I think it’s most important for students to learn about other cultures, societies, values, and lifestyles. Since I have an ongoing affair with Europe, I would send this mystery student on a two-year trip to Europe, with enough money and resources to visit as many countries as she would wish.

Europe is fascinating in that there are dozens of countries within a relatively small geographic area, and you can experience a multitude of languages, customs, foods, lifestyles, and societies without needing to travel long distances between countries. It is a melting pot of cultures, with a large population from the African continent and the Muslim world. While Europe struggles with its 21st-century identity and current issues of immigration and tolerance, it is a prime destination to observe an old world that is working hard to transform itself, often with results that are messy and confusing but ultimately enlightening. From the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), to the former Eastern Bloc (Poland, Serbia, Hungary), to the vastness of Scandinavia (Finland, Norway, Sweden), there are opportunities to have a plethora of experiences — enough to fill a thousand notebooks. Europe is only one small continent, but it holds so much for an individual seeking rich learning and life experiences.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

In high school, I failed to apply myself in science and math classes because I was certain that I was going to attend art school. At that age, I felt clearly that these two subjects were “meaningless” to my future life as an artist. Unsurprisingly, I did very poorly in these areas and even felt resentment that I had to pay them any attention at all. As it turned out, I dropped out of two art schools, spent my twenties working a variety of jobs (with no college degree under my belt), and eventually found myself pursuing an education in nursing.

Since I had done so badly and paid so little mind to math and science in high school, the learning curve for me as a 30-year-old nursing student was enormous — I was basically starting from scratch. I earned straight A’s in my nursing prerequisites, but my lack of motivation in these areas during high school continued to haunt me. I only wish that I had realized at the time how important these subjects are, no matter what path you think you’ll be pursuing. In the 21st century, most people change careers an average of five times or more, so why not be as well-rounded as possible so that you can be prepared for whatever life brings?

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into nursing because I realized that working with people was very important to me. I wanted to be of service, and I was very clear that providing care to those who are suffering or in need of my compassion and unconditional support was paramount. I had several aunts who were nurses, so you could say that it’s in my blood. I also chose nursing because it provides a great deal of flexibility in terms of the work hours, as well as an enormous variety of opportunities to pursue many fascinating nursing specialties.

What I didn't expect is that nurses are able to practice more autonomously than I ever thought possible, and the ability to be a businessperson or entrepreneur as a nurse is simply exploding in the 21st century. I never expected that I would be a nurse career coach, a freelance nurse writer and blogger, a nurse podcaster, and a speaker who presents at nursing and health-care conferences throughout the country. Being a nurse doesn’t necessarily mean working directly with patients, but it does indeed involve caring about others, communicating clearly, being compassionate, and keeping your finger on the pulse of society, the profession, and the health-care industry.

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