Have you ever wanted something really badly for a long time and then just as it was finally in reach, you freaked out and ran away?
If this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. According to Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, there are four obstacles to each of us fulfilling what he calls our ‘personal legend’, the last of which is “the fear of realizing the dream for which we fought all our lives.” It may seem counterintuitive, but often the closer we come to achieving our dreams, the more fear we seem to have of actually achieving them.
Because then what? What happens when you achieve the thing you’ve been working towards for so long, whether it’s been months, years, or your entire life?
Dreams are important, but it is also important to remember that dreams change. Sometimes you work towards something, you finally get it, and you realize you wanted something different all along. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you have wasted your time. It just means you can add one more experience to the list and then check it off as something you don’t want to spend your life doing.
The failure is not in achieving something and then realizing you don’t want it. The real failure is in giving up or not even trying in the first place out of fear of failing. As Paulo Coelho writes, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
Today I attended the very first day of my 20-month nursing program, at the end of which I will be an RN. This is not a dream I’ve had my entire life, but it is a dream I have been steadily working towards for the past few years and one I am very excited about fulfilling.
I used to think my dream was to work in conservation and education. I started volunteering at the Oregon Zoo at the age of 13, which set me on an 18-year path of working in zoos, outdoor school programs, and nature parks, and eventually into an awesome master’s degree called the Global Field Program.
I loved my degree and the opportunities it gave me to travel, have unique wildlife experiences, learn about conservation on both a global and local level, and connect with other amazing human beings with similar interests. But throughout those two and a half years, I finally started to realize that something was missing from my career: passion.
Sure, I cared a lot about the environment, and the animals, and inspiring the children and all that. And I certainly didn’t want orangutans or elephants to go extinct from deforestation and poaching. But in observing the enthusiasm and dedication of many of my fellow students, it finally dawned on me that this was not something I truly wanted to spend my life doing.
I continued to work in the outdoor education world for another couple years as it slowly sank in that I needed to make a change, but I didn’t have any idea what that change would look like. It wasn’t until one particular day when I spent hours chatting with a friend of a friend who was about to graduate from nursing school that something clicked. It was small at first, a tiny little light, a quiet voice that whispered “I could do that. I could be a nurse.”
I had known nurses all my life and had always envied them. At one point, I’d had two roommates who were nurses and they were some of the most exciting people I knew! They worked hard, made good money, and had flexible schedules that allowed them to travel and go on all sorts of adventures for both work and pleasure. I admired them greatly but somehow the thought had never occurred to me that it might be something I was capable of. Despite having a doctor for a father, or perhaps because of it, a career in medicine was never something I had considered.
But after spending an entire day grilling my new friend with questions about nursing and her path to get there, I knew I had found my calling. Well, ok, maybe I didn’t know it right away, but the idea was definitely there. Over the next year, I patiently waited to see if the spark would grow. I encouraged it by sharing the idea with others, gathering advice from those I knew in the profession, and doing casual Google searches on nursing schools in the area. I knew it would take three years at the very least of completing prerequisites and expensive schooling and was hesitant to jump into such a big time and money commitment without being totally sure.
And so I waited, expecting that eventually the desire might fade while also hoping that it wouldn’t.
But it didn’t fade. Instead, as I gave it space and time, the desire only continued to grow and grow. I wanted to be a nurse and I grew more sure of this fact every day.
Over a year after that first conversation, as I embarked on a four-month trip around SE Asia after my last season with Outdoor School, I told myself that if I still wanted to be a nurse when I came home, I would begin my prerequisites. I thought maybe traveling would change my mind, that perhaps some other passion would emerge and take its place. But my nursing dream remained firmly rooted and upon my return in April, I signed myself up for Cell Biology at Portland Community College and began my journey that summer.
Having never taken any ‘hard sciences’ before, I worried that I might not succeed. I gave myself an out – if I hated Cell Biology, then I probably wasn’t cut out for nursing. Fortunately for me, I loved Cell Biology and continued to love all my courses that had anything to do with the human body. That was the final test when I knew for sure that this was the right path for me. I tackled those classes with a fervor I had never before known for school because I loved the material and I had a clear picture of where it was going to take me. I had finally found my calling and was ready to rise to the challenge.
Do I really belong here?
Fast forward 18 months later and here I sit at a coffee shop in Vancouver, BC, about to embark on my first week of a 20-month nursing program at the University of British Columbia, my alma mater. In two years, assuming I pass the final nursing exam, I will be a full-fledged registered nurse. I am very close to achieving this particular personal legend, though I know it is not the end, but simply the beginning of a lifelong journey.
This is the point at which turning back can seem the most alluring. When our goal is so nearly within our grasp, the fear of achieving it can cause us to make ourselves small, talk ourselves out of it, and give up. This is the point at which admitting we truly want something can make us feel vulnerable and afraid of failing.
Of course, there are never any shortage of reasons to give up. Today as I was meeting all of the amazing students in my cohort and hearing their stories and their experiences, it was hard not to feel like an imposter. Here I am with all my experience in teaching children and working in zoos and I’m in with people who have been ski patrollers, EMTs, physical therapists, and have volunteered helping children with cleft palates in Africa. Who am I to compete with that? Who am I to be performing medicine alongside these students with far more applicable skills and knowledge?
It would be easy to compare myself to them and say “I’m out! I don’t belong here! You’ve made a mistake!” I could move home to Portland, easily find work in a field in which I already have experience, and live a comfortable and safe life without having to worry about failing at something new.
But here’s how I know that I do belong here.
I know because sometimes I get overwhelmed with emotion by how badly I want to care for others and how excited I am to join this profession. I know because today at orientation, I had to hold back tears when they showed us a two-minute Johnson & Johnson commercial highlighting the amazing accomplishments of nurses and how they have changed lives throughout the years. I know because when I let the world get quiet and I listen to the tiny voices inside of me, they tell me this is what I am meant to be doing. I know because ever since that fateful day when that little ember began to glow, I haven’t had one single day where I thought I might be on the wrong path.
Does this mean I haven’t had doubts? OF COURSE NOT. Thoughts like “Who are you to be a nurse? You’re not nearly smart enough to do this. You’re certainly not hard working enough. And besides, you’re WAY too sensitive to deal with people hurting and in pain” have cropped up sometimes on a daily basis. I’m sure they will continue to hound me throughout my program and probably even throughout my life as a nurse.
Fortunately for me, I’ve been around the sun enough times by now to know that you don’t have to believe everything you think. Sometimes fear and doubt are there for a reason and help to keep you safe. But I have found more often than not that the real danger is not in trying something new or stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. The real danger is not putting yourself out there in the first place and living a life of fear and regret, which I for one simply refuse to do.
So when you hear those doubts growing louder in your head, listen again to the wisdom of “The Alchemist”: “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
I am stoked that nursing is providing me a second chance at a career that I love. I greatly enjoyed my first career as a conservation educator and am eternally grateful for the skills, friendships, and amazing experiences that it provided me with. I feel so lucky that I now get to embark on another awesome career that I hope will be even more fulfilling than my first.
In addition, I am so excited that UBC is providing me with a second chance to learn, study, and do well in school. Academically, I didn’t do so great the first time I was here. I was young and very unsure of what I wanted to do and there was no shortage of distractions. I am excited that this time around, I am working towards something about which I am extremely passionate and I have finally gained the skills to actually apply myself to what I am learning.
And lastly, I am incredibly grateful for the schools that turned me down. Though I originally had my heart set on staying in Portland or attending Johns Hopkins on the East coast, I cannot imagine being anywhere else right now. It has been an absolute joy to return to both the city and the school that nurtured me in some of my most formative years and I can’t wait to see what the next two years will bring.
Paulo, wherever you are, I’m gonna make you proud.