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Designing your life: Life Lessons from the Step-Down Unit

Isn’t it funny how people can come into your life randomly and change your entire trajectory? I remember being a new-grad Respiratory Therapist working evenings in the Surgical Step-Down Unit. Very often there would be nursing students working there, and over time I got to know the instructor, Carol. Carol was a strong, confident and friendly presence in the unit. As we got to know each other, she would ask me about my plans, my dreams, what I wanted to “do with my life”. I would share with her my thoughts at the time (Master's degree? Move to California? Become a yoga instructor? Move up the ladder here?), and she would say the same thing each time. She would turn around, look me straight in the eyes and say, “Elise. Don’t just live your life, Design it!” I didn’t know it at the time, but Carol was slowly molding me to create my best life and instilling in me the ability to dream.

As I moved up the clinical and then corporate ladders, I would lose touch with Carol. But- she would always pop up at just the right times. I may not see her for a year or two, and then she would appear, reveling in my adventures, asking me what was next, and always reminding me to, “Design my Life”. And it was usually when I was at a crossroads, trying to decide a new path to take. It was like she just knew.

Fast forward 28 years of Carol to last year. When Carol found out my position was eliminated, she wrote me this:


I’m sorry to read the message…my question is—-What’s your next position as you continue to design your life

I cannot imagine your future being nothing but successful and I look forward to hearing about you…. again best of luck always my friend.


This touched me deeply. There was no pity, there were no “sad eyes” (iykyk), and she got straight to the point. It felt like the strongest, warmest hug with a “You got this!”.

So, I got to work. How do you design your life? It’s probably different for each of us, but here is how I did it:

  • Be vulnerable with myself: As I start dreaming and designing, it’s good to take stock of what I am afraid of, what intimidates, shames or confuses me. Allowing the vulnerability opens us up to bigger dreaming

  • Find my strength: I then tap into my inner strengths, my inner Wonder Woman, and remember that I can do anything I put my mind to.

  • I inventory what brings me joy. What fills my cup? What makes me excited to work? What is my passion?

  • Then I inventory what I am good at. These are two very different things, so be purposeful about each.

  • Talk to your future self: What would you 5 years from now want you to know? How can you design your life to be where you want to be in 10 years? 20 years?

  • When I put them together, the answer was clear: Coaching, consulting, improving teams and organizations, helping leaders at all levels. And championing women’s issues.

  • Then I thought about where I wanted to do this. Jump back into corporate? Consult? Start my own business? With this came logistics and life realities: Income, benefits, lifestyle with a family, etc. As you know, I chose my own business.

  • Once I narrow down my where, I conduct a needs assessment. Location, funding, skills, equipment, processes, marketing, networking… all the things.

  • Next: Asking for help. I knew I could not do this without help- it was all new! How do I set up a website? How do I write copy? How do I sell? And on and on. Here’s the thing: People in your life WANT to help you. You just need to ask!

  • Create a roadmap. Nothing fancy or project management complicated, but a simple tool that helps you decide what comes first, second, etc. It will keep you from getting overwhelmed.

  • Lastly, get a coach! This one is the most important for a few reasons. A good coach will help you design your life without telling you what to do. A good coach will help you with your mind during the ups and downs. And there will be downs. You can do ANYTHING you want, but you must manage your mind, or the doubts and the fears will overtake your dream. A good coach will teach you mental strength and self-coaching strategies.

This kind of dreaming and designing takes time and a different kind of effort. You will need to revisit these thoughts, pivot and give yourself a whole lot of grace.

I had the opportunity to develop these skills and it has changed how I approach truly designing my life. Thanks to Carol, I had the opportunity to design my future: my path forward, my career, my lifestyle. What a gift she was to me in that Step Down Unit 28 years ago, and every day ever since.

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