This article reports on research that examines newly qualified UK nurses’ experiences of implementing their ideals and values in contemporary nursing practice. Findings are presented from questionnaire and interview data from a longitudinal interpretive study of nurses’ trajectories over time. On qualification nurses emerged with a coherent and strong set of espoused ideals around delivering high quality, patient-centred, holistic and evidence-based care. These were consistent with the current UK nursing mandate and had been transmitted and reinforced throughout their ‘prequalification’ programmes. The existence of professional and organisational constraints influenced their ability to implement these ideals and values once in practice. Data analysis revealed that within 2 years in practice the newly qualified nurses could be categorised as sustained idealists, compromised idealists, or crushed idealists. The majority experienced frustration and some level of ‘burnout’ as a consequence of their ideals and values being thwarted. This led to disillusionment, ‘job-hopping’ and, in some cases, a decision to leave the profession. These data are explored and discussed to inform the question of whether the current nursing mandate is sustainable.