Creative Turns: Mic Nguyen—Former Educational Analyst, Current Copywriter & Comedian
Interview by Emily Parsons / WNW Member
“Creative Turns” is a new series about the unexpected paths that bring individuals to embrace a creative profession. It’s never too late to transition into a role that energizes you and apply your experiences in a seemingly disparate field to your new career. As an educational analyst-turned-copywriter and comedian, Mic Nguyen is a model example of this idea. Below, we touch on Mic’s intentional first steps into a career of writing, his advice for viewing a non-traditional background as an asset, and his penchant for humor and purple pants.
After this interview, be sure to check out his podcast Asian, Not Asian.
How did you land your first creative gig?
My first "creative" gig was an internship at KidRobot. I updated their blog. They didn't realize I was almost 30, because I wore purple jeans and scrubbed my resume of telling dates. It was great; I read Reddit all day and wrote little silly blog posts. I was also in charge of sending out packages, a task at which I was terrible.
What was it like transitioning into this new creative profession?
The transition didn't involve lying so much as me telling a story that made sense. I made myself seem as much like an earnest, eager-to-learn young person as I could. This really was who I was. I didn't fake anything, I just selectively told a story about being a fresh-faced new transplant. I think people want to hear that kind of story, and if you tell it right your qualifications end up reinforcing it. I think if you're making a transition, you need to have a story in your mind, something that makes your transition make sense. You don't even have to tell anyone else about it, you just need to know for yourself.
What scared you most about this change?
I've always been afraid of calling myself a "writer." I'd hear the voice of someone from my hometown calling me out as a fake. I remember once at my first real advertising job, the creative director pulled me off a project and said he was going to get a "real writer" (I don't think he was being mean, he meant a "copywriter" in the strict job title sense) on the project. That hurt like heck.
Did you seek advice from anyone in the industry to help with this process?
There were a lot of times when I’d go into a creative director’s office and ask them for advice. They'd tell me that I had a lot going for me as a strategist and curator. For a long time I took that to mean I shouldn't be a creative but now I realize that I should take feedback like that as a strength and lean into it. Being a “creative” can be limiting because you end up doing one really narrow thing. I think I have a broader interest in a lot of things. So for awhile I didn't say I was a writer; I said I was a strategist. And like some backwards-ass karma I started getting writing jobs. I think it's because I didn't get hung up on titles and focused on doing the work and learning. Then after awhile the title came.
Now I'm also a comedian, but at first I didn't call myself that either. I just kept writing, doing shows, and doing open mics until it really only made sense to say I do comedy and I'm a comedian, because that IS what I do.
How do you think that your unique path has helped you in your career journey? How has your past influenced the work you produce now?
Previously I worked as an educational analyst doing weird black magic in Excel. That helped give me a lot more depth, tenacity, and the idea that I need to be able to figure stuff out on my own. Digging into numbers and figures is important as a strategist, journalist, and writer. I’m often surprised how many creative people completely shut down at the mere mention of long division. It’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s just numbers!
Anything can be figured out if you just stare at it long enough. I didn’t know how to do that analyst work. I just figured it out along the way as part of my job. I think that’s what a lot of strategy work is: there’s a problem and you just have to read a lot and Google a lot until you come to a system that makes sense for you and for the client. It’s figuring out how to tell the story. “Data-driven” really just means telling a story with narrative cohesion and data to backup those points.
Did this perspective influence you to move away from numbers and into more storytelling?
Again, people think that everything needs to be data-driven. Data’s important but so many times when I’ve seen people presented with data that points to something, they just ignore it completely. Because everybody’s so biased about their own point of view. Numbers can be manipulated; you can say almost anything you want with numbers. It’s just crafting the data in a certain way. It’s very rarely a slam dunk, and almost always wishy-washy. The storytelling ultimately felt much more important, which pushed me into what I do now.
Do you ever miss teaching and the world of education? What do you miss most?
I wasn't a teacher per se, because I worked in administration, which was honestly awful. I did teach SAT and GRE prep classes, and I loved it. I still sometimes think about going back and doing it, because it can be so much fun helping kids learn. I think teaching is highly related to my creative work; you're essentially trying to get someone to understand a particular concept or point of view. Good writers should be good teachers and vice versa. I think that’s why I do standup comedy too, because it’s similar to teaching.
Can you share a time where you felt stuck or unsure of what the future held? How did you overcome this feeling?
I got laid off from my first real advertising job. It comes with the industry. I was apprehensive because I didn't know if I had what it took to be a freelancer. Over the years, I've had many great experiences and a few really nasty ones. It always came down to: do the work, keep learning, be honest with your abilities, never burn any bridges. If you keep showing up, you'll figure it out.
Have you ever had an experience that you perceived as a "failure" in the moment but now see as a helpful redirection or blessing in disguise?
I once went to grab drinks with a creative director I respected to ask his advice. He gave me pointers and a perspective I didn’t want to hear, about moving away from creative work. I was bummed about it but over time I came to realize he was trying to tell me I had strengths others in the field didn’t. I now know that if there’s a barrier or some kind of setback, that often means there’s also an opportunity as well. I embrace the fact that I’m different from others in my field. My nontraditional background is an asset, not a weakness, whether being a creative person, a strategist or a comedian.
What advice do you have for those seeking a career pivot of their own?
If you’re a creative person, you bring the process of creating from one place to the next. If I’m writing a comedy sketch, the process of ideating is something I learned from advertising. Pitching the sketch to someone is the same as pitching a commercial. The skills transfer back and forth. As long as you’re interested in accumulating more experiences and skills, that’s really the whole thing. Failing is a good thing because you came up to something you don’t know how to do. And now you know what you need to do to get better.
Also, start making moves now. Keep moving. Stay busy. Take setbacks as successes. Don’t quit. If there’s a barrier, go under it, over it, or through it. Keep hunting. I’m in the midst of a career “expansion” as I move into comedy. It’s a tough field but all the lessons I learned going into advertising apply to being a comedian. Keep grinding but be flexible. Be nice. Don’t compare your progress to others’ progress. Your biggest naysayer will be yourself. So if need be, ignore yourself.
Try to actually enjoy the process, rather than the end goal. Just don’t stop doing it and eventually you’ll look back and realize you’ve been doing it the whole time.
“Creative Turns” is a recurring column by WNW Member Emily Parsons, a New York City-based art director who, after making her own journey into the media industry from a traditional fine arts background, enjoys championing stories of exploration. To be considered for the column, send an email here with a short note about your career transition into (or within) the creative industry.