Finding A Creative Job After Corporate Life

How To Take Control of Your Career

This is the fourth in an ongoing series in which we interview people who have interesting jobs and get them to tell us how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation —

kim and tobin small

Kim Mickenberg with her husband, Tobin Marcus

I’ve never met a person like Kim Mickenberg, and I knew this from the moment she moved in across the hall from me during our freshman year at Brown University. She drank copious amounts of coffee (always black), wrote poetry and fiction, and had never had a bite of meat in her life (she’s still a lifelong vegetarian).

An eternal optimist, Kim’s creative soul took a beating when she went out into the real world after graduation. However, it was only when she did the opposite of what she thought she should do and “went corporate” that her life began to turn around.

Now a senior writer at a boutique design and marketing agency in New York, Kim has never been happier — though nothing happened the way that she thought it would. . .

In high school, what kind of job did you think you’d eventually have?

I always thought I was going to be a writer. Always. I thought I would write fiction –I didn’t really see myself becoming a journalist, but I knew wanted to write and I loved fiction.

The thing is as you get older, you realize that living in the world takes a certain amount of money and fiction doesn’t really pay, so you have to start figuring out what other things you can do.

What were your plans directly after graduating from Brown?

I studied Comparative Literature in Spanish and Portuguese literatures at Brown, so it was hard to decide what to do after graduation, since there’s no clear path for people whose skills are best described as: “reading, writing, analyzing things, and speaking other languages.” I still wanted to write, but I didn’t have any connections to the literary community and magazines or anything like that. I knew that I didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer or a consultant. I didn’t want to teach. I had no idea what I was going to do.

What were the other factors in your decisions directly after college?

I had started dating Tobin three months before I graduated, and I knew he was it for me, but I also had to start my career because he still had a year left in school. As a card-carrying liberal feminist, I wasn’t going to hold up my career for a guy, but at the same time, when you find the right person at whatever stage of the life you’re in, you don’t want to throw that away, either.

So what did you do the summer after we graduated?

I stayed in Providence the summer after graduation living with Tobin. I worked at a bakery for a month or two, which was terrible. I think everyone should work in food service at least once – the way you get treated is really eye-opening. Some customers were kind and wonderful and appreciative, but some people would come in and treat you like trash. You can learn a lot about a person by how they treat a server.

I left Providence at the end of the summer to move home to New York and start my job search in earnest. My parents live an hour away from New York City, so I moved back home with the intent of working in Manhattan. I was really freaking out and trying to figure out what I could do with my vague, useless-sounding skill set.

My dad had no patience for my complaints and inertia. He would say things like, “There are tons of idiots out in the world who find jobs—and plenty of those idiots actually become extremely successful. Are you an idiot? If not, you should be able to find a job.” Tough love is kind of his thing.

I started going through the Brown alumni network, which I had always heard about but never thought much about. It seemed like a stretch to get people that I didn’t know to help, but I started contacting Brown alums who had professional writing careers and that really opened doors for me. I met up with different alums and told them my background and what I was interested in.

One of the women I talked to said, “Look, you’re just getting started. You’re going to have to write for free for a while to build up your clips so you can apply for paid writing jobs. There’s a magazine I was asked to write for, but that can’t pay contributors, and I’m past the point in my career where I need to write for free to build my portfolio. I’ll connect you to the editor if you’re interested.” The magazine was an LA-based publication called Campus Circle and I wrote for free for them for about a year. I got to interview a few celebrities and it was really fun. But more importantly, it was a way to get some clips.

Were you working anywhere else at this time?

At the same time, I interviewed at Kaplan and got a part-time position as an SAT teacher, which was an awesome experience (and Kaplan is a great company). I was also talking to another Brown alum – a good friend of hers at college was an editor at Psychology Today. She said they had a spring internship and told me to apply — I’ve always loved that magazine. I applied to that position using the clips that I had built up while writing for free, and I got it. I started my internship there in January 2008. I interned part-time three days a week (they paid a stipend, but that’s it) and then I taught at Kaplan for the other two days. At this point, I was still living at home.

Tobin and I were together, so I would drive up to Providence on the weekend to see him or he would come to New York.

What happened after your internship finished?

Tobin had just graduated and we decided to move to Washington, DC. I wanted to write, and it seemed like New York at that time was a bad place for writers: magazines were consolidating and the industry seemed to be falling apart. I didn’t want to be fighting tooth and nail for an entry-level position that paid nothing and was going nowhere.

Tobin was interested in working in environmental policy, so we decided to move to DC together. I got two job offers within two weeks. I mean, I was on it. I was aggressively applying to things. I took a job at an environmental non-profit. I thought, “I’ll go work at a nonprofit – I don’t really care about money and I can do anything so why not help the world, save the environment, do something I care about?” I was hired as a communications associate at an environmental nonprofit.

What was the job like? What did you have to do?

So that was the worst job I’ve ever had, by far. I actually really liked the communications work – writing press releases and blog posts and thinking about communications strategy and event planning. I liked writing letters to editors and op-eds. And I loved my coworkers.

But I hated everything else about the job – the unprofessionalism, disorganization, culture of cruelty. This place had a really abusive atmosphere – the president of the company would just yell and scream at people all the time. There were 16 of us, and we were working 60-80 hours a week and getting paid nonprofit salaries.

How long were you there for?

I was there for a year. Basically, I took this job over another job I was offered because they had promised me that the communications manager was leaving in a year and they would be grooming me to take over her spot. I thought, “Okay, I’ll take at this position and then in a year, I’ll get promoted and this torture will be worth it because the advancement will be great for my career.”

I worked really hard and tried my best and killed myself over this huge event we held at the National Mall. My colleagues and I poured our heart and souls into it. My manager hugged me at the end and told me I did an amazing job. I was so proud of what we had done! And yet, a few days later I was pulled aside and told that the president of the company had been very disappointed in me and was bringing in someone else to be the communications manager – it was not going to be me.

How did you handle that news?

The period when I had that job remains one of the lowest points in my life to date. For a year, I would go home and cry every night, worrying that I wasn’t cut out for the workforce, that I wasn’t capable of succeeding, and that I was useless as a person. It almost destroyed my relationship with Tobin. I was so unhappy and depressed, constantly feeling like I wasn’t good at anything because I was getting yelled at by these crazy people all the time.

I’ve never been that sad for that long for any time of my life. I‘m a very optimistic, happy person and it’s very unusual for me to feel that way.

What did you do after you heard the news? Did you quit?

Right after that talk, I went home and said, “I don’t think I can take this anymore.” I called my dad and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t go there every day. They hurt me so much and it’s crushing my relationship with my boyfriend.” I was crying on the phone and my dad said, “Kim, people go through this every day but the fact of the matter is, we’re not going to support you. You’re an adult and what adults have to do is suck it up, go to work every day, show up on time, leave on time, and pay their own bills. So act like a professional, do the bare minimum at work, and spend all your other energy finding another job. The minute you find that other job, that’s when you quit.”

He said, “You have to be an adult about this. You can’t run away from your problems.”

And you know what? I really appreciated that and I think that he was totally right. It was important that I had that experience and realized it was bearable: I was able to show up every day, go to work for eight hours and then focus my energy on finding a new job – it seems like a small thing but it takes a lot of emotional resilience and it makes you a stronger person.

What kinds of jobs did you apply for?

I was just so upset by that non-profit job that I wanted to do anything that was as far away from that work as possible. I thought, “I want to go corporate and work for a huge corporation and have a totally different experience.” I was just really craving the experience of being in a place that had rules, where people wouldn’t just scream at you because they were having a bad day. I also hated that the nonprofit was super disorganized and unfocused and just all over the place.

I had a friend from high school who had worked at Booz Allen, a management consulting firm based in DC. She had worked in the communications department, and I talked to her about the company and said, “I know exactly what I want. I want something structured, I want a mentor, I want to learn how things are done the right way, and I want to learn about big companies and how they work and how to navigate them. I want to be treated professionally, with the opportunity to grow. I want clear expectations and deadlines.”

And she said, “Well, this is the place for you.”

She submitted my resume and cover letter as a formal employee referral (something that’s common in big companies) and I had an interview at Booz Allen in May 2009. They offered me a job a week later.

What was it like working there?

From the minute, I started at Booz Allen, I loved it. I’m a Type A person. I like structure and organization. I like deadlines and I’m extremely careful and thorough.

I was hired as an entry-level communications consultant, and I was put on writing and editing projects for clients, which was great because it played to my skills. I also quickly met people who became great mentors and friends.

In was a complete 180 from the nonprofit job. I was promoted twice in two years. To be completely honest with you, I got everything I wanted to get from that experience: I learned how big companies work, I got insights into business, I saw how to negotiate with clients and draft proposals.

I do think that big companies are a mixed bag – some people join a firm and work with one other guy in a remote location and other people, like me, are on a team with 15 other people.

Originally, you never thought you’d work in the corporate world. How did you find it?

I think there is something to be said for big companies. I went from working 60 hours at that non-profit and making very little to working 40 hours a week at Booz Allen and earning a living wage.

I think that, especially as a young person, I was initially put off by the idea of doing something corporate when I came out of school.

I knew I didn’t want to work with spreadsheets all day or put in 100 hours a week, but there are a lot of corporate jobs you can get out college that provide lots of training and classes and resources so you can really learn how things are done. What I tell a lot of young people is that corporate work is worth considering for a few years en route to figuring out what you really want to do, because you get such a good foundation if you’re at a good company.

But if it’s not what you want to do forever, you should go into it with an exit strategy. View it as three to four years to learn what you can and then find a way to do what you really want to do. Otherwise, you can wake up one day and it’s 15 years later and you don’t know where your life went.

kim and tobin secondIs that why you left after a few years?

I went to Booz Allen for a reason. I wanted to get corporate experience and learn how things are done at a “real” company. But I also knew that eventually, I wanted to do something creative – but part of what kept me from pursuing that outright in the beginning is that it’s intimidating to get into creative agencies.

So my plan was to work at Booz Allen and then make a lateral move into a more creative position. I was there for three-and-a-half years in total.

What finally led you to make a career change?

I had this breakdown as I entered my late 20s because I started to realize there’s just not a lot of time. I wanted to go to work and be challenged every day and feel excited about what I do and proud about what I do, and I wasn’t feeling that way.

My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010, which was a big part of what spurred my “life-is-short-so-do-something-meaningful” thing. That obviously hit me really hard, and just compounded what I was feeling about taking charge of my life and career and making a meaningful change.

Then I got engaged at the beginning of 2011 and had to start planning a wedding while searching for jobs. No one but Tobin understood why I had to search so hard while we were planning our wedding — everyone told me to “wait until after it was over,” etc. But I kept thinking to myself that I had to keep searching because I had to know, for my own peace of mind, that I was taking proactive steps toward securing the future I wanted for myself.

At Booz Allen, I worked with great people and I learned a lot – but I didn’t feel like I was bringing my best self to the table. Towards the end, I was doing a lot of copy-editing, and I never wanted to be a professional copy editor.

It sounds lame, but when Steve Jobs died, everyone was quoting him on Facebook, posting things he said like: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.’”

And as lame and trite as it is, with all the things going on in my life, that message really hit home with me.

Overall my job was just fine – it was manageable, and towards the end I was working from 8-4 and often working from home, so by a lot of standards it was a cushy gig, but I was feeling very unfulfilled. It was not interesting to me or exciting. There was just no creativity.

What were you thinking you wanted to do instead?

I was thinking about working at a magazine, but that’s a hard move to make. I was thinking about positions in fashion, but that also seemed really hard to do. I thought about going to journalism school. I applied to speech-writing positions because I thought that would be a good way to use leverage my corporate experience and creativity.

Lots of people seemed to think I would have to start over and take an entry-level position if I wanted to move to a new field, but I was determined to avoid that. I wanted to make a lateral move, and I believed that the position for me was out there. I worked incredibly hard to get those promotions and I wasn’t going to throw it all away.

What happened next?

I applied for some things in DC and in New York but the longer I was in DC, the more sure I was that DC wasn’t going to make me happy. In 2008, it was a great place to be because it’s recession-proof, but I never fit into that city.

I always felt like an outsider. I didn’t want to work for the federal government. I generally think that art and literature and fashion are important and worthy things to talk about and people in DC would act like, “Oh, that’s adorable, but that’s not a serious issue.” I’d go to parties and people would want to talk about behind-the-scenes activities on the Hill, but I just don’t care about political minutia, and never have.

But the bigger issue is that I wanted to work in a creative industry and that really doesn’t exist in DC.

But at this point, you and Tobin were married and he was also working in DC. How did you reach the decision to move to New York?

Tobin was working at the White House for the Vice President, so he had a position he really liked – it was exciting, prestigious, interesting work, so for a long time, I had been looking for a new job in DC because I wanted to make life easier for him.

But I finally got to the point where I accepted that DC was not going to provide me with anything I want to do. I’d given it five years. I really tried. But the whole time, I wanted to come back and live and work in New York.

We had a serious conversation about that. Tobin didn’t know what he wanted to do long-term, but I had always known that I wanted to do something creative with my life – I thought Tobin could easily find something interesting and fulfilling to do in New York, and he ultimately agreed.

In some ways, it was an easy choice to make. In New York, we had a shot at both of us being happy, but there was no way both of us could be happy in DC.

Tell me about how you got your current job.

I had posted an application to Media Bistro to an agency called Thinkso in November (this was 2012). I still hadn’t heard anything back for a few months, but I remember looking at the posting and thinking, “Omigod, these people are looking for me.” I just had this eerie feeling. I was reading line by line what they wanted and I thought, “There is one person who can fill this position, and it is me.”

They wanted a writer with 5-8 years of experience, who understood corporate clients, who was just as comfortable doing nitty-gritty copy-editing as big-picture creative concept work, who could work on real estate, education or financial services on a dime, who was ready to totally “own” the position, and someone who enjoyed happy hours on patios overlooking Manhattan streets. And that was me in a nutshell.

In January, their HR person called me and was like, “You probably don’t remember the position,” and I said, “Of course I do!” We talked more on the phone and she said, “Well, but what do you think about moving to New York?” and I told her, “I’m from New York, and I have been wanting to move back since the day I left.”

What happened next?

I went up to New York to interview at Thinkso the next Friday. The night before the interview, Tobin and I had dinner at this place around the corner from our apartment (we were married at this point). I told him, “If they give me this job, I’m taking it. It’s perfect for me.”

And he was like, “Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch, but if you do get the job, you should take it and we’ll figure things out. But you’re going in for the first round of interviews tomorrow, so let’s not get carried away.”

I feel like this is going to be a good story.

It’s a really good story.

So before the interview, I got my hair and nails done. I was planning to wake up the next morning and take an early train to Manhattan and not tell anybody at work. I often worked from home and I thought, “I’ll have my laptop on the train and if my boss at Booz Allen needs me, which she probably won’t, I can always do work from there and just take an hour-long break for my interview and no one will be any wiser.”

So of course, that’s not what happened. The interview was at 2 pm and I took a train that got me into New York at 12.30 pm. So I was on the train and at 11.45 or so, my boss calls me. And she never calls me, so immediately, I start freaking out and wondering what’s going on. And she says, “Hey Kim, what’s going on? How are you?” And at that point train had stopped at a station and I was getting nervous and breaking into a sweat. Then she told me that she had an emergency project that she was sending me, and she would need it back within the hour, and that it would involve figuring out a lot of details.

I couldn’t believe I was on a train and being assigned a serious, focused project that was due in the next hour. And right as I’m thinking that, and still on the phone, the train conductor on the loud speaker yells, “ALL ABOARD! NOW LEAVING TRENTON, NEW JERSEY,” or whatever it is they say. At this point I’m fully covered in a cold sweat and my boss began acting a little weird, too. But I said, “Sure, I’ll get that to you, no problem,” and hung up.

So I start typing frantically, working as fast as I can, and then the train pulls into New York. I’m cradling my laptop and my bags and running through Penn Station and I literally sit down in the middle of Penn Station to finish my work. I did manage to finish it and then sent a message to her saying, “Not feeling that well – probably going to call it a day.”

Haha! What happened next?

The interview at Thinkso went really well. At the end, one of the partners (there are two) asked if she could talk to me. And she said, “We’ve never done this before, but we want to offer you the position right now.”  I said yes on the spot. And then I went around the office and met everybody I’d be working with.

After I left the office, I was like, “Did this actually just happen? That was the craziest thing.”

What is your official job title and what kind of work do you do?

I was hired as a senior writer. Thinkso is a branding, marketing and design agency. It’s hard to describe because we do such comprehensive work – we do everything from the marketing strategy to the high level strategic directions to the design of the actual pieces and we also do things like brand identities and brand architecture.

People think of creative work being like a person standing in a room alone and then coming up with ideas, but it’s a huge amount of work and collaboration. You really have to learn a lot about an industry or client and only then can you think about creative ways to portray them. It’s a lot of research and consulting-type stuff that you have to do.

How did you handle moving to New York when Tobin was still living in DC?

It wasn’t easy. I was a 27-year-old married woman temporarily moving back home to New York and my husband was living and working in DC. I had to commute an hour-and-a-half each way to work. I was living at my parents’ house, so I didn’t have most of my stuff and I was so tired from commuting that I wasn’t social at all.

A lot of people didn’t really understand my situation. They’d look confused and ask me questions like, “Oh, so you’re married and you left your husband to come to New York for a job?”

I feel like a man wouldn’t have gotten these kinds of questions. Which is odd because it’s a reality for so many couples. For people like us, who get together in our 20s, there is almost always going to be something like grad school or career opportunities that are going to make it impossible to be physically in the same place as your partner for a certain period of time.

I got my dream job after five years of being unfulfilled and my mom’s first reaction was: “This isn’t fair to your husband. How can you do that to him? You’re breaking your family apart.” But my income and my career are just as important to our success as his are. We both need to work and we both need to be fulfilled to be happily married.

He eventually moved to New York a good nine months after I moved. I didn’t want him to move up and be miserable – I wanted him to find a job he liked and was excited about, and he did. He works at a polling and strategy firm that works with a lot of politicians and corporations.

What’s one thing you learned about transitioning into a creative field?

One thing I want to mention — that I think is a really important point — is that it was very hard for me to make a lateral move from consulting to the creative sector. I was unwilling to start over and throw all my hard work at Booz Allen down the drain; and I firmly believe that no one should cheapen themselves — but especially not women, who generally undersell themselves anyway.

I knew I would succeed in the creative sector if I got a shot at it, but I also knew I had to make a big impression to get my foot in the door.

So I wrote a cover letter that proved my qualifications for the job. Something funny, creative, different. Something that showed that I was a round peg in a square hole in DC, and that I had what it took to succeed at a creative agency.

What’s your advice to new grads or someone who isn’t happy in their current job?

You have to be honest to yourself about your personality and what you need. You have to say to yourself, “These are the things I need to be satisfied at work.” And the more honest you are, the more likely you are to find a position that is good for you and your company: happy employees do better work.

In my case, I found out I didn’t want to work at a non-profit even though they do good work. Doctors do incredible work – but being a surgeon isn’t for everybody. Journalists do good work, but being a journalist isn’t for everybody. You have to find something right for you that plays to your strengths.

The “Post Grad Dispatches” feature comes out every Wednesday. Stay posted here.