Comedian Dan Nainan is someone who had the opportunity to develop and nurture his skills, and then, whencircumstance (or perhaps fate…) pushed him out of his job, he was prepared to make the leap into an entirely new life. His story puts a new spin on the idea of “portable skills,” and shows us that it is possible to apply talent and enthusiasm beyond just one industry or job category.
Dan was an engineer and Strategic Relations Manager for Intel Corporation. Over the course of more than 10 years at the company, Dan became increasingly involved in traveling the planet to demonstrate Intel’s products and technology. Fearful of public speaking, he enrolled in Toastmasters, and then took a course in standup comedy thinking it would help him learn how to relax and to better engage with the audience. Unexpectedly, his experience unlocked a hidden talent for comedy, and following his “final exam” performance at San Francisco’s Punchline comedy club, his Intel colleagues asked him to perform for 2,500 Intel salespeople at a corporate event in Las Vegas. This led to more prominent speaking events with the company, a promotion and a move to New York, and even sharing the Intel stage with the company’s legendary CEO, Andy Grove.
But as we all know, corporate agendas value the bottom line above all else, so in 2007, Dan was laid off. As chronicled in a subsequent Reader’s Digest profile, he decided to pursue comedy full-time. “I’d been with the company since 1996 and had poured a lot into my technical work. I thought, I guess I’m not good enough now. But I also felt free, maybe even elated. I hadn’t really liked my job very much… I thought, okay, I’ll pursue comedy. It’ll pay starvation wages, but I’m not a big spender. I can eat Top Ramen noodles forever.”
Since leaving Intel, Dan has traveled the country performing in comedy clubs. The first few years were indeed tough, but a break came when he won a comedy contest at the D.C. Improv. This led to the HBO comedian Robert Schimmel taking Dan under his wing, and Dan toured with Schimmel for over a year. He has continued to open for established comedy names, and has also gone on to book his own top-billed engagements. He has performed with some of the top performers in the field, including Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Saget, and Garry Shandling (all Boomers, by the way). He has performed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, appeared on NBC’sLast Comic Standing, and had a part in the movie, The Last Airbender.
Many people have a dream about breaking into Entertainment in some creative capacity (who hasn’t had a killer idea for a TV series?). But Nainan’s unique story isn’t about pursuing a dream. It’s really about the unexpected opportunities that can present themselves in the face of adversity. Was Dan destined to become a comedian? Who knows? But instead of making what could have been seen as the safe choice — applying for jobs at other Tech companies similar to Intel — he decided to aspire to something that felt ultimately more fulfilling. He had experienced that fulfillment first-hand as part of his job, so it wasn’t some disembodied dream. He also knew that there would be hard times ahead, and he was willing to suffer through those hard times to get where he wanted to go. Reinvention is never without challenges, never without obstacles, and rarely without some amount of pain. But the rewards far outweigh the trials and tribulations of the process — as we will continue to see in upcoming installments.