What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
Ernest Nwangwu has made a name for himself, helping brands like Yamaha, MTN and GSK Pharmaceuticals communicate their stories digitally. But how do you convince brands that you can help them project their voice when you’re still struggling to find yours? So it comes as no surprise when I learn of Ernest’s decision, … years ago, to go against his family expectations by setting up a creative path that feels true to who he is.
In this episode of Man Like, he talks about growing up under the pressures of being a first child, losing his mum at a young age, putting himself through school after he decided to switch courses and why he doesn’t believe in fear.
What was growing up like?
I grew up with a sense of responsibility from a very young age. I’m the first child in my family, so a lot of what I heard growing up was stuff like, “There are people after you so you have to set a good example.” That early sense of responsibility placed pressure on me to live a certain way. But things got even more confusing for me when I turned 11 and lost my mum. Once that happened, I had to speed things up to grow from boy to man because my dad became a single parent and needed me to step up. So, yes, my teenage years were not just about me. They were also about making sure my family was okay.
Damn. But what was your relationship with your dad before your mum died?
Before my mum’s death, my relationship with my dad was pretty normal. He lived in a different state from me, my mum and siblings, so he wasn’t always around. I knew I had a dad, and that was enough. I was what you’d call a mama’s boy. My mum was closer to me than any of my friends, so losing her made me feel like a building without a fence. I felt exposed. Like I had lost my security. She was my guardian. While my dad offered financial security, we didn’t have the same relationship.
After she died, I became more aware of myself and how different my relationship with my dad was. I had to navigate his expectations, and since we’re both strong-willed men, our opinions clashed multiple times. One always had to go, and for the longest time, it ended up being mine. The back and forth put more strain on our relationship, but we’re in a better place now.
What expectations did your dad have of you?
As the first child, he wanted me to follow a calculated path. Now that I’m older, I know it was from a place of love. But then, he just set a path for me and expected me to follow it. His intentions were good, but his delivery wasn’t.
I was already figuring myself out and had a strong opinion of what I wanted to do with my life. I started writing and rose to become the contributing editor of a magazine even before university. I was on my path, but he wanted me to become a doctor or something more formal. We started butting heads because I wanted something different.
And how did he react?
There were several conversations. I remember when it was time to pick a course and I’d mentioned my plans to study something in the creative field. It didn’t go well with my dad. He wanted me to study geology. He was very serious about it, and knowing I couldn’t pay my fees, I finally agreed to go with his plan. But what he wanted wasn’t what I wanted.
So you went to school to study geology?
How did it go?
I didn’t like it one bit, but I kept my writing job on the side. Being able to fuel that passion and have my work published regularly was what kept me going in school. Unfortunately for me, it was really hard to combine a full time job in a different city with school, and I ended up missing a lot of work-related projects. I had to come to an understanding with the company that I couldn’t handle everything at the same time, so I left the job to focus solely on school.
Even at that, studying Geology was a major challenge, and it started showing in my grades. I failed a course that meant I’d have to spend an extra year. It was at that point I knew I had to revisit the course discussion with my dad.
If I was staying an extra year and struggling, I might as well switch to a course I actually liked. I told my dad I wasn’t going back to geology, and he didn’t take it well. His reaction showed me that I’d have to get a source of income to put myself through school.
Once I failed the course and shared the news with my dad, he wasn’t keen on helping me continue school, so I had to support myself.
How did you do it?
The bible says something like the talent you have will put food on your table, so I had to go back to the talent I had, which is writing. I also picked up a few other skills. I took up learning about the digital market. I offered that service and got paid enough to go through school to study psychology. This was way before digital marketing became what it is today.
That’s a lot. What was going through your mind at the time?
I was in survival mode, almost like I had a point to prove. I didn’t permit myself to fail. The whole idea was to let my dad (and myself) know that this career I insisted on pursuing was worth it and I could make a living out of it. I didn’t have support outside of my earnings and some contributions from other family members. My feeding, school fees etc., was on me. It was also exciting in a way. I felt like I was given a chance to prove myself in unlikely circumstances.
Do you still feel the need to prove yourself these days?
I won’t say I’m in survival mode any longer. I’ve gotten to the point where my daily pursuit is not for the basic things. I haven’t achieved all I set out to, so there’s still that struggle. But now, my focus is on whether or not what I’m doing can pay my staff and afford me a holiday or something. I could’ve chosen geology and probably worked in an oil company, but I chose digital marketing, so I have to constantly prove to myself that I made the right choice.
I’m curious, though. How did you know you were making the right decision?
I started working from a very young age and developed a work philosophy. The truth is, we’ll be working for a very long time, so it made sense for me to do something I actually love. Once I figured this out, I knew that if I loved the job I did, it’d be easy for me to make money from it, and I would be able to deliver and do said work well. When I tried to do the things my dad asked me to do, it was like wearing a fancy shoe that didn’t fit.
You mentioned your siblings earlier. Did you feel like you disappointed them with your defiance?
I believe people thrive when you allow them to be their own people. What I was concerned with was having my brothers see that you have to figure out who you want to be. I believe parents and older people can guide me based on experience and age. However, no one should tell me what to do.
In my mind, as a parent, a child simply comes through you. Parents like to lay claim to a child as if birthing them means owning them. A child has a destiny, and a parent is supposed to help them find it. All my siblings are different people. I wanted them to have the guts to know what they wanted to do and go after it. Thankfully, they’re all doing well.
How is your relationship with your dad now, especially since you’re successful at what you do?
We’re in a good place now. He looks out for me and I look out for him. I think our issue at the time was we weren’t always aligned. The older I’ve gotten, the more I realise what I needed to do at the time was get to know and understand him as a person, not just as my father. I’m doing that now where I look at him as human, a man trying to figure things out too. On his end, I think he’s learnt and grown to accept that I’m the type of person who likes to do things my way. There’s love between both of us. But most importantly, there’s acceptance and respect.
For someone who’s no stranger to risk, does anything scare you?
I’m a Christian and a faith-based person so I believe we have the power to breathe life into things. So if you fear something, it’ll happen. How I deal with fear is that I tell myself it’s a concern. When I’m concerned about something, I’m not in panic mode, so it’s easier for me to approach the issue, interrogate it and either solve it or psyche myself into getting over it. Fear is debilitating for me. I don’t want to live like that. Also, turning it into a concern makes it easy for me to plan and prepare myself. Like death, for example. I’m able to understand that it’s something that happens and my concern might be tied to not wanting to lose people.
This is the best way I can explain it. LOL. It’s what works for me. I just change the name and idea from fear to concern.
What gives you joy these days?
I think it’s work for the most part because my social life is going downhill (almost nonexistent). I draw a lot of joy from my family. We have this group chat, and for the past couple of months, messages on there have been fun. My growing relationship with God also gives me joy.
Also, when I am in idea-creation mode, it gives me joy.