There is no single right way to respond when a young, bright-eyed graduate declares an intention to pursue a career in the arts. When people say that acting, or hip hop, or fiction writing is their reason for living, and they would rather play a high stakes lottery—putting their ego, plenty of savings, and possibly mental health on the line—and go for it, instead of taking a sensible job in a profession that absorbs hundreds of thousands of new entries per year, where does reasoning even fit in?
Parents, particularly, might struggle with what to say. But the mother of actor and director John Krasinski found a rational, and supportive, position to take when her son, best known as Jim from television’s The Office, announced he was heading to New York to pursue his craft.
As the story goes, the two were driving home from the Eugene O’Neill theater school in Connecticut, where Krasinski had taken a 16-week course, when he broke the news. As he told CNN, his mother barely paused before saying: “Great, just the one thing I ask you is, after two and half or three years, if you haven’t had a bite, you have to pull yourself out of it. Because you can’t ask me, as your mother, to tell my son to give up his dreams.”
Krasinski said he found her answer to be profound and agreed to it. Two years later, he lived up to his end of the bargain, calling home to Massachusetts one September to tell his mother that he was done waiting tables and going to auditions. This time she softened, suggesting he hang on until the end of the year. “Three weeks later, I got The Office,” Krasinski said. (Ironically, he would play a young man who had chosen a sensible white-collar job in a less competitive field: office supply sales.)
Krasinski also told the story about his mother’s pearls of wisdom to late night host Stephen Colbert.
Whether events played out this way or if this is one of those massaged anecdotes that celebrities prepare for late-night television hardly matters. His mother’s method is worth stealing. It beats the knee-jerk urge some parents might have to discourage a person from wasting their time, or to subtly suggest that it’d be prudent to have a backup. It strikes the balance between protecting someone from the truth that talent alone is rarely enough to succeed in the arts, and crushing the seeds of ambition.
Then again, the advice may just seem inspiring because it worked on several levels. Krasinski apparently matured and developed some self-awareness that might have been unavailable to him had his mother offered unconditional emotional or financial support. He also got to star in a beloved series, and has since successfully made the typically fraught transition to directing.
It’s more likely that two years in New York or Los Angeles will not lead to that kind of fabled life as a working artist, at which point, some wise reframing of what a job, career, or hobby is—and where passion fits in—may be required.