Dear Therapist: My Son Has an Impractical, Ridiculous Career Plan

He wants to be a stand-up comedian. I don’t want him living in my basement at age 35.

Mom watching son do stand-up comedy.
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

A few months ago, on a college tour, our 18-year-old son announced that he had found his purpose and future career: He wants to do stand-up comedy.

The fact is, he’s got some talent in this area. He’s comfortable onstage, he’s a great physical comedian, he can do accents, he’s charming and funny. At the same time, at 18, he’s undisciplined, he’s a procrastinator, and he gets debilitating migraine headaches when he is sleep-deprived, dehydrated, malnourished, or stressed. The late nights, lack of a consistent schedule, and intense stress of that lifestyle seem like a terrible idea for a kid who probably needs lots of structure and a good night’s sleep to function in the world. Then I start thinking about how he will pay the bills, buy a house, have a family—all the real-life considerations that an 18-year-old does not think about. But I know how hard (and possibly unrealistic) this path can be.

Thankfully, he’s not saying, “Mom, I’m skipping college and heading to New York City, and I want you to support me financially while I pursue this dream.” He wants to go to a small college, take theater and writing classes, and take advantage of opportunities to be funny onstage during the “safe” years of college.

We don’t want to be those parents who crush his dream, but we don’t want him living in our basement at 35, getting paid $200 a week to perform at a local club, and finding himself crippled career-wise because he spent years not learning how to make it in the real world.

How do we balance our desire to be supportive of his dream with our fear of harming our child by not pushing him to orient his college experiences toward a “real” job?

Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Diana,

I want you to try this exercise:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror.
  2. Ask yourself whose face is staring back at you.

I’m fairly certain that the answer to this question won’t be “my son’s.” In other words, though this may seem obvious, you and your son aren’t reflections of each other but two distinct people—and acknowledging this will reduce your anxiety, not just about his future, but about yours.

Now, let’s try another exercise:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Repeat.
  3. Say to yourself: “There’s a definite possibility that I have some flawed assumptions about my son and his aspirations.”
  4. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Your son sounds lovely. He’s passionate about comedy and thoughtful about how much risk he can tolerate. To that end, he’s decided to pursue his dream while in college—and is self-reflective enough to consider the kind of place—small, where he can do theater and writing—that might suit him best. All of this shows his maturity.

Like many parents (myself included, if you catch me on that kind of day), you assume that you have insight to offer based on your age, but what you’re actually offering is an opinion based on your temperament. What you might call unrealistic, he might call exciting. At 18, your son can attempt pretty much anything with little to no downside. He can try writing and performing, decide he’s premed and change to medieval history—you name it. Few career goals are “unrealistic” to entertain as a high-school senior, barring, say, becoming an NBA player or a world-class pianist.

In fact, his decision to pursue comedy isn’t just a low-risk proposition—it’s exactly the kind of experience he needs to live a fulfilling life.

A common complaint I hear in the therapy room is some version of “I wish I’d tried working in the art world/becoming a chef/writing for television/starting a company when I was younger but I was too scared/talked out of it.” I don’t hear a lot of “I regret that I tried” but I do hear “I regret that I didn’t.” Some might express disappointment that their attempts didn’t pan out, but it’s a different flavor of disappointment from that of not knowing what might have happened had they given their dream a shot. The never knowing—the wondering—is harder to shake.

So back to that mirror. The face looking back at you sees how few people succeed at something hard. The face looking back at him sees how many people succeed despite it being hard. You’re guided by restraint; he’s guided by possibility—and that’s okay, because both are equally valid positions.

Your job here, then, is to take care of yourself with that difference in mind. For instance, if you don’t want your grown son living in your house, tell him that this won’t be an option, so that he can make plans to support himself. If you’re worried about his ability to function working late nights and with a lack of structure, remind yourself that he’ll find out soon enough how well that works for him because the best-learned lessons are the ones we gain through direct experience. As for your concern that he’ll have spent “years not making it in the real world,” you might consider that trying to be a stand-up comedian will offer him a crash course in resilience, delayed gratification, perseverance, and hard work—the very skills that people need to “make it” in the so-called real world.

I say the “so-called” real world because your world isn’t more real than his. In the world you both live in, there are people just like your son who have talent and drive and eventually find success doing the very thing they love most. (If all of the world’s talented “creatives” had taken the less risky route, there’d be no art—a huge loss not just for them, but for the rest of us.) Also in this same world are people just like your son who later change their minds, discover something they like better, or switch course when they realize they’d prefer a better quality of life or don’t have the chops to succeed.

But in none of these instances has their time been wasted. Even if your son doesn’t become the next Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld, he can leverage his charisma and confidence onstage and his ability to write well and make people laugh into a range of professions that seek those skills: public speaker, trial litigator, advertising copywriter, professor, sitcom writer, or entrepreneur, to name just a few. At the very least, he’ll ace his job interviews. (What a refreshing change from the more conventional candidates who might be less comfortable in their skin or have fewer interesting experiences under their belts.)

It’s natural for parents to feel that our job is to impart wisdom to our children—in part, it is. But sometimes we forget that our children have wisdom to bestow on us, too. Throughout their lives, in hundreds of ways, our children are teaching us about control—how illusory it is, how futile our attempts to maintain it are, and how liberating letting go can be, for everyone involved. The good news is, you don’t have to choose your son’s path for him—because the reality is, you don’t get to.

Instead of trying to steer him in the direction of your comfort zone, let him find his own. Lucky for him, parents provide plenty of fodder for comedy. As you watch him blossom, I hope you remember to laugh.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.