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Shoot for the Stars—But Have a Plan B

Actor and family man Rob Lowe’s advice to his sons as they prepare to go off on their own.

By Rob Lowe

AS A FATHER OF TWO COLLEGE-AGE SONS, I can see the "real world" peeking up over the horizon. My wife, Sheryl, and I have coached them from the beginning to reach this moment, guiding them safely through high school and into universities. But soon our jobs will shift to guiding them into the living of their own lives.

For inspiration, lately I've been looking back to my parents and how they influenced me. Probably their most important contribution was their artful navigation of the aspirations they had for me and the realities the world placed in front of those hopes. Supporting their child while he followed his dream was their priority. But they also instilled a sense of reality and perspective into that elusive chase. Without both, you usually achieve nothing.

"As much as we want our kids to follow their hearts, what we want even more for them are stability and safety."

We all want to be seen as special. Unique. Possessing at least some qualities that can be recognized and rewarded: with friendship, with opportunity and with love.

The idea of personal, particular value is at the heart of the American ethos. Entertainment empires have been built convincing each and every little girl in the country that she is a princess. And while our daughters are indeed princesses to us, the underlying predicate is fundamentally false and we know it. And probably so do our daughters. The truth is: Many are called, few are chosen.

This is no reason to stop telling our kids they can all be princesses, princes, or presidents. But when the math eventually levels the playing field, what then? That is the moment when we really earn our keep as parents. That's when we experience the true value of family.

Lessons from My Parents

When my adolescent acting career was over and no one was interested in hiring me, I found myself faced with the uncomfortable fact that my fairy tale had come to an end. I was the same age as my youngest son is today when I realized that not everyone gets to be a movie star.

My mom and dad had worked hard to instill in me the belief that I was special—that I could become whatever I wanted to be. Without their belief in me and their boots-on-the-ground support, I never would've had any successes at all.

When that first success evaporated, my parents knew exactly what to do: "Figure out plan B," they advised me. "Set it in place. Make sure all systems are go and then give plan A one final shot. If it doesn't work, no looking back." There is a big difference between chasing a dream and being delusional.

I decided to go to film school. If I couldn't be an actor, I would work behind the camera. I applied to USC School of Cinematic Arts and was accepted. Plan B was a good one and the table was set.

In the meantime, I was still going on auditions, still trying for the dream, but fully ready to pivot to college when the time came. A week prior to enrollment, I got an offer to star in The Outsiders.

Lessons for My Kids

Today, if one of my boys came to me and said, "Hey Dad, I want to blow off college to do a movie," I would be sweating bullets. As a dad, it is awfully hard to endorse walking away from a sure thing for a grab at the brass ring. As much as we want our kids to follow their hearts, what we want even more for them are stability and safety. Between those conflicting desires is where the battle of future happiness and success is won and lost.

I have always lived my life going for the brass ring. But when it comes to guiding my boys, I have less success in putting my money where my mouth is. I fear for their future security, comfort and financial stability at the same time that I dare them to think big. The push-pull rages: Shooting for the stars wins one day, gimlet-eyed practicality the next.

I know that in the end the universe will determine our sons' fates. Sheryl and I can only hope we've raised them as we were raised, preparing them for all outcomes, teaching them that in the deepest, truest sense they are special regardless.

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In a career spanning more than three decades, actor Rob Lowe has gained widespread respect (along with millions of fans) for his versatility in dramatic and comedic roles in film, television movies, and hit TV series such as The West Wing and Parks and Recreation. In recent years he's added bestselling author to his list of accomplishments. His most recent book, the critically acclaimed Love Life (2014), mixes tales of his career and Hollywood with moving reflections on his life as a son, husband and father. Love Life followed his 2011 best seller, Stories I Only Tell My Friends.

© 2014 Rob Lowe. All Rights Reserved.

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