Just before Thanksgiving, Ed Helms, the actor who plays Andy Bernard on The Office and a member of Westminster’s class of 1992, visited campus and spoke a la Inside the Actors Studio with students and faculty in the morning and alumni in the evening. I had the chance to speak with him very briefly—one of the thousand faces that he met that day. He couldn’t have been more gracious or more patient with each of the people with whom he interacted.
During the two large gatherings (over a 1000 people in the morning and about 1200 that night), it was clear in his telling of his story that the success he has enjoyed over the last few years was hard won, and it was never a sure thing.
There is no doubt in my mind that he is a stunningly talented comedian and actor. Even if he had not pursued the career path he followed, classmates and faculty alike would still remember the acting chops he demonstrated in high school productions. In a place full of talented young people, he stood out. However, it took years of frozen pizza and sparse, unappreciative stand-up comedy audiences for him to build the foundation for the opportunities he has had more recently. A unique work ethic and focused belief in a dream is a shared trait among people who against the odds “make it” in theatre arts. Thus the work ethic and the belief seem to me to be as requisite to success as raw talent. For Helms, this meant not only did he move to New York with a dream of ending up on Saturday Night Live—his original goal—but he also had the long term commitment to stick it out there even when many rational voices were saying to head home or to head to graduate school. In short, he had to have a rare talent, a remarkable work ethic, and a powerful devotion to a goal just so he might get a chance at a break.
The bets folks make in pursuing such dreams are bigger than most of us are willing to make. The costs of failure are great, and the odds against success are steep. Thus courage and resolve (which if one fails look like stubbornness and stupidity!) are requisite in pursuits that require turning against the wind. As an English teacher, I have often pointed out the fate that characters who ignore good counsel face—ignoring good counsel in an epic poem always leads to significant problems for the one who ignores it and often for others who happen to be connected to that person. Interestingly though, that literary convention does not always hold in the real world. People who choose a different path have to ignore some advice that appears as good counsel in order to reach for their goal.
Ed Helms’ story points out an area where as an educator I am pulled in two directions. On one hand I want to help students become adults who listen to good counsel; however, on the other hand I want to encourage passionate pursuit of dreams even when it may mean ignoring some good counsel. The truth is I want not one or the other for students—I want both.
To see a student interview with Ed Helms from the school’s own WCAT-TV, go here.