Alfred Adler’s Life: Five
Lessons for Everyone
By Edward Hoffman, Ph.D
Commencement Address for the Adler School of Professional Psychology, May 1995. Published in
THE BOOK OF GRADUATION WISDOM (Kensington Publishing, 2003).
As Alfred Adler's biographer, I have learned many valuable lessons in
studying his life. The four years I spent on this project decisively showed me
that Adler achieved his great influence on modern psychology, child guidance,
and education by the force of his own personality--and that, to whatever extent
possible, we can apply these lessons, too. Today, as you receive your degrees to
become professional counselors and clinicians, I’d like to highlight five
specific elements vital to Adler's success:
1) He was optimistic by nature. American journalists admiringly described him in the
1920s as "bubbling with enthusiasm" and "a dynamo of optimism." Of course, Adler as a practicing and
perceptive medical psychologist saw the darker side of human nature,
motivations, and goals. But he never let that awareness impede his effort to
make the world a more hospitable place, both in families and schools, for
growing children. He was able to integrate his view of the "dark side" into a
broader, more inclusive, and realistic optimism about human accomplishment.
2) He made his message clear and down-to-earth, avoiding scientific jargon, and instead using
examples familiar to everyone in daily life. Adler knew that to overcome
longstanding prejudices about child-rearing and education, he had to be
exciting and even dramatic as a speaker. To help change authoritarian
attitudes--in his day, most teachers and parents, for example, thought that
hitting children was a perfectly acceptable form of discipline--Adler projected
a warm and witty style. Gentle humor, he found, is a far more effective way to
open people up to new ideas than heavy-handed sermonizing.
3) He was willing, even eager, to "talk psychology" with persons from many different backgrounds, not only professionals in mental health, social science, or education. To look at
Adler’s lecture schedule in his final years--when he was already in his
mid-sixties--is to be truly impressed, for he often gave several different
lectures in the same day to varied groups of parents, teachers, and the
general public. Unlike his more aloof colleagues like Sigmund Freud and Carl
Jung, Adler believed in “democratizing psychology”--that is, sharing its
scientific insights with virtually everyone who was willing to listen, be open,
and change for the better. For only by taking psychology’s teachings to the
masses of men and women could a more harmonious world be achieved, he believed.
4) He kept growing intellectually, refusing to rest on laurels and past accomplishments. To those who knew Adler well, he was a marvel of personal energy--but more importantly, that energy was
spent on continually learning new matters about children, families, and
community. Right up until his death, his succession of books provided exciting
new insights, rather than a rehash of previously expressed ideas. Equally significant, although Adler was already acclaimed throughout Europe by middle age, he taught himself to speak
English effectively so that he could lecture throughout the United States and
other English-speaking countries. He gave his first such lectures in his
mid-fifties, making memorable mistakes in grammar, but soon enough, the
mistakes disappeared and his fresh approach to understanding children
enthralled new audiences from New York to California and many places
5) Finally, Adler always kept the "big picture" in mind--and that is what
made him a true visionary. Over the course of his long career that saw many
triumphs and achievements, but also witnessed the rise of European fascism and
Nazism that destroyed much of his humanistic efforts in education, Adler always
viewed his work in large historical terms. Late in life, he told his friends
that whether he would even be personally remembered in psychology was not so
important--what mattered far more was that his progressive approach to child
development, parenting, and education become accepted. And in this respect, as
you graduates today know well, Adler certainly achieved his goal.
As you enter the helping professions, his life can be a wonderful and inspiring beacon to us all.
Edward Hoffman, Ph.D, is the author of THE DRIVE FOR SELF: ALFRED ADLER AND THE
FOUNDING OF INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY (Addison-Wesley, 1994) and FUTURE VISIONS:THE UNPUBLISHED PAPERS OF ABRAHAM MASLOW (Sage, 1995).