Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

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 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, as well as 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 in-between.

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.


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