Fellow Austrian Alfred Adler, born 1870 in Vienna, Austria, died 1937 in Aberdeen, Scotland, might not be as much talked about as his contemporaries Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, but is a very interesting psychologist to take a closer look at. His ideas and belief system allow for a perspective on life based on independent thought and confidence in oneself, while at the same time providing a value framework that encourages to do good for others. I think there are some useful thinking frameworks to take away from Adler.

Alfred Adler

Contrary to Freud’s and Jung’s beliefs that life is defined by trauma and very early experiences, Adler’s philosophy views life as a blank canvas. Irregardless of what happened in the past, Adler states that, at any given point in time, you have the power to define what the current situation is for you.

Life as a blank canvas

While especially Sigmund Freud’s focus was on events from the past, Adler strongly believes that what has happened in the past is completely irrelevant to how life can be approached in the now.

Life in front of you is a blank canvas and there is no predefined path. Your past has no bearing on your now.

Adler’s philosophy is one of courage and action-taking. He wants you to not be swayed by doubt fed by negative events in your personal history, he rather is convinced that you hold all the cards at all times and that it is you who decides what is happening. In his views, the world is entirely subjective and each individual gives it its own meaning.

You are not defined by our experiences, but rather by the meaning you give these experiences.

The meaning of your life is defined by you. You decide what you do and then deal with the consequences. “The person that has to deal with the consequences should make the decision”, Adler points out.

Accepting yourself. Being yourself.

You cannot change how you were born. But, you can, and should, make use of what you were born with. Adler encourages you to find out what distinguishes and defines you and to double down on it. Further, he tells you to focus on what you can affect, as opposed to what you cannot change. Changing yourself for the better means changing the world around you to be better.

We are not the same, but we are equals.

Importantly, the Austrian psychologist teaches that every human being has value and that you value is not defined by what you do, but simply by that you are. It is not so easy to live this philosophy though. “Do we accept ourselves on the grounds of what we do, or on the grounds of our existence? Truly, this is a question that is all about having the guts to allow ourselves to be happy.”

Adler wants all of us to feel happy and fulfilled. He defines “happiness” as “the feeling of contributing to the greater good”. The distinct point here is that, in his views, you are making this contribution to the greater good not via your actions, but via your existence.

Further reading

This short article is by no means an extensive representation of Alfred Adler’s life and his work. If you are interested in learning more about him and his Individual Psychology, the Separation of Tasks, the Inferiority Complex and his take that all human problems being interpersonal relationship problems, here are some interesting resources to continue reading: