Dan McAdams believes that the stories we tell about our own lives reveal much about our psychological well-being.

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

Psychology professor Dan McAdams makes a living asking other people — usually strangers — to reveal the most personal details of their private lives. So it’s no surprise that when you sit down and talk with him in his bright, well-lit office, he knows immediately how to put you at ease.

There’s his name, for a start: Dan, rather than the more formal Daniel. Then there’s his easy smile and self-deprecating humor (he decided to get his doctorate, he jokes, because “I’ve got no other skills in life!”). His stylish horn-rimmed glasses, neatly swept-back hair and carefully pressed clothes give him the look of an upbeat TV news anchor rather than the stereotypical bleary-eyed, fashion-challenged academic.

Dan McAdams, in short, knows how to make you feel comfortable. And that may be one of the secrets to his success.

McAdams’ work is already well known in psychology circles; he’s active with a number of professional associations and wrote a widely used textbook, The Person. (The fourth edition, The Person: A New Introduction to Personality Psychology [John Wiley & Sons], will be officially released in paperback in 2006.) Now he’s ready to make a splash beyond academia. His recently published book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006), weaves American history and literature together with his own research to reveal the common thread behind all American success stories: redemption.

From 17th-century Puritans to 19th-century slaves to 21st-century celebrities in People magazine, Americans love to share tales of how their faith and perseverance helped them survive adversity. Whether it’s early settlers facing near-starvation, former slaves escaping to freedom or modern celebrities recovering from their latest bout of alcoholism, Americans love to hear stories about people who struggled and then emerged stronger and wiser. (Even the 2000 presidential election, McAdams believes, demonstrated the Republicans’ ability to tap into the appeal of a redemptive story, with George W. Bush presented as a straightforward, sure-of-himself candidate who left his party-boy ways behind.)

For the past 15 years, McAdams has been studying the ways that Americans — especially middle-aged ones — describe their own lives. He has found that Americans who are especially productive and socially responsible tend to describe their own lives following that same “redemptive” pattern: They knew from childhood that they were special or blessed in some way. They faced suffering, but eventually came through it as stronger, better people. The more redemptive the life story, McAdams has found, the better a person’s psychological well-being.

The book, which McAdams says was “the most fulfilling writing endeavor of my career,” also hits close to home. McAdams’ own life, it turns out, is also a tale of redemption. Growing up in the steel mill–dominated town of Gary, Ind., he says, “I was bored for 18 years.” Raised with two siblings by his mother on her telephone-operator salary, he was studious and loved to read but had no friends who shared his interests. For McAdams, the central transformation of his life — the moment that forever separated his life into before and after — was when he went away to college. Valparaiso University was only about 15 miles away from home, but it might as well have been a different planet.

“It was very idyllic and sheltered,” says McAdams, “but it was very exciting to be with people who talked about ideas. They celebrated the life of the mind.” (During his freshman year he also met the woman who would become his wife, so he can credit Valparaiso with transforming both his professional and personal life.)

After graduating with a double major in psychology and the humanities, McAdams made an even greater leap: to Harvard University for his doctorate. “I’m surprised I got in,” he says with a laugh now. “In some ways, I was a bad bet. I had no background in research, and I hadn’t done any work in a laboratory situation.” But Harvard showed him how it was possible to have it all. For the first time, he was around professors who taught, did research and wrote books. He saw the path that he would eventually take.

At Northwestern, where McAdams has worked since 1989, the former Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence holds appointments in both the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology and the Human Development and Social Policy program in the School of Education and Social Policy. McAdams compares the dual appointment to living a double life. In the Human Development and Social Policy program, he’s considered a hard-nosed scientist. In the psychology department — where McAdams is one of the few professors who doesn’t run laboratory experiments — his work is considered more art than science. “Circling back between two very different departments works to my advantage in some ways,” he says. “I can do my own thing.”

But he’s far from being a loner. James Spillane, professor of human development, social policy and learning sciences and a faculty fellow with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, says McAdams is “always available, a good listener and always offers the most insightful and balanced comments on an issue. He has a real skill for communicating his ideas and engaging others, be they colleagues, students or the public at large.”

Amia Lieblich, professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, co-edits a book series for the American Psychological Association with McAdams. “When I met Dan for the first time, I was amazed that he is so young,” says Lieblich. “How could he have achieved so much in such a short time? I discovered that Dan is a very efficient and industrious worker. He is also a great partner to work with. He takes most of the load upon himself and is willing — almost always — to listen to others when we disagree.”

Throughout his career, McAdams has been balancing his love of science and his love of literature. Among the psychological texts crammed on his office bookshelves lurk volumes by T.S. Eliot, Dostoevsky and William James. (Spillane says McAdams is the first person he goes to when he’s looking for a new book to read. “His recommendations are always right on target.”)

His work on life stories is the ultimate combination of words and numbers. He listens to people tell their stories, then translates those tales into statistics. On the surface it seems impossible. How can words and images be transformed into charts and graphs? The key is the interview format that McAdams has developed, which is more collaborative than the standard take-this-questionnaire psychology experiment (see “So, What’s Your Story?”, to try it yourself). In the process of the interview, subjects are asked about their highest and lowest points, their earliest memories, and moments that transformed their lives. (Not surprisingly, emotions often run high, which is why McAdams keeps a box of tissues prominently displayed on his desk.) McAdams then studies transcripts of the interviews, looking for patterns and common themes.

“You’ve got to be interested in people’s lives to do this work, but you have to be careful not to project your own experiences,” he says. In fact, he has to train his young interviewers not to nod repeatedly and say they understand when interviewing subjects. “Be warm, be empathetic, but don’t do all this nodding and say you understand,” he tells his researchers (advice that applies to anyone listening to someone else’s painful story). “People don’t want you to say you know exactly what they mean because that denies their individuality,” he says. Putting yourself into another person’s story — no matter how briefly — takes away their moment.

At the beginning of an interview, “people are often apologetic, saying they don’t think their life is worth studying,” says McAdams. “But when you’re in the interviewer’s seat, the little moments that wouldn’t play well in the movies take on a real poignancy. By the end, people are sometimes surprised — they find that the process of putting their life into narrative form is a positive experience. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve heard maybe one boring life story.” Some subjects find the process so cathartic that they’re reluctant to take the research payment (in those cases, McAdams suggests donating the money to charity).

While many psychologists study subjects who have gone “wrong” in some way, McAdams focuses on people who are making the world a better place. He is especially interested in generativity — the degree to which an adult is concerned for and committed to improving the lives of the next generation. Being especially generative means being a good parent, a concerned citizen, teaching and mentoring others. They are, in short, the kind of people you want to have around. (They’re not necessarily saints, though, McAdams notes — generativity includes an element of narcissism, since you’re concerned with leaving something of yourself behind.)

McAdams himself scores fairly high on the generativity scale, and he’s leaving his mark on the next generation in a number of ways. He enjoys teaching both graduate students and undergraduates, and he’s training other young psychologists as the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives, a small research group dedicated to studying adult personality and social development with an emphasis on creativity, wisdom and leadership. He and his wife, Rebecca, a federal court judge, are also the parents of two daughters: Ruth, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and Amanda, a sophomore at the University of Michigan. “They know all about my research and make fun of it,” he says with a laugh.

McAdams spent a year writing The Redemptive Self, and now that it’s finally in print, he seems both excited and wistful. “While I was writing, I’d get up at 5 a.m. every day so energized,” he says. “I felt that this was my big book, that I had something important to say. When I finally finished, I thought, I don’t know if I’ll ever have anything this good again.”

But if there’s one thing McAdams should know, it’s that lives are full of surprises. So while he has finished one chapter of his life, the story itself is far from over.

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

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