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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: August 17, 2021

Podcast #727: How Doing a Life Review Can Help You Understand Your Past, Present, and Future

Who and where do you want to be in the future? It’s a question we typically answer by looking ahead. But, my guest would say, you can actually best find the answer by looking back.

His name is William Damon, and he’s a Stanford psychologist who studies adult development and purpose, and the author of A Round of Golf With My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace With Your Present. On the show today, Bill explains why you should consider doing something called a “life review,” a process you can initiate at any age in order to get greater clarity on what is now probably a blur of memories around how you ended up who and where you are today. Bill explains the steps of doing a life review, and how doing one can do two things for you: 1) help you think more positively and gratefully about your life story — even its regrets — and understand why you made certain choices and developed as you did, and 2) help you refine your life’s purpose, recognize that you can change and grow no matter where you are in the life cycle, and chart a course for further development in the future. Bill does this through the lens of the fascinating story around how he came to do his own life review, in order to better get to know himself, by getting to know his father, who he was told growing up was killed in World War II, but, Bill would discover, in fact survived the war and led a more complex life than Bill could have imagined.

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Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Who and where do you want to be in the future? It’s a question we typically answer by looking ahead. My guest would say you can actually best find the answer by looking back. His name is William Damon, and he’s a Stanford psychologist who studies adult development and purpose, and is the author of the book “A Round of Golf With my Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace With Your Present.”

Brett McKay: On the show today Bill explains why you should consider doing something called a “life review”, it’s a process you can initiate at any age in order to get greater clarity on what is now probably a blur of memories around how you ended up who and where you are today. Bill explains the steps of doing a life review, and how doing one can do two things for you: One, help you think more positively and gratefully about your life story, even its regrets, and understand why you made certain choices and developed like you did. And then two, help you refine your life’s purpose, recognize that you can change and grow no matter where you are in the life cycle and charter a course for further development in the future. Bill does this through the lens of the fascinating story around how he came to do his own life review in order to better get to know himself by getting to know his father. Who he was told growing up, was killed in World War II but, Bill would discover, in fact survived the war and led a more complex life than Bill could have imagined. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/lifereview.

Brett McKay: Bill Damon, welcome back to the show.

William Damon: Thank you. Always delighted to be here.

Brett McKay: So we had you on way back in 2017 to talk about your book, “The Path To Purpose”, and this is about your research where you look at how young people, adolescents, young adults, develop their sense of purpose. You got a new book out called “A Round of Golf with my Father”. And this is both an exploration of a psychological concept that we’ll talk about, “life story”, but it’s also a memoir where you use this concept of telling or recreating life stories to explore the relationship, or “non-relationship” relationship, that you had with your father. So let’s talk about this idea of a life review. What is a life review, who developed it and what are the benefits of a life review? 

William Damon:A life review is a way to continue your development of purpose throughout the lifespan. As you mentioned earlier, when we talked a few years ago, I had focused most of my work on young people developing purpose. Adolescents, young adults. And I’ve since then become more and more interested in purpose throughout the lifespan, and one way to continue purpose learning, and it’s always important to keep your purpose alive or to look for new purposes as you grow through adulthood and later in adulthood, and one way to do that is to look back on your life, whatever you’ve done, and think about what the high points were, what the choices you made were, what the failures and regrets you have were, how you can learn from them, and how you can bring it forward to, first of all, understand who you are in the present and how you got there, but also to make choices about your future, because you always have a future as long as you’re alive.

And the future means figuring out how are you gonna change, how are you going to adapt to new conditions. And the point of the book really is that thinking positively about the future means that you really have to come to terms with your past, including some of the regrets you have. And my book is full of full of missed opportunities and regrets, a lot of them have to do with my relationship with my father, or my non-relationship. And that’s the story that I tell in the book, using myself as a case in point for this idea of purpose development throughout life.

Brett McKay: So this idea of life review, this has been around since World War II. You saw the beginnings of it with Viktor Frankl in his Logotherapy, and then there’s a guy named Butler who took the idea of finding meaning in your life by basically doing a life review. What was Butler’s idea? Why did he think “Okay, we’re gonna… ” You create the story about yourself, and what was he hoping you’d be able to do with that? 

William Damon: Yeah, Butler was an amazing person. He died in 2007. He was a psychiatrist, and a legendary psychiatrist. He founded the National Institute of Aging, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, he coined the term “ageism”, in fact. So he was a great figure, a great public figure. Early in his career, before he moved to the stage of being a public leader, he developed the method of the life review. And he developed that to deal, as a psychiatrist, with his patients that were battling depression late in life. And he figured the reason they were getting so depressed is that they were thinking about their pasts in the wrong way, and in a very haphazard way, remembering the things that really stung them in the past and not getting over them and thinking, “Oh gee, I made bad choices. If only my life had turned out this way rather than that way, or if only I’d made this choice rather than that choice my life would be great.” All of these kind of defeatist attitudes.

And so he worked on a life review that was a systematic way of thinking back on your life, thinking about what was meaningful and purposeful, and everybody has those things, and also thinking about the idea that you wouldn’t be the person you are now if you hadn’t made those choices, even if the choices felt like mistakes at the time. And so it’s a very compelling method. I am not a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist, and my book has nothing to do with depression, but it does have to do with attempting to cast a positive light on your life and making the best use out of your past memories that can prepare you for a hopeful, positive and purposeful future. And I’ll just say one more thing about this whole idea of looking back into the past. A lot of people say, “Well, gee, I gotta get over the past, it’s kind of dead, or it’s… Why think backwards, why not just look forwards?” You know, the kind of “Don’t look back” attitude. But I quote Faulkner, and I think Faulkner right on this. And the quote is, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” It’s part of who we are, and either we come to terms with it or we don’t. But if we don’t, we’re gonna be living for a long time with regrets and kind of disorganized and not even authentic view of who we are, how we got to this point, and where we should go moving forward.

Brett McKay: Well, I think a point that Butler made, and you make too, is that we’re always telling stories to ourselves. Butler noticed that his patients with depression, they were telling a story to themselves, it was just they weren’t even thinking about it, and as a consequence it was a story that tended to go negative, ’cause they had that negativity bias. What he said, “Okay, if you’re gonna tell a story about yourself, we have to do that to develop ego integrity, to have a sense of self, let’s at least be a little bit more systematic about it.”

William Damon: Yep, that’s exactly right. Telling stories is a feature of human life. And in fact, we tell little stories every time we take a trip to a store and come back and say, “Hey, I got a great bargain,” or anything, even trivial little stories, all the time. And that’s natural and it’s good, but in addition to doing it spontaneously, if you do it thoughtfully and intentionally and really go back over your life to take a look at, try to understand what was important to you in your past life and why does that matter, and what meaning can that bring to your present and future life, that can really give you an uplifting sense of who you are and a lot of confidence moving forward.

Brett McKay: When did you pick up on the idea of life review would be useful to help people develop a sense of purpose and meaning? ‘Cause this is your area of work, purpose and meaning. When did you make that connection between the two ideas? 

William Damon: Yeah, well, intellectually I made it through my work, because I do read of course in the field of lifespan developmental psychology. And so I knew about Butler’s work and about people like Dan McAdams who’s done landmark work on narrative identity. So I knew about all this, but I never really brought it home. What brought it home to me was the amazing discovery that my daughter led me to, having to do with my father. And I use this as the case in point, I use myself as a case study in the book about how somebody in my early 60s, which is pretty late in life, can transform a view of who you are and how you got to that place by doing the life review. And I was shocked into doing it by the revelation that my daughter came up with, that my father who had abandoned me at birth was actually not a no-account scoundrel, he had a life, and an interesting life. He was dead at the point that my daughter discovered this, but she came up with information that fascinated me and gave me a sense of who he was. And I did, at that point, the life review, including research on who he was and got to know him in absentia, and that meant a lot to me and it really did fill in my life story.

Brett McKay: So you’re exploring your relationship with your father, that was a way for you to put theory into practice. Well, let’s talk about that a little bit, about your relationship with your father. So, as a boy you never knew your father. Growing up what were you told, what happened to your dad, that he died, that… What was the story that you were told as a young man and that you believed until in your 60s? 

William Damon: Right. Well, my mom told me during my whole childhood and adolescence that, “My father was missing in World War II”. That phrase was like a mantra, it was the only thing I ever heard. And whenever anybody asked me, “Where’s your father? Who is your father?” When I was in school, my friends, my teachers, I would repeat that mantra, “He’s missing in World War II.” I assume that meant he was killed in action, and that’s actually on my school records, I found. When I was in college my mother showed up in my college dorm one day and revealed to me that he was still alive. And in fact, she said, “He’s been sending me, $100 a month child support.” And she felt maybe she should share that with me because I had a scholarship to college and she wasn’t contributing to my college expenses. I was kind of shocked, I thanked her for her generosity, I refused the share of the child support, and the conversation lasted about a minute. She lived another 42 years and we never discussed the matter again. I felt embarrassed. She was basically revealing that she had hidden his existence from me for my whole childhood. But my attitude really was, “Well okay, this guy abandoned me, he must really be a irresponsible cad. I don’t wanna know about him, I don’t want anything to do with him.”

And so I refused in my mind even think about him for the next 40 years or 50 years, or 40 years of my life. And it was only when my own daughter got interested and started poking around in online archives and so on and came up with information that I kinda realized, “I can’t just live my whole life in denial, and he’s a guy that… He’s dead now, but I’d like to know more about him”, at that point. So I began finding out what he was like at the point where my daughter made a phone call to me, a very consequential call, saying “Dad, I don’t know if I should be telling you this, this might upset you, but I found out who my grandfather is and who your father is”, and that got me hooked.

Brett McKay: And you highlight too in your research, you’ve noticed this with a lot of individuals, when they get to about your age, like their 60s, they take an interest in genealogy to figure out who they are. What is it about that age in adult development that, I don’t know, people feel nudged to research about their roots? 

William Damon: Yeah, exactly. It’s exactly as we talked about earlier, that people have a need to think about what’s been important in their lives, and that need always comes up during any transitions, any important life transitions. Of course, it comes up when you graduate college and so on, earlier. But later in life, especially when you get to your 50s, 60s and so on, a lot of things that you were committed to begin… Not necessarily going away, but begin to take less of your time. In my case, my children had left home and gone on to their own lives, and I’m not a micro-managing parent, I keep in touch with them but it’s not the same as when they’re in your home. You begin thinking about retirement, and so a lot of the purposes that you have in life begin to become withdrawn. And you think about, “Who am I and what am I gonna do moving forward? I still have a lot of life to live.”

And I think that that’s why people, the Baby Boomer generation for example, of which I’m sort of part of, is so fascinated by their ancestry and by their own earlier life, because that’s a way to construct how you got to this point and what is important for you, for your parents, and who you are. And not only who you are, this is really the main point, but who you want to be going forward, because we are always in a position to learn, to build new things in life, to reconstruct our lives, to develop our identity further in a positive way. And that’s what keeps us alive. And we still have a lot of life to live, even when we hit our 60s, so I think that’s why people are drawn to this naturally.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds like it’s preparing you for that generative phase of life.

William Damon:Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the phone call for your daughter’s saying, “Hey dad, I found out some stuff about your dad, he didn’t disappear, he wasn’t a scoundrel, he actually had an entirely different life on his own, and we’ll talk about what that life looked like, and it sounds like his life was enriched and he contributed to a higher cause than himself, had his own family.” So you find this out and you’re like, “Wow, I gotta explore this some more.” So let’s use this as a starting-off point and talk about this life review process. And the first part is basically just collecting information to construct that story. How did you start that collection process? 

William Damon: Well, number one, I got in touch with my father’s still-living relatives. He had a younger sister, who was fortunately 12 years younger than him, so she was actually pretty vital in her… Maybe age 80 or something like that. And she welcomed me, I went to visit her and she revealed a lot of stuff that opened new doors. For example, she revealed to me that he had gone to the same high school that I went to, a private independent school, that I had no idea how I’d even gotten there, because I grew up in a not very advantaged situation. My mother was a single mother, we were not well off. And I never understood, “How did I ever get to… ” This was Phillips Academy Andover, a wonderful boarding school. How in the world did I ever get there? Well, it turned out that my father went there, and that’s how my mother knew about it, and she arranged the necessary financial scholarship and so on. And that was a great educational experience for me, but it didn’t just happen. So that’s an example of how information can really change your view of who you are and how you got there.

And of course, once I learned that I could go back to the school. I dug up my father’s old school records, I dug up my old school records in the archives, I could compare them, look for similar character traits, look for differences in how we approached our schooling. He was much less ambitious than I was, and kind of irresponsible at that age. And his irresponsibility, of course, continued to when he abandoned my mother and me. And as much as I wanted to learn about him and find a pathway to respecting him, because he had done some very positive things in his life, I still had to deal with how to forgive him for that act of irresponsibility, of abandoning my mother and me. And that was a crushing blow to my mother. And for me I had to figure out how that made a difference in my life, and that was not simple because there were upsides and downsides to growing up without him there.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned your mother had passed away before you started on this exploration, this life review. So how did you find out how she felt about, or what she knew about your father abandoned you guys? 

William Damon:It was just in little bits and pieces, and kind of a salvage operation, but I uncovered one amazing document. She had, of course, no pictures of him or any information and never talked about him, but when she died I went through her belongings and she had one little memorabilia of him, and it was a little note that he sent from the Army, from Germany. He was serving on the front lines in Germany in World War II. And there was a little note that he started the note “Dear Pie Face”, a little note of endearment, I think, and how to get in touch with him. He was already married to her. She had saved that, that she had saved that among all of her other things, and that and that alone, all of those decades, it gave me a little sense of that she still had some feelings for him. And of course she chose to send her one and only child, me, to his same school, which again means that she found him admirable in some sense.

Brett McKay: So I guess the first step of you trying to collect this information, talk to people, talk to… I mean if your parents are still around, talk to them about their own lives and what they were like growing up, or talk to their siblings. That would be like the step number one resource. Correct? 

William Damon: Right. And let me just say that one of my regrets that I had to deal with is that I never did confront my mother or talk to her openly about this. And it was too late by the time I found out about my father to do that. And that was a missed opportunity. And I do write in the book, one of the lessons I learned is to have the conversations with your loved ones before it’s too late.

Brett McKay: And another source of facts, so you can construct the story, is you actually… You go to places to get primary source documents about your father and yourself, like you went to your old school. And I was surprised, I guess this must be just unique to Andover, but they had records for your father and for yourself, like notes from your teachers.

William Damon: Yeah. And especially for my father, full documents about the teacher’s opinions about his character and all of that. Some of that teachers don’t even do these days. And I can’t say which schools would have this, but it was pretty amazing to discover this. It was a little bit like Dickensian search, walking down dusty corridors and finding old file cabinets. And there was a wonderful archivist at Andover that helped me do that. But what I did find in not just school records, I also looked for his military records, I went to the British War Museum, I went all over the place. And there’s a lot of stuff around, you can dig up all records, some of it online actually, others you have to actually visit places. And it’s a lot of fun to be… I was a totally amateurish historian, I’m not trained as a historian at all, but it’s amazingly moving to open a file and discover a letter written, for example, by your grandparents to a school when they’re upset because their son isn’t doing a good job. It’s one of the things I found. I’d never seen letters from my grandparents before, and to actually discover original documents in these old dusty files is really thrilling, especially when it’s part of your family.

Brett McKay: And you still think about those documents, it’s a third-party source, ’cause oftentimes you can ask your parents or an aunt or an uncle, “What was Grandpa like? What was dad like?” And they’ve got their story, but it’s nice to have a third party saying, “Well, no, here’s how we saw it”, and so it gives you a fuller picture of that story.

William Damon: Yeah, and in the book I write a lot about memory, and memory is misunderstood, I think. And that’s why I spend time time writing about it as a psychologist, because a lot of people think memory is like a camera, it takes a snapshot and kind of resides there under the surface and all you’ve gotta do is poke and see the picture. But that’s not right. Memory is, partly at least, a construction. You have certain traces of things that happened, and you fill them in with your own opinions and experiences since then. So a lot of times if you do speak with your grandparents, say, or your great parents, they’ll do their best to tell you stories, and that’s great, you should do that and get their versions of things, but you should understand also that they’re constructing a lot of the details themselves out of their feelings about what happened. And so it is very helpful to find other third sources, objective documents and historical records and so on, to get the whole story and to get the more accurate story, because memory is never going to be 100% accurate.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Besides checking it with third-party sources, how do you do this internally? So we’ve had a psychologist on to talk about the idea of cognitive dissonance, so it’s the idea there’s a tension where you did something but that something you did doesn’t match up with how you think of yourself, and so you’ll do things to release that tension, where you go, “Well, it wasn’t that bad what I did.” So how do you avoid doing that as you’re constructing this story, that you’re not creating a story that’s, I don’t know, soothing your ego, but it’s actually… You’re getting the full story, worts and all? 

William Damon: Yeah, that’s a great question, Brett. And that’s the most challenging thing of all, that’s the psychological challenge. And you’re absolutely right, our tendencies are to do all kinds of rationalization, denial, bat away recollections that we don’t like, that shed a bad light on ourselves, and so on. And you’re absolutely right, this is a challenge. And you do have to kind of train yourself and steel yourself to try to take a really frank and honest look at what you did and how you made the decisions and mistakes that you made. We all make mistakes, every human being makes mistakes, and so you have to, first of all, be forgiving to yourself and say, “Hey, I know I made mistakes, of course I did, everyone does. But I’m going to be honest and try to really confront them, encounter them, admit to them.” And then you look for what you can learn from them, you look for the lessons and how you can then deal with the regrets that you have because you made the mistakes. And I go… That’s a long story that I go into, I have a whole chapter in the book about dealing with regrets.

I begin by quoting Frank Sinatra, one of my favorite singers, who sang is in one of his famous songs “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” And I say “That’s a very plucky attitude”, and I always kind of thought that sounded sensible, but… There is a “but” there, which is that if you actually avoid really admitting that you have a number of regrets and you just turn away from them, you never really learn to deal with them in a healthy way. They’re always gonna be there and they’re always gonna bug you in some sense. And so it’s really better to bring them out and to say, “Okay, I do have regrets, and here’s what they mean to me,” because we all make mistakes. And not only that, part of it is understanding that sometimes the mistake you made put you on a path that now you’ve ended up a different person. But that’s okay, that that’s okay, it’s fine that you’re not the person you would have been if you had not made that mistake.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you did this with your father. So you got this information, you got a picture of what your dad was like, and then you also got a picture of what… You were doing this to yourself as well, you were talking to professors or getting records from your university, going back, reconstructing the story of how you got to what you’re doing today. So you got a better idea of what your personality was like, and one thing you did is you sat and you’re like, “Okay, well it’s terrible I didn’t get to have a dad”, but then you kinda sat down and looked at it, “Well, knowing my personality and knowing my mom’s personality and knowing my dad’s personality, maybe things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did if my dad hadn’t left. I mean, it was terrible that he left but maybe it was good that he left.”

William Damon: Yeah. I mean, realistically, as you said, I took a honest look at my own characteristics, his characteristics, my mother’s characteristics, all of which were revealed by this life review and looking through documents. And my father was a very easy-going guy, that was one of his strengths, but also one of his character weaknesses, because he was… They didn’t have this phrase back then, but he was “laid back” to a fault, he was… I describe him as an expert in not trying too hard. And my mother was the opposite, she was very focused, and that’s part of why she was able to get through this abandonment in a successful way, eventually. And she had a career, which was hard for a woman in those days. And I was more like my mother, and also very stubborn, that’s another thing I learned about myself in early years. There would have been domestic beyond belief in this family if he had come back, he would have resented coming back. He was over in Europe, he was having a great time, he met a French ballerina who he fell in love with and divorced my mother and remarried.

None of this excuses his irresponsibility in not coming back, but when I really took an honest look at it I said, “You know, my life turned out okay. I had a pretty good run. And it was not easy, I had to learn a lot of stuff that young men have to learn without a father, and that was a challenge, but nevertheless, all things considered, I can’t say I would have been better off if he’d been around. And in any case, there it is, it happened the way it happened. And I affirm my life. It’s okay.” And I think that’s one example of how a life review can help you settle your resentments, deal with your regrets in a positive way and end up feeling that the life I was given, I’m grateful for that. Gratitude really is one of the great end products of this, and it’s very important to feel gratitude for the things you’ve been given in life.

Brett McKay: It helps you live up with that… Nietzsche talked about it, “amor fati”, love of fate. Say yes to life, right? 

William Damon: Exactly, yes.

Brett McKay: So besides helping you deal with or manage regrets, mistakes that happened in your life, the life review can also help you see how you’ve developed as a person. And you saw this in your father. So you had an idea… Okay, first when you were a kid it was like, “Well, he died in the war.” Well no, then it was, “Well, he abandoned me, and he’s just a dilettante and he doesn’t care about anything.” But as you researched your father’s life you saw that “No, this is a man, he had his faults, but he also had… He had some character development.” What did you see there and what’s the benefit of seeing how you or another person can develop as a person? 

William Damon: His character development really came about when he went into the military. He enlisted early in World War II, he was a sophomore in college, he dropped out of college and joined the Army. And that’s when he developed his moral maturity. He was highly irresponsible in school, in college, and as I said, laid back to a fault. But once he got into the service he developed some commitments. And one of the stories I tell that I dug up in my research is that he was a very courageous witness at a war crimes trial, that a lot of the witnesses were being threatened and dropped out because they were afraid, but my father stuck with it. And there’s evidence of his testimony, he wrote letters home, there were newspaper stories about his testimony, and he was really courageous, on the side of the angels, in that trial. He was ordered by General Eisenhower to be a witness at the trial, and Eisenhower comes across in the book, I did some historical research, as really a great, great leader who really cared about the troops and so on. And my father rose to the occasion, and was courageous and committed, and then he went on to a career in the Foreign Service when he stayed in Europe. He stayed in Germany, he joined the war department and then the Foreign Service, The State Department, and then the USIA.

And he spent years in Germany working to help reconstruct the country in a pro-American way. And then he was stationed in Thailand, where he became a very significant diplomat. All of this showed commitment and patriotism and love of the country, and that’s when he developed his strong character. None of it, again, excuses his irresponsibility and the way he hurt my mother especially, and abandoned me. And that was also part of his early character, but he developed well beyond that. And I learned about that… Of course, this is my field, it’s my profession to study these things, and I learned about that in a professional way that was fascinating to me, but it was also personally important to me because, as I said, it gave me a path to respecting him and to thinking he had a life of consequence. He also mentioned this one other thing that was important to me, he raised a couple of wonderful daughters who I have now gotten to know, and they’re my wonderful half-sisters, and they’re part of my family. I was an only child, I now have a couple of half-sisters who my father raised, and they’re great people. So he contributed to the world, and I was very gratified to find out about that.

Brett McKay: When you’ve looked at your own life and… Have you seen any development in your own character as you’ve looked at your own life? 

William Damon: Yeah. I’ve learned, first of all, to become less stubborn and more open-minded, and maybe even a little more courageous in thinking about my past, because I do think that there’s a tendency, maybe all people have it to some extent, but I was certainly an example of this, a tendency to shy away from things that are painful and difficult and that you just don’t wanna think about. And I’ve learned that that’s not such a good approach, you really should confront your problems and open them up, and that’s how you get over them. And so I think even fairly late in my life I’ve had some character development towards open-mindedness and the courage to look honestly at my own mistakes also, because as I said, I should have had that conversation with my mother, I should not have avoided it, and looked into other clues that came up along the way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you had a college professor, or even notes from your high school teachers that were like… I think they talked about your stubbornness, that was a problem even way back then. [chuckle]

William Damon: Well that’s how it was revealed to me, I was kind of surprised, but when I thought about it I said, “Hey, this is right.” But that is an example of how a life review can give you insights into who you were, ’cause I had forgotten all that, or maybe not even been aware of it, but it clicked as soon as I read that on my records, that, “Bill Damon prides himself on being liberal and open-minded, but he was really very stubborn and bears right in when he gets an opinion,” or something like, there’s a quote, something like that. And I laughed and I said, “Oh my God, I was like that even at age 18? Holy cow.”

Brett McKay: And I think this doing the life review and seeing the ways you have developed can really help people shift to that growth mindset, ’cause I think a lot of people when they get older they think, “Well… ” Was it William James said we’re kinda like plaster, and then once it sets in your 20s and you can never change after that? But your research says, “No, that’s not true.” I mean, there’s some things that are stable over the lifetime but you can make nudges and get better, and doing a life review can show you that.

William Damon: Yeah, well, I love William James and I thought he was a great psychologist, but that’s the old psychology. And that was over a century ago, and he was wrong. We’ve learned that people can learn as long as the brain is still alive and character develops all through life, and that is part of what my research shows. And that is exactly the hope that I had in writing this book, is encouraging people to say, “You know, it’s not over till it’s over.” And people learn and grow all the way through life. And the way to do it is to be open-minded and curious, and think anew about all the things… Don’t forget your past by any means, don’t have amnesia, but think about your past and think anew about what it all means and who you are and who you want to be. Because you still have agency over that, you have agency. You can make choices that will give you a positive future.

Brett McKay: Going back to how a life review can help you figure out your purpose, can you define how you define purpose? And then how did doing a life review help you… I don’t know, you didn’t discover your purpose, but I guess it magnified, it really brought to light that “Yeah, I did what I was supposed to do in this life”.

William Damon: Yeah, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. Well, purpose… And I think our lab really has been a leader in this developing purpose in a scientific sense. And we have a definition that we care about a lot, because in science you really wanna define your terms, and the definition is that purpose is a long-term intention to accomplish something that’s of consequence to the world beyond the self, and meaningful to the self. And just in a sentence, take you through the high points of the definition, it means, first of all, purpose is a commitment. It’s not a one-shot deal. You can do one-time things that are great, like jump in the river to save a drowning child, but you wouldn’t say that’s your purpose in life, that’s just something you did.

But purpose is a commitment to really accomplish something that you stick with, and it has to be meaningful to you. If somebody orders you to do it, that’s really, again, not a purpose. Maybe you should do it if somebody… If a teacher tells you to do homework, you gotta do it, but you wouldn’t say that’s my purpose. So it’s something that’s meaningful to you, that you own, but it’s also beyond the self, it’s of consequence to the world, it’s something… It’s not simply meaning, it’s not just reading a poem or going to a movie or listening to some music, all of which is great. I’m not diminishing any of those meaningful experiences, but they’re not really purpose in the definition of the term, because purpose is an attempt to accomplish something, whether… It doesn’t have to be something heroic or noble. It can be raising a child, it can be contributing to your community in any small way. But it is an attempt to make some kind of a mark or difference in the world. Humble, small, whatever, but it’s something you stick with, you’re committed to, you care about it, it’s meaningful, and you’re trying to make a difference in a positive sense.

Brett McKay: And so when you looked back on your life, did you start seeing your burgeoning purpose as a young man? 

William Damon: Yeah, well I tell a story in the book that I wasn’t much of a student by the time I got to Andover, at my mother’s lead. But when I got there I started writing for my school newspaper, because I wanted to cover sports. I did love sports, I didn’t have many other intellectual interests, but they sent me… I was not a good writer, and so they sent me to the sports events that nobody cared about, and one of them was a pick-up game between our junior varsity low-status soccer team… And soccer was the low-status sport in those days… And a group of Hungarian immigrants who had just come over from Hungary, because of the Cold War and the revolution there. And these kids, these Hungarian kids, were so good, ’cause they played soccer and American kids didn’t. And they wiped us out, our team out. And I hung around afterwards to talk to them, and they talked about how happy they were to be in America and to enjoy freedom, their parents didn’t have to worry about being thrown in jail anymore for political opinions, and they had aspirations, American aspirations, they were all gonna get rich and they just loved this country. And I thought about that, and I had grown up… I think I was 14 years old at the time, I had never appreciated being in this country or any of the freedoms, I didn’t even think about it. But I wrote that article up for the school newspaper, and my classmates read it and they all had the same revelation I did, “Wow!” And they talked to me about it.

And at that point I got hooked on writing, and in a sense doing research, ’cause that was what I did, I discovered this thing about these kids being happy, even though they had nothing, they had no material… Their moms had packed them bacon fat and green-pepper sandwiches, that’s how little they had. But they were so happy and full of joy about being in this country. So that was where I kind of discovered the purpose of what I ended up doing for the rest of my life, which was doing research, writing about it, teaching and finding out new stuff that could maybe contribute to people’s lives. It goes back to that ninth-grade experience I had writing for my school newspaper, writing for sports.

Brett McKay: Alright, so to recap your life review. First part, it’s the information collection phase, so talk to people is the number one thing, get primary source documents about yourself or maybe your parents or ancestors. So call your mom, she probably has a tub with all of your elementary school report cards somewhere in the attic. Ask for those, review that, and then basically you just look at it and you try to figure out… Like find consistencies about your character, how things have changed and think about your regrets without… You’re not trying to manipulate the story so you can soothe your ego, but try to come to terms with it. And it sounds like it’s not a one-and done thing, is this like an ongoing process? 

William Damon:Exactly, Brett. And you said it very well, including the last part, which is rigorously forcing yourself to confront stuff that maybe you wanted to forget all those years, and figure out what the meaning of that is. And the other thing I’d say about it is that everyone needs to do it in their own way. I use the term “ideographic study” in the book, because it’s very different than a typical psychological study where you look at groups of people and you have standard methods. This is the kind of thing that everyone has their own individual unique life. Everyone is a snowflake, everyone. And so everyone is gonna have their own materials to look at, their own ways of talking to their relatives and friends, and they’re own memories that they’re gonna have to confront. And so it’s a highly individualistic process. I do not in the book give a cookbook method for this, I just describe the process and what’s important about it. But as I said, if people are gonna do it they need to adapt it, just as I did to my own conditions in life. And of course, I adapted the method, I did not invent the method by any means, Robert Butler did, and I adapted his writings to my own situation.

Brett McKay: So the book’s called “A Round of Golf With My Dad”, did you ever get that round of golf with your dad? 

William Damon: I did, it was an imaginary one. One of my new cousins sent me an old golf bag that my father had used when he was a kid, it was still hanging in the family garage, which amazed me right there. And in the pocket of this little canvas bag was a score card from the Pittsfield Country Club in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I managed to get a tee time with a very wonderful person that brought me on with him, and I played with my dad’s scorecard in mind, and kinda pretended that he was with me. He was a great golfer, that was one of the things I discovered. And that was one of my resentments, because he never taught me how to play golf, and I love the sport, but I’m very modest ability. And I played against his scorecard, and that was also a kind of a bonding experience, in absentia, between my father and me.

Brett McKay: Well, Bill, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work? 

William Damon: Well, they can go to the book. The book is, of course, available on Amazon and every other place that books are sold. So I hope people will enjoy reading it, it’s called “A Round of Golf With My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present”.

Brett McKay: Well, Bill Damon, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

William Damon: Thank you, Brett, I really enjoyed the interview.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bill Damon and he’s the author of the book, “A Round of Golf with My Father”. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere, make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/lifereview, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Brett McKay:  Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com to sign up. Use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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