Redeeming the Past: Owning Your Story, Cultivating Courage, and Finding Peace with Dr. William Damon

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Episode Summary

How does where you’ve been contribute to where you’re going? How does your story shape your sense of purpose? Developmental psychologist William Damon (Stanford University) has spent his career studying the human lifespan, and has found both in his research and personal experience, that by courageously exploring our personal histories, we’ll stay on a path toward purpose and peace.

Show Notes

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"The life review is a way of going back in a systematic way into your past and looking for things that you never understood—mysteries. And I had a big mystery in mine, which was: Who is my father?" We hang on to so much from our past. Regret, remorse, guilt, shame, rumination, unforgiveness… How should we think about our past? Can we reframe and redeem it for the present? Developmental Psychologist William Damon has spent his career studying the human lifespan and for almost 30 years at Stanford University's Center on Adolescence. Since the 1970s, he's been conducting research that has shaped our understanding of human growth and thriving. He’s the author of numerous research articles and several books, including The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, having written widely on character virtues, the moral dimensions of work and vocation, and moral formation for children and adolescents, and more. In the last 20 years, William has systematically studied purpose and how to operationalized it for human thriving. He defines purpose as “an enduring life goal that is both meaningful to oneself, but also makes a difference beyond the self.” But more recently, he's building a new area of study around life review. His latest book is A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present. in it, he articulates a process that he's developed for investigating and kind of interrogating your life and your past for clues about your direction and purpose. William shares vulnerably about his own discoveries regarding mystery and his own upbringing that has shed new light on the latest chapter in his life.

In this conversation with William Damon, we discuss:

  • Positive youth development and the opportunities of childhood and adolescence.
  • The practice of a life review, and how to look at our past in ways that lead to a healthy and fruitful future.
  • The definition of purpose and how it plays a central role in human thriving.
  • And he explains how charting a path to purpose took a very personal turn for him when he came to learn about the father he never knew, and how that impacted his life and his perspective on thriving at 60 years old.
  • In that context, we discuss the emotional connections between courage and curiosity, particularly when it comes to pursuing self-understanding and exploring our sense of purpose and a life of thriving.

Show Notes

  • Get your copy of William Damon's book, A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present
  • Read about Bill Damon’s approach to Life Review at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
  • Stanford - Center on Adolescence
  • “How does where you've been contribute to where you're going? How does your story shape your sense of purpose?”
  • “I had a big mystery to uncover.”
  • “Regret, remorse, guilt, shame, rumination, unforgiveness. How should we regard our past?”
  • Living life on purpose
  • Definition of Purpose: “an enduring life goal that is both meaningful to oneself, but also makes a difference beyond the self.”
  • Pam King introduces William Damon and summarizes the episode
  • Studying purpose through lifespan psychology
  • Young people and their potential
  • Whole person, not just cognitive development.
  • John Gardener: “What we have before us is breathtaking opportunities disguised as problems.”
  • Peter Benson: “Everyone young person has a spark.”
  • Positive youth development
  • Youth development: Focusing on strengths and assets rather than character flaws or trouble
  • William Damon on a scientific study of purpose
  • Enduring and long term
  • Personal and meaningful
  • Transcendent and beyond the self
  • Agency and energy
  • Purpose doesn’t do it all—it doesn’t bring ethics or happiness
  • “Purpose is not a silver bullet.”
  • Purpose is not a replacement for a moral code, or a guarantee of bliss or happiness.”
  • “Telos”—Greek for purpose or goal
  • “Purpose is a lifespan developmental capacity.”
  • “Purpose is never really complete.”
  • Life Review and Robert Butler
  • Who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re becoming.
  • Forward-looking doesn’t mean you ignore the past.
  • William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It’s not even the past.”
  • William Damon reflects on growing up without a father
  • “A Round of Golf with My Father”
  • What is a life review? A systematic way of looking into your past and history in order to understand who you’ve been and what that means for your present and future.
  • How to do a life review
  • “Making a case study of yourself”
  • Role of difficult emotions in dealing with your past and finding your purpose
  • From blaming to claiming to gaming.
  • Courage and Fear
  • How to develop and cultivate courage
  • Aristotle on courage
  • Overcoming challenges and the role of courage in leveraging your purpose to thrive
  • Small steps make a big difference.
  • Moral exemplars and heroes—faith, courage, and self-regard about managing risks, danger, and threat
  • Religion and faith as an object or source of purpose
  • “Purpose is not an elite endeavor.”
  • “It’s not all about you.”
  • Purpose, growth mindset and teaching undergraduates life review and purpose
  • William Damon reflects on “What is thriving?”
  • “Thriving is becoming the person you always dreamed you’d become.”
  • Erikson: “I am what succeeds me.”
  • Pam King’s Key Takeaways
  • All of us show up in this world with a spark, and it's a gift we give to each other to help fan that spark into flame. So we might ask ourselves, how am I fanning that flame in others today?
  • We don't ever have to stop learning about ourselves. And the procedure of a life review can facilitate this growth. And to learn more about the life review process, head to our website at
  • It takes courage and curiosity to confront the difficult or traumatic aspects of our past. Cultivating this courage is an essential virtue of a thriving life.
  • And finally, purpose extends beyond our personal motivations and self made goals to include a wide range of psychological, moral, relational, historical, and spiritual factors

About William Damon

William Damon is the Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, Professor of Education at Stanford University, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Damon's research explores how people develop purpose and integrity in their work, family, and civic life. Damon's current work focuses on vocational, civic, and entrepreneurial purpose among the young and on purpose in families and schools. He examines how young Americans can be educated to become devoted citizens and successful entrepreneurs. Damon's work has been used in professional training programs in fields such as journalism, law, teaching, and business, and in grades K–12 character education programs. Damon’s most recent books are A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present; The Power of Ideals, and Failing Liberty 101. His other books include The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, Taking Philanthropy Seriously, and Greater Expectations, winner of the Parent’s Choice Book Award. Damon was editor in chief of The Handbook of Child Psychology, fifth and sixth editions. He is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and the American Educational Research Association. Damon has received awards and grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Thrive Foundation for Youth, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Before coming to Stanford in 1997, Damon was University Professor and director of the Center on the Study of Human Development at Brown University. From 1973 to 1989, Damon served in several academic and administrative positions at Clark University. In 1988, he was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and in 1994–95 he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.  

About the Thrive Center

About Dr. Pam King

Dr. Pam King is Executive Director the Thrive Center and is Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy.  Follow her @drpamking.  

About With & For

  • Host: Pam King
  • Senior Director and Producer: Jill Westbrook
  • Operations Manager: Lauren Kim
  • Social Media Graphic Designer: Wren Juergensen
  • Consulting Producer: Evan Rosa
Special thanks to the team at Fuller Studio and the Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy.  


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