Alumni Profile: Ed Dreyfus

A series of fortunate events led alumnus to career as therapist 

Ed Dreyfus
Ed Dreyfus’ life might have been fodder for a “Mad Men” plot if he hadn’t taken a psychology class. Once he discovered psychology, he quickly switched from advertising to a new major and future career as a therapist. He completed a Ph.D. in psychology in 1964 at KU.

Just one class can change a student’s life. It happened to alumnus Ed Dreyfus, and steered him from a high school aspiration to be among the real-life Mad Men to becoming a psychologist with a thriving practice and author of several books.

As a high school student in the Bronx in the 1950s, Dreyfus said, he was aware of a limited array of majors and career opportunities. Advertising was among the careers he’d heard of, so he enrolled in a business school in Manhattan to start on a path toward the advertising industry nexus on Madison Avenue.

Psychology was a subject Dreyfus knew almost nothing about. When he enrolled in a class on the subject in business school, however, psychology quickly changed from a curiosity to a calling. He switched from studying advertising to studying industrial psychology.

“I had never heard the word psychology or thought about it as a high school student,” he said. “This was just one of those magnetic pulls.”

His one class in psychology led to several more, culminating in bachelor’s and master’s degrees from colleges in New York. Ready to pursue his Ph.D., Dreyfus applied to several top programs in psychology, including the University of Kansas.

“I never expected to get into KU. It was one of the most prestigious programs at the time,” he said. “Who ever thought that I’d get in? It was the best four-year college experience of my life.”

Just as his undergraduate experience broadened Dreyfus’ horizons, so did his time at KU. His undergraduate college was on the ninth floor of a Manhattan high-rise; in Lawrence he lived at what was then the edge of town next to a farm with cows.

“Taking me out of Manhattan, out of the Bronx and going to KU, that was a hell of an experience,” he said. “As a city boy, learning what a cow pie was, was a whole experience in itself.”

Dreyfus quickly settled in at KU, focusing on his vision of being a professor and helping patients and advancing research through a clinical practice. But again, his future would take a different course.

Following an internship with the VA hospital in Topeka, he was offered a full-time job there. He liked Lawrence and liked the work at the hospital, but as a department secretary advised him, he was perhaps too comfortable and might miss out on other opportunities. Following her advice to go away for a year and then come back, after he completed his Ph.D. in 1964 he went to California for a job at the Palo Alto  VA hospital. Now, nearly 50 years later, he’s still out west.

After the Palo Alto job, he spent several years as the associate director of the student counseling center at University of California-Los Angeles. Then he made the leap to private practice, which he continues to this day. He has stayed in the Los Angeles area, working with clients on issues from depression and anxiety, to marriage and sex. The principle that guides him in his practice is helping people maximize their potential, as an individual and as a friend and partner.

Living Life, Ed Dreyfus
In his newest book, Dreyfus argues that individuals should consider their identity as a question of who they want to be, rather than just what they want to be. “Most people as we grow up were asked one question when we should have been asked two. What kids should be asked too is who are you going to be when you grow up,” in addition to what you want to do.

He has written five books, on relationships, juggling modern life, and adolescent challenges. The most recent book, “Living Life from the Inside Out,” explores his passion in therapy, which is to help people discover their inner purpose, their values, and the principle upon which they base their life choices. With so much energy spent on building a career and little spent on identifying values and individual purpose, it’s no surprise to Dreyfus that people become despondent upon losing a job. He argues that individuals should consider their identity as a question of who they want to be, rather than just what they want to be.

For Dreyfus, “who” he wants to be is someone who makes a difference. It’s a purpose in life that he traced back to a lecture at KU that emphasized that making money should not overshadow making a difference. It’s a lesson he took to heart. Aside from his practice, he has volunteered with organizations for decades that give individuals a chance to reach their goals. He’s worked with the homeless, former addicts, ex-cons and prisoners, among others, using elements of therapy and job preparation to help them discover their potential.

“Did you ever wonder how many of the people in our inner cities are the next Michael Jordans, or Rembrandts? They don’t know their potential. They’ve been so beaten down that they can’t see their inner spirit,” he said. “I see that in my office all the time. And that’s what keeps me going.”

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